In Stephen King’s nonfiction book Danse Macabre, the renowned author states that the horror genre does especially well during periods of economic and social anxiety because horror serves as a metaphor for our deepest fears. It’s no surprise then that the last few years have produced several horror films that have earned accolades from mainstream critics. It Follows, The Witch, A Quiet Place, Hereditary, and Get Out were all hits, while reflecting deeper anxieties about a host of different issues, be it sexuality, gender, race, grief, or economic struggle. In some ways, this current wave echoes the 1960s and 1970s that saw groundbreaking work by directors George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and others that reflected a country torn apart by the Vietnam War and images of violence unleashed on Civil Rights protestors. In the age of a resurgent far-right and nationalism, specifically in the U.S. and Europe, some of these films, specifically Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Amityville Horror, are worth revisiting because of how relevant they feel in the 21st Century and how they reflect racial or economic anxieties that are still festering.
Night of the Living Dead and Racial Paranoia
Filmed outside of Pittsburgh and released in 1968, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead essentially created the modern zombie, slow-moving corpses that devour flesh. It was a shift from earlier films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) that connected the monster to voodoo myths and fear of a darker Other. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead were representative of a society devouring itself, and these monsters could be your neighbor. In one scene, a zombified girl kills and then feeds upon her parents in the basement of a farm house.
It’s hard to watch the film now without viewing it through the lens of race, especially its ending. The film has a black protagonist Ben (Duane Jones), who is the lone survivor by the final scene. Not only does he have to defend himself against the zombies, but also against white survivors hauled up in the farm house with him. One of them, Harry (Karl Hardman), schemes behind his back and plots his demise, even pointing a gun at Ben at one point. Night, like most of Romero’s zombie films, questions if humans can truly come together in times of crisis, and the tensions that escalate within the boarded-up house show how petty and bickering humans can be. Harry’s resistance to Ben causes the protagonist to eventually say, “Now get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there, but I’m boss up here!” Essentially, Harry’s refusal to work with Ben causes his undoing, since Ben wrestles the gun away from him and shoots him in the stomach. He then stumbles into the cellar where his zombified daughter awaits.
Ultimately, Ben survives the zombie outbreak, only to be shot in the head by a vigilante mob who mistake him for one of the ghouls. The sound of his body crashing on the porch, after he survived the night, is one of the most jarring scenes in modern horror cinema. Ben’s body is then meat hooked and placed on a pile of corpses to be burned. The stills at the end of the film have a chilling resemblance to black and white Civil Rights-era photos, namely white police officers unleashing snarling dogs on protestors, hitting them with batons, or dragging them away from lunch counters during sit-ins.
In commenting on the film, Jones once said, “I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way,” adding, “The heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that, and the double jolt of the hero being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy.”
In interviews over the years, Romero said that he didn’t intentionally cast a black lead, but Jones simply fit the part best, and it makes the ending that much more nerve-rattling. This is a film released four years after Malcolm X’s assassination and the year of Dr. King’s assassination.
In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, Jordan Peele, writer and director of Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), cited the influence of Romero’s work on his work, drawing a connection between Ben and his protagonist in Get Out, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), stating, “Theoretically, their racial perspective is the very skill that helps them. You could write an interesting essay about how the lead in Night of the Living Dead is a man living in fear every day, so this is a challenge he is more equipped to take on than the white women living in the house. Chris, in his racial paranoia, is onto something that he wouldn’t be if he was a white guy and there was a similar thing going on.”
In light of increased racial tension, Black Lives Matters, and images of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Night of the Living Dead feels increasingly relevant more than 50 years after its release. The haunting last images of Ben’s body with a bullet in his head and then meat hooked at the hands of an all-white mob is a powerful reminder of the historical violence inflicted on black bodies, whether Romero intended that or not.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Perils of Capitalism
Another film from the second golden age, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is also worth a re-watch, namely for its portrayal of the displaced worker and automated labor. Released in 1974, Hooper’s Chainsaw is a hellish nightmare about a group of idealistic hippie teenagers who get lost in rural Texas and encounter Leatherface’s crazed family. Most of the teens, with the exception of final girl Sally (Marilyn Burns), end up on meat hooks or locked in freezer, victim to Leatherface’s mallet or roaring chainsaw.
Some of the most interesting, sociopolitical scenes happen early in the film when the teens pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who bemoans the fact that his family members have always been in “meat” but now find themselves jobless, thanks to automated labor. The only one who has any interest in his story and the job he had killing cattle is wheelchair-bound Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who has an unnerving fascination with slaughterhouses and butchering cattle, but even the rural hitchhiker is too much for Franklin, who calls him Dracula. Desperate for money, the hitchhiker takes a picture of the bellbottom-wearing teens and tries to sell it to them. When they refuse, he lights the photo on fire and is booted from their van, but not before slashing his hand and Franklin’s arm. He leaves his mark by smearing his blood on the outside of the van before they drive off. The blood is fitting considering the job he had.
