Terror and Terrorism: Remembering 9/11’s Effect on Genre Filmmaking
Gabe recalls a decade of fear, and the horror and sci-fi films it set loose...
It’s easy enough to argue that every movie released after September 11th, 2001 is in someway a direct reaction to the terrorist attacks committed that day. At the very least it’s easy to read 9/11 related subtext and allegories into every movie released after 9/11. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, it has been noted, would probably not have faired so well in a pre-9/11 atmosphere, and it, along with other box office hits like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, filled an escapist void for audiences depressed and frightened by the attacks, and their ensuing aftermath. Of course, it’s difficult to argue that Fellowship of the Ring, Spider-Man, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Oceans 11, and Monsters Inc. wouldn’t have made heaps of money without a devastating event pushing disillusioned audiences into theaters, but it’s just as difficult to argue against their escapist components. For the most part the major studios treated the situation with kid gloves, and the year following 9/11 was devoted to ignoring the direct effects of the attacks, with the exception of an excess of TV specials. It wasn’t until 2006 that Hollywood A-listers would get involved with movies explicitly concerned with the events of September 11th. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center would take the blandest, most inoffensive route possible, while Paul Greengrass’ superior United 93 fulfilled its obligation to the victims and their families with more grace, and took more chances with mainstream sensibilities. Both films made money, but neither was particularly successful at the box office.
Mainstream Hollywood’s deliberate avoidance of the issue included taking pains to temporarily bury an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle called Collateral Damage due to its terrorist attack angle, and Sam Raimi famously digitally deleted images of the World Trade Center in the New York City centered Spider-Man (not to mention the teaser trailer that featured the title character catching a helicopter between the Twin Towers, which was quickly pulled). A few major 2002 films vaguely referenced the tragedy -– Die Another Day made a brief, off-handed comment, Gangs of New York ended with a brief visual reference, and About Schmidt reeked of the malaise affecting the nation – but nobody really talked about the issue directly. The only popular films that dealt directly with the impact of 9/11 were mostly left-wing documentaries, specifically those of Michael Moore. Most of the documentaries that rushed from Moore’s wake fit into two categories: fact-driven soliloquies on the events surrounding the attacks, and mouth-foaming, fist-shaking protest films.
The ongoing hardships of the Vietnam War and the death knell of the Summer of Love hurt the nation, but the fear and chaos helped burn down the stagnant studio system, and gave rise to one of the most creative and enduring periods in American movie history. Many critics and historians have drawn direct parallels between the American public’s despondent and disillusioned disposition, and the ‘Silver Age’ of Hollywood, from direct social allegories like The Graduate and Taxi Driver, to the moral outrage seeping from the subtext of ultra violent classics like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch. The genre that supped the most hungrily from the bowels of implicit meanings in explicit violence was, rather obviously, horror. Though the swinging ‘60s had opened the floodgates to graphic gore in the form of high camp classics like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (following the advent of Grand Guignol theater, the Hammer Horror tradition of full colour bloodletting, and the less bloody but more disturbing ‘Roughie’ subgenre), it wasn’t until 1968 that the trepidation surround Nam birthed George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the American horror film really tore its way into the era. From here things spiraled into ever darker and more brutal films like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, and, in my opinion, culminated with Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Violence started to be fun again following Romero’s next zombie film, Dawn of the Dead, which foreshadowed the hollow, hyper-capitalist culture of the 1980s, which lead into the subtextless slasher and effects driven horror films. Some great films came out of this era, but society had changed, the studio system had thoroughly taken hold again, and there wasn’t a lot of effort on the part of the horror community to deal with the terrors of trickle-down economics, Iran-Contra, or crack addition, even in a subconscious manner. For the most part horror in the ‘80s was defined by advances in special effects, and the DIY possibilities of home video.
Implicit discussion remained stagnant, but not long after September 11th American horror started a cycle of raw violence and ‘70s era remakes, a process many critics have attributed to the same disquieted public aberration that birthed Night of the Living Dead. The first few years of the new millennium would mostly be defined by the lingering effects of the post- Scream, post-modern slickness that was the ‘90s, the gigantic success of M. Night Shyamalan’s Twilight Zone tinged The Sixth Sense, and the rising popularity of Japanese horror (and excepting the work of Takashi Miike, most of Japan’s horror output was not particularly graphic). 2002 was a wasteland as far as the horror genre was concerned. A small collection of hybrid efforts, such as Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II, Don Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-Tep, and Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers were released at this time, but otherwise the popular horror landscape was only a minor refuge for lifeless efforts like Feardotcom, Halloween Resurrection, Jason X, and Queen of the Damned. Only Bill Paxton’s Frailty really stands out as a worthy or memorable horror vehicle, and its allegorical connections to the public psyche are negligible at best.
