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Twentieth Century American Horror Film Comparisons

Updated on August 15, 2015

In 1968, the United States of America had to deal with many events of historic importance. Regarding segregation, the leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis on the fourth of April. This led to massive riots in Washington DC, Chicago and other cities. On the fifth of June, Senator R. Kennedy was shot on live television after winning the primary elections. And last but not least, the Vietnam War has been raging since 1955 and it was an absolute quagmire. The American soldiers were not used to the Vietnamese environment: battles mostly took place in the jungle, and Vietcongs implemented guerrilla warfare. Moreover, the Vietnam War attracted mass media attention and the American citizens were horrified by what they saw. The Napalm bombings and the massacres of civilians and children in Vietnam lead to students protests in the USA. There can be talk of a real generation gap between young people and a more conservative population that feared them.

Furthermore, 1968 may be considered as a turning point in the American horror movies’ history. The movies that will be contrasted in this essay were both released in 1968 and have made important contributions to the genre. On one hand, Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, New York, October 1968) prolongs and deepens the idea of doubt and Schizophrenia that Polanski had already outlined in Repulsion (Polanski, 1965). On the other hand, Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, October 1968) establishes the rules and codes of zombie movies.

Although these movies were released in the same year and both correspond to the prime example of their genre (zombie movies for Night of the Living Dead and satanist movies for Rosemary’s baby), they are quite different. So, to what extent can these movies from the late sixties be contrasted?

Firstly, their place in the history of American horror movies will be contrasted: what part they played in it, and such movies were received by the public. Secondly, an analysis of the aesthetic aspects of Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead will show other differences between these films. Finally, it will be clear that despite all their dissimilarities, these movies look alike in their representation of the figure of evil which, for the first time in the Horror movies’ history, is a part of a familiar environment.

Although Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead share the same importance in American Horror movies’ history, the public reception was not the same for both of them.

Indeed, Night of the Living Dead was extremely lambasted and yet the conditions were optimal for a good welcome from the public. In his book, Heffernan underlines that it was released in time for Halloween and was well advertised. Moreover, a Castle-like trick was used to attract the audience “If ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Frightens you to Death, You are covered for $50,000!” (Heffernan 2004: 215). However, the advertising is precisely what led the movie to a bad response from the audience: it was publicised like any other horror movies, lessening its impact on a younger public. In Night of the Living Dead, a group of humans are trapped in a house surrounded by cannibal zombies. One by one, the characters are killed and devoured, notably the Coopers, who are eaten by their own daughter. Thus, the movie tackles grisly themes which shocked the audience. Roger Ebert’s review underlines the public’s reaction to the movie:

“I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.” (Ebert, 1967, § 16)

In an additional note written in 2004, Ebert insisted on the fact that his review was “a review of the audience reaction” and added “I admire the movie itself which I have seen twice since that 1967 afternoon” (1967: § 1). Indeed, Night of the Living Dead is the very first part of what is going to become a genre: zombie movies. It is not the first time that zombies appeared in a film. However Romero had the idea of creating a cannibal zombie which contaminates its victims. It is a “crucial turning point in the history of low-budget horror film” (Heffernan 2004: 215). Violence is accentuated: everything is shown, whereas it was only suggested before much like in the shower sequence of Psycho (1960) by Hitchcock. When Tom and Judy (a young couple) die in a truck explosion, the living dead dismember and eat them. The creatures are crudely shown in close-ups, their faces are putrefied and the viewer sees them devouring human entrails. Sound effects are amplified and underline the realism of flesh-eating. Moreover, every character dies, even the hero who is brutally killed by the rednecks chasing the zombies.

Moreover, the movie also made an unforgettable impression because of its anti-establishmentarianism. The narrative structure, the framing and the images immediately evoke the events linked to the Vietnam war and to black segregation. The hunt organised by the rednecks to kill the zombies, the scene with the hounds and the low-angle view from the helicopter, are part of the Vietnam War imagery. Ben, the black hero, is killed by the rednecks, who thought he was a zombie. The final credits are made of grainy pictures showing the rednecks carrying Ben with hooks as if he was a piece of flesh, and burning him at the stake with other zombies. Ben is treated poorly, just like the black people who were hanged during the segregation. In The American Nightmare (Simon, 2000), Tom Savini looks back on his Vietnam experience and says that ‘They didn’t even touch the bodies!’. Thus, the credits are referring to 1968’s events.

