Capitalist monsters under the bed

October 31, 2013

If you're looking for the right movie on Halloween, John McDonald has some advice.

"Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt."
--Karl Marx, Capital

AS PHILOSOPHICAL materialists on the one hand, and radical social critics on the other, Marxists might seem strange candidates for assembling "must-see" lists of horror movies. In a genre notable for its carnivalistic revelry in guts and gore, and known fairly widely for its lazy reflection (and at worst outright endorsement) of the most vile and reactionary aspects of our society's hideous underbelly, what is there for the politically conscious to cite approvingly? Should our countdown of the "best movies to watch on Halloween" begin with Sergei Eisenstein and end with Ken Burns?

As it so happens, there are plenty of horror movies that eschew the sexist and racist detritus that has given the genre much of its bad reputation. In fact, there are even a small number of these films that prominently feature an anti-capitalist monologue or build upon an unmistakably subversive political subtext. The fact that the decapitated head rolls left on occasion should be enough to allow socialists to bury our guilt about indulging the desire to scare ourselves silly this Halloween season--but to leave it at that would be to forget our Trotsky.

Zombies in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead
Zombies in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead

Letting nothing but our political sympathies drive our cultural recommendations would be the intellectual equivalent of running up the stairs in a slasher movie--everyone knows not to do it, but it keeps happening anyway.

Though dressed up in blood-soaked garb and buried under mountains of bad latex masks, in many ways the horror genre should be of particular interest to radicals. Every successful work of horror, be it in film or fiction, relies on its ability to tap into deeply ingrained societal anxieties and uses them to call forth nightmares that lurk just below the surface of our conscious minds. This can take the form of thinly veiled social criticism, or overt Reefer Madness-style paranoia put to celluloid.

Ultimately, even in its "non-political" or politically backward forms, horror as a genre can tell us something about what monsters stalk the minds of society while it sleeps. So think of the movies on this list as historical research into the effects of modern capitalism on consciousness.

Before getting to the point, a brief disclaimer is in order. The process of combing over the corpses and wading through the pools of muck and guts to come to a definitive list is perhaps the most anxiety-inducing task that can be asked of any obsessive horror fan. Thus, in an effort to prevent my own hyperventilating exasperation from turning into total paralysis, I have narrowed the selections down to several subcategories, focusing on one or two standout examples. This has the added benefit of offering readers as much of a breadth as possible.


Zombies, in all of their forms--be they the reanimated dead, virus-ravaged husks, scientifically engineered death machines, or restless Nazis--have become a ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon. Their original on-screen appearance, as seen in White Zombie (1932), presented the shuffling flesh eaters we have grown to love as brain-drained workers condemned to a waking death, slaving away in a sugar mill--a nightmare most working stiff can relate to. It wasn't until George Romero's 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968) that the world was introduced to the modern zombie of recent The Walking Dead fame.

This classic is everything that horror at its best can be. In a desperate attempt to escape the hordes of living dead mysteriously littering the country side, seven strangers take refuge in a house and quickly find out that their own anxieties and prejudices might be more dangerous than the creatures pursuing them. By casting an African American actor (Duane Jones) as Ben, the film's lead protagonist, Romero made his film into a blistering critique of American racism.

The final scene of the movie (spoiler alert, for those who care about such things), in which Ben greets his presumptive rescuers, is very deliberately set up to feel like a lynching. Emerging from his hiding place after hearing a posse of police and hunters clearing the house of its undead guests, Ben is promptly shot, dragged by meat hooks over the threshold, and then burned along with the recently dispatched zombies.

If Romero's zombies are meant to be monstrous representations of the racist paranoia festering in the wake of the civil rights movement, then this last scene is a prescient portrayal of the mutated form of racist violence that remains even after the dead are returned to their grave. If only his predictions weren't so accurate.

Ten years after the original Night of the Living Dead, Romero filmed a sequel, dubbed Dawn of the Dead. In 2004, the movie was remade by Zack Snyder and is, without a doubt, the embodiment of everything that good horror films can be at their political worst--gruesome, riveting, genuinely scary, and all despite surgically removing every shred of political commentary in the original. The problem is that it is also a very compelling zombie movie (in large part thanks to Troma studios alum James Gunn, who penned the script). And for these reasons it also gets an honorable mention in this "Zombie" section of the "horror movies every socialist should watch" list.


If the unrealistic prospect of corpses spontaneously rising from beneath your feet and attempting to eat your brains doesn't quite get the skin crawling, then the gritty realism of the "slasher" subgenre may be better suited to bring the scares.

