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In this installment of Dread Reckoning, we continue our celebration of the 40th anniversary of the American Nightmare. As discussed last month, in 1968 four revolutionary films were unleashed into the world, and they completely changed horror culture: 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.

One could easily go to great lengths in discussing the aesthetic and narrative impact of these films. As previously argued, these masterworks defined what is known today as the postmodern horror film. That is, these movies repudiate narrative closure, question rationality, portray authority institutions as inefficient and decadent, and are quite grim and violent. Back in 1968 these characteristics were original, and in a sense, they can be appreciated as a reaction to the political and social turmoil of the era.

cover art

2001: A Space Odyssey

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 2 Nov 2001; 1968/2001)

cover art

Night of the Living Dead: Millennium Edition

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner, Marilyn Eastman

(Image Ten Productions; US theatrical: Available; 1968)

cover art

Planet of the Apes

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Linda Harrison, Robert Gunner, Lou Wagner

(Twentieth Century Fox; 1968)

cover art

Rosemary's Baby

Director: Roman Polanski

(Paramount Pictures; 2008)

Furthermore, the undeniable critical and box office success of these films had a dramatic impact on the motion picture industry. For instance, Night of the Living Dead exposed the untapped economic viability and aesthetic potential of low budget independent productions. On the other hand, 2001 and Rosemary’s Baby showcased how horror cinema had to be acknowledged as a reputable form of art, worthy of large production values under the able hands of acclaimed filmmakers. As such, not only are recent horror movies clearly indebted to these classics, but also contemporary science fiction and independent flicks are part of their legacy.

However, from a cultural perspective it is really troubling that, even though these films have legions of devoted followers, they remain unknown by a large percentage of modern cinemagoers. Indeed, while the legacy of Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, and 2001 continue to be appreciated and evaluated by critics, academics, and fans, somehow their popularity is limited when considering the total number of people who watch movies on a regular basis.

At the same time it is important to note that this is not a problem unique to the films that constitute the American Nightmare. If you think about it, nowadays very few people have seen the astonishing German expressionistic films from the ‘20s, the Universal classics from the ‘30s, the poverty row horrors from the ‘40s, or the giant monsters extravaganzas from the ‘50s. From my personal experience, more than a few devoted members of our beloved horror subculture are hesitant of watching silent flicks. And of course, a similar observation remains valid for movies outside the horror genre.

Arguably, modern cinemagoers wrongly believe that films made before their time will not address their specific cultural contextually, and therefore can be safely ignored. Truth be told, except for a few intransigent connoisseurs like me, the essential building blocks of our horror heritage are being avoided by the majority of modern audiences. That is, even though horror films are consumed on a regular basis by a large number of viewers, their historical roots tend to be completely ignored.

However, if you think about it, this is completely different from the way the classical arts tend to be consumed and appreciated. Indeed, those who enjoy the bliss of classical music very rarely concentrate their interest on modern works while ignoring everything else. If anything, the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, or Wagner, are far more popular than those by Alexander Goehr and Lepo Sumera. And a similar observation holds true for those who value sculpture or painting.

Of course one could argue that the classical music fan should be compared to the horror connoisseur for a more fair assessment. After all, these two groups form well established subcultures. However, this is not the case, as what really matters are those who consume these cultural products, and not their particular experts and authorities. That is, within the context of this discussion, the general movie crowd who attends a showing of a horror film should be compared to the general audience who attends a performance at the concert hall.

Furthermore, in our modern technological world, where a large number of important films from all periods of cinema history are accessible on DVD, the dodging of classic movies is a truly unforgivable state of affairs. But then again, perhaps the large assortment of options available on home video is the reason why people may not want to spend their valuable time, and dollars, with older movies. As thousands of new films are made every year, it has become extremely difficult just to be up to date with the current releases.

These observations make us ponder if the difference between popular and classical cultural products is the way their historical roots are cherished and appreciated. In such a case, in what appears to be a contradiction, the discrimination of the horror classics by general audiences appears to be a consequence of the popularity of the genre. That is, because movies are popular cultural products designed and manufactured for immediate consumption, their historical context seems to become irrelevant by the public at large. Therefore, in a rather nontrivial manner, the immediacy and availability of home video has complicated the appreciation of older movies. Talk about an irony.

On a personal note, as I was growing up during the ‘70s, well before the wide adoption of the VCR, my initiation to older flicks was mostly due to the limited programming on broadcast TV. And most of my friends had similar upbringings. And even thought they are not obsessed with films like me, they have a rather wide knowledge of cinema history. Today, on the other hand, there is so much variety at our hands that there is no need to sit through a movie whose title does not match our artificial expectations. And as a matter of fact, except for a couple of channels, it is now nearly impossible to catch older movies on TV.

At this point I have to confess that, for as incredible as it may sound, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, and 2001 became favorites of mine, well before I watched them for the first time. Indeed, even though I was a toddler when they were originally released, I read a lot about them in film books and magazines. And except for Planet of the Apes, I actually read the respective novels and novelizations prior to having an opportunity to see them on a cinema screen.

However, as I talked to brothers in arms, I came to realize that my situation is not unique. Most horror fans I know got inducted and initiated to these films by positive word of mouth, by reading about them in books or magazines, or by pure peer pressure. Therefore, although all my evidence is completely anecdotic, I believe that the explicit legacy of these films has survived throughout the years mostly because of an unofficial and informal tradition of information dissemination forged by horror film fans.

Regarding fandom, it is crucial to notice that there is an age gap that clearly distinguishes the majority of the fans that love the old classics of the genre, in contrast to those followers of current gore extravaganzas. That is, most fans of the Universal classics are adults over 50-years-old, while nearly all the followers of the latest torture porn flicks are under 25. Also, each group tends to foster and promote, in a nearly exclusive manner, their favorite films. Thus, as the generation of kids that forged horror culture during the ‘50s begins to fade away, so does part of our heritage.

Further amplifying this problem is the recent collapse of the horror magazine industry, which has being displaced by the extra features found in DVDs and by specialized web sites. Arguably, this shift has translated into a lack of focused and centralized sources of information devoted to the serious discussion and appreciation of older films. For example, more than a simple magazine, during the ‘60s Famous Monsters of Filmland was a true cultural beacon that disseminated the love for the films of Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff to nearly all fans of the genre. In contrast, today, in spite of the ubiquitous nature of modern information technologies, there is no web site that plays a cultural role equivalent to Forry Ackerman’s beloved magazine.

On a side note, from a cultural perspective it is equally troubling that many important horror magazines and fanzines that were published since the mid ‘50s, and which contain a wealth of valuable information, are only available on the private collections of a few individuals. Without an official repository such as the U.S. Library of Congress taking hold of these collections, aiding on their restoration and preservation, horror culture risks insurmountable losses.

Therefore, if the traditions that forged our beloved fright subculture during the second half of the 20th century continue to disappear, then we could foresee a near future where Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, and 2001 will become forgotten classics. Forget about killer computers and rotting zombies, this is really terrifying!

Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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