In 1969, Night of the Living Dead was unleashed on the innocent children of America. I didn’t get to see it — I was only 12 — but I do recall browsing through my grandparents’ latest issue of The Reader’s Digest and reading Roger Ebert’s notorious review of the movie. He gave away the entire plot (we didn’t worry about spoiler warnings back then), and made it sound like we should dread the corruption of America’s youth by all the on-screen gore.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed.
It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.
I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.
Man, I really had to go see this thing. I probably didn’t get around to it until I was in college, maybe ten years later. Then I’d be totally unimpressed by the bloody violence, but highly impressed by the scariness and the build-up of fear and the way it subverted most horror movie tropes — at the time, that is. It’s since become practically horror movie dogma. It’s a classic. Many of you will probably remember Night of the Living Dead, it’s still got some impact, despite being a low-budget black-and-white zombie flick about a single night of terror, and most of you will just shrug off the scene of the undead scooping up pig’s intestines out of a dummy lying on the ground. That’s kind of not the point of the story.
In 2021, The Suicide Squad arrived on the big screen, the pandemic had loosened its grip (don’t worry, it’s coming back), and I’m old enough to slip my leash and see it on opening night. I was looking forward to it. I am so tired of grimdark superhero movies, where Batman levels whole city blocks with his tank and Superman smashes through apartment buildings, killing citizens (indirectly and offscreen, usually) and everyone is so damned angry all the time. I also remember the Christopher Reeve Superman movie which was just as radical as Romero’s Dead, because it was all about optimism and hope and a superhero who was truly good, and I feel like I could use some of that light-heartedness. I expected some of that bright comic book color popping off the screen, with a cheerful pop-music soundtrack, and a plot about people coming together through adversity, you know, like James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Holy christ, this is not that movie.
There is so much explicit death and murder and blood in The Suicide Squad. You know that in a Zack Snyder movie the heroes will be cavalier about meting out justice — cars will explode, presumably killing their occupants, and buildings will collapse in a shower of broken glass and dust and brick, presumably destroying the families inside, but you won’t see the corpses. This movie…well, the chains have been unshackled. It’s about an expendable team of bad guys on a mission to destroy everything on a South American island, and right at the beginning we’re going to see half that team annihilated. I hope you weren’t looking forward to finding out about more of those characters you see in all the trailers, because they’re going to set foot on the island and get faces blown off, literally. Goodbye, Nathan Fillion, Pete Davidson, Flula Borg, and even Sean Gunn as the repellent Weasel — those are little more than walk-on cameos before their characters are blown away in a splatter of fluids and body parts.
If the protagonists are going to get treated as scrap bits falling off the butcher counter, that’s nothing compared to the military trying to defend their island of Corto Maltese. They are literally monster fodder. The shark man eats them alive, and they die screaming. The shark rips off a guy’s head and pops it into his jaws, complete with a shot of the head grimacing, its eyes rolling, blood spurting from the stump of its neck. People are ripped in half, both lengthwise and at the waist, showering everything in blood. The Squad guns down an entire camp of revolutionary allies on accident, and they just say “Oops, my bad”, and the leader of the revolution shrugs it off.
There is a kaiju rampage in the last quarter of the movie, but don’t think back to Godzilla or King Kong marching through a cardboard city. Nope, that wouldn’t be realistic. The streets are full of dead civilians. The monster stomps on fleeing mobs. People are crushed by all the masonry falling from the office buildings. James Gunn is not timid about the slaughter, as Zack Snyder would be…and given that Snyder is a murderous monster towards his characters, that is a surprising sentence.
Otherwise, though, this is a well-crafted movie that skips along lightly, keeps the story going, has distinctive characters, and even is loaded with humor. It’s a black, cynical humor, but sure, I guess bits of it were funny.
I do wonder what the Roger Ebert of 1969 would make of 52 years of cinema progress, though. This isn’t even a horror movie. Genre has lost all meaning.
Paul K says
Jeez, I don’t get the attraction. PZ, you said, that by the time you saw Night of the Living Dead in college, you’d ‘be totally unimpressed by the bloody violence.’ I’m three years younger than you, and I’ve never reached that point. Back in the day of VHS movie rentals, friends would get modern horror movies, and I would pass on watching them. Not just because the gore was disgusting to me, but because it creeped me out that my friends would just laugh and pass the popcorn. This same thing happened when I once went to my sister’s house, and sat for a bit in a room while her pre-teen kids played a gory shooter video game. It was emotionally painful to watch, so I left.
I know this is just me, and I respect everyone else’s tastes, but I just don’t get it. And this is why I stopped going to see super hero movies way back when the Marvel franchise was just getting up to steam (and I don’t recall seeing any of the DC films). I just cannot get past all the masses of people needlessly, obviously dying in the background. Even if it isn’t shown, the stupidity and arrogant obliviousness of it on the part of the ‘heroes’ just makes no sense to me. I guess, if the definition of hero is simply ‘the ones who defeat the villain’, then it hangs together. But with all the casual killing, I find it hard to understand just who the villain is.
Anyway, thanks for your review, not that I was going to see this thing anyway. I’d feel like I was back in the Roman Colosseum, sitting in a group of people revelling in the suffering of others. I know it’s fake, but the effort put into making it look as real and graphic as possible, would make me physically sick, and I have no desire to pay for that.
Schnitzel Von Knobbschafft says
If nothing else, I’m disgusted that they should take a dump on Hugo Pratt’s genius.
