Posted: 01/20/2008


The American Nightmare


by Jef Burnham

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Horror films have always had a bad rapport with conservatives as being offensive in their use of violent and sexual imagery to “undermine morality,” particularly in the youth. What such critics fail to realize is that horror films, as with any other genre, stem from filmmakers’ reactions to social stimuli. The American Nightmare is a documentary chronicling a selection of the major horror films of the 1960s and 1970s and their creators, providing the cultural context in which the films were originally created, from the fear of nuclear war in the 1950s to the sexual revolution two decades later.

The six horror films given an in-depth analysis, with commentary from numerous scholars and the filmmakers themselves, as well as director John Landis and special effects artist Tom Savini, are George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, David Cronenberg’s Shivers, and John Carpenter’s Halloween. Though there are a plethora of clips from these films used in the documentary itself, the most disturbing imagery does not come from these clips, but the archival footage shown in reference to the influential social traumas of the time, including a number of photographs from the Vietnam War taken by Tom Savini himself, which he would later use as inspiration for such effects as those seen in Dawn of the Dead. The atrocities chronicled, committed by Americans no less, are far more difficult to view and more emotionally taxing than any of the films in question.

Some of the filmmakers’ most effective usage of archival cross-referencing include the final scenes of Night of the Living Dead spliced with images of lynching and the charred remains of blacks as the responsible whites pose, smiling for the picture, over the bodies; and a scene of zombies tearing a biker to shreds in Dawn of the Dead cut to footage of mobs of consumers fighting over sale items. Wes Craven also explains that, horrified by the infamous footage and photograph of the Viet Cong guerilla being executed in 1968, he referenced the image in his first feature, The Last House on the Left. We also see Cronenberg’s first feature, Shivers, as a reaction to and support of the sexual revolution of the 1970s, using a parasite as a model for spreading political philosophy. On the other side of the spectrum, Halloween can be seen as a puritanical end to the sexual revolution, as Michael Myers slashes his way through a group of sexually active teenagers.

The American Nightmare conveys that horror films transcend conservative society’s view of the genre, acting as a means of purging for the horror filmmakers and the audience. In another example, Tobe Hooper had been haunted since childhood by his family’s tales of Ed Gein and a story they used to tell him of a physician who skinned the face off a corpse and wore it as a mask to a Halloween party, so he made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Wes Craven refers to this as “boot camp for the psyche,” and it applies to the audience to, in that they are then purged of the trauma of these horrors by being given an outlet for those particular fears.

All fans of the genre should see The American Nightmare.

Jef Burnham is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.

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