Films screening under the banner of American Nightmare include: The American Nightmare (2000), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Shivers (1975), Halloween (1978), The Hills Have Eyes (1978) and Videodrome (1983).
For more details, visit: the BIFF website
These notes are from the 10th Brisbane International Film Festival 2001 catalogue and have been published here with the kind permission of the Festival’s artistic director.
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“Now it’s dark”
Frank Booth, Blue Velvet
“You’re not running a talk show now. you can forget pitching the audience the moral bullshit they want to hear.”
Television doctor, Dawn of the Dead
As the autocade drives through Dallas the President of the United States is shot, brain matter and skull fragments spraying across his beautiful, terrified wife.
In Vietnam, entire towns are erased in fire-and-rape storms by young men stoned on cheap pot and pure adrenal fear.
Detroit, Watts, Oakland and ghettos across the United States are burning.
Somewhere in the deserts behind Hollywood, a group of LSD-munching teenage girls polish knives and guns and prepare to slay Sharon Tate and a group of socialites, with the intention of starting the end of the world.
By the late six-six-sixties it was apparent that night-stalking, blood-sucking Romanian émigrés and monster-building mad scientists aided by hunchbacked grave robbers, no longer reflected the true horrors of a world sinking into a quagmire of self-designed chaos. The classic Universal horror films of the 1930s and the Cold War and science-based horror movies of the 1950s’ drive-ins appeared exaggerated and campy; their Christian morality and happy endings reflecting a long-forgotten age. God-as Nietzsche observed-was dead. Humanity and human civilisation were clearly not progressing, and the teleological belief in Utopia remained an unachievable ambition rather than a palpable reality.
The world was as shitty as the faded brown 16mm film stock that revealed the bloody atrocities in Vietnam.
In 1968 a new form of horror film emerged, shat from the darkness of the era. In Pittsburgh, George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, a film in which all the moral certainties that had become associated with horror were negated. It was a film in which the flesh-eating living dead appeared to take over a largely defenceless America-the partially consumed corpses of their victims joining the legions of lurching zombies while lynch mobs and the National Guard spectacularly failed to hold back the tide of the undead. Focusing on a group of survivors trapped in a besieged house, Night of the Living Dead should, were it a conventional horror film, have recalled the mythic themes of danger and salvation, but there is no end to the path here, no promised escape and, most importantly, no cavalry racing to the rescue. A bloody death is the only possible outcome. With the populace decimated and flesh-eating zombies lurching across the world, how could there be a narrative resolution that was anything other than nihilistically bleak?
When Romero revisited this terrain a decade later in Dawn of the Dead (1979) the collapse of society was even more apparent, the film’s few (living) human protagonists hiding in a besieged shopping mall enacting every consumer’s fantasy of being able to have everything you want, even as, outside the mall, the world was ending. But Romero’s films avoid predictable political metaphor, rather they reflect a growing unease with the hegemony of modern American society, but it is disquiet that seeks to unsettle audiences rather than offer simple solutions. The zombies are-after all is said and done-us.
The belief that horror could be located firmly within the realm of the social and the human also emerges in David Croneberg’s Shivers (1976). Here a supposedly benevolent man-made parasite, which in true Freudian fashion resembles an animated turd, spreads through a luxury tower block. The repressed yuppie denizens are gradually transformed into a pack of salivating rapists at long last able to unleash the darkest sexual fantasies of the id. Whilst some have suggested that the film revealed a loathing of the body, and a reactionary gesture vis-à-vis the liberal hopes and ambitions inherent in the ’60s notion of free love, the film, in fact, searches for something far deeper and far more disturbing-the primordial atavism that lies at the heart of modern society, welding together the concerns of contemporary bioengineering and the logical outcome of Sadian philosophy. The final scenes of libertarian amoral sexual excesses manage to combine equal parts eroticism and terror in a previously unimaginable alliance-the charged, lusting, continually unsated mob moaning in a stumbling quasi-orgasmic sexual delirium that recalls the zombie hoards of Romero’s films.
