Early in "Cabin Fever," five kids on a mountain vacation stop into a general store for supplies. One of them spots a shotgun on display and casually asks what it's for.
"That's for niggers," replies the white-haired old storekeep, simply and without venom.
In one fell swoop, "Fever" has set itself apart as a horror picture willing to adopt Pogo's old saw, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Writer/director Eli Roth doesn't shy from that credo as his five young hedonists -- a horny couple, a boisterous Neanderthal boy, a lovesick dweeb and the weenie-teasing object of his affections -- arrive at their rental cabin and swiftly go about proving they're no better assets to society than the potential KKK case they've just met.
A horrible infection is beginning to cut a lethal swath through the woods, causing its victims to break out in bloody sores and flesh to fall off bones in sickening clumps. The kids' first exposure to one of the sufferers, however, ends not in a show of mercy, but with a paranoid dismissal and maybe even murder. Before long, the disease is hammering away at their own ranks, testing already shallow allegiances and forcing the group to think twice about what they'll do in the name of self-preservation.
The vacationers aren't responsible for the epidemic, yet neither are they innocent lambs being led to the slaughter. In choosing not to confront the situation responsibly, Roth implies, they've brought down their own punishment. The twin themes ex-plored are downright Biblical: the injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself and the guarantee that your sin will find you out.
Roth leaves the door open for us to view his nightmare scenario as a metaphor for all manner of social ills -- from AIDS all the way up to the collapse of the welfare state -- but he's smart enough to make sure the movie works just as well when accepted totally on the surface. A taste for horrendously graphic effects is a must: One scene of a personal-hygiene regimen gone bad reminded me that no, my stomach has not seen everything.
"Cabin Fever" is bound to be classified as a bloodier American cousin to "28 Days Later," and though that's essentially true, it shouldn't preclude one iota of enjoyment. How often do we get to see a horror movie do everything horror movies usually do, but do them right for a change?