Things began to change in 2003. 1970s nostalgia began to grip the horror community in the form of raucously gory films like Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, Rob Zombies House of 1000 Corpses, Alexadre Aja’s Haute Tension, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (technically not a horror movie), and Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Nispel’s remake, despite its average quality, stood out as the touchstone for the genre in this era. The film was met with surprising box office numbers, and was followed by an official prequel in 2006 ( Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, directed by Jonathan Liebesman). Horror remakes have been par for the course since Universal and James Whale had a hit with Frankenstein. Historically, however, horror stories have been remade to better represent their specific era. For example, in 1986 David Cronenberg took Kurt Neumann’s goofy creature feature The Fly, and turned it into a poignant metaphor for the very ‘80s fear of AIDS (or cancer, take your pick). Occasionally the subtext is still apt, which is why John Carpenter didn’t change up the underlying Communist metaphor when he remade Howard Hawks’ The Thing. But Carpenter didn’t shoot his version in black and white, and also changed the nature of the monster to better serve the abilities of 1980s special effects. The horror remakes that followed Nispel’s new Chainsaw often took measures to reenact the aesthetic of the original film’s period, specifically those also released under Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production banner. The two Chainsaw films, and Andrew Douglas’s Amityville Horror were even set in the same years as their predecessors. Platinum Dunes hasn’t released anything since their generally disliked Nightmare on Elm Street in 2010, and have no ‘70s era remakes on their release plate, signifying a possible temporary end to the practice. So far the Obama era has been more defined by the continuing cycle of remaking recent foreign horror films.
Platinum Dunes didn’t have a monopoly on ‘70s remakes, though. In 2004 first time director Zach Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn treaded onto hallowed ground to reinvision George Romero’s cerebral and darkly comedic Dawn of the Dead as a breathless action flick. Other notable (note: ‘notable’ does not always equal good) include:
- 2006: John Moore remade Richard Donner’s The Omen (practically shot for shot), Simon West remade Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls, Glen Morgan remade Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Neil LaBute remade Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and French director Alexandre Aja remade Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (arguably the best of the remakes, and the only one to best its predecessor).
- 2007: Martin Weisz directed a sequel to Aja’s Hills Have Eyes remake (which coincidentally had nothing to do with Craven’s original Hills Have Eyes 2).
- 2008: Josef Rusnak remade Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive.
- 2009: Dennis Iliadis remade Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (which itself was a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring).
- 2010: Breck Eisner remade George Romero’s The Crazies, Stephen R. Monroe remade Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave, and Alexandre Aja went back to the ‘70s by remaking Joe Dante’s Piranha (which just barely counts due to its lighthearted, goofy take on the material).
The most notorious ‘subgenre’ birthed during the post-9/11 era, at least as far as the popular media was concerned, crested around the same time as the remakes, and was dubbed ‘torture porn’. The term was coined sometime around 2005, and the critical and moralist outrage would have you believe it was a new phenomenon. But the truth is that films that exploit torture in a graphic degree have been around forever, and saw their biggest influx during the 1970s, including witch-hunt movies like Mark of the Devil, and Nazisploitation movies like Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS and The Gestapo’s Last Orgy. Similar torture-centric strings were plucked when Harry Callahan forced a confession from Scorpio by stepping on his .44 caliber wound in Dirty Harry. However, there is something patently Bush Jr. era about the films critics have grouped into the now officially labeled subgenre, and for the lack of a better term (post-slasher doesn’t quite fit) I tend to go with it. The two films that are most often credited with bringing about the coining of the phrase were James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2006).