Yet, if it was democratic capitalist society that was the zone from which this horror emerged, its locus was frequently located far closer to home, taking root in the contemporary family. If it was the family that was the initial agent of socialisation then it was in the triadic mother-father-child relationship that the abjection of true horror was born. This is best illustrated in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), in which a group of twenty-somethings (including a brother and sister) come face-to-face with three generations of unrestrained bloodlust and pure backwoods psychopathy. Similarly psychopathic families emerge in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Last House on the Left (1972). This is not to suggest that the films associated with this genre of new American horror merely attack the family or society, so much as they recognise that these are the spaces from which true horror emerges-the horror that is ourselves. The soldiers at My Lai were not some legion of the lost; they were the fathers, brothers and sons of normal American families. The horror was everywhere; it lay in the ordinary, in the general populace, thinly disguised by the veneer of civilisation. Witness the blood vengeance that informs Last House on the Left‘s grimly bleak narrative, or the suburban terror that underpins John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Further, in these films there is no sense of unification, even among the characters traditionally assumed to be heroes. Many of them are at each other’s throats (especially in Romero’s zombie movies), their thin social relationships straining and breaking under the pressure of the terror in which they find themselves-suggesting that the fundamental unity that links familial groups is not necessarily survival but primitive brutality. The murderous family, however, stays together, bonded by the abjection of their bloodlust.
These films also stand apart from previous generations of horror movies, because of their narrative focus on the bruised and torn flesh of the body as the text on which terror becomes inscribed. While previously films engaged within the fear of destruction of the body, the narrative aspect of the supernatural and the alien meant that the human body was presented by reductive definition as an organic whole. The monster attacked the body through a clearly demarcated series of social relations marked via stability between self and other. However, in the films of Romero, Craven, Hooper, and especially Cronenberg, the body itself becomes both the source and the object of annihilation. These films emphasise a brutal estrangement envisioned through the loss of control over the body, which becomes both unwitting source and victim to the horror. The zombies were once friends and relatives. In each of Romero’s zombie films there is a sequence in which one of the protagonists undergoes the zombification process; while in Texas Chain Saw Massacre the consumption of human flesh simultaneously breaks the taboo surrounding cannibalism and re-iterates our own primordial animality. Finally, is it any surprise that Cronenberg’s Shivers was also released under the title They Came from Within?
These horror films recognised the power of the contemporary news media, and it is noticeable that with a chilling verisimilitude almost all of these movies utilise realistic broadcasts to underpin the sense of overwhelming and unrelenting horror. Thus the protagonists of Romero’s zombie films watch the news reports of the unfolding chaos (and, in an even more chilling scene in Dawn of the Dead, are unable to locate any broadcasts whatsoever). In a similar fashion Shivers ends with a radio broadcast detailing a growing wave of sexual assaults spreading from the Starliner apartments. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre likewise opens with news reports of disturbed graves mixed with Weegee-style flashes of decomposing flesh emerging from the blackness of the screen in images of flash-soiled journalistic psychosis. Even the extra-diegetic materials surrounding these movies blur the fine line between authenticity and cinematic fantasy, thus the publicists behind films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre utilised the tag line, ‘It happened’, while Last House On The Left relied on the advertising slogan, ‘To avoid fainting keep repeating: it’s only a movie’.
The cycle of these films reached their narrative and visceral zenith in Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1982). Here the often banal questions and criticisms that had been posed by both the critics and the fans of these films become realised, as Cronenberg engages with a direct deconstruction of the socio-political effects of brutal horror films while simultaneously representing the breakdown of the body-both social and physiological-as a response to violent visual stimulus. Arguably this is the last film of this grim cinematic sub-genre; certainly none of the directors made such unsettling, ambiguous or dangerous horror films in their subsequent careers (although Cronenberg continued to explore some of the concerns of his earlier work in Dead Ringers  and eXistenZ ). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s American horror films-with just a few noticeable exceptions-allied themselves to comedy, confusing sudden jumping shocks with genuine fear, and eventually the genre sank into predictable parody, producing stupefyingly banal beautiful-teen-meets-slasher, low-end, post-modern trash such as Scream (1996).
This season of films-rooted in the 1970s American horror tradition-reflects the best of these filmmakers’ work of the period. Contextualised via the acclaimed documentary American Nightmares, these films are the genuine article-radical horror films that locate their terrors in that most terrifying thing of all: our humanity.