On the contrary, Rosemary’s Baby got a successful release. The movie enjoyed “the measured playoff of an art-film/horror crossover” (Heffernan 2004: 200). Indeed, it was produced by the famous horror movie director William Castle and directed by the successful Roman Polanski. Thus, the movie was respected from the beginning: the director was artistically recognised, the eponymous book was a best-seller, and the star Mia Farrow played the first part. In contrast, Night of the Living Dead was produced and directed by an unknown group of friends who just graduated from university, and no stars were acting in it. Rosemary’s Baby was praised by the critics: “A splendid executed example of its genre” commented Saturday review (Heffernan 2004: 190). Polanski’s movie tells the story of Rosemary and her husband, who move in a new apartment and meet their strange neighbours the Castevets. When Rosemary becomes pregnant, the old couple is forever more present, and the young woman begins to suspect them of witchcraft.

Unlike Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby is not the first creation of its genre. Indeed, it falls within series of horror movies about demonic children (Heffernan 2004: 185), and follows Repulsion (1965) which already outlined the idea of madness of the heroin. However, Repulsion presents a realistic and pathological madness while in Rosemary’s Baby, madness is ambiguous: it swings between the idea of a conspiracy and the idea that Rosemary is crazy. Thus, Polanski’s movie modernises horror movies and opens the way towards a fantasy cinema marked by satanist symbolism (The Exorcist (1973) by W. Friedkin for example). Finally, Rosemary’s Baby is closely intertwined with the ideology of liberation during the 60’s. Even if Rosemary was raised as a Catholic, she adapted herself to her time: she becomes intimate with Guy, the two characters openly talk about marijuana or menstruation, which was new for the sixties (Heffernan 2004: 200). Thus, a new female character is created, leaving behind the naïve women of horror movies. Rosemary can be compared with the character of Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. Both women appear hysterical: Rosemary, for instance, when she tells her suspicions to her first gynaecologist Dr Hill, and Barbara when she tells the story of her brother’s death. However, Barbara is depicted as a fragile creature; weak, and unable to protect herself. On the other hand, when Rosemary fears for the life of her baby, she flees and does everything to keep the Castevets from taking her child.

Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead can also be differentiated in terms of aesthetics.

Rosemary’s baby is shot with professionalism in terms of camera movements, image quality and narrative structure. The frame is stable, and travelings are smooth. When Rosemary enters the Castevets’ apartment through the cupboard, the film camera follows her in a medium close up, and no shaking reveals the presence of the cameraman.

On the contrary, Night of the Living Dead reveals many imperfections. The images are raw, grainy, and the black and white add to a significant idea of realism. In the sixties, news on television were in black and white, thus, the movie looks like a documentary. Contrary to the polished up Hammer’s movies, Romero’s movie is shot with a hand-held camera and the sound is recorded live, which adds to the realism.

In terms of the narrative structure, Rosemary’s Baby is rather “classical”. Time is linear and the viewer only follows the character of the pregnant woman. Even when she dreams and the movie becomes more experimental, the world is shown through her eyes. After having a strange chocolate mousse for diner, Rosemary dreams that she is being raped. This sequence of the movie could be interpreted as a rupture in the narrative integrity of the story. Indeed, Rosemary lies on a mattress floating on the sea, then she sees the ceiling of the Sistine chapel and at last she dreams that she is attached to a bed surrounded by her naked neighbours. These shots do not seem logically linked and yet, a coherent interpretation can be found. In fact, the sequence corresponds to Rosemary’s distorted reality caused by the drugs hidden in the chocolate mousse. The camera films the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, and right after, a short shot shows the shelves of Rosemary’s cupboard, that she covered with a green checked oilcloth earlier in the movie. Then, Rosemary walks past a church on fire and lies on a bed. A panoramic shot shows her naked neighbours, and among them, a bearded man standing on a pedestal. These elements, compared with the last sequence of the movie, reveal a new meaning. Indeed, when Rosemary enters the Castevets’ apartment, she has to walk through her cupboard (with the green shelves), then she observes a painting of a burning church on her right-hand side. Finally, a huge painting of the wizard Adrian Macarto is hanged over the fireplace. The dream was not a rupture in the storyline: it was Rosemary’s vision of being carried to the Castevets’ place. Thus, Polanski manages to imply the idea of doubt and double interpretation through his manners of filming the movie and building the story.

