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The American Nightmare (2000)
A Celebration of Films From Horror's Golden Age of Fright

The American Nightmare
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Reviewed By Zombie-A-GoGo

Much outcry has been raised about the effects of horror films on reality, such as peoples' actions. But one doesn't hear much about the effects of reality on film, thus motivating certain actions. The certain actions prompted in The American Nightmare are those of six filmmakers, who were witness to the wide assemblage of socio-political turmoil prevalent throughout the 50's, 60's and 70's. They acted out by making horror movies.

Adam Simon chronicles the various influences on the films Night of the Living Dead (1968), Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Shivers (1975), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Halloween (1978), through the words of their filmmakers. These men spent their truly culturally aware years exposed to McCarthyism in (1950), practicing nuclear drop drills (courtesy of the Federal Civil Defense Administration in 1951), the start of US involvement in the Vietnam War (1954), and were witness to the very serious beginning of the Civil Rights Movement (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954). These things made the world a scary place. And then came the 60's and the world actually got scarier. John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, 1968 marked the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and in 1969, the lottery drawing was held to begin drafting kids into Vietnam for the following year. And wait, it got scarier. May 4, 1970, our government shot and killed 4 students at Kent State University. 1973 saw the energy crisis. Oh, and then we got disco and everything was fine after that. Or was it? How bad can escapism through indulgence really be? Depends on how much you like isolation and loneliness. Is that what gave birth to the Me Generation of the 80's? Well, now we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The interesting dialogue obtained from these filmmakers is accompanied by the thoughts and ideas of the academic community as well, including Prof. Tom Gunning of the University of Chicago, Prof. Carol Clover at the University of California at Berkeley, and Prof. Adam Lowenstein of the University of Pittsburgh. And just to balance everything out, we get to hear the most amusing and thoughtful commentary from the ever-entertaining John Landis. Why John Landis? Well, for seemingly no other reasons than his being a right horror director himself and his obvious love and knowledge of the genre.

There's a lot to like about this documentary, utmost being the fact that someone deemed it fit to make a serious one about the horror genre. It gets so much flack for being indulgent and exploitational that it's nice to be able to sit back and be provoked to think where this really came from, and how did it, in turn, affect our generations (the "Me" through theatres and the "X" through video...thank you, 80's, you were good for something). These films, which were the beginning of horror as we know it today, were born out of tumultuous times. Could it be that the horrors of Universal and RKO were born out of the Depression and the Second World War? They were at the very least an escape for the audience. They did serve a purpose. Just as the purpose these films of the late 60's and throughout the 70's served was for these filmmakers to exorcise certain demons, such as anger, fear, uncertainty, sexuality, and a myriad of other potential problems that can arise in a person who is exposed to too much trauma. And now they are here forever, to help us escape, and/or sort through our own neuroses caused by AIDS, crack cocaine, ozone holes, Chernobyl, Khadafi, a population of 5 billion, Prozac, and Reaganomics. And even if nothing is sussed out...ideas were broached, and thoughts were given to the skeletons in our closets, be it individually, or as a nation, or as a species.

Simon, though responsible for directing Carnosaur (1993), does a wonderful job channeling the idea that the fictional horrors we see on the screen aren't necessarily very far from the horrors we see everyday. It's a concept that you'd think would be obvious to most people, but sadly, is not. This is achieved through Grade A editing by Paul Carlin. Calculated, successive cuts between fact and fiction start us out. You immediately know you're not in for an hour and a half of MTV-style, mind-numbing rubbish. It's already got you thinking. Throughout, the violence and gore of the covered films, while still disturbing, pale in comparison to the war footage (including Savini's own photos, taken during his time there,) Bobby Kennedy lying bleeding on the floor, dogs being turned on Civil Rights Demonstrators, the Kent State footage, and even a crowd's reaction to being told that King was indeed dead. It really puts things in perspective, which is something that's always needed in the genre. The American Dream isn't all that it's cracked up to be, and maybe that's what gives American horror its bite. We're lied to, we're confused, we're let down, and damn it, we're not happy about it.

This film was released in 2000, before our War on Terror. I think maybe we've forgotten that things of historical importance, hatched out of fear and tragedy, did occur before September 11, 2001. This film reminds us of that. Things were never the same after these events, just as they weren't after 9-11, and they won't be after the next big thing. To paraphrase Lowenstein; the apocalypse isn't now, it's always.


(Out of 5)
March 30, 2004

I think there might be a difference between people who just love horror and people who love horror and film. The American Nightmare is for those latter people, who've reached a point in their fandom where gore and nudity just don't do it anymore. If you are one of these people, this is a great place to start thinking about the genre and it's filmmakers in a new and intelligent light.
-"I didn't mean to put an and to the sexual revolution and for that I deeply apologize." --John Carpenter
-"I think it's always important to realise that a nightmare you always wake up from. This kind of historical nightmare may cease, but it's affects are there. One of the things the most frightening films do is indicate that you cannot wake up from the nightmare." --Prof. Tom Gunning
-"I first saw the film (Night of the Living Dead) as the featured attraction at my Bar Mitzvah party." --Prof. Adam Lowenstein

Adam Simon (Carnosaur)
Adam Simon (Bones)
Paula Jalfon (Baadasssss Cinema)
Caroline Kaplan (Tadpole)
Colin MacCabe (Baadasssss Cinema)
Eliza Mellor (I'll Sleep When I'm Dead)
Jonathan Sehring (Pieces of April)
John Carpenter Himself
Carol J. Clover Himself
Wes Craven Himself
David Cronenberg Himself
Tom Gunning Himself
Tobe Hooper Himself
John Landis Himself
Adam Lowenstein Himself
George A. Romero Himself
Tom Savini Himself
Minerva Pictures
Independent Film Channel
United States / United Kingdom
73 mins Unrated

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