The American Nightmare (2000, US/UK, 35mm, Colour, 75mins)
Director: Adam Simon Producer: Paul Jaflon, Colin McCabe, Jonathan Sehring Executive Producer: Caroline Kaplan Script: Adam Simon DOP: Immo Horn Editor: Paul Carlin Production co: Minerva Pictures Print source: British Film Institute
Cast: Wes Craven, George Romero, Tom Savini, John Carpenter, Trobe Hooper, Carol Clover, Tom Gunning, Adam Lowenstein
Described by director Adam Simon as a film essay, The American Nightmare tests his general hypothesis that horror films of the late 1960s and 1970s “somehow had a profound relationship to the social chaos out of which they emerged” by delving into the specific. Liberally illustrated with clips of the associated screenings being shown here and with some well-known others, it sets the context for this season very well.
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Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968, US, 16mm, B&W, 98mins, Print source: Ross Barnard)
Possibly the most significant horror film ever made. This vastly influential movie led to an explosion in flesh-eating zombie films, especially in Italy. Focusing on a brother and sister visiting a graveyard, the film gradually spirals out of control: a zombie in the graveyard kills the brother and pursues the sister to a farmhouse. As the narrative progresses the rag-tag inhabitants of the remote farmhouse are forced to defend the property from increasingly large numbers of ghouls. The battles are made all the more difficult by the internal quarrels between those wishing to hide in the basement and those wishing to defend the entire property from the zombies.
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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, US, 1974, 35mm, Colour, 83mins, Print source: Blue Dolphin)
From the haunting title sequence to the final scene of Leatherface swinging his chainsaw on the freeway, this film never lets up and contains some of the most nauseating and disturbing images committed to celluloid. However, the film is not the bloodbath that both fans and critics erroneously believe it to be; instead it relies on impressive cinematography, aggressive editing and thoroughly oppressive sound design to create the impression, even among contemporary audiences, that they have unwittingly descended into the inferno.
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The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)
The disintegration of American society as articulated in Craven’s classic movie, one of the bleakest movies committed to celluloid.
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Shivers (David Cronenberg, Canada, 1975, 35mm, Colour, 88mins, Print source: Film Alliance [ex Filmways])
In an upmarket tower block things begin to go awry. With soap opera finesse couples exchange gossip and bodily fluids, blissfully unaware that their lives are about to be transformed, thanks to a 25cm-long parasite that has begun to spread throughout the population of the flats. Spread largely by sexual contact the parasite stimulates the host to satisfy the most debased sexual urges. This is one of the most disturbing of the new American horror movies.
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Halloween (John Carpenter, US, 1978, 35mm, Colour, 93mins, Print source: British Film Institute)
The first and best of the slasher movies, Halloween unwittingly created an entire genre and its rules, as parodied in so much pop-trash-horror. Despite its numerous reworkings, this remains a haunting example of American small-town gothic cinema.
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Dawn of the Dead (1979, George Romero)
Less a sequel and more a re-working of the themes of the first film. Four survivors flee a collapsing city in a stolen helicopter and head west to avoid the plague of the undead. As they flee it becomes apparent that the zombies are everywhere. Deciding to hide in an empty shopping mall surrounded by zombies, the group begin to live a bastardised consumer fantasy; having everything they want except the pleasure to enjoy their conspicuous consumption. Meanwhile society is collapsing all around their enclave. A marauding gang of bikers add to the fun.
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The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, UK/US, 1978, 35mm, Colour, 89mins, Print source: Film Alliance [ex Filmways])
The all American family-including an ex-cop father-take their recreational tour bus into the desert, where they break down. Stranded in the middle of the most powerful nation on earth, things take a severe turn for the worst when they meet run into a psychotic anti-family. The balance tilts. The world spins out of control. The Hills Have Eyes makes Deliverance pale in comparison. Get ready to cheer at the explosive climax!
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Videodrome (David Cronenberg, Canada/US, 1983, 35mm, Colour, 88mins, Print source: Institute of Contemporary Arts)
Max Renn owns a porno cable channel, but is looking for something harder. Enter ‘Videodrome’, a snuff-fixated TV show in which participants appear to be tortured to death for entertainment. Renn’s world soon spins into a hallucinatory nightmare as he encounters all manner of figures from television philosophers to right-wing corporations, all of whom have an overwhelming interest in the broadcasting of the gruesome ‘Videodrome’. Max’s world gets even stranger when a vagina opens on his stomach.