The ’70s was a decade of tremendous change for film. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas were making the movies that would make their names, and artistically speaking, the medium was being taken more seriously than ever before. The decade, and the years leading into it, also marked a dramatic change in the quality and aims of the horror genre, producing classics that had as much impact on modern film and popular culture as The Godfather or Mean Streets. But the era’s serious critics largely ignored the genre, often dismissing it as hollow exploitation. In his new book, Shock Value: How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, And Invented Modern Horror, critic Jason Zinoman argues that the impact and importance of zombies, chainsaw-wielding cannibals, and pea-soup-spewing young girls is underestimated even today. Zinoman, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Slate, writes about the rise of a new breed of frightful filmmakers, intent on grabbing audiences by the throat and breaking the skin.
In the late ’60s, horror was a joke, an adolescent indulgence ripe with easily identifiable clichés. Audiences could identify supposedly scary films by the presence of haunted houses, cobwebs, unconvincing rubber suits, and classically trained hams in capes. Then George Romero, eager to break into the movie business, got together with some talented friends and made Night Of The Living Dead, the story of a group of men and women trapped in a house, battling for their lives against an army of flesh-eating ambulatory corpses. The movie was grim, shockingly gory, and political, an inadvertent allegory for the Vietnam War and race relations. Its success marked the advent of New Horror, which broke from the old traditions, and didn’t have any interest in letting the monster die by the light of day.
In impassioned, articulate prose, Zinoman makes his case, charting the rise of Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and the creative teams that helped them thrive. Shock wastes a little too much time trying to answer tired old questions about the genre (“Why do people watch such awful movies?” should’ve been retired ages ago—it isn’t as though Bonnie And Clyde is all sunshine and rainbows), but Zinoman is such a literate, intelligent defender of the cause that his arguments are well worth reading. Even better, he has a knack for finding the characters in behind-the-scenes theatrics, like Dan O’Bannon, the troubled, furious writer who helped bring Alien into the world. Shock Value is a consistently entertaining, refreshingly honest take on the artists who helped change the standards for fear, without realizing the consequences. The only real flaw is the book’s length; with this level of insight and detail, it could’ve, and should’ve, run twice as long.