Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings, is scheduled for release in September. The hardcover edition is available now for preorder from Edinburgh University Press, or in the US from Oxford University Press. You can use the code from the coupon below to get a $33 discount. The softcover edition will come out next year.
In a world where the term “icon” is often thrown around too loosely, Romero is an artist to whom the designation truly fits. Best known for his cycle of “Dead” films – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead – Romero established a new, modern zombie mythos that has had an enormous effect on contemporary pop culture.
Romero’s work extended beyond the zombie genre, however, including such films as There’s Always Vanilla, Knight Riders, Martin, and Monkey Shines. Whatever subject matter he worked with, Romero’s standpoint was always subversive. He had a contentious relationship with mainstream Hollywood, preferring to make most of his films independently. Regardless of whether he was working within or outside of the system, Romero always brought an outsider’s perspective to his movies; a perspective that was sympathetic to the oppressed and the marginalized. His films championed minorities, women and the disabled, placing them in central, heroic roles that allowed for the demonstration of their strength and potency, even if ultimately their stories ended in tragedy.
Although his films were always critical of racism and consumer culture, increasingly, toward the end of his career, Romero’s perspective became more and more cynical concerning humankind and the fate of the world. In films like Land of the Dead, he imagined a world in which the rich cruelly exploit and dominate the poor. Diary of the Dead ends with the narrator posing the question of whether or not humanity is worth saving at all, while in his final film, Survival of the Dead, Romero depicts an assortment of entirely despicable humans, stubbornly feuding and fighting with one another over nonsense. As he neared the end of his life, Romero’s outlook became progressively bleaker and more dark, with humankind, rather than undead zombies, playing the part of villains.
Night of the Living Dead played regularly on a local late-night program called Creature Features when I was a kid. It took me a few tries to work up the courage to watch the movie all the way through, but once I did, I was hooked. The world that Romero created in this film was intriguingly bleak and strange in comparison to most mainstream horror films. The African-American hero was strongly sympathetic, but ultimately flawed and misguided in many of the decisions that he made throughout the movie. The ending was depressing, offering no hope or redemption. There was no real explanation for the terrifying course of events depicted, and everyone that we were led to care about died in horrible ways. This was not Hollywood film making.
About 10 years later, in 1979, Romero made Dawn of the Dead, the follow up to Night of the Living Dead. I was a freshman in high school at the time, and I recall being so excited about the release of this film that by sheer force of will I overcame a fairly severe cold so that I would not be kept from going to the opening night screening, which took place at some sketchy movie theater in South San Francisco. Dawn of the Dead was released without an MPAA rating, a rebellious move on Romero’s part, motivated by his displeasure at initially being awarded an X rating for violence. His decision to release DOTD unrated meant that most mainstream theaters would not exhibit the film, almost assuring financial suicide. Nevertheless, against the odds, DOTD became both a financial and critical success. Romero’s mix of extreme gore and social commentary set an example that has been copied and developed (in both the movies and on TV) ever since. His success at releasing his film unrated also encouraged others to resist the taken for granted authority of the MPAA.
One of my prized possessions is a hand written letter I received from George Romero in response to a fan letter I sent him after I saw Dawn of the Dead for the first time. In it he answered my questions about the film, expressing a nihilistic sentiment that has stayed with me and influenced my own perspective over the years. In response to my curiosity about the cause of the zombie epidemic he replied, “…the cause doesn’t matter, since it is beyond the realm of human understanding anyway.” Quite right. We constantly try to master our world through the explanations offered by religion and science, but we often forget that the world as a whole far exceeds the power of human understanding. Our hubris always comes back to bite us, like the zombies in Romero’s movies.
I learned about Romero’s death when my wife and I were chatting with a friendly rockabilly clerk at the local supermarket. When he mentioned Romero’s passing, I was stunned, and I told our clerk that he had instantly ruined my day. After confirming that the report was true, I was overwhelmed with a mood of quiet melancholy that lasted the rest of the evening. My entire life has been lived during a time when Romero was also alive and actively making art. Now that he is gone it just reinforces the reality that a whole generation of cultural innovators is aging and moving toward death. In fact, my wife later informed me that Martin Landau also died on the same day as Romero.
Soon, they will all be gone.
Abel Ferrara’s 1979 movie Driller Killer is a notorious cult horror film, included on the “video nasties” list of banned films in the UK, and long available in the US on VHS and DVD only in an edited, incomplete version. Now, with the wonders of on- demand TV, Driller Killer (like so much hard-to-find entertainment) can be directly piped, uncut, right into your own home. Is this a sign of social progress, or yet another symptom of the decline of Western Civilization? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Having waited to see this movie for so long, I was concerned that it would turn out to be as tritely obnoxious and aesthetically worthless as some outraged critics have claimed. Instead, Driller Killer turns out to be an unusually complicated horror film that is both gruesome and psychologically interesting.
