A Horror Renaissance

It is perhaps ironic that one of the best ways to describe the torrid evolution of the horror genre is by analogy to a monster. In Anthropophagus (1980), an often-underrated Italian horror film directed by the notorious Joe D’Amato, a demented cannibal (George Eastman) terrorizes some American tourists after decimating the entire population of a small Greek island. Towards the end of this gory film, when he is unable to catch the “final” girl, he opts instead to rip open his abdomen and proceeds to eat his own intestines. In a similar way, horror cinema often tends to exploit its own strengths to the point of exhaustion, and ends up devouring itself.

But the horror genre, just like the unearthly monsters that it depicts, defies death and always manages to be reborn. As a result, and as most connoisseurs know, horror cinema comes and goes in well-defined cycles with very specific thematic and visual conventions. For instance, the 1930s Universal Classics based on European gothic stories are very different from the 1950s giant monster and alien invasion extravaganzas, which were fueled by American Cold War apprehension. Today, the horror film seems to be going through a new renaissance period inspired directly by the grim flicks that haunted screens more than 30 years ago.

Arguably, the most beloved period of cinematic horror for critics, scholars and fans, is the one that roughly spans 1968 to 1979. These years saw a rise in the politically and socially conscious post-modernist horror film, which throws into question the validity of rationality and repudiates narrative closure. Films such as Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977), Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1979) and The Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara, 1979) responded to the turmoil of the era, and presented human action as completely inefficient in counteracting a violent threat, as well as utterly unreliable and untrustworthy authority institutions.

These films had a powerful feeling of dejection and dread, showcased scenes of brutal cruelty, and made metaphoric allusion to several social ills of the era, including racism, civil unrest, the collapse of the family institution, Watergate-spawned paranoia, and the Vietnam War. Such a cinematic intensity was also partly due to the film’s low budget nature: shooting outside the Hollywood system allowed the filmmakers to deal with themes and visuals forbidden in conventional movies. Mostly relegated to grind-houses, drive-ins and midnight showings, horror cinema was rough and violent, and it was not for everyone.

These edgy underground horrors were to become extinct towards the 1980s. As the American political climate cooled down, the violence and brutality that characterized the genre gave way to the notorious slasher cycle. But in spite of the many excesses portrayed in films such as the Friday the 13th and the Nightmare on Elm Street series, these populist narratives verged on parodies, avoiding the subtextual social commentaries and the grim viciousness of the flicks from the previous decade. Most horror films of this era were aimed at the lucrative teen market, and were shown in neat multiplexes.

This trend continued during the 1990s, as typified by the Scream movies, horror cinema became self-conscious of its own conventions, strengths and limitations. At the end, the economical success of the 1980s and 1990s horror films was both a blessing and a curse: while these two decades reinvigorated the public interest in the genre, they also made it mainstream…and mediocre.

But things would dramatically change in 2001, in more than one way. Since then, the horror genre has again become grim, violent and politically conscious. Arguably, this may be a consequence of the fears and anxieties raised by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the threat of further assaults utilizing weapons of mass destructions, and the military invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Consider how the apocalyptic 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2003) presents a cautionary tale that exploits our current worries and unease over biological weapons, infectious diseases and the authoritative institutions’ inability to manage a devastating catastrophe. In a similar vein, Cabin Fever (Eli Roth, 2003) warns us that uncontrollable feelings of fear and suspicion are far more dangerous than pernicious flesh-eating bacteria.

Likewise, the anxieties generated by the two recent American campaigns in Asia are neatly presented in films such as House of 1000 Corpses (Rob Zombie, 2003) and its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects (Rob Zombie, 2005). These two films, clearly inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, portray a deviant family of cannibals viciously attacking typical middle class Americans that somehow have invaded their primitive world.

Rob Zombie’s flicks, as well as 28 Days Later and Cabin Fever, are violent, bleak, and deeply distressing films, and they truly embody the essence of the grim and gritty independent horror movies that shocked audiences during the 1970s. But while these are original films with no explicit connections to the past, other filmmakers have looked back to those years for inspiration in the form of remakes and sequels.

Dawn of the Dead (2004), the remake of Romero’s classic by Zach Snyder, was released right before the latest installment in Romero’s zombie saga, Land of the Dead, arrived in theaters. Romero, as usual, presented an intelligent and mordant criticism on class segregation and human selfishness in contemporary America. On the other hand, while it was unrealistic to expect Snyder’s remake to be as rich and complex as the original, it also cleverly commented on America’s gun culture and aptly exploited post 9/11 fears of nightmarish destruction and social collapse.

Perhaps more important, the gestation and consumption of the new Dawn by audiences exemplifies the greatest irony of the current trend in horror cinema. While back in 1979 Romero struggled to get a meager budget, and so-called reputable theaters often declined to show his film, Snyder’s remake was an outrageously expensive studio production widely released to thousands of family-friendly multiplexes.

Though a similar observation applies to the new The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003), this film typifies the problems with the recent wave of horror films inspired by the independent classics of the 1970s. Produced by Michael Bay, the king of the larger-than-life Hollywood blockbuster spectacle, this film was targeted toward Gen-X kids who never saw the original and would rather die than consider watching a 30-year-old movie. The result is a deeply flawed remake that attempts to use glossy special effects, gore and fancy camera tricks to compensate for the severity and intensity of the original film.

One could further argue that the problem with the new Texas, as well as with the latest versions/sequels of The Toolbox Murders, The Amityville Horror, Planet of the Apes, and The Exorcist, is that they use the recent advances in cinematography and special effects as the sole justification for re-envisioning a beloved classic. While it is true that CG technology can be put to good use in support an intelligent narrative, allowing the audience to be dazzled with vast landscapes of mass destruction in Land of the Dead, or a minivan sailing through a sea of zombies in the new Dawn, filmmakers should not forget what made the original films so influential in the first place.

There are indeed very few 1970s horror films that could stand up to today’s standards in special effects and cinematography, while remaining scary and rich in subtexts relevant to current world events. One exception is Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), which was re-released in a new director’s cut in 2003. This new version adds a few scenes and trims some others, but the changes hardly alter the original, which continues to be a masterpiece of visual style, pace and rhythm.

After 26 years, four sequels, and countless imitations, Ridley Scott’s generic hybrid continues to be a deeply frightening film that deals with male fears of penetration and pregnancy. Even more, Alien remains as timely today, at the height of the militarism of the Bush Jr years, as it was back in 1979. Consider how Alien implicates corporate corruption by presenting the story of a group of deceived astronauts that have been sent to a primitive world in search of weapons of mass destruction, a narrative that amazingly parallels the real life dynamics of Gulf War 2.

Considering the political and social climate that has troubled America since 9/11, it is not surprising that the grim, violent, and politically conscious film aesthetic that flourished during the equally torrid 1970s is making a comeback. This trend is far from over and we have already been promised imminent remakes of The Fog, The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween, Suspiria and Straw Dogs. Those who dislike this particular type of horror movies do not have to worry, though. Eventually the day will come when, once more, the horror genre will grow tired of the chase and insatiably devour itself.