The following is my reprinting of a write-up done for a Facebook group titled The Horrors of the Dissolve where every week somebody gives a Triple Feature suggestion. For that reason, I hope you will excuse the very casual manner of this particular post and enjoy!
Oh boy, mah fuckin’ turn! What’s good, bruh? If you saw Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, you’re aware that sometimes the social climate of a country can affect their national cinema and if you’re anything like me, you were wondering what some of those people were smoking when they came up with their theories. Still there is the certainty that pop culture can’t be said without the word “culture” (seriously try it. You just end up with, like, “pop”) and that the national identity of some cinema has to be swayed by either current or past affairs and concerns as a way of squaring with it as a community, hence why sometimes people will read into them the state of a nation (my favorite of these readings is Stephen King in Danse Macabre implying The Amityville Horror is based on anxiety over home ownership in a terrible economy).
Personal affairs come into it too (for what is cinema but personal?), but that’s not what I’m here for, I’m here for the communal affairs. The type of thing that recognizes an emotional earthquake just happened around its target audience and wants them to face that fact, and usually war is the best source of that. That’s why I’m here to give y’all my
NATIONAL TRAUMA TRIPLE FEATURE!
Three horror movies focusing on the affected nations in the wake of some violent af conflict. Here we go, baybee!
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968, dir. George Romero, USA)
Of course, this was going to be my number one, for it is my favorite horror movie of all time. And I’m sure everybody is aware of how the film unconsciously comments on race relations in the middle of Civil Rights era America, but what is hardly discussed is how direct it is as a reflection of the still fresh scars from the Vietnam War. The cynicism, the undeniable madness and the closeness to home of the violence all presented by Romero and Russo in their framing the information given to our characters through the news – nevermind the fact that the horror is happening right outside that door. Romero may have considered it an accident that Night of the Living Dead was such a potently angry indictment of race relations in 1960s America (which is still outrageously relevant in 2010s America), but there’s absolutely nothing unintentional about his mirroring of the conflict overseas and how invested American families felt in the carnage we watched. The anonymity beyond the zombies while it’s clear they’ve all once been people and personalities has been read as being representative of the “Quiet Majority” against the war, but I think the movie is a lot more damning than that. The fact that our “protagonists” (if you can call them that) are eagerly striking them down without any problems (beyond Barbra’s clear shell-shocked manner) reflects the inhumanity and refusal to recognize the Vietnamese as people or casualties with weight, just people to be cut down. It’s not just the complete inability of our characters in-fighting and having no clear compromise on what to do that promises Night of the Living Dead won’t end well, it’s the chilling vibe that we’ve been through this before as a nation that hammers down that nihilistic certainty.
2. Ugetsu (1953, dir. Mizoguchi Kenji, Japan)
Like any other country involved in World War II, Japanese post-war cinema of the 1940s and 50s are of a very rich variety all sort of having some kind of attitude on life in the aftermath of it all (in fact, post-war Japanese cinema is maybe, like, my favorite kind of cinema). They’re usually dramatic and full of mandates on society in no small words (I mean… fucking Godzilla, y’all) and Ugetsu is obviously no different except in that it’s the only movie to use horror in a sense to portray what kind of devastation war leaves and how that diverges on its effects based on things like gender and class. The ghostly specter is always a possibility in this movie, even if ghosts don’t actively appear until 30 minutes in (and you’re not aware of what the ghosts are until later), what with the amount of smokiness on the river in which our lead family evades death by bandits and how they encounter a dead body (quickly exclaiming that it must be a ghost on the river). So yes, tension is at the very least present from square one of the picture, though horror is in how the characters we witness and align with are treated and have to suffer without ethics at the feet of Civil War (standing in for World War II). Once the supernatural enters the screen, it becomes outright eerie in its invocation of nature (dat hot springs scene) and history, as we listen to the noblewoman explain how her once proud family was practically erased by Nobunaga only to truly see the devastation at the end of it all. This gives the themes a base to move onto a relatively optimistic ending of moving on beyond what devastates us – after Genjuro is warned he must or die – and rebuilding from our ashes in spite of the unfairness of the world.
3. The Devil’s Backbone (2001, dir. Guillermo Del Toro, Spain/Mexico)
Kind of cheating a bit on account of the fact that it was more than 40 years past the Spanish Civil War and obviously the Mexican Del Toro never actually lived through it (nor did producer Pedro Almodovar). Originally, it was based in the Mexican Revolution so it’s a story that can be fluid enough to reflect on most armed conflict in the face of oppression and I don’t think it’s such an accident that it was nearly based in Mexico and so soon after the infamous kidnapping of Del Toro’s father. The idea that even an orphanage cannot become a sanctuary for fearful souls (nor even Catholicism), the disappearance and re-appearance of faces always more damaged than the last time, and the always remaining aftermath of conflict and war sitting around. There’s no sense of safety in The Devil’s Backbone despite barely having any war combat in it, which is why I find it more devastating a portrayal of war than Del Toro’s return to the Spanish Civil War in Pan’s Labyrinth. And that inside of that nihilism, Del Toro saw to craft some of his most ghastly and nightmarish creations to pop out of the black dark corners of the orphanage end up making The Devil’s Backbone feel like the very pinnacle of his career thus far and everything he ever wanted to say about the anguish of a torn Mexico state that he and his father still felt the effects of, even after he followed his contemporaries Lubezki and Cuaron into Hollywood, an escape that Del Toro knows many cannot afford. “Every day, every week, something happens that reminds me that I am in involuntary exile.”
And now some honorable mentions AF, y’all.
War of the Worlds (2005, dir. Steven Spielberg, USA)
The very film that inspired this triple feature suggestion to me, though I did not want to make it US-centric and Night of the Living Dead was going to be the ONE I put in. Still, you’d have to be incredibly dense not to recognize how much of 9/11 lives inside the devastation and confusion present in every single second of War of the Worlds and the distanced lens on the amount of people dying en masse makes it certainly the darkest film Spielberg ever made and a strong anti-thesis on claims of his sentiment, even despite its ending.
The Host (2006, dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
Likewise, I didn’t want more than one East Asian film (as well as the fact that the attitudes in The Host are not necessarily representative of all of South Korea), though Bong Joon-ho is no stranger to political commentary and probably knew as best as we all do that Monster movies make the best indictments on chemicals and politics (Godzilla, Them!, etc.) but Bong wanted to go one step further than them pointing a finger at “who the fuck did this to my nation”. Hence, the ever-presence and incompetence of the U.S. military’s encampment in South Korea (ever since the Korean War) being the very source of the beast and their inability to take full accountability for their negligence proving to be just a greater example of dysfunction than our broken family protagonists themselves and a clear polar opposite when that family takes immediate action to save one of their own.