Saw, which was a comparatively mammoth financial success (shot for around $700k, it made more than $100 million), led to six sequels (the series more or less ushered Lionsgate studios into the big leagues). At its base it is a reexamination of slasher motifs, and featured a ‘masked killer’, dubbed Jigsaw, who forced his victims to mutilate themselves. There wasn’t a lot of political subtext behind the film, but the resurgence of hard violence and grainy photography played a part in the film’s success. I suppose one could dig deep and claim that the self-inflicted nature of the gore is somehow a comment on putting destructive leaders into power, or read into the medical issues surrounding the villain’s motives (I assume Jigsaw is pro-Obamacare), but the more obvious of the muddled messages behind the first film has something to do with a dying man’s frustration with the stagnate culture around him. In terms of post-Vietnam motion pictures Saw has more in common thematically with revisionist vigilante movies, like Taxi Driver, Joe and Rolling Thunder. The best of the sequels, Saw III, features an inversion of the first film’s themes. Jigsaw rigs a game that forces his ‘victim’ the choice of either rescuing the people that allowed his daughter to die, or standing by and watching them die horribly. The choice doesn’t really matter because it’s a Saw film, and the guilty still die horribly, but it’s interesting to read intended parallels between this plot point and the public’s anger towards the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.
The more obvious archetype of the torture porn genre, however, would be Hostel, which was apparently based on a true story (or at least a real old wives tale) concerning international high rollers who pay a premium to torture and kill real live people in Eastern Europe, where, as the old time huckster line will tell you, life is cheap. There’s no way Hostel could have been made previous to the new millennium, and it plays into two of the major emotional triggers surrounding the post-9/11 era – a fear of foreign cultures, and a mistrust of the mega-wealthy. Eli Roth’s first theatrical release, Cabin Fever, was a child of the ‘70s era nostalgia that overtook the genre, and was a surprise hit. Cabin Fever, like Hostel, ran on a relatively unexplored high concept idea (that of flesh eating bacteria taking the place of the usual masked teenage killer), but was almost entirely referential in execution. Hostel is notable for being one of the only genuinely modern, genuinely original horror movies to come out of the heavily ‘70s influenced times. It’s far from a perfect film, but its concepts, and box office success should be remembered in the annals of genre history. Most intriguing is the fact that several films exploring the same fear of foreign cultures kidnapping and killing American college students were actually in production around the same time as Hostel. Zev Berman’s Borderland, John Stockwell’s Turistas, and Ryan Nicholson Live Feed were all released within the next year, and every filmmaker has claimed commonalities were entirely coincidental. Given the cultural zeitgeist I’m inclined to believe them. Greg McLean’s Australian slow-burn Wolf Creek is often lumped in with these films. It does feature a trio of twenty-somethings trapped and tortured by a rural entity, but it generally has more in common with the other Chainsaw Massacre inspired pseudo-slashers like House of 1000 Corpses.
The rationalization behind the sudden interest in torture is among the simplest in this entire essay. Besides the war in Iraq, the most consistently controversial aspect of the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror was the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. ‘Waterboarding’ and ‘stress positions’ became a regular parts of the national dialogue, and Guantanamo Bay military detention camp was so commonly discussed that an abbreviated name, Gitmo, was required to ensure the debate moved along more efficiently. The most devastating events were brought before an embarrassed American public in 2004 (the year Saw was released), when pictures were released featuring the physical abuse of Iraqi detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison at the hands of United States Army personnel. These events were more literally represented in popular television ( 24, Prison Break), allegorical science fiction films ( Children of Men), and a never ending series of popular documentaries, but the brief influx of horror films labeled torture porn remains just as transparent an effect of political turmoil.
2004 was also the year The Passion (of the Christ) was released. Mel Gibson’s remorseless portrayal of the final hours of Jesus Christ’s life featured more graphic gore, and more prolonged scenes of bloody torture than any of the wide release horror films dubbed torture porn. It was also likely the most controversial of the entire post-9/11 era, and regardless of Gibson’s objective The Passion grew into a political flash point.
Sadly Hostel Part II (2007), one of the best horror films of its decade, which built upon the themes of the first film in a surprisingly intelligent, and gender savvy fashion, was not a box office success. Shortly after its release the fast kindled sub-genre officially and publicly burned-out, as the mainstream made headline news out of the more spectacular flopping of Roland Joffé’s Captivity (also 2007). Captivity began its life as an unassuming (read: boring) psycho thriller, but following the popularity of Saw and Hostel, the producers filmed a series of graphic torture sequences, and cut them awkwardly into the film. They followed the re-edit with a sensationalistic ad campaign that offended noisy members of the media. By the time of release Captivity was already labeled a failure, and moralists declared the death of the subgenre. It appears they were right for a change, and outside of straight to video features torture porn has laid dormant for some time.
