The theater was dark, and cool. It was midnight, abut 1972, and I felt the darkness as I rarely had before, the black and white images on the screen taking me into a world I’d never experienced. I was watching Night of the Living Dead for the first time, and I was not happy.
Something was happening on the screen that I couldn’t explain. From “they’re coming to get you, Barbara” through the gathering of the main characters in the lonely house, boarding up the windows and fending off the ghouls, I had a creeping sense of dread that couldn’t be explained by the core images I was seeing on-screen. I felt that cold to my bones, and began looking around the theater, seeking exits in case the people around me…weren’t really people.
Something was WRONG. This wasn’t a normal horror film, and I couldn’t put my finger on quite why.
Maybe it was the first major casualties, when young lovers Tom and Judy are accidentally burned alive in their truck. That’s bad enough…but then they are torn apart and DEVOURED. Onscreen. That was an extreme WTF moment, I can tell you. People stopped eating their popcorn. This shit had just gotten real, in a way we’d never seen.
Worse than that was the moment when the entire theater went “Oh My GOD!” as a group. It was the moment that the little girl Karen stabs her mother Helen to death with a masonry trowel. It seemed to go on forever, spattering Bosco all over the screen.
Little girls butchering their mothers? Beautiful young lovers turned into barbecue? Both terrible.
But there was something else that hit America even harder, I think. Not because it was worse than a little girl filleting Mommy, but because people couldn’t even articulate what disturbed them.
How about the spectacle of a black man taking charge of a group of white people in a desperate fight for life? Remember this was 1968, just three years after the Voting Rights Act finally gave black Americans full citizenship, in effect finally recognizing their actual humanity for the first time in four centuries. I have to think what black audiences would think of a movie in which a group of black people were dominated by a brash white man, and realize that yeah, whether they could admit it or not, the images onscreen had to be uncomfortable as hell. Now multiply that by an order of magnitude: black audiences have seen whites dominating them in films countless times: we’re very aware that’s a favorite fantasy. But white audiences had NEVER seen anything like this. (Well…not often. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT had come out the year before. It is just barely possible to consider Ben in NOTLD as an artistic conversation with Virgil Tibbs. There’s an essay…)
Anyway…black men beating the hell out of white men, and then shooting them? And he’s the hero?
By the end of that movie, I’m pretty sure director George Romero had delivered one of the most “transgressive” movies in history, crossing lines the audience was unprepared for, so that they could barely believe their eyes, couldn’t even admit to themselves how badly their expectations and values had been savagely scrambled.
NOTLD is one of the most successful films ever made, earning over 100 million dollars (really, as it lost copyright, it is probably impossible to really determine how much money it made) on a budged of about 150k. How could it have that kind of impact? Well, in the flow of a well structured, paced, and directed genre film, there were at least three separate events audiences had never seen onscreen before. And because the creativity was in the script not expensive FX, we went for a low-budget journey without the low budget damaging the experience. And at least part of that “transgression” wasn’t planned: apparently Romero had written the role of “Ben” as race-neutral. Duane Jones NAILED the audition, and was cast. We may never know precisely when Romero knew lightning had struck. At the audition? During rehearsals? Performance? First dailies? The first screening? I don’t know, but for sure, he realized he’d done something amazing and unique, something so shocking critics and audiences couldn’t even honestly articulate their shock. He tried to imitate that same shock in his later films, and certainly in the remakes, even the remakes of the sequels. But you can’t step in the same piece of water twice.
What would it take to create that level of “transgression” today…?
Maybe a mid-transition transexual would work. Latino. With a gay lover. Or how about the lover being another mid-transition transexual going the other way? Swap the young lovers for Ben, make them a team protagonist? Nah…kill one of them, turning the other into an angel of vengence, pushed beyond limits and taking zero shit. I’d pay to see that.
That MIGHT create the same shock, as a very femme stealth lead totally dominates a group of macho assholes. Done straight, that would make the great heartland FLIP, and you might be able to parlay that into the kind of disorientation, fear, and shock that could then power a classic horror film.
Tonight, I’m driving in to Hollywood to the premier of “Horror Noir” the Shudder Network documentary executive produced by, and featuring my good lady wife the amazing Tananarive Due. And I know that as I watch it, I’ll be watching a threshold moment: when black film has produced so many excellent movies that there are actual mini-genres within the main genre, a body of work worthy of serious critique and celebration.
And it is no mistake that this is also a time in our nation’s history when core questions of being are bubbling to the surface, and voices once silenced and ignored are demanding to be heart. And I wondered this morning…what next? Who will be the next to take transgression to the level of art?
There are so many possibilities.
Women are doing this as they break barriers and demand release from the cultural boxes. This isn’t new, and we’ve always had movies that broke those moulds…but the pace of change and confrontation is accelerating. “Silence of the Lambs” tapped into this, to huge effect.
Gays are certainly doing this. Something like “Cruising” was almost certainly designed to shock and appall straight audiences, and certainly shot steam out of MY ears. But the movie that tells a story simultaneously empowering and disturbing? Not sure that one has hit the screens yet, not in a wide cultural way. And we may have seen too many images for the same shock a NOTLD created.
How about immigration? Really, you’re looking at migration patterns, things far older than national boundaries, and the notion is terrifying to people who believe legal boundaries are realer than those patterns, and especially to those who believe the newcomers are of inferior stock. They may be polite about it, but what percentage of people do YOU think are assholes? Whatever you guess, I suggest that the same percentage (not necessarily the same people. A mite defensive, are we?) are racists.
Watching “The Day After Tomorrow”, where North America is hit by a nightmare of freezing blizzards and Americans fled to Mexico, wading across the Rio Grande carrying their possessions, was just too rich, in context. But it was in fun. Doing that SERIOUSLY, playing out that scenario without a single wink at the audience could trigger genuine fear. Focusing on a single family’s terror and hope? Can’t wait to see THAT.
Where else can we find transgression? What concepts seem to trigger the greatest fear, discomfort, argumentation? In the hands of a canny artist, these become FUEL for your art. But you have to know the basic forms and rules to know how and when to bend them, and where to stick the nozzle.
Otherwise, as I suspect happened with NOTLD, you might not be able to do it deliberately (as “Get Out” most certainly did) but you might lurch into it in the dead of night, like a zombie searching for brains.
(If you love “Horror Noire”, genre film, or the sublime art of artistic transgression, check out the webinar course Tananarive and I have taught for years: www.sunkenplaceclass.com)