Set in 1970’s New York City, the aesthetic of Driller Killer is pure punk. The titles and credits have a homemade look, and the film opens with a typically punk rock message: “This film should be played loud.” Max’s Kansas City, the legendary New York punk club, is prominently featured as a location where a band called the Roosters (with Tony Coca-cola as the frontman) is central to the unfolding, gory events. Throughout the film, the main characters all exhibit that blank, vaguely confused, and periodically hostile way of acting typical of early east coast punk and new wave. The locations are all run-down, and the characters unglamorous.
The New York depicted in Driller Killer is not the affluent, touristy New York City of today. It is the New York of Taxi Driver and Maniac. It is the “old” New York sung about by Agnostic Front. It is the New York City that I recall from the early 1980’s when I visited my friend who was attending art school in Brooklyn. During that visit, I fondly remember seeing Killdozer perform at CBGB’s, and listening to local punk bands at some nameless warehouse before wandering back to my friend’s cockroach infested apartment, cutting through the terrifyingly dangerous streets of Bedford Stuyvesant. At night, there were garbage cans on fire, illuminating the dark streets. There was graffiti all over the subway trains. Hucksters and scam artists were on all the street corners. It felt as if everyone was out to exploit someone, somehow. It was a place much different from the New York City that I’ve visited in recent times, which feels more like a safely monitored amusement park than the gritty, dangerous metropolis that appears in Driller Killer.
Driller Killer tells the story of an artist named Reno Miller (played by Abel Ferrara, but credited as Jimmy Laine) who lives in a small New York apartment with two women, Carol Slaughter (Carolyn Marz) and Pamela (Baybi Day). While it appears that Reno and Carol have some sort of romantic connection, it is instead Carol and Pamela who are sexually intimate with one another. Reno, on the other hand, is depicted as virtually asexual, more interested in working on his paintings than he is in romance, music or socializing with others. In particular, he is obsessed with the completion of a painting of a buffalo, which he is convinced will make him rich and famous. However, his work on this painting is constantly interrupted by the Roosters, who practice in one of the adjoining apartments. Because of the constant punk rock music disturbing his concentration and sleep, Reno becomes progressively more and more unhinged, until he snaps and embarks on a killing spree with a power drill.
All of this makes Driller Killer sound like a piece of conventional exploitation. What lifts it above other, less interesting films of the genre, however, are the themes that Abel Ferrara weaves together as he explores the psychological disintegration of the main character.
The first of these themes has to do with homelessness. The opening scene has Reno being summoned to a church, where nuns have discovered a homeless man mutely sitting in the pews. In this man’s pocket is Reno’s contact information. But upon arrival, Reno has no knowledge of who this person is. When he tries to talk with the man, the homeless person grabs his hand, sending Reno into an unreasonable panic. The mystery of this scene is never fully resolved, but later in the movie we find that Reno is in the habit of hanging out with homeless people on the streets, sketching them and drinking with them. It seems that Abel Ferrara wants to suggest that this main character both identifies with the rootless isolation of the homeless at the same time that he is also repelled by this very same quality. In the homeless, he sees something of himself; something that he fears and wants to destroy. In fact, when he goes on his killing spree, his violence is largely directed toward familiar homeless people in his neighborhood rather than against the members of the noisy punk band who disturb his work or the apartment manager who threatens him with eviction.
The theme of passivity is connected to the images of homelessness. As mentioned above, Reno is depicted as virtually asexual. He is more concerned with his artwork than he is with his girlfriend, and this seems to be indicative of his own passive, impotent nature. As the only male member of his household, he is unable to pay the rent. In order to avoid eviction, Carol has to rely on alimony and other money that she borrows from her ex-husband, thus also relegating Reno to dependent status. Additionally, even though he is being driven crazy by the constant music that disturbs his work, Reno never has the courage to confront the band members, but instead befriends them and even agrees to paint a portrait of the lead singer, Tony Coca-cola. So although it is clear that Reno is an angry man, he is passively reliant on the people around him and unable to assert himself. At one point, Pamela naively says to Reno that he should let the gallery owner who is interested in his paintings “stick it up your ass,” further suggesting that Reno is by nature passive and submissive. This passivity is symbolized at one point by a skinned rabbit that his landlord gives to him, apparently aware that Reno is unable to provide food for the household. Like a rabbit, Reno is skittish and vulnerable – gutless – and he seems to become consciously aware of this vulnerability when he is alone with the wet, bloody, skinny body of the rodent. Instead of eating it, Reno begins to stab the rabbit in the head until it is broken and destroyed. This seems to be a foreshadowing of his attacks upon humans with his power drill.
