A Terrifying Ruby Jubilee

by Marco Lanzagorta

14 April 2008

As a pivotal year of social change and as a cultural stepping stone, 1968 saw the radicalization of American society, and an accompanying revolution in the realm of horror genre filmmaking.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the genesis of the American Nightmare. Indeed, four decades ago the landscape of US horror cinema was drastically and permanently altered by the release of four revolutionary films: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. Furthermore, these movies faithfully embody the social and cultural anxieties that characterized one of the most distressing periods in US history.

Few would disagree that it is almost impossible to objectively assess the magnitude of the impact that these four films had on horror culture, not only in the United States, but throughout the rest of the world, as well. Nevertheless, to celebrate such a special Ruby anniversary, Dread Reckoning will present a series of installments aimed at the impartial discussion of the relevance, origins, meanings, and everlasting influence of these timeless masterworks.

To better understand the genesis and subsequent impact of these landmarks of the horror genre, it is worth recalling the uneasy political and cultural landscape of the era. In a nutshell, 1968 was one of the most traumatic and decisive years in American history. Just consider, this single year witnessed the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the brutal armed confrontations between police and the Black Panthers, the slaying of influential civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and the assassination of beloved Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. And for that matter, the rest of the world was equally distraught: in that same fateful year the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and violent student demonstrations and riots left dozens of victims in Europe and Latin America.

But then again, the many difficulties that haunted America during 1968 can be better understood as the ultimate consequence of a series of social and cultural issues that had troubled the country since the culmination of World War II. Indeed, the economic revolution brought by the rapid expansion of the military-industrial complex during the war years had exposed the racial, sexual, and class disparity that deeply permeated US society.

Such differences produced a profound polarization of the population, and literally led Americans to confront each other. In 1963, for instance, Alabama Governor George Wallace personally blocked the entrance of two African American students to the University of Alabama, even though President Dwight D. Eisenhower had signed into law the integration of schools three years previously.

Thus, the ‘60s witnessed the buildup of civil right movements and their efforts to battle racial oppression. However, other forms of intolerance were fought on many different fronts, as well. Case in point, during those years the sexual revolution in the form of “second wave” feminism was perceived by the conservative segment of the population as an irritant nuisance to the patriarchal institution and as a severe threat to traditional family values. Gay rights activists, too, would further challenge the patriarchal status quo.

The Cold War further fueled the heated social climate in the US The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was seen by many as an event that had brought the civilized world to the brink of a terrifying nuclear holocaust. At the same time, a large percentage of youth saw Vietnam as a nefarious showcase of militaristic, imperialistic, and racist ideologies, which ultimately led to a wide divergence of public opinion. Furthermore, such disagreement generated a “generation gap” between conservative parents and rebellious kids that further challenged the stability of the family institution and the civic order.

By 1968, the country was immersed in a dense atmosphere of social rebellion, unrest, insurrection, and violence. By the end of WWII, the US government and affiliated authority institutions were seen as reliable, trustworthy, and almighty. In contrast, during the ‘60s they were perceived as unstable, dishonest, and weak. Nevertheless, because of the many profound and everlasting social and cultural transformations that took place during this period of American history, this decade might as well represent one of the most important cultural revolutions that took place during the 20th century.

Amidst the social and political turmoil that characterized the ‘60s, the entertainment industry was equally in a dramatic state of flux. Indeed, the advent of commercial TV during the ‘50s, and its deep penetration into American households during the following decade led to drastic cutbacks in production costs. As a consequence, the established Hollywood studios relocated their interest towards the distribution, rather than the production, of motion pictures.

From Rosemary's Baby

From Rosemary’s Baby

However, in spite of its economic impact on film productions, such a mentality shift ultimately led to a greater degree of artistic and ideological freedom available to imaginative filmmakers. Also, independent film production companies were finally able to compete in the entertainment market.  Overall, without the tyrannical influence of the conservative movie studios, a new generation of directors found the unique opportunity of working with bold new themes using novel techniques.

