Just trying to stay alive, yo. Nothing personal.
A while ago I posted a few things on horror. On my old blogspot (since deleted), I had a few posts on zombies as well as ‘torture porn,’ a moralizing term ostensibly used to refer to one of the more recent discernible horror subgenres, which includes films like Hostel, Saw, and the Hills Have Eyes remake, but which I think really indexes the discomfort experienced by critics who don’t ‘get’ the fixation on extreme violence and gore that seems so prevalent in horror in general over the past 10 years or so. Through the reactions of ‘decent people’ to the horror genre we are told once again that we live in a period defined by unprecedented nihilism and a pornographic relationship to human suffering.
The cultural debts owed by most of this decade’s horror are painfully obvious: the Golden Age of the 1970s, when the genre was infused with as much ‘social commentary’ as fake blood and pigs’ guts. There still is that, but where before it was a barely conscious residue, as much product of critics and ‘the times’ as of the the auteurs themselves, now it’s a fading gesture, dispensed with by all but the most loyal. Joe Dante’s predictably clever zombie allegory Homecoming demonstrates the trade-offs involved in turning horror into a screed. Even Romero’s Land of the Dead, easily the most ‘radical’ zombie picture produced since Day of the Dead, creaks. One can appreciate the anti-capitalist message, but ranking it above the comparatively vapid 28 Days Later by any other criteria is pure nostalgia.
No, the legacy of ’70s horror (in the sense of its effect on later filmmakers) is not politics but reductionism. Zombies, ‘torture porn,’ even the sometimes more highbrow ‘new European extremity’ of Gaspar Noe, Alexandre Aja, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, etc., strip their horror scenarios of everything but the bare premise: the dead walk, a killer attacks at random, now deal with it. Watch.
That there is nothing for the protagonists to do but live or die, nothing to mean but success or failure, is no longer a mere precondition for a broader recontextualization of ideology but the entire narrative and ideological point. Saw speaks its philosophy out loud, from behind the mask of Jigsaw, its Tales From the Crypt-esque villain. “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive,” he tells the sole survivor of his Rube Goldberg execution scenarios, “but not you, not any more.” She thanks him later — her therapist (she ‘fails’ in a sequel when she begins to regard him as her cult leader). One is invited to pass judgment on the frat boy protagonist of Hostel or the stuffily perfect bourgeois family of Funny Games, but when they’re being tortured there is no one else to care about. Even more than the cartoonish ‘slasher’ monsters (Michael Myers, Freddy, Jason), but for notable exceptions like Jigsaw, the new breed are absent non-entities, a-causal killers. In Funny Games the murdering duo are fictional tropes — in Hostel torture is just a business. The Dark Knight‘s Joker,There Will Be Blood‘s Plainview, and No Country For Old Men‘s Chigurh all borrow the trope: the ’00s were the age of monsters without reason. To an audience that has learned how to sympathize with Norman Bates, cheer on Michael Myers, and fall in love with Hannibal Lecter, it now (apparently) takes structural evil to convince and thrill (in the same way that supernatural and ‘psychological’ evil did in ages past). More than any sin they commit their power comes from defying the techniques of identification, giving the anarchic sense of having defied Hollywood itself.
Zombie stories, the great Robinsonades of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, differ from their 18th century ancestors in that they are unable to repress (or properly delay) the social, which inevitably appears as tragedy. In Night of the Living Dead Ben with his manly know-how is doing just fine surviving on his own. It’s only when people show up that things go wrong — the distrustful, strung-out, and frequently irrational group trapped inside the house with him, and the mass of rednecks who ‘accidentally’ shoot him down in the process of restoring civilization. The recent comic book series The Walking Dead (coming soon to a TV near you) takes its protagonist through a series of doomed attempts to restore the most banal forms of patriarchal ‘normality,’ all of which reduce to patriarchal authoritarianism before falling apart completely. Even Will Smith’s Last Man in I Am Legend, while alone for most of the film, is never portrayed as autonomous: he lives in and on the ruins of New York, driven half-crazy with loneliness (i.e. the scenes where he simulates the lost everyday with shop mannequins).
There are ‘left’ and ‘right’ versions of the zombie myth, but the message is always the same: the horrors wrought by humanity in extremis are always worse than the zombies.The absolute manichean split between human and zombie is insisted on only to be ‘shockingly’ deconstructed, with all other differences either elided or made to look ridiculous by comparison. Like them, we must kill to live, even if there is no reason to go on (civilization is destroyed, etc.). We are them, they are us.
In horror anyone who cares about something other than the survival of themselves and their immediate allies is (or should be) dead. In that sense all horror is ‘survival horror,’ the name for the genre of video games started by Alone in the Dark and established by Resident Evil. It’s a structural limit, perhaps the only formalism applicable to the genre as a whole, and which has permitted a wide variety of thematic material: Peeping Tom‘s reflection of cinematic voyeurism, the weirdly seductive transformations of Cronenbergian body horror, Lovecraft’s cosmic nihilism, the dark satire of Romero. But in more recent horror the structural limit is treated as a natural one, as the only true reality principle and therefore the only true ethical axiom. A horror story is more visceral, more ‘realistic,’ more ‘effective,’ the less it allows itself to go beyond the arbitrary necessities of its genre.
So two basic functional ‘types’ of monster can be distilled: 1) the monster who kills for no reason and 2) the ‘infected’ masses who, for no reason, must kill to live.
The victims, if they survive, usually leave stronger. For the spectator, the encouraged affects are awe at type 1 and pity for type 2. Perhaps counterintuitively, the idea that life is all that matters is usually denied. A good example from 28 Days Later:
Selena: I was thinking I was wrong.
Jim: About what?
Selena: All the death. All the shit. It doesn’t really mean anything to Frank and Hannah because… Well, she’s got a Dad and he’s got his daughter. So, I was wrong when I said that staying alive is as good as it gets.
Jim: See, that’s what I was thinking.
Selena: Was it?
Jim: Hmm. You stole my thought.
Jim: It’s okay. You keep it.
Not just life in terms of individual self-interest or of abstract ‘life’ in general (animal rights activists start the plague in 28 Days, an attempt to cure cancer brings on the zombie-vampire disease of I Am Legend), but the lives of one’s mates. Domestic hedonism is about the best that can be hoped for under conditions of zombie plague, and that’s alright.
This is the very strange, hospital-waiting-room-universe of a world where popular ideology has nothing left in its critical vocabulary except relativism. Capitalism’s collective fantasy space is finally bulldozed free of class, race, gender, etc. and yet even in the post-everything Utopia shit still doesn’t work! People are even worse! For without a social vocabulary, such a space is only imaginable after the flood, under conditions of absolute constraint. If science fiction can only imagine post-scarcity utopias, horror can only imagine happiness where scarcity is accepted as God. Horror’s current appointed task, beyond affirming the value of life through suffering, is pointing out that mirrors seem to be the only properly universal means ‘we’ have for representing things we happen not to understand.