Both Gene Rodenbery who created Star Trek and Rod Serling who created The Twilight Zone knew an amazing magic trick. You can discuss any sensitive social topics you wish… that is if you ground them safely in the unbelievable. Back in the 1960s standards and practices prevented plot elements about the black and white races, but green and purple men from other dimensions…. Totally acceptable. The point being: censors and audiences alike tend to stomach touchy subject matter better when it comes paired with a spoonful of horror or sci fi. After hearing about “Get Out” and its powerful socio-political message, I began to wonder: “what other films have achieved the status of being culturally or politically relevant?” It is worth noting that the oldschool opinion was that horror and science fiction had no socially redeeming qualities whatsoever. Even intellectual types such as Gene Siskel would have to admit a select few horror films have exposed generational anxieties that were otherwise hard to chew on. Incidentally, Mr. Siskel called Tom Savini’s return to the Friday the 13th series in The Final Chapter. “An immoral and reprehensible piece of trash”, so should we honestly even care about his approval? Alas, we are getting off topic.
“Social commentary is the act of using rhetorical means to provide commentary on issues in a society.” On a recent airing of NPR’s Fresh Air, Get Out director Jordan Peele admitted he was influenced by The Stepford Wives as well as Night of the Living Dead when writing his new thriller. These films were notorious for forcing audience members to focus the camera’s lens on their very real societal nightmares. “How did they do that?” One might ask, “when they are just movies about cyborgs and zombies.” Fundamentally you would be correct in thinking that way, and as someone who watched horror as a child, I don’t dismiss those rudimentary assessments. On the surface the Stepford Wives is a robot movie and Night of the Living Dead is about walking corpses. Sometimes, my dear friends, a cigar is just a cigar. I’m not cavalier enough to disregard these “blue collar” descriptions completely. However exploring these existential paths can be incredibly stimulating, even if it comes at the expense of appearing unrelatable and highbrow.
George Romero’s “Dead” films have had a long tradition of scrutinizing the current political atmosphere. Within the frames that comprise Night of the Living Dead we see not only the unexpected character of Ben, but also the horrifying images of lynching and executing zombies. In the height of the civil rights movement these cells served a deeper purpose, not only shining a light on racial unrest, but also attempting to reconcile Hollywood’s rampant bigotry by offering the audience an African American in a significant role. Something that was unheard of at the time. Night is without a doubt a product of the late 60s, it is uniquely American in story and in it’s thinly veiled message. Romero’s next entry in the “Dead” series Dawn of the Dead tackled a different intellectual subject entirely. Four refugee’s of the apocalypse seek shelter in THE monument to consumerism… a shopping mall. The bummer being for all it’s perfectly packaged apothecaries and neatly wrapped department stores, this mall is essentially a prison. Ice skating, escalators, and the solution to all of their problems? Our characters reflect a society that is comforted by consumer products. They see the mall as salvation, but in the end it only serves to mask the reality outside the plexiglass doors. I believe that this message stands the test of time and is particularly relevant to a generation whose default reaction to fear is consumption. In his later film Land of the Dead, Romero expanded upon this concept, creating a world where a safe haven from the cruel realities of a zombie outbreak could be obtained, but at what price? The contemporary divide between the wealthy and the poor is center stage in this movie. The audience is shown an extremely accurate portrayal of how apocalyptic circumstances can and will be utilized for profit. Mr. Romero seems to have a thing or two to say about our society, the means by which he conveys his commentary is indirect but effective. He refuses to spoon-feed the lesson. As a result it tends to hit a much deeper cord within the viewer.
The Ira Levin double feature wouldn’t be complete without The Stepford Wives, and neither is this piece. Levin, who penned the source novel(as well as Rosemary’s Baby), laid the framework for a very thought provoking yarn. If you are not familiar with the plot: A young mother moves to Stepford Connecticut with her husband. Little does she know the town is full of, shall we say, “ample” robotic housewives. Homemakers that bend entirely to the will of their lack luster husbands. In The Stepford Wives(1975), you can see definite nods to and jabs at the “feminist agenda,” however under closer appraisal the film seems to lean towards being more of a bra burner’s inside joke, honestly the inevitable fate in Stepford is becoming a 1950s sitcom mom. Let us not take it too seriously. The husbands in this town seem to be oddly aroused by our main character. Perhaps there is a bit of wife swapping in this upscale neighborhood? Or maybe the men have gotten bored with their generous androids whose predictable bedroom nature has become mechanically monotonous? This could be another underlying theme, alluding to the fact that while men may perceive the worshiping partner as a blessing they would eventually bore of it. Their animatronic partners seriously lacking the tension and passion of a partner capable of independent thought. As the scenes progress the paranoia surrounding conformity becomes thick and almost tangible. The Stepford Wives delivers that one two punch, it is intellectually stimulating, and it makes the suburbs a scary place. Which is a trope I adore in horror. Taking the monsters out of Gothic castles and placing them neatly two doors down the street.
The fact is numerous genres try to say something about our society, but horror seems to be the best at driving the moral home. Like a machete swing to a zombie’s soft, weathered, skull, Thrillers breach your brain. When they carry an adage, well that my dear friends is just icing on the cake “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe” If you think I’ve overlooked a certain title, please feel free to comment. We’d love to hear your feedback and opinions.