The popularity of Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake effectively birthed the remake trend, but doesn’t necessarily account for the many films released around the same time that also based their plots around Tobe Hooper’s original nightmare vision. Chief among these was Rob Zombies House of 1000 Corpses, which was put into production as early as 1999, but due to studio discomfort with its subject matter it was not completed and released until 2003, which itself is a sign of the changing times. House of 1000 Corpses was not particularly well received (for good reason), but was popular enough to give Zombie a shot at a sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, which reaches Quentin Tarantino levels of ‘70s exploitation referential casting. Following The Devil’s Rejects Zombie jumped on the ‘70s remake bandwagon, and directed a belated remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 2007, along with a direct sequel in 2009. Zombie’s Halloween takes the referential nature so far as to delegate a large section of the film to actually take place during the time period. I personally don’t see it as a coincidence that interest in Zombie’s vision waned with the end of the Bush administration, though the thematically repetitive nature of his output couldn’t have hurt either.
The remake cycle, along with the deepening nostalgia and relative success of filmmakers like Tarantino, Roth and Zombie eventually led to a less allegorical, often more amusing series of films that aped the ‘70s exploitation style. These films are less a product of the culture, and more of a meta-product of the product of the culture. This ongoing phase officially started when Tarantino got together with Robert Rodriguez and paid homage to New York’s 42nd Street grindhouses with an appropriately named double feature called Grindhouse in 2007. Grindhouse was made up of two full length features, and a series of both fake trailers (shot by Rodriguez, Roth, Zombie, Edgar Wright and Jason Eisener), and real period advertisements. The first feature, written and directed by Rodriguez, was Planet Terror, a biohazard zombie actioneer in the tradition of Umberto Lenzi’s City of the Walking Dead. The second feature, written and directed by Tarantino, was Death Proof, a more modest and successful brew of Vanishing Point car chases, slasher and giallo tropes, and Russ Meyers brand female empowerment. The movie was a box office disappointment, likely due to general confusion on the part of the general public, yet went on to inspire two official spin-offs – Rodriguez’s Machete and Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun – and inspired Scott Sanders’ blaxsploitation homage Black Dynamite, and Ti West’s House of the Devil.
Yet even at their most vicious American filmmakers ran second to their French counterparts in recreating the gut-punch of ‘70s horror, which was ironic given Conservative America’s vision of French society at the start of the second Iraq invasion, and the advent of such ridiculous notions as ‘Freedom Fries’. Films like Fabrice Du Welz’s Calvaire ( The Ordeal), Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s À l'intérieur ( Inside), Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s), and Kim Chapiron’s Sheitan all celebrate the themes and feel of the silver age’s best, and like their American counterparts, even recycled key plot points. Chief among these, despite its convoluted and nonsensical twist ending (a lingering after effect of The Sixth Sense), was Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (released in the States as High Tension, and in the UK as Switchblade Romance). Aja’s deft homage landed him his first Hollywood directing role on the Wes Craven produced remake of The Hills Have Eyes, which, as mentioned, was among the most successful of the 1970s remakes. These ‘70s-inspired extremes would then be ‘bested’ in a more modern sense by Gaspar Noé. Noé’s cinema of loneliness, itself inspired by dark visions like Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder was unleashed to minor notice with 1998’s Seul Contre Tous ( I Stand Alone), but would be defined in 2002 when he released Irréversible on an unsuspecting world. Irréversible stands among the most angry films in motion picture history, and manages to capture the intents and purposes of the post-Studio era without dealing in callbacks, or sense of irony.
