Dawn of the Dead (2004): Understanding Horror

I wouldn’t call myself a horror aficionado, in fact there’s a stack of “classic” horror films that I’ve never seen, Alligator 2 is one that is regularly suggested, but I love the heck out of films in general. As a result, this can lead me to watch the classics and really appreciate them, even if they’re not my favourite types of films to watch. Why am I telling you this? Purely so you can understand where I’m coming from when I try to talk about horror films, I may get something wrong in my explanations and if that’s the case, then you know why.

While I was listening back to our Dawn of the Dead episode, I had an epiphany moment. Usually I call these “oh duh” moments because when you speak them out loud people usually give you that look that says “of course that’s the case, why didn’t you know that. You idiot!” What I realised was that at no time in my 36 years had I ever considered why the genre itself was called “Horror”.

Every word has a genesis, a root, and a lot of the time we have said a word or phrase so many times that the genesis of hat we are saying can be lost. I remember as a child learning “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo!” in the playground at school and years later my shock at the fact of the terribly racist beginnings of a seemingly innocent kids rhyme. As a kindergartener “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” was a playful way of deciding who got to go first in a game, or which flavoured lolly you’d eat. Not too dissimilar from picking petals off a flower for “he loves me, he loves me not.” But it was the rhyme itself that held the terribly racist (and in time lost) element, not the games associated. When I was taught the rhyme there was a line within it that said “catch a nicker by the toe”, in my childlike innocence I’d thought the rhyme was talking about catching a thief. You could imagine how appalled I was to discover that originally the word was the N-Word you never speak.

Another example of this is my disgust at discovering the anti-semetic origins of ‘hip hip, hooray!” Just like my innocent childhood poem that was used to make a selection, time has evolved Hip Hip Hooray into what is commonly known as a phrase of celebration. Unfortunately, its origins are much darker and it was a battle call from Germanic tribes when fighting Jews. Time evolved the saying from Hep Hep to Hip Hip and then the word hooray was added. Basically, if I’m at a birthday celebration for you and I don’t shout Hooray at the end, you now know why.

Thinking of the evolution of both word and meaning that can take place is essential to understand where my head was at when thinking about Dawn of the Dead. When I think about horror films, I think about films featuring things that scare me and I guess when we look at the definition of the word an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust that’s fitting. But just like the terms discussed previously, has time evolved the notion of a horror film? Or is it just that we as a civilisation have evolved and therefore we need a greater intensity to reach those feelings of fear, shock or disgust?

My epiphany moment was that horror films were originally made to horrify, not necessarily scare. When you take a look at the classic Universal horror characters they were less about scares and more about the horrifying nature of what was occurring within the films. A prime example of this is the story of Frankenstein, it’s not necessarily a scary film but the idea of a man willing to re-animate something created from pieces of the deceased is nothing short of horrifying. I’ll just let that thought sit with you for a moment.

When I take a look at the trends when it comes to horror films over the last decade or two the genre has taken some distinct paths. Following the success of Scream we began to see a new wave of teen/angst filled horror where they got chased, slashed and a guy and a girl survived (setting us up for a sequel). The posters usually looked very similar too, with a whole heap of scared/concerned faces floating on a black background and a menacing weapon being held in the foreground. You could literally insert any random sharp instrument into a poster such as a giant hook, a knife, an axe. They’ve all been done and I’m pretty sure there are no objects left for future films.

Following the slasher film movement, the 2000’s moved beyond the horror/thriller stylings into a more shock/gore factor focus and films like the Saw franchise (I’d leave the first off that list… but that’s a totally different discussion), Human Centipede and Hostel really pushed the envelope of horror in terms of gore. So much so the phrase Gore Porn was coined as a result. Now I get it, the definition of the word horror also mentions fear and disgust, and this is why I’m not going to make a claim such as those films are not “true” horror films or anything outlandish like that. The only statement I can make is that they’re just not the films for me. For me, there’s a difference between gross and horrifying and this is where I begin to draw the line. One of the later Saw films will gross me out but doesn’t really sit with me beyond that 90 to 120-minute window but the original Saw film is horrifying as who knows what I’d do in that situation.

Which leads me to the biggest question then in terms of horror films, what is it that truly horrifies me? More importantly, at its core, what makes a lasting, great horror film to me? I feel that we are in a special period when it comes to horror but because of the genre’s gory roots, the renaissance is being overlooked. If you’ve watched Black Mirror, you’d be aware of the very first episode, The National Anthem. If you’ve not seen it, be warned, the episode is truly horrifying and whenever someone mentions Black Mirror I think of that episode and my shock during it. On top of this each episode is made with such skill, it’s definitely not a fluke as each episode within the 3 seasons that I have watched are consistently great, thought provoking and horrifying.

The renaissance is not just limited to TV either, Jordan Peele… excuse me, Academy Award Winner, Jordan Peele made something exceptionally special with 2017’s Get Out. It was intelligent, shocking and terrifying and more importantly, I thought about it for weeks afterwards. While processing the film I was also troubled as to why it was being classed as a horror film, again Geoff Reid has an Oh Duh moment in a public domain (don’t worry, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it will keep happening), but it’s the unsettling and horrifying nature of the film that truly makes it a horror film. Now the eagle eyed FFTL listener/reader would know there is a common ground between the two, Daniel Kaluya who starred in Get Out and an episode in the first season of Black Mirror. I’m yet to see US by Jordan Peele but from what I’ve read, it’s just as good as Get Out and proof that Peele is no fluke. It really is an exciting time for horror as there is a generation of film makers who are going to be influenced by both Black Mirror and the Jordan Peele’s work.

Craig has mentioned a few times during previous episodes how films reflect the times in which we live. These thought provoking looks at humanities flaws reflect our times, we live in subversive times where opinions are freely offered, yet seldom respected when received. I love that we have film makers such as Charlie Brooker and Jordan Peele working and not afraid to highlight these times. I’ll continue to be horrified and that excites the heck out of me.

Big Love, Yeah!