It takes only a few minutes of watching The American Nightmare for the viewer to get the point: Real life is far more horrific--more brutal, more bloody, more visceral, more abhorrent--than any fiction ever created. Director Adam Simon, a masterful film-history documentarian, splices footage of fact and fiction together until they blend into a grisly whole: Are we watching scenes from a movie (Last House on the Left, Night of the Living Dead) or documentary footage from the battlefields of Vietnam and Mississippi and Kent State? Or, in the end, does it matter?
As Simon posits, through the voices of John Carpenter and George Romero and Tobe Hooper and other filmmakers, their violent films of the late 1960s and early '70s were nothing but reflections of the turmoil surrounding them. They were documentarians, of a sort, posing as artists: The climax of Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead--when the Southern cops kill the film's hero, Ben (Duane Jones), mistaking him for a zombie before tossing him on a pyre--is no less chilling than the black-and-white photographs of lynchings and burned corpses that hang from trees like charred Christmas-tree ornaments. Simon has eradicated the stench of camp that has long lingered around Romero's low-budget, blood-drunk horror film. It is possible once more to watch Night of the Living Dead and be genuinely horrified by it: A black man is gleefully gunned down by white cops who treat his body as something to be defiled and destroyed--as so much trash, to be burned and not buried.
When director and makeup artist Tom Savini talks about how he learned the tricks of his trade by traipsing through the corpse-strewn rice paddies of Vietnam, we're at once sickened and amused by his indifference. He talks about stepping over limbs, snapping photographs of blown-to-bits bodies (some of which he has preserved to show us 30 years later), and of shutting out emotion through the distance provided by the camera's lens. The tone of his voice suggests that he's more than a little ashamed, but he's also proud--proud he survived, proud he used horror to create horror. "I was actually able to look at bone and blood and placement and geography," says the man who created the gore for such films as Friday the 13thand Deranged. Then we get a glimpse of Savini's having his own head blown to bits by a shotgun. In this context, without the cushion of camp to break our fall, the scene is hard to take, almost nauseating. It is, quite simply, far too real to bear.
Every horror film of the 1970s has its real-life corollary: David Cronenberg's 1975 Shivers, for instance, at once celebrates and castigates the sexual revolution of the post-Woodstock generation. The director turns sexual liberation into a rancid parasite that infects the host, rendering him or her a deviant. When the hero finally gives in at the film's end, it is both victory and defeat--he's free to fuck his brains out (literally), but at a horrific cost.
A cynic might dismiss The American Nightmareas too highfalutin, giving the lowbrow such highbrow treatment; interviews with directors are intercut with commentary from experts who explain the obvious. ("This is notjust a movie," says one author of a book on shock and trauma. "This is Kent State, this is Vietnam.") But Simon's point is well taken, right through the skull: The most terrifying things in this world take place not on a screen, but right in front of us. Be afraid. Be very afraid.