The post 2001 period also saw the resurgence of the George Romero brand of zombie movie. Not since the international popularity of the original Dawn of the Dead (a semi-sequel to Night of the Living Dead, which spearheaded the post-Vietnam horror movement) had the genre seen such a massive uptake, an uptake that eventually lead to a state of utter saturation with little sign of drying up in the near future (this started as a exciting time as a fan of the genre, but many of us are left jaded and tired by the walking dead at this point). This ‘rebirth’ was mostly kindled by the popularity of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Being a British production, and existing on a very modest budget, 28 Days Later tackled political subjects full force less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, and its surprisingly popularity indicated an early public interest in working through some of their problems. Boyle and his screenwriter Alex Garland’s monsters aren’t traditional flesh eaters (they don’t bite their victims as much as vomit and bleed on them), and their ‘rage’ is implicitly depicted as a contagious disease. Contagions were not a prevalent part of the post-9/11 film landscape, but the filmmakers were likely building upon growing anxiety surrounding the anthrax attacks the week following September 11th. The true villains of 28 Days Later, as revealed in the third act, are not the infected, but members of the military who trick surviving ‘noncombatants’ into their fortified mansion lair in hopes of capturing female survivors for use as sexual slaves. This all predated the inception of the second Iraq War, but was likely informed by the looming threat. A sequel, 28 Weeks Later, was released in 2007, and revolved around American led NATO armed forces occupying the zombified UK.
The fire was then stoked when 2004’s Dawn of the Dead crossed $100 million in international profits. For their remake Snyder and Gunn took cues from Boyle’s infected, and made their zombies into frantic, screaming danger machines, and mostly avoided Romero’s affection for allegory and ironic humour. This hard horror/action hybrid didn’t need metaphors to strike a chord, and even Romero loyalists were hard-pressed to complain too much about running zombies when the box office success encouraged Universal Studios to take a chance on a fourth official film in Romero’s ‘dead’ legacy, Land of the Dead. Following the tradition of Night of the Living Dead (’68), Dawn of the Dead (’78) and Day of the Dead (’85), Land tackled the political issues of its day with a comic book inspired passion. In Romero’s story the wealthiest apocalyptic survivors sequester themselves into a fortified, decedent tower dubbed Fiddler’s Green, where they continue to perpetuate the capitalist ideal, and keep the literal lower class motivated with the promise of moving up the ladder some day. When the leader of the working class infantry realizes he will never be welcomed into the high class fold, he steals their most potent weapon of mass destruction and threatens to kill them all. Meanwhile, the lowest class, the zombies, begin to evolve higher intelligence, and march on Fiddler’s Green. Despite old-fashion heavy hands Romero hit the allegorical nail on the head when he decided his zombies were easily distracted by fireworks, a constant representation of patriotic spirit. During the climax the zombies finally look away from the fireworks and focus on the task at hand. Romero made two more zombie films following Land of the Dead – Dairy of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2010), representing a loose reboot for his series.
The best zombie movie of this ten year span (arguably the best zombie film since Peter Jackson’s Braindead) was the British satire Shaun of the Dead, which was released in 2004, and is also credited with helping Land of the Dead to the big screen (Universal studios was behind Dawn, Shaun and Land). Co-written by director by Edgar Wright, and star Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead doesn’t really have a place in this essay beyond the fact that it recalls Romero’s original films. Otherwise it’s far too modern and generally amicable to reflect the times, though it did prove public interest in other zombie-tinged romantic comedies. Other notable (once again: ‘notable’ does not always equal good) zombie and zombie-inspired films released between 2002 and 2011 (a complete list would double my word count) include:
- 2002: Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil. There’s a lot of evidence towards crediting the Resident Evil video game series, which was based around Romero’s ‘rules’, with the early steps of the resurgence of zombie movies, specifically a handful of popular Japanese made films like Versus, Junk, Stacy and Wild Zero.
- 2003: Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead, and Michael and Peter Spierig’s Aussie set Undead.
- 2004: Brian Paulin’s Bone Sickness, Marek Dobes’ Choking Hazard (possibly the first Czech horror-comedy), Matthew Leutwyler’s Dead and Breakfast, Richard Griffin’s Feeding the Masses, Elza Kephart’s Graveyard Alive: A Zombie Nurse in Love, Mathias Dinter’s German set Night of the Living Losers, Alexander Witt’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Taweewat Wantha’s Thai set SARS Wars, and Robin Campillo’s dreamy French set They Came Back.
- 2005: Jeremy Kasten’s Mexican set All Saints Day, Stephen Bradley’s UK set Boy Eats Girl, Yorgos Noussias’s Evil (the first ever Greek zombie film), and Ellory Elkayem’s Return of the Living Dead: Parts 4 and 5. The most impressive and strictly politically minded zombie tales of all was actually made for TV in 2005, under Showtime’s Masters of Horror banner. Homecoming, directed by Joe Dante, was the story of Iraq War soldiers coming back from the dead to vote a George W. Bush-like president out of office.