Woven into all of this is the buffalo painting that consumes Reno’s attention. He is convinced that this painting will be his masterpiece, but he is unable to let it go, feeling as if it always needs more work, despite the fact that the gallery owner and Carol keep pestering him to finish it. There are points when Reno seems hostile toward the painting, as though he is intimidated by it. He threatens to stab it in the eye, but then apologizes to the painting, saying that he would never harm it. The buffalo appears as an image that is contrary to that of the rabbit. Whereas the rabbit represents Reno’s timidity and weakness, the buffalo represents his urge toward strength and aggression. He finds it difficult to let go of the painting precisely because he is unsure of his own powers, and as it turns out, he is correct to be hesitant. For when he does deliver the finished piece, the gallery owner is unimpressed, insulting the artist’s talents and telling him that his work has been in vain. He has lost his creative powers. The buffalo is a failure, and now Reno has nothing to hide behind. He is unable to conceal his impotence.
The use of a drill as a murder weapon clearly evokes phallic symbolism. As Reno stalks the gritty streets of New York, he attacks mostly homeless men, stabbing their torsos with his drill and occasionally also drilling them in their heads; just as he had stabbed the skinned rabbit in its head and as he had threatened to stab his buffalo painting in the eye. With this murder spree, Reno attempts to kill that rootless, vulnerable part of himself that he sees reflected in street people. The use of the drill is an exaggerated way to emphasize his own desperate desire to be a masculine, dominant, and potent male. Once his confidence in his own power is solidified by killing the vulnerable, he turns his murderous rage toward those who actually do possess the power to threaten his masculinity: the gallery owner and Carol’s ex-husband.
The gallery owner is the person Pamela had suggested Reno let screw him in the ass, and so by murdering him, Reno reasserts his own dominance. This murder results in a sort of crucifixion, as the body is pierced and held in place up against a door in a pose reminiscent of the dead Christ. This draws the audience’s minds back to the opening scene of the film, which takes place in a Catholic church; the place where Reno first panicked when grabbed by the homeless man. It also recalls an early scene – a foreshadowing this gruesome climax –in which Reno helps Pamela drill holes in this very same door frame.
The film ends when Carol leaves Reno, returning to her ex-husband. Reno follows her to the couple’s house and murders her ex-husband with his drill. He then waits for Carol beneath the sheets in the couple’s darkened bedroom. In the closing scene, unaware of Reno’s presence, Carol slips into bed, thinking that she is next to her ex-husband. Thus, Reno finally triumphs. He has taken back his girlfriend and presumably will now finally reassert his sexual virility.
I’m glad that when I finally did get to see Driller Killer, it was in its original, unedited version as intended by the director. I find it ironic that while in years past this movie was either banned or heavily censored, today I can watch the fully intact scenes of sex, violence and abjection at home, on demand, in the coziness of my own living room. The wonders of modern technology have preserved and made widely accessible this (and other) masterpiece(s) of low-budget, low-tech horror so that simply by turning on the television set, you or your children can freely view material previously considered obscene, vile and damaging to the moral health of film goers.
I’ve signed a contract with Edinburgh University Press for the publication of a collection of essays to be titled Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The completed manuscript is due to the publisher by the end of January 2017.
The peer review process has so far been quite rigorous (and sometimes stressful!), but I think this has helped to shape and clarify the aims and purposes of the book. I’m excited about the result.
The collection consists of essays addressing nihilistic themes in an international variety of popular films. Some of the essays have previously appeared in journals such as Film and Philosophy, Film International, Screen Bodies, The Journal of Popular Culture, and The International Journal of Scottish Theatre and Screen. Other pieces new to this collection include an introductory essay addressing the philosophical history of nihilism and its relation to film; an updated and revised treatment of nihilistic themes in George Romero’s Dead films; an essay on Fight Club; and an essay exploring the nihilism of Yukio Mishima.
Part of the fun of working on this project includes selecting screen grabs from the various movies discussed in the book as illustrations. I also get some say in the cover design. Currently, I’m thinking that the image above, from David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, would make a great cover!
William Castle’s final film, Bug (1975), begins with entomologist James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman) dropping off his wife Carrie (Joanna Miles) at church while he himself takes off for work. This opening scene initially strikes viewers as puzzling. Why does this couple not attend church together? Why is Carrie going to services so early on a weekday? One might just chalk up such implausibilities to the fact that this is a William Castle production, but as it turns out, this opening scene is deliberately constructed in order to set the tone for the rest of the story, which develops into an allegory focusing on the conflict between religion and science.
