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On the Tube: IFC's 'American Nightmare' cuts to the deeper meanings of classic horror films

Friday, October 13, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

So you thought "Night of the Living Dead" was just about zombies?

Here's how much George Romero's classic horror film, the one that put him (and Pittsburgh) on the cinematic map and rejuvenated the entire genre, was tuned into the zeitgeist of 1968, a horror of a year by anyone's standards.

TV Preview

'American Nightmare'

WHEN: It airs tonight at 10 on the Independent Film Channel.


"We finished the film at WRS [the film laboratory in Crafton] and threw it into the trunk of the car," Romero said in a telephone interview. He and Russ Streiner then drove to New York, hoping to drum up interest in the movie. It turned out to be the night Martin Luther King was assassinated.

"We had a black guy in the lead, and he gets shot. That really did play into the zeitgeist."

Romero was the first in a wave of horror specialists -- Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Tom Savini -- whose explicitly gory films served as metaphors for such issues as Vietnam, political and cultural change, racism and the sexual revolution.

Documentarian Adam Simon explores their work and their messages in "American Nightmare," premiering this weekend on the Independent Film Channel. Colin MacCabe, an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is one of the producers. Adam Lowenstein, associate director of film studies at Pitt, is among the scholars interviewed in the documentary.

"It does a masterful job intercutting scenes from the movies with scenes from real life," Romero said. We see kids dancing to a disco beat, and then we see zombies in Monroeville Mall from "Dawn of the Dead," Romero's commentary on the consumer culture.

We see news clips of Southern sheriffs attacking civil-rights marchers intercut with scenes of a posse hunting zombies in "Night of the Living Dead." Sometimes it's hard to tell them apart.

"I'm always interested in anything that gives the genre a little bit of a boost, that doesn't just paint it as a penny-dreadful or as exploitative," Romero said.

"These are people who care about using the medium as a way of making a comment, of upsetting the applecart. The reason for doing it is upheaval. What strikes me as ridiculous is for order to be restored at the end. The whole reason for doing it is that things need to be changed."

The studious Craven broke into the genre in 1972 with "Last House on the Left." Hooper's breakthrough film was "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in 1974. Cronenberg's "Shivers," made in 1975, was a horror parable about sexual freedom, of all things. In 1978, Carpenter directed "Halloween," the first of countless films in which a killer targets sexually active teen-agers. "If I ended the sexual revolution, I apologize," he says in "American Nightmare."

Savini, the Pittsburgh-based filmmaker best known as the king of horror-movie makeup, says in the film that he based much of his movie work on the gore he witnessed as a soldier in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, people were protesting the war at home, each in his own way. Romero's metaphor employed flesh-eating zombies going after seven people trapped in a farmhouse.

"We were talking more about revolutionary society devouring the old society," he said.

Nowadays, Carpenter still makes the occasional horror film, although the subgenre spawned by "Halloween" has become the object of spoofs like "Scream," itself parodied by "Scary Movie." Cronenberg still pushes the envelope with films like the largely reviled "Crash."

But even while Craven was finishing "Scream 3," he also fulfilled a longtime dream by directing a mainstream movie with not a drop of blood in it. "Music of the Heart" starred Meryl Streep in the true story of an East Harlem music teacher who created a successful violin program in a tough inner-city school.

Romero recently sold to a distributor his most recent film, "Bruiser," about a man with no face who seeks revenge on his tormentors. Would he like to emulate Craven and direct a mainstream picture?

"Always. Every day of my life. You don't just decide, 'I want to make horror movies.' I want to make movies. But you get typecast."

He's working with actor Ed Harris on a political thriller that he would direct. "I have my fingers crossed. I have my eyeballs crossed" that the project comes to fruition.

The man at the heart of "American Nightmare" has his own sweet dreams.

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