- 2006: Steven C. Miller’s Automaton Transfusion, Frank Sudol’s Flash animated City of Rott, Patrick Dinhut’s Dead and Deader, Andrew Currie’s Fido, Jim Mickle’s Mulberry Street, David Morlet’s French set Mutants, Greg Passmore’s Night of the Living Dead 3D, Lloyd Kaufman’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, James Gunn’s sci-fi tinged Slither, J.S. Cardone’s Wicked Little Things (aka: Zombies), and Michael Bartlett & Kevin Gates’ The Zombie Diaries.
- 2007: Jake Kennedy’s Days of Darkness, John Kalangis’s The Mad, Robert Rodriguez Planet Terror, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC], and Russell Mulcahy’s Resident Evil: Extinction.
- 2008: Gregg Bishop’s high school set Dance of the Dead, Steve Miner’s Day of the Dead remake, Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s feminist-slanted Dead Girl, Tommy Wirkola’s Norway set Dead Snow, and John Erick Dowdle’s Quarantine (a remake of [REC]).
- 2009: Paul Solet’s zom-baby epic Grace, Benjamin Rocher and Yannick Dahan’s French set La Horde, Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, Kevin Hamedani’s Zombies of Mass Destruction (another blatant political satire), and Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland (one of the last zombie-related box office surprises of the era).
- 2010: Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: After Life, Charles House II’s They Walk, and the first ever weekly television series based around zombies – The Walking Dead.
Before the disillusionment of the late ‘60s the American public was wracked with fear. They were afraid because there was a Cold War brewing between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the consequences of that war warming up would be nothing short of the end of the world. Fear of utter nuclear annihilation gave rise to a series of escapist films that still very obviously dealt in allegories underlying the fear. These films were catharsis for patrons, and were usually presented in the form of seemingly innocuous Science Fiction. Monsters, like the giant ants of Gordon Douglas’ Them, became stand-ins for the bomb, and alien invaders, like those of George Pal’s War of the Worlds, became stand-ins for Communist aggressors. Post-9/11 hardcore horror films were more prevalent, but the post-9/11 answer to these golden age Commie and A-Bomb sci-fi terror were more popular, and thus is the better large-gage measurement of public tastes. M. Night Shyamalan got the jump on this subgenre in 2002 with his ode du War of the Worlds – Signs. Signs was a big money maker, and exploited the public’s fear of ‘the other’, which may have played a part in its success, despite a lack of implicit terrorist age subtext. In 2003 Lawrence Kasdan adapted Stephen Kings bizarre alien invasion/government conspiracy story Dreamcatcher, to little public notice or critical affection.
The real ground zero for modern versions of Cold War era allegorical science fiction was Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake (2005). Initially the thought of the world’s most popular director revisiting world invasion themes so close to the highly successful launches of Independence Day and Signs seemed awkward, but Spielberg had seen the changes in the nation, and was excited at the prospect of dealing with them in a manner that would make George Pal proud. Despite a weak script, War of the Worlds tapped expertly into the conscious and unconscious public fears with images of crumbling buildings, crashed airplanes, screaming hordes, ashen faces, and a wall of missing persons pictures. The film also dealt with the psychological repercussions of invasion, chiefly the tragedy of mankind turning in on itself. Perhaps Spielberg’s most valuable addition to the burgeoning field of post-9/11 sci-fi action was his use of low angles, and Cinéma Vérité camera work, which initially acted to put the audience into the shoes of the protagonists, but also recreated the experience of watching the terrorist attacks unfold on live television. Alfonso Cuarón seemed to take his cues from Spielberg when he made the politically steeped Children of Men, but other genre filmmakers took Cinéma Vérité to the next level, and created distinctive mock-documentaries using standing sci-fi tropes (which also tapped into the popularity of the never ending barrage of political documentaries following the 9/11 events).
