About fifteen years ago, my then writing partner, Teal Minton, said to me, “You know that scene in ALIENS where we see everything that’s happening through the cameras in the guys’ helmets? We should do a whole horror film just like that.”
It was a great idea. We had many great ideas. This is one we should have acted on.
Today, handheld horror films are spreading like the plague. Starting with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and still going strong, these films are a running commentary – whether intentional or not – on our society’s obsession with and technology’s ability to record life as it happens in a way never available to us before. Even “reality” TV is an offspring of this relatively new potential. History will now be recorded and distorted in ways we never imagined before! And stories will be told in ways that are both viscerally exciting and, if done well, almost indistinguishable from real life events and how we experience them. And I’m referring to events that we are not personally a part of, but through the eye of the camera, we become both viewer and participant all at the same time.
Take the Hurricane Katrina disaster, for example. For the billions of people around the world who were not in New Orleans themselves, they experienced those horrific events through – not only the lens of a news camera – but through cell phone cameras, home digital cameras, camcorders, etc. Those events came streaming to us on the web as well as on our televisions. And as a result, the media was no longer able to control what we saw and what we didn’t. And technology has expanded swiftly since then. The current war in Iraq is another prime example as soldiers and other eye-witnesses upload their experiences for all to see. A new language is being written; a new way of sharing; a new way of living; a new way of experiencing.
This year’s CLOVERFIELD was another example of a familiar horror genre being adapted to this new language. A monster movie a la GODZILLA or 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH or, yes, ALIENS. But this time told through the lens of a “witness”, our visual narrator, our third eye.
George Romero, the director who single-handedly defined the rules of the contemporary zombie genre via NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD and many others to follow, has finally found his way to this new form of storytelling. But a little background first. Romero’s early film, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, changed my life. I saw it at a much too early age and was instantly traumatized. And addicted. Not to the blood and guts that became the primary focus of so many horror films to follow, but to the level of true primal horror Romero’s films tapped into. Never one to miss an opportunity for social commentary, Romero knew the strength of the genre and managed to use it to its fullest and most extreme.
Then came his recent Hollywood studio attempt at the genre, which resulted in the very un-scary and at times downright ridiculous LAND OF THE DEAD. With its awful digital zombies and overwrought action, the film drowned under the studio’s heavy hand, which apparently weighed down on Romero like an anchor.
But then he bounced back earlier this year with a super low-budget installment of the franchise titled DIARY OF THE DEAD. The film garnered mixed critical response, but I personally found it a welcome return to form for Romero. DIARY is scary, at times darkly funny (Romero’s wit is hard to suppress) and insightful as to the pros and cons of society’s newfound love of the digital recorder. Granted, Romero’s film is a little lacking in subtlety, but this I can forgive as it still posed interesting questions while scaring the pants off of me. Never before had I thought so much about the future of film and felt I might be witnessing the beginning of the end of storytelling as I’ve grown to know and love it. And then there’s the notion of being the detached voyeur; does witnessing these seemingly real events through a camera’s lens allow us to become part of what’s happening, or does it offer us a newfound detachment (i.e who are the real zombies?)? When we record something in our own lives, are we still experiencing it as people who are present, or are we there, but somehow disconnected as our experience is not through our own eyes, but through the comfortable familiarity of a camera lens?
Then there’s the recent Spanish zombie flick [REC], by directors, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. [REC] is still unavailable in the U.S., but is currently being remade – for American audiences too lazy to read subtitles – under the new name QUARANTINE. I was lucky enough to score a copy of [REC] and, though not the social commentary DIARY was, it’s one hell of a scary film and a new take on Romero’s style of zombie flick. In a “normal” movie, the director is outside the action. We know that we are being told the story by someone who was not actually there, someone who is not himself in any danger, but who can pick and choose what we see and what we don’t so as to allow us the best storytelling experience. While the reality is actually the same in films like DIARY OF THE DEAD, [REC], CLOVERFIELD and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the illusion is that no one is in control, that we are helpless viewers watching events unfold through the eyes of helpless participants.
[REC] had me covering my mouth in fear as I watched (yeah, I’m a big baby). And, just as I’d done only nights before after viewing DIARY, I asked myself what it is about this experience that I keep coming back to. I loved horror films as a kid, but I all but abandoned them as an adult. They ceased to scare me anymore. Slasher pics, torture porn, the last 20 years of horror films had slipped into a void more obsessed with the makeup and effects than with the psychological and social impact these films were capable of having. It’s one of the reasons I made THE PLAGUE, though, as many already know, that film was destroyed by its own producers who were simply not ready to make a horror film that tapped into real primal fears, and instead reverted back to what I think of as their safety zone of harmless, meaningless, ineffectual horror.
But thanks to some other filmmakers and some (oddly enough) less frightened producers, we are starting to see a trend emerge that still has a lot of unknown territory yet to explore. And hopefully I will continue to be moved to ask myself why I – and so many other audience members like me – feel it is somehow cathartic to experience helplessness, panic and terror, while also being artistically, socially and morally stimulated.