has been in the movies since very early on in the industry. Most of this was done in humour, such as the native pinching and going yummy or the joke about having explorers for dinner. Africa Screams, made in 1949, also known as Abbott and Costello in Africa is a good example of this type of movie. In this movie the explorer team arrives at a Ubangi tribal village, where the chief offers several diamonds in exchange for Stanley, who can feed many of his people. Cannibals were very easy to use bad guys with the added shock value that they were not just going to kill, but eat their victims. Put a sexy girl in a jungle out fit or a half on half off explorer outfit and have her become captured by cannibals and then rescued by the hero, like the 1924 movie The Navigator, staring Buster Keaton. You have the sex, the love relationship, and the bad guys with a shocking threat, not to just die but to be eaten.
Then the industry moved from talking about it to actual cannibalism but using zombies to show it in the 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead. It was dead people eating live people, an odd twist on the theme. Then you get movies like Eating Raou, 1982 The Silence of the Lambs, 1991 were some of the characters were cannibals although they did not really show it. So we have established the shock value of cannibalism. How can you make it more shocking, well you can have characters forced into cannibalism, Alive mad in 1993. Or you can use the fact that your character is a cannibal to show as much slashing, cutting, gut spilling, blood spraying scenes as you can get past the censors. Shocking people with all the guts and gore you can fit into a single movie. The whole point of the movie is the violence and buckets of blood and guts, need a plot, find some cannibals and then send them out for victims, as in the 1974 movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This movie started a series of films and a cult following. As well as being credited as the start of a new style of slasher flic.
What makes cannibalism so interesting is that it is not a made up bad guy, eating people for the most shock value, but is based on the reality of cannibalism. We know from archaeology digs that cannibalism is real. There have been many human bones found with gnaw marks from human teeth. In some cultures it was believed that you honoured your enemy or you took their strength and power by eating their flesh. Think about what a communion wafer represents, eating the body or flesh of Christ. People will eat any thing to survive, even each other. Look at the 1972 airplane crash in the Andes, survivors ate the dead passengers, this true story was made into the 1993 movie Alive. There are also stories that in times of famine people would turn to cannibalism to survive. There are tails in the Middle Ages; the Hansel and Gretel story is the sanitized version of people killing and eating children. Even as late as world war two there are rumours of cannibalism. One rumour was that the Nazis fed the prisoners other prisoners, usually in soup. Then that people who went missing in the starving towns in occupied areas because some people turned to cannibalism to survive. Then we have the modern cases where people kill and eat parts of their victims. Such as Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer. The cannibal is not a made up bad guy, but a part of human history.
Cannibal movies are so popular there is a web site called the Encyclopaedia of Cannibal Movies where people list all the cannibal movies that have been made and what they are about. As of October 2007 they had 377 movies listed.