From its birth in the early '70s, the slasher has often been on the forefront of pioneering the best and the worst that the genre as a whole has to offer. One need only compare Black Christmas (1974)--directed, hilariously, by Bob Clark, who went on to helm A Christmas Story--to Sorority House Massacre (1986) to get a sense of the dynamic.

Given this range, there are three movies of this type which should be on every socialist's viewing list this Halloween: Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), and the completely obscure and utterly mind-bending Sleepaway Camp (1983).

Of the first two, very little needs to be said. Each, in their own way helped define the horror genre in the 1980s; their lead antagonists--the pale faced giant Michael Meyers and the knife glove-adorned Freddy Kruger--are among the most terrifying and most lasting in horror history; and both will keep you up at night. Halloween is almost worth watching for Carpenter's score alone.

The most notable feature, and the reason they should be watched by anyone interested in understanding horror movies in general, is that they represent the start of divergent trends in the approach to gore and violence--both of which were intended in their inception as different ways to criticize the violence of society more broadly.

Meyers' icy brutality relies on a hauntingly dispassionate response to his own murderous antics, where Freddy Kruger's taunting, whimsical and slightly camp style of dismemberment (a young Johnny Depp explodes in a literal geyser of blood, for example) is equally shocking, if for slightly different reasons. Striking realism and camp extravagance continue to be the twin poles of violence in the genre up to the present, though the social criticism of both has more or less been blunted.

Politically speaking, both films suffer from the cheap moralizing that is a notable slasher cliché (having sex in one of these movies guarantees a trip in a body bag), but Nightmare on Elm Street offers the careful viewer a slightly more complicated, and, in some very qualified respects, a more sympathetic view of its boogeyman than do most early slasher films. Though the series would go on to stamp out the subtlety in the sequels, it is not entirely clear whether Kruger is responsible for the original murders for which he was burned alive.

Marge Thompson reveals upon confrontation by her daughter Nancy that Freddy was "a filthy child murderer who killed at least [?] 20 kids in the neighborhood," but who was let off by a "fat judge" and "a hot shot lawyer who found a technicality." Thoroughly convinced that this represented a miscarriage of justice "the parents" took things into their own hands and hurled some molotovs into Kruger's house with him inside--making the potentially innocent victim into a vengeful ghost who returns to stalk the dreams of the children of those who wronged him.

This reading obviously offers a rather different moral to the story, and goes a long way to moving the political core of the film squarely to the left.

Where these two films excel in technical rigor, and offer relatively little for radicals to stew over intellectually (Kruger's innocence notwithstanding), Sleepaway Camp is exactly the opposite. The acting is so-bad-it's-good, camera work uninspired, visual effects non-existent--but its jaw-dropping conclusion and overtly gender bending story are all the more remarkable for springing from the loins of Reagan's America. Revealing too much in the way of details would destroy the film's staying power, but in broad strokes the plot is completely unremarkable. A group of teenagers go to summer camp and some unknown person starts slicing them to pieces one by one.

The real point of interest is in the character of Angela. A shy, lanky, and introverted, yet otherwise perfectly normal young girl, who was raised by her deranged aunt after her brother and one of her fathers (yes, plural) is killed in a boating accident. Presumably, custody passed to the aunt rather than her other father because, well, it's 1983. Angela's background, including her less-than-typical family history, is explored through several flashbacks, and it all comes to a head in the movie's final shot--which will invariably be seared into every viewer's mind for the rest of eternity.

Supernatural and/or Ghosts

For those who can't stomach the sight of blood and flayed human flesh, a good old-fashioned ghost story or supernatural horror flick is probably the best place to look when trying to get scared half to death from the safety of your living room this Halloween. More often than not, films produced in this corner of the horror world tend to rely on creepy atmospherics, rather than the more visceral smashing of teeth and grinding of bone that has become the stock and trade of the genre in general.

The two recommendations from this subgenre for socialists in particular are Clive Barker's Candyman (1992), and Guillermo Del Torro's The Devil's Backbone (2001). Barker is best known by the horror crowd for his full-frontal assault on bourgeois sensibility and sexual taboos in his directorial debut, Hellraiser (1987), but his screenplays and stories all lean toward the subversive, and Candyman is no exception.

Set (and shot) in Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project, the story centers around racism, gentrification and a vengeful ghost with a hook for a hand who was lynched in the 1800s for miscegenation--themes all the more powerful for the film's release in 1992 amidst the backdrop of the L.A. Rebellion. It's a brilliant example of a monster who stays with you (bathroom mirrors will be induce terror for days), and of how to use horror to peel back the skin on live political issues.

