Horror Films


The British film Peeping Tom (1960) and Psycho (1960) radically reconfigured the genre by focusing on psychologically disturbed characters in mundane contexts rather than supernatural situations in gothic settings. Psycho , directed by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted from Robert Bloch's 1959 novel, which in turn was based in part on the real-life exploits of multiple murderer Ed Gein, has proven to be perhaps the most influential horror film ever

Michael Redgrave as the ventriloquist attacked by his dummy in the omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton, 1945).
made. Set in contemporary motel rooms, hardware stores, and used car lots, Hitchcock's film imagined the site of horror in the quotidian world of the viewer, showing that horrifying violence was an integral part of middle-class America, repressed beneath its seemingly placid exterior. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) and William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) continued in the same direction, depicting satanism in contemporary New York and Washington, respectively. Both films were big-budget commercial blockbusters, and they helped bring horror more squarely into the mainstream.

In 1968 came the phenomenal box-office success of George A. Romero's independent Night of the Living Dead , one of the first midnight movies (which theaters scheduled for special midnight showings after the mainstream films had finished). Made in black-and-white on a small budget, the film became a huge cult success. Its low-budget aesthetic, combined with a new graphic representation of bodily violation—we are shown cannibalistic zombies eating steaming entrails—and its uncompromising violation of numerous horror conventions resulted in the film's powerful effect on viewers. Following in the style of graphic bodily violation introduced by Herschell Gordon Lewis in such films as Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), Romero's sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), took graphic violence to a new level, and instituted a cycle of so-called splatter films that focused on bodily violation. A few years before Dawn , Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) devoted most of its running time to the sadistic torture of its female protagonist. The Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg made several horror films concerned with bodily invasion, including Shivers (also known as They Came from Within , 1975), with its repulsive sluglike parasites that enter the body through the range of human orifices; The Brood (1979), featuring scenes of monstrous parturition; Scanners (1981), in which heads explode in a spray of gristle and blood; and his version of The Fly (1986), in which a scientist's body slowly falls away as he metamorphoses into an insect. Splatter was taken to comic extremes in Peter Jackson's Braindead (also known as Dead Alive , 1992) and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981). Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987) focused intently on the pain of the flesh with scenes of flaying, bondage, and torture.

Following Romero, several young directors established their reputations by working primarily in horror, most notably Brian de Palma ( Sisters , 1973; Carrie , 1976; Dressed to Kill , 1980), Wes Craven ( The Last House on the Left , 1972; The Hills Have Eyes , 1977; A Nightmare on Elm Street , 1984), Larry Cohen ( It's Alive , 1974; God Told Me To [also known as Demon ], 1976), and John Carpenter ( Halloween , 1978; The Fog , 1980; Christine , 1983, based on Stephen King's novel). Many of these horror movies, like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead , subverted the genre's traditional distinctions between good and evil, normal and monstrous, critiquing the horrors of mainstream society rather than projecting the monstrous onto the exotic "other." Horror films were thus a significant part of the overall reexamination of genre movies that took place in American cinema in the 1970s.

However, the huge commercial success of Carpenter's Halloween spawned a cycle of slasher films that bespoke a much more conservative vision. Most featured elaborate serial killings strung together by weak plots. Slashers typically feature psychotic males, frequently masked like Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th (1980) and its sequels, who set about systematically to kill an isolated group of people, usually teenagers. Often the killer is motivated by a past sexual trauma activated by the sexual promiscuity of the victims he stalks, and the killings often seem to be a punishment for being sexual active or precocious, as is the case in the famous opening tracking shot of Halloween . Commonly a handheld camera is used to signify the killer's point of view, yet to what extent this use of the subjective camera encourages a seemingly amoral identification on the part of the viewer with the murderer rather than his victims has been a subject of much debate. It was slasher films that to a large extent spurred a censorship debate in Great Britain and prompted the passage of the Video Recordings Bill. By the mid-1980s the slasher film was in decline, but self-conscious postmodern slashers such as Scream (Craven, 1996) and its sequels, in which the characters are as familiar with the conventions of the genre as the audience, have proved popular.

b. New York, New York, 4 February 1940

A key figure in the new wave of horror films in the 1960s and 1970s, George A. Romero brought an entirely new sensibility to the genre, drastically reinterpreting some of its classic monsters and infusing it with a political consciousness and ironic self-awareness, as well as a level of explicit gore that had been largely lacking before. His first film was Night of the Living Dead (1968), which established a new zombie mythology that has spawned an entire subgenre.