Arguably, this transformation in the movie industry fueled the genesis of visionary directors of the caliber of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin. In a rather similar fashion as the members of the French New Wave, these filmmakers had an official education on the form and aesthetics of cinema and their films became self-conscious explorations of the medium. In other words, movies ceased to be mere entertainment products and became artistic expressions of their auteur.

Furthermore, the collapse of the Production Code in 1964 allowed the discussion and expression of themes openly transgressing moral values and social codes. And even though the Motion Picture Association of America continued to foster censorship with their rather arbitrary rating system, movies had more freedom to delve in issues involving sexuality, horror, and violence.

In a time of harsh turmoil as was the ‘60s, these changes procured a fertile ground for the making of politically conscious and socially charged narratives reflecting the many social and cultural traumas afflicting America. Therefore, the transformation of the Hollywood industry ultimately allowed movies to become vessels of subversive and incisive social and ideological criticism as intended by their farsighted directors.

As a consequence, new cinematic horrors and monsters were born out of the troubled cultural landscape that characterized ‘60s America. And so, the postmodern horror film was born in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, and 2001. However, by taking a specific subcultural context that reflects the fall and demise of the modern horror film, we can better appreciate the genesis and rise of the postmodern horror flick.

Indeed, by the mid-‘60s the US and Japan had already exhausted the giant monster and alien invasion themes. During these years, the most memorable horror flicks are the sublime supernatural nightmares and violent thrillers directed with bravura and lots of style by the Italian maestro Mario Bava, and the many fascinating revisions of the gothic horror iconography produced by the British Hammer Studios. However, well dressed gothic vampires with a lust for bourgeois blood, giant radioactive creatures created by nuclear explosions, and evil alien invaders were no match to the explicit carnage and brutality seen on a daily basis on the TV newscasts. In this disquieting era, cinemagoers were unlikely to feel fear and anxiety with the horror icons from the past.

From Night of the Living Dead

From Night of the Living Dead

As most connoisseurs already know, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, and 2001 have dramatically different storylines. And at first sight, the plots of these flicks do not even look radically new or original, even by 1968’s standards. In Night of the Living Dead, the bodies of the recently dead are reanimated with an insatiably hunger for human flesh; in Rosemary’s Baby a deceived woman becomes the reluctant vessel for Satan’s son; in Planet of the Apes a trio of intrepid astronauts land on a primitive planet were humans are enslaved by tyrannical apes; and in 2001 a malfunctioning, murdering, and neurotic supercomputer troubles the first manned expedition to Jupiter.

However, in spite of their budgetary, stylistic, aesthetic, and plot differences, as well as their apparent conformity and unoriginality, these films share a strikingly similar narrative structure that was quite unique and revolutionary at the time. Indeed, these movies repudiate narrative closure, showcasing a gloomy and depressing open ending; they throw into question rationality, and their characters are confronted with impossible situations beyond human comprehension; they are unusually violent and grim, and permeated in a nearly unbearable atmosphere of dejection, dread, paranoia, and xenophobia; their horrors are internal rather than external; they present authority institutions (real or metaphorical) as useless, inefficient, unreliable, and untrustworthy in counteracting a violent threat; and use metaphorical allusions to convey an incisive criticism to the several social ills of the era.

These thematic characteristics unambiguously delineate the constitution of what is known today as the postmodern horror film, and they clearly resonated with the social and cultural anxieties of that bleak period in American history. However, these four movies are relevant far beyond their own specific time, as they influenced and defined the narrative structure of the horror genre for years to come. Furthermore, Night of the Living Dead made evident the economic viability and aesthetic potential of low budget independent productions. On the other hand, 2001 and Rosemary’s Baby became undisputable proof that horror cinema was a reputable form of art worthy of large monetary investments.

Therefore, the American Nightmare, as embodied by the postmodern horror film, was a consequence of both, the political and social turmoil of the era, and the cultural shift in the Hollywood studios. As we will see in future installments of Dread Reckoning, because of their relevance and legacy, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, and 2001 are crucial in the history of American popular culture and world cinema.

From Planet of the Apes

From Planet of the Apes

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