In a more conventionally artful turn, The Devil's Backbone opens with an aged voice ruminating over the question, "What is a ghost?," as Gen. Francisco Franco's air detachments rain down their payload across the Spanish countryside, with a bomb falling, but miraculously not exploding, just feet away from a child standing in the courtyard of an orphanage.

This sort of rich visual poetry is layered on from start to finish, and creates an almost tangible sense of sadness that floats like a film over the entire story. We come to learn that the orphanage is home to the children of dead Republicans (the film is set in the last years of the Spanish Civil War), that its resident ghost wants the secret of its death revealed and that the really crushing tragedy of the movie is the failure of the revolution to defeat the fascists.

Del Torro understands that the monsters of our fairytales--in this case the ghost of the boy Santi--aren't nearly as frightening as the monsters we face in our waking lives. For this reason alone radicals interested in good art would do well to spread the word about all of his films (yes, even Hellboy); for those of us interested in good art featuring great monsters, Del Torro is practically a god among men.

Creature Features

Speaking of monsters, arguably the oldest horror subgenre is that of the "creature feature." From Frankenstein's monster, to the Wolfman, what started as Saturday afternoon radio plays have become some of the most iconic, and in some cases the most ridiculous, metaphoric representations of our deepest fears as a society.

In the 1950s, giant insects channeled our nuclear anxieties. In the 2010s, angsty vampires with shimmering skin reflected the deep-seated nightmare widespread among abstinence-only educated teens that sexual contact before marriage would make them fly into an uncontrollable blood rage, causing them to kill all of their loved ones. Or something like that.

My two recommendations from this section of the horror aisle are both among the most terrifyingly claustrophobic movies ever made, and are both fronted by well rounded, strong, female leads: Alien (1979), and The Descent (2005).

Much ink has been spilled (rightly) on Alien in the pages of other left publications, and its integration into the grammar of modern popular culture means that I have little to add in the way of commentary justifying its inclusion on this list. A team of interstellar miners employed by a nefarious corporation are trapped in their spaceship with a deadly adaptive creature (which said corporation wants to weaponize), and are led in their attempts to survive by the epically badass Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Case closed.

The Descent, though not known so widely, is similarly straightforward when it comes to its radical credentials. Featuring an all-female cast (well, to be fair, there is one male character--but he isn't given so much as a line before his head is impaled on a pole during a car accident) who remain fully clothed throughout the entire movie, and who are developed as full, flawed and believable characters.

This relatively sparse spelunking adventure-gone-horribly-wrong dumps its thrill-seeking women into an unexplored cave system somewhere in Appalachia before having the only known exit collapse. Faced with this situation, they do the only reasonable thing: push deeper under the earth in search of an alternate escape.

The oppressive darkness, panicked breathing, constantly cramped corridors, and expertly heightened levels of tension between the characters as their plight becomes increasingly hopeless is all enough to make the faint-hearted sweat buckets--and then they run into a breed of blind, subterranean humanoid hunters who see in them a meal.

The expert use of light and the filmmaker's wise decision to take the "less is more" approach to the monsters makes what little we do see of them absolutely blood-curdling, and generates an easy identification with the now-desperate women. Though the ending is a far cry short of visionary, in an era where the horror genre consists primarily of lazy violence-worshiping clones of Hostel--all replete with the misogyny their inspiration embodies--The Descent brings with it a breath of musty, but incredibly refreshing, air as it climbs up from beneath the earth.

If you've made it this far through the piece and are still not convinced that there is very much for socialists to appreciate or better understand in horror movies--including the less savory or politically backward of their number--then I offer one final argument.

Karl Marx was a fan of horror stories. At least, according to his daughter Eleanor. Between thankless days spent in the dusty vaults of the British museum, Marx would evidently spin supernatural tales to his daughters as bedtime stories.

So the next time pangs of political guilt start to well up while considering a horror movie for your viewing pleasure (or discomfort, as may be the case), remember that Marx would approve of this revelry in the macabre.

So, at our close, the list of "horror movies every socialist should watch this Halloween" stands as: Night of the Living Dead (1968); Dawn of the Dead (2004); A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); Halloween (1979); Sleepaway Camp (1983); Candyman (1992); The Devil's Backbone (2001); Alien (1979); and The Descent (2005). Enjoy.

Thanks to Katia and CM for excellent suggestions.

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