The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is perhaps an apt time to consider how horror films post-9/11 have responded to this national trauma and the War on Terror that followed.
The actual images of the twin towers falling and the destruction of Manhattan have, of course, become iconic to the age - just as the mushroom cloud was to the dawn of the atomic age in the 1950s - and science fiction/horror films made since 2001 have been replete in imagery of a destroyed New York . Cloverfield (2008), in its lo-fi handi-cam presentation of the city under attack, echoed the video footage of the twin towers at the point the planes hit – the chaos, the panic, the flight from ‘ground zero’ and the response of the emergency services in the moments that followed. The immediacy of the ‘actuality’ footage in Cloverfield seemed therapeutic in revisiting the trauma of 9/11 and contributed towards the film’s popularity.
I am Legend (2007), released the year before, also used the destruction of New York – alongside Will Smith - as a major selling point. I remember watching the trailer in the cinema and noting the unusual emphasis on showing Manhattan in ruins, so much so that the associations with 9/11 were unmistakable.
Roland Emmerich – that inveterate band-wagon jumper – had actually started this phase with The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Although he had trashed Manhattan before in Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998), the serious tone of The Day After Tomorrow, appropriate in the light of 9/11, made it his best film. He followed it up with 2012 (2009) – another eco-disaster film that took much of its power from the apocalyptic destruction of the Big Apple – but the film was less successful financially, perhaps a sign that, by 2009, audiences were no longer in need of therapy for 9/11 because a new trauma – that of economic recession – had descended upon them.
In my post The Horror Film and Social Collapse I discussed the political implications of 9/11 and how, according to Joseph Stiglitz, America’s handling of Globalisation had contributed to the wave of anti-American feeling that led to the 9/11 attacks. Two films that dealt allegorically with the subsequent War on Terror – particularly the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – highlighted the shortcomings of the Bush administration and its militaristic foreign policy.
28 Weeks Later (2007) depicted an Iraq-like ‘green zone’ and its breach by violent ‘insurgents’. The film focuses (as does Romero’s The Crazies - an obvious influence on 28 Weeks Later) on the military’s botched response to the outbreak of the rage violence which threatens to ‘infect’ everyone in the zone. Unable to contain the outbreak, the military escalate the violence to the point where their only solution is to carpet bomb the whole area killing everyone in it. The film makes the point that responsibility is not always taken seriously by those who hold power.
Romero himself made the same point in Land of The Dead (2005). But whereas 28 Weeks Later offered a withering critique of America’s foreign policy, Land of the Dead criticises Bush’s domestic policy in the aftermath of 9/11. ‘We do not negotiate with terrorists’, states Dennis Hopper’s Rumsfeld-like plutocrat, when faced by a revolt headed by the ethnic military man (read Bin Laden, Saddam Hussain, Gaddafi) who up until then had been doing his dirty work. In the face of the zombie crisis, Hopper’s character has been feathering his own nest – and those of his cronies – Enron-like- in a literal tower while the ordinary people to whom he owes a responsibility are left to fend for themselves on the ground. Romero’s conclusions – that those in power during 9/11 have acted only to serve themselves – were firmly echoed by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).
Other horror films after 9/11 have addressed the issue of America's War on Terror more obliquely. 'Back woods' horror films like Wrong Turn (2003), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006), spoke of the curtailing of liberties following 9/11 and, according to critic, Linnie Blake, the 'demonisation of difference' as the hillbilly figure in these films is presented both as a savage aggressor and a victim of the nation's attempts to marginalise those in society who refused to be assimilated into the dominant ideology (Muslims). This 'demonisation of difference' extended to those in other countries in Hostel (2005) and Hostel 2 (2007). Although some reviewers have claimed that Hostel criticises America's self-proclaimed role as 'policeman of the world' I would disagree. Rather than it being a critique of the American arrogance over foreign policy I would argue that the tropes of the film - and of others in the 'torture porn' subgenre - place it within the reactionary strain of horror films. These films amalgamate the 'slasher' - sexually curious teenagers are punished by torture and death - and the 'urbanoia' film - where the 'have-nots' (in the case of Hostel - the east-Europeans) are exterminated with impunity by the 'haves' (the Americans) for daring to rise up against them.
But whatever way you look at the horror films that followed 9/11, their success at the box office proves (in the words of Wes M at Plutonium Shores) that, 'during these turbulent times, audiences need that cathartic experience.'