Horror films don't usually trigger international controversy, but Eli Roth's "The Green Inferno" has struck a nerve. It's the story of several young do-gooders who visit the Amazon to help protect indigenous people, only to end up becoming dinner. Set in Peru and filmed there using Callanayacu villagers as cannibals, the movie has been condemned by the nongovernmental organization Amazon Watch for its "retrograde and racist" portrayal of Amazon tribes.

A director of the nonprofit Survival International reacted strongly for another reason: "Effectively, it seemed to be depicting us."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The movie's critics have a point, but Roth ("Hostel") has one, too, and he sticks it in with savage glee. "The Green Inferno" is a throwback to the disreputable cannibal flicks of the 1960s, but it also uses age-old fears to skewer contemporary liberal culture. It's gory, nauseating, nasty and absolutely hilarious.

The meat of the film, so to speak, lies in its opening act, as wealthy Columbia University student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) becomes smitten with Alejandro (Ariel Levy), the charismatic leader of an environmental group called ACT. "The only thing those posers care about is looking like they care," says Justine's cynical friend Kaycee (Skye Ferreira). Nevertheless, Justine follows the group to Peru, hoping to dramatically chain herself to a tree.

Unfortunately, the local tribesmen mistake the protesters for enemy invaders. What follows is a series of extreme gross-outs. The jokes can be crude but also rather clever, as when Roth mimics anthropological footage by showing old women humming softly while salting a hacked-up torso.

More skillfully directed than acted (which is part of its low-budget appeal), "The Green Inferno" is sharper and funnier than its critics might care to admit. It surely won't do any favors for conservation groups -- except for one, Mongabay, for whom the filmmakers are raising funds with a sweepstakes. The prize: lunch with Roth in Los Angeles.