As Carrie enters the church, the priest is in the midst of a sermon, warning his flock that they are living through a time of nihilism. Immorality, violence and sin are rampant amongst the population. “People are filled with suspicion and hate. They ask if God is dead,” he proclaims, and moments later, an earthquake strikes, tearing the church to pieces. Here is a clear sign that all is not well; not only in this small California town but in the world as a whole. Something uncanny is at work; something possessing profound, wide reaching, metaphysical importance.
Juxtaposed with the religious tone of the priest’s opening nihilistic proclamations, we next hear James Parmiter deliver his own nihilistically laden observations, but this time within a scientific context. In a college classroom he lectures his biology students about the fallen condition of humankind, explaining that humans at one point could communicate with the animals, but have become so radically alienated from the rest of the world that they are now cut off from nature. He illustrates his point by making cooing sounds toward a squirrel that has found its way into the classroom, luring it to climb onto his shoulder. Communication with the animal world is possible, but humans have forgotten how to discourse with nature. Once we lived in harmony with the earth. Now it baffles us.
This idea – that humans are alienated, fallen, and separated from their world – is the core message of Bug. During the 1970’s this was a common theme in a whole crop of eco-horror films, such as Phase IV (1974), Grizzly (1976), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Day of the Animals (1977), The Swarm (1978), Piranha (1978), Slithis (1978), Prophesy (1979), etc. What sets the movie Bug apart from some of these other, in many ways technically superior, films is its intense and sustained focus on the metaphysical implications of this separation. In Bug, what is depicted is not a situation in which humans have despoiled their surroundings so that they must now confront some sort of monstrous threat to physical survival. No, in this film the problem seems to have little to do with environmental despoilment. Rather, it has to do with spiritual alienation and human separation from God. In this sense, it may be more accurate to classify Bug not as an example of eco-horror, but rather alongside films such as The Exorcist (1973), The Sentinel (1977), and one of William Castle’s other movies, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In these films, the threat depicted is not so much physical as it is metaphysical, emanating from a realm beyond the visible, and threatening something far greater than mere bodily harm. The threat in these films is the threat of spiritual damnation.
The “bugs” referred to in the film’s title are large, fire producing cockroaches that pour forth from a fissure in the earth following the earthquake that destroys the town church. We are encouraged to think of them as a kind of “hellspawn” in their association with deep chasms, fire and danger to the Christian faith. They are, thus, a metaphor symbolizing wickedness and the dangers of Hell. These bugs are initially blind, sluggish and incapable of traveling very far because they are used to living deep within the core of the planet where the pressure is extremely intense. It even appears once they reach the surface – after provoking at bit of local mayhem and chaos – that they may quickly die out. What keeps them from doing so, however, are the efforts of James Parmiter, who first builds a pressure chamber to keep them alive, and then breeds them with normal, native cockroaches, modifying their genetic and physical structure so that they might adapt to their new surface environment. Without the help of humans, it seems, evil cannot survive.
Parmiter’s own wife, Carrie, is incinerated by the bugs, and it is his grief over her death that sends him into isolation and madness. In one sense, he simply loses his mind, withdrawing from his community and his students while developing an insane obsession with the creatures that killed his wife. However, there is a deeper sense in which this obsession is an illustration of the more general human preoccupation with manipulation of nature in the vain attempt to overcome mortality. As Parimeter continues to experiment with the bugs, they learn to communicate with him, and he becomes more and more invested in their survival. After losing his wife, he wants to make the bugs immortal. In his grief, he wants to use science to defy the order of nature. Such existentialist themes permeate the film, and are reinforced when the wife of Parmiter’s colleague, Sylvia (Patty McKormick), visits him with the excuse of returning the dead Carrie’s Bible. Sylvia is killed by the bugs while she vainly swats at them with the holy book. Afterwards, Parimeter discovers her body and retrieves his wife’s Bible, but by now it is too late. His scientific inquiries have isolated him from God, setting into motion an unnatural catastrophe that cannot be reversed.
Parmiter is doomed because he has defied his God. In a surreal, pessimistic and apocalyptic finale, he is swallowed by a hellish, red glowing chasm as a swarm of now sighted, winged bugs fly up and out of the earth, aggressively targeting him in an attack. He is their god, and now they will kill him. Their newly developed eyes stare out of the darkness, as if they are accusing him of a crime against nature.
Bug begins with the announcement of God’s death, and it ends with the main character – a scientist – descending into a fiery pit. It seems that science and religion just can’t get along. At least in this film, they pull in two separate directions: one toward Heaven and the other toward the earth.