Writing about this scene in an article entitled “Cannibalistic Capitalism and other American Delicacies: A Bataillean Taste of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Naomi Merrit notes, “As Hooper’s film indicates, technological advances leading the redundancy of workers has been a consequence of capitalism’s ongoing pursuit of increased productivity (great output, in less
time, for less money).” She adds, “A ‘family’ (of sorts) of young people aimlessly traveling through the Texan countryside in their van, represents the tail end of the youthful, idealistic generation that ‘dropped out’ and rebelled against the capitalist system in the 1960s; a movement and sentiment which was unraveling around the time of the film’s production in 1974.”
This scene represents a collision between the youthful, idealistic generation of the 1960s and early 1970s and the reality of displaced workers, whose jobs have either been shipped overseas or lost to automation. There are some parallels between the early 1970s and present day, especially Merrit’s idea that this confrontation early in the film represents the unraveling of the idealistic 1960s generation. For instance, Obama’s Hope and Change campaign of 2008 and his two terms were followed by Donald Trump, who tapped into populism and the anger of the white working-classes whose factory jobs have been lost and who have been behind during whatever recovery may have followed the Great Recession. He also entered politics by frequently questioning the citizenship of the country’s first black president. Trumpism coincides with a larger global nationalist movement. The scene also represents a rural and urban divide, which, as election results from 2016 and 2018 indicate, has only increased since the film’s release in 1974.
Furthermore, Hooper’s film is drenched in violence, and not the blood and guts kind, despite the title of the film. Instead, the violence is subtle, highlighted early in the film through radio news reports about grave robberies, home invasions, and murders. Yet, for the most part, the hippie teens are tuned out to this, and their inability to be more aware of their surroundings or actually listen to the hitchhiker, who turns out to be Leatherface’s brother, leads to their demise.
During the infamous dinner scene when the family is all together and tie Sally to a chair, it is obvious that the family has no future. They have no stable income or job prospects, and there is no matriarchal figure. The family literally can’t continue. The best representation of this is the grandfather, a corpse-like figure with decayed skin and sunken eyes who is so limp-armed that he can’t even kill Sally when the all-male clan places a hammer in his hand. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre illustrates the divide that existed between the idealistic hippie kids and the rural white-working class, and in a country divided by red and blue states, the coasts and the rust belt, it’s hard not to watch this film and think of the class issues still present in America.
The Housing Crisis and The Amityville Horror
Another film from that era, The Amityville Horror (1979), serves as an additional metaphor for economic anxiety. The film is based on a book by Jay Anson about the alleged paranormal experiences of the Lutz family, a case so famous that it warranted the attention of renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the subjects of The Conjuring films. Amityville’s paranormal elements, though, including goo-spewing toilets and a fly-infested window, better signify the economic woes of the time period, including oil shortages, skyrocketing inflation, and hiked interest rates. In fact, the Lutz family can only afford the home because the murders that took place a few years earlier depressed the price.
Their economic stress is evident early in the film when, after meeting with the realtor, the matriarch, Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder), says, “$80,000? It may as well be $800,000.” Husband George Lutz (James Brolin) responds that had the murders not happened, they never would have been able to afford the house. As the film progresses, the couple’s economic anxieties only become more pronounced and take a physical toll on George, who grows more and more ill and constantly feels cold. Kathleen blames it on a draft coming from the basement, to which George responds, “This house is supposed to be well-insulated. They’ll nickel and dime you to death.”
Writing about the film for Popmatters in 2013, Michael Curtis Nelson argues, “If the Watergate Hotel came to signify loss of faith in government earlier in the decade, the haunted Dutch colonial in Amityville captured a similar trepidation about the viability of the family home—and, for that matter, the family.” In Danse Macabre, King said that the film’s subtext is “one of economic unease.”
This economic anxiety is best shown in a scene when George unravels after having to foot a $1500 bill for a wedding. There was money earmarked to pay for Kathy’s younger brother’s wedding reception, but because it was lost, George steps in to cover the costs. This development poses another threat to the family, atop the numerous home repair problems. During the reception, he argues with the caterer about the bill and insists that he’s going to pay with a check instead of cash. George’s health is remarkably worse at this point. The caterer confronts him in the restroom, where he’s red-eyed and splashing cold water on his face. Once the family returns home, George spends much of the night looking for the missing money, hollering and knocking over furniture. He erupts and tells Kathy that her kids from another marriage “need some god damn discipline.”
George nearly murders his family by the conclusion of his film, and though there are paranormal elements at play, it’s evident that the growing costs of owning a home weigh on George, worsening his physical and mental health.
Many of the issues of 1960s and 1970s America, including racial divides and economic anxiety, have not gone away. It’s no surprise then that the horror genre has done so well in the 2000s and will continue to do so. These new hits are worth viewing, but so are the classics of the last golden age, especially Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Amityville Horror.
Merrit, Naomi. “Cannibalistic Capitalism and other American Delicacies: A Bataillean Taste of
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Film-Philosophy, vol 14, no. 1, 2010, pp. 202-231.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.