Paul K @ #1,
I’m definitely with you. When my husband and I were in college, we went to the on-campus theater to see a horror flick called “It’s Alive”. It was a movie about a monstrous killer newborn, and I was pregnant with our first child. It made me terribly, physically ill. I have not seen a horror movie since.
My husband loves the Marvel films, and I’ve managed to watch them, concentrating on the characters and their relationships.
We recently saw “Black Widow”. It was even more needlessly violent than other Marvel films. I got the feeling that there was an incentive to show that an all female team could be just as wantonly violent as any other team.
I’ve lost interest in any Marvel offerings lately. I used to enjoy “Agents of Shield” and “Agent Carter” was a joy.
The two newest TV shows, “Wanda Vision” and “Loki” were just too inane to be watchable for me.
I’m finished with watching anything Marvel with my husband.
I’ve always preferred Star Trek to any other Science Fiction universe. It portrays a much more optimistic view of humanity.
I’ll stick with that.
Paul , me too ! Glad I got warned about this movie which I was planning to go see. Not any more!
The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs) says
@#1, Paul K:
There was a really good article years ago on Cracked.com, sadly I didn’t save a link and Google just gives me pages of list articles, which pointed out that modern superhero movies are inherently fascist in their worldview. The “necessary” violence that kills masses of people, always offscreen, is a part of that.
(Really wish I could find the original article, because it was very well-argued, and I have yet to see any counterargument which isn’t just “the movies aren’t that deep”, which is a non-argument to begin with.)
To all above, I share your views. I once in high school went to a movie–I believe it was The Omen–in which someone was decapitated by a piece of glass. When we walked out of the theater, we made a pact right then never to see a violent movie again.
I don’t like the callousness. I don’t think that people should be habituated to seeing or conceiving of such violence. It normalizes it, and, as PZ said, in the movies people just shrug it off, and that is completely unreal. In real life, violence is absolutely traumatizing.
For what screen violence I’ve had to see, my brain has a protective mechanism of saying “It isn’t real, it’s just a movie/ TV show.” This is so pronounced now that, watching the planes crash (one of them live) on 9/11, my brain refused to believe it. “You’ve told me all my life that violence that we see on screen isn’t real! This isn’t real either, it’s just on TV! It’s the TV’s fault!” And I did have a hard time convincing myself that it wasn’t directed and all the camera angles carefully chosen, etc.
You know what is a horror movie? Old. Just got back from a matinée and clearly this is a movie that will be sticking with me. It’s about the horror of aging, of having everything — the mind, the senses, the general infrastructure — break down in ways that we can’t predict or control. There’s body horror, but also metaphysical horror, and the Trolley Problem, and the sheer terror of having your children grow up and take paths that you know will lead to disaster and want to spare them from. It’s really something.
The mildly deranged penguin suggests that if one wants “teh ultimate” zombie movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey ticks all the boxes and eats all yer brainz, with the advantages of no plot and cinematographically brilliant gore. A bunch of fake apes slaughter each other and turn into an alarmingly incomplete orbital hotel, from which the Moon (suspiciously sans cheese) attacks Jupiter (an out-of-work actor pretending to be Saturn). After that, the plot becomes a bit less (or possibly more) understandable until the end, when a plant-sized zombie resembling the Earth orbits a Moon-sized baby (but still no cheese). At various points in-between, people are fed into silent vacuums after doing a bad lip-sync of something about a Mysterious It’s brainz being eaten by a gobbledygook that same Mysterious It says is not eating its brainz. Daiseys are mentioned at one point, apparently as an antidote to having the Mysterious It’s brainz eaten.
I was supposed to be going to see this film with my best friend/beloved this weekend. But today I got an email from him telling me our friendship of sixteen years is over and he thinks I’m toxic and unable to respect boundaries. It hurt a lot, and I’ve been deeply depressed all day. I only had three friends, now I’m down to two. And my chances of any kind of relationship, even the boyfriend-without-benefits one I had, are now over.
But I guess it means I don’t have to see the film now. Which I was only going to see because he wanted to see it. It’s not much of a silver lining.
I used to be into some degree of violence and/or gore in films. Not always for it’s own sake. We Were Soldiers had a point for me in plotting the Indochina timeline for instance.
I fell hard for the original The Walking Dead and followed the spinoffs. I purged my DVR recently of a majority of unwatched recent episodes of Fear the Walking Dead and am unsure about continuing the original when it starts soon. Partly Daryl/Carol burnout, but I think subconsciously it’s pandemic fatigue. The suspense and terror of real life makes watching stuff like it on the screen superfluous and unnerving.
Just mindless comedy and Adult Swim type cartoons for me. Maybe Beavis and Butthead relaunch. No horror, gore, or overwhelming violence for me anymore. Want to escape the excessive negativity of real life.
It’s intriguing to see a Roger Ebert review from so long ago, even before his first appearance with Gene Siskel on public TV. His 2004 note paints a consistent picture, taken with the nuances of the review itself. I think he’s jumping the gun mentioning “censorship” but it may have made sense for a Chicago audience. He makes a good case for the MPAA rating system then being introduced, and now with additional ratings such as PG-13 and NC-17. He never says it is a terrible film by artistic standards.
I grew up watching schlock horror and science fiction on UHF TV. Most was from the 50s, but there were some truly ancient ones like Doctor X (1932). What always appealed to me was the sense of the uncanny rather than gore. My favorite (more) recent movie in that category is The Sixth Sense (1999) though I have been less impressed by M. Night Shymalan’s later efforts.
I’m not a huge fan of zