In this cursed era of orange alerts and shoe bombers, it's perfectly obvious why a panicky America is flocking to wholesome, non-threatening entertainments like Finding Nemo. What's not so perfectly obvious is why America is also packing the multiplexes for horror movies, be they the high-toned spook shows of the M. Night Shyamalan school or your bargain-basement, teenybopper-gets-an-axe-in-the-face jobs. The past few years, Hollywood has gone absolutely psycho with the horror movies, and audiences are greedily gobbling up this endless gush of gore; studios have gotten so desperate to meet the demand they've started remaking foreign horror pictures (The Ring, The Grudge—both of which now have sequels on the way) or directly importing horror hits from overseas (28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead). They've turned video games into big-screen horror shows (Resident Evils 1 and 2, the coming Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill) and teamed up old monsters in new adventures (Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator). They've remade successful old horror pictures (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and hit us with sequel upon sequel upon sequel. There are even plans afoot for a sequel to Zack Snyder's recent version of Dawn of the Dead, which was itself a remake of George Romero's sequel to his film Night of the Living Dead; it turns out zombies really won't stay dead.
Just a few years ago, movie horror was in sorry shape. After Bride of Chucky made a tidy sum at the box office in 1999, Don Mancini—the, er, auteur behind the Child's Play pictures—had every reason to assume he'd get the green light for another killer-dolly picture right away; but then the Columbine shootings went down, and suddenly Hollywood was taking a lot of heat for marketing violent entertainment to teens. Many planned horror pictures, including Mancini's, were stalled.
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Universal—the company that proudly brought us Dracula, Frankenstein and other classic monster flicks back in the day—was so desperate to disassociate itself from all things dark and gruesome it opted not to release shock rocker Rob Zombie's ultraviolent directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses; the picture was only saved from oblivion when Lion's Gate bought the rights and released it to a response enthusiastic enough that—you guessed it—a sequel is now on the way.
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the months of hysteria that followed (did it ever really end?), it would have been sensible to assume horror would soon be as dead as one of Freddy Krueger's victims. But instead, horror is the hottest genre going; it hasn't been this big since the '80s. In the '90s, when we had jobs and futures and the biggest thing anybody had to worry about was who was giving Clinton a hummer in the Oval Office, we had little interest in movie horror. And now—when we're all pretty sure something is going to kill us any day, whether we get drafted and shipped off to die in the Middle East or we huff up some anthrax at the post office—we line up around the block to see people die horribly at the multiplex. It seems we love a good scare even more when real life gets particularly scary. And why? Well, because we're twisted little monkeys, that's why.
How twisted are we? Well, not only do we want our movies to scare us, but we also want them to take our very worst fears and shove them in our faces. Take 28 Days Later, Resident Evil 2 and Cabin Fever, pictures where a deadly and typically manmade plague gets out and sweeps through the population, leaving them hideous, mindless, highly infectious monsters. This is some seriously messed-up entertainment for post-Sept. 11 America. Of course, we can take some comfort in knowing our parents and grandparents were just as messed-up as we were, and they made hits out of commie paranoia allegories such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and such nuclear freak shows as Godzilla and Them.
Horror runs in cycles, and typically, as these things begin to wind down, they turn (deliberately) comic; witness the Abbot and Costello Meet Yet Another Monster pictures of the late '40s or the campy Roger Corman films of the '60s. Seen in this light, movies like Shaun of the Dead and Seed of Chucky are encouraging; hopefully, we've lived with our fears so long now and seen them reflected in our movies so many times that we're becoming jaded. These days, a little bit of jaded is a good thing. If zombies can become ridiculous (and really, they already kind of are), then maybe we'll be stronger when it's time to leave the theater and face whatever horrors 2004 America throws at us.