Romero made industrial and commercial films in Pittsburgh before directing Night of the Living Dead , which became a cult favorite and one of the first midnight movies. Often serving also as cinematographer, editor, or screenwriter for his films, Romero is clearly an auteur with an original approach to the horror genre. Romero's vision comes through in the offbeat Knightriders (1981), a non-horror film that he wrote, edited, and directed. Its far-fetched story about an itinerant band of motorcyclists who operate a fair like a medieval guild is silly as drama, but makes perfect sense as an auteurist expression of the theme of group solidarity against the threat of cultural homogenization—at heme that also runs through his four zombie films.

Romero's earlier horror films, made on minimal budgets, deconstruct many of the conventions of classic horror and examine their ideological assumptions from a more critical and distanced perspective. Martin (1977), for example, is a vampire film without a true vampire. The young man of the title has been warped by Old World superstition, his grandfather raising him to believe that he has been cursed to be a vampire. Forcing transfusion on his victims to fulfill what he believes to be his vampiric fate, Martin has been made monstrous by irrational fear. Hungry Wives ( Season of the Witch , 1972), similarly, shows that the very concept of the witch is grounded in patriarchal oppression of women.

Romero's later films, for which he tended to have bigger budgets, have also been less adventurous thematically. Creepshow (1982), written by Stephen King, and Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear (1988) are more conventional and lack the daring of Romero's zombie films, a territory that he has mined for almost forty years. A decade after Night , Dawn of the Dead (1978) was an apocalyptic masterpiece that raised the bar for splatter effects. Romero also combined comedy and horror in a striking blend that introduced a generation of subsequent horror directors, most notable among them Peter Jackson. Land of the Dead (2005) brought the political satire in these films about the American populace as soulless cannibals to the fore.


Night of the Living Dead (1968), Hungry Wives ( Season of the Witch , 1972), The Crazies (1973), Martin (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Knightriders (1981), Day of the Dead (1985), Night of the Living Dead (screenplay, 1990), Land of the Dead (2005)


Gagne, Paul R. The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero . New York: Dodd, Mead, 1987.

Romero, George A., and Susanna Sparrow. Dawn of the Dead . New York: St. Martin's, 1978.

——, et al. Martin . New York: Stein and Day, 1977.

Waller, Gregory. The Living and the Undead: From Stoker's Dracula to Romero's Dawn of the Dead . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Williams, Tony. The Cinema of George Romero: Knight of the Living Dead . London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Barry Keith Grant

Horror has been a Hollywood staple since the 1930s, but, in addition to Hammer horror in Great Britain, there are also other national cinemas with rich horror traditions. In Italy, for example, giallo , graphic thrillers and horror films, flourished in the 1950s and 1960s.

George Romero at the time of Dawn of the Dead (1978).

Predating slasher films, the giallo ("yellow") takes its name from the color of the covers of pulp detective novels published in Italy in the 1940s and 1950s. The genre includes both police films ( giallo-poliziesco ) and horror films ( giallo-fantastico ), featuring an overtly expressionist stylization. The Italian directors Mario Bava (1914–1980), with films such as La Maschera del demonio ( Black Sunday , 1960) and Terrore nello spazio ( Planet of the Vampires , 1965) and Dario Argento, with such films as L'Ucella dalle piume di cristallo ( The Bird with the Crystal Plumage , 1970), Profondo rosso ( Deep Red , 1975), and Tenebre ( Unsane , 1982) have become cult figures.

In Japanese cinema, both horror films, like Kurutta Ippeji ( A Page of Madness , 1926), Onibaba ( The Demon , 1964), and ghost films, like Kwaidan ( Ghost Stories , 1964), and Ugetsu monogatari ( Tales of Ugetsu , 1953), were prominent. A new wave of Japanese horror films includes Hideo Nakata's Ringu ( Ring , 1998)and Honogurai mizu no soko kara ( Dark Water , 2002), both of which were remade, with mixed success, in Hollywood.

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