Despite making record-breaking profits, and spawning rip-offs, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project didn’t have much of an immediate effect on the greater pantheon, and initially looked like it was going to be a one-off success story. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, who were inspired by Ruggero Deodato’s found footage genre originator Cannibal Holocaust (1980), practically disappeared from the landscape altogether in the years that followed, but their film would eventually have a major impact on horror, science fiction and action cinema in the post-9/11 era. These included a series of zombie films (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC], its remake Quarantine, and both sequels, Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett’s Zombie Diaries and George Romero’s Diary of the Dead), and incredibly depraved serial killer and simulated snuff films (Julian Richards’ The Last Horror Movie, the August Underground series, Anthony Spadaccini’s Head Case and John Erick Dowdle’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes). Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (made 2007, but not released wide until 2009), was another Blair Witch-sized profit machine (it holds one of the largest recorded cost to profit gains on record), but it managed to strike a lasting chord, and was followed by a flood of similar zero budget found footage and mockumentary ghost stories including three official sequels, Fernando Barreda Luna’s Atrocious (2010), and Shane Van Dyke’s Paranormal Entity (2009). Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2010) also follows a similar thread, as does Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo (2008), which is arguably the most successful of these films, and which pre-dates Peli’s monster success.
Cloverfield (2008) didn’t quite make Paranormal Activity level profits, but it ended up the turning point picture of the revitalized of science fiction/horror. Likely spurned by Joon-ho Bong’s incredibly political, environmentalist, neo-monster movie The Host (another of the best genre films of the era, 2006), popular television producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves created a modern retelling of Ishirô Honda’s Gojira (known better as Godzilla, 1954). Abrams and Reeves replaced the original film’s monster as a stand-in for nuclear proliferation theme with a monster that ravaged a still terrorist attack fatigued New York City. The team kept costs down, and tapped the same candid street level destruction vein by employing a single camera, found footage documentary style. Cloverfield likely inspired André Øvredal’s more comedic-toned Troll Hunter.
Similar mockumentary manipulation was utilized to an even greater effect by South African director Neill Blomkamp, whose 2009 feature debut District 9 might be the most incontestably politically predisposed genre film of the entire era. District 9 inverts the alien invader tropes, and tells its story through the modern eyes of twenty-four hour news networks and YouTube links. Blomkamp sets the film in his home city of Johannesburg, the capital of the only ‘Western’ country in the otherwise ‘alien’ continent of Africa. South Africa is forever marked by the specter of the Apartheid era. The displaced alien motif recalls xenophobic problems found in pretty much every country in the world, but Johannesburg’s history really is the perfect place to reap and sow a collection of worldwide relevant political ideas—from the treatment and dehumanization of the lower class, to the Military Industrial Complex. Despite such heavy racial politics, and a hard R-rating, District 9 was a box office hit, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The next year UK filmmaker Gareth Edwards made Monsters, an extra low-budget mix of Cloverfield’s monster revisionism, and District 9’s socio-political alien exploration, which led Legendary Films to hire him to reboot the original Godzilla for American audiences.
Other allegorically appropriate sci-fi/horror films included Frank Darabont’s emotionally crippling adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist (another one of the era’s best, 2007), Oliver Hirschbiegel’s failed fourth re-telling of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, re-titled The Invasion (2007), and Michael and Peter Spierig’s post-apocalyptic vampire tale Daybreakers (2009). Unlike the ‘70s inspired, hard-edged horror films, similar science fiction shows little sign of slowing. In 2011 no fewer than eleven alien invasion films were/will be released, including Jonathan Liebesman’s District 9 inspired Battle: Los Angeles, J. J. Abrams’ Spielberg inspired Super 8, Michael Bay’s ridiculous Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Greg Mottola’s Simon Pegg and Nick Frost comedy Paul, Simon Wells’ kid-friendly Mars Needs Moms, D. J. Caruso’s teen-friendly I Am Number Four, Joe Cornish’s UK set Attack the Block, Chris Gorak’s Russian set The Darkest Hour, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing prequel/remake, and Gonzalo López-Gallego’s found footage moon landing film Apollo 18.
* Note: This essay could probably continue on for another five thousand words in covering the intricacies of hundreds of films I haven’t included here. I needed to draw the line somewhere, and in the process I’ve skipped over some of my favourite reactive films, like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, a morality tale built partially around public mistrust of the banking system that didn’t really fit in any of my categories, or a number of South Korean thrillers that didn’t quite meet the specific definition of ‘horror’. I welcome feedback, and plan to keep suggestions in mind for possible future installments.
Editorial by Gabriel Powers
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