Night of the Living Dead also has a classical narrative structure, but the storyline is interrupted several times with news broadcasts. Overall, Romero’s movie is only about one event: being in a house surrounded by zombies. Even if the movie implies many contesting and extra textual elements, the storyline is not overly complex. On the contrary, Polanski’s movie develops its characters and the story is divided into several sub stories. The multiplicity of possibilities and explanations supports the idea of doubt and the complexity of the narrative structure.

Although the Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead are different in terms of place in history and aesthetics, they are both characterized by a new figure of evil.

In The American Nightmare, Wood explains the concept of “the Other”. According to him, “Otherness represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognise or accept but must deal with.” (Wood 2003: 65) “The Other” gathers many social groups: children, the proletariat, homosexuals… (Wood, 2003: 67). To Wood, monsters in Horror movies represent “otherness”(2003: 68). The “otherness” changed over time, and consequently, the figure of the monster changed as well. Thus, Wood shows how horror used to happen out of America. “[Horror] is always external to Americans, who may be attacked by it physically but remains (superficially, that is) uncontaminated by it morally.” (Wood 2003: 77). For example Bela Lugosi’s accent when he played in Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) underlines his foreignness (Wood 2003: 77). Then, horror was transposed in America, but monsters were still “extraterrestrial invaders” (Wood 2003: 78). However, from the beginning of the sixties and because of Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) Horror happens in everyday life and in familiar places. Besides, realism appears in Horror movies which, until then, were only about fantasy monsters and space aliens. The monster turns into a psychopath, a human being out of control and sadistic, guided by morbid urges.

Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead are the perfect examples to show that the figure of evil has been transposed from an external fantasy creature, to the heart of human beings. In Rosemary’s Baby, this transposition is even more literal, since the antichrist grows inside her. Night of the Living Dead is more subtle, because zombies can be considered as imaginary creatures. However, the living dead used to be humans, and even relatives of their prey. Barbara is killed by her zombie brother and the young Karen devours her own parents. Death is linked to humans, and to family. Moreover, the zombie hunt organised by local rednecks in the end of the movie shows that even humans who were not infected by living dead are monsters. Indeed, Ben the hero is the only survivor of the zombie attack, but the hunters do not make any different between him and an ordinary zombie, and shoot him without any further ado. In Romero’s movie, humans kill one another. One cannot help but thinks about the US army who shot student demonstrators in 1968. In The American Nightmare (Adam Simon, 2000), John Landis says with incredulity ‘It was American troops shooting on Americans!’.

Thus, Rosemary’s baby and Night of the Living Dead present horror linked to a familiar context, but also to a younger generation that the bourgeois ideology rejects and fears. In his book, Thoret says the following about Rosemary’s Baby: “the child-monster becomes the paragon of a generation of students and teenagers who lost faith in the establishment” (2006: 316).

The sixties constitute a turning point in the history of American Horror. It revolutionises the genre both in language and in substance. Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead are different in many points: the cultural heritage they left to the genre is not the same and yet, they both participate to the change of the figure of evil. Finally, they both have a downbeat ending which was new for the decade. Before 1968, the hero won over the monster, and the bourgeois ideology defeated the “other”. After 1968, the monster is not always defeated: in Night of the Living Dead, rednecks kill blindly, in Rosemary’s Baby, the antichrist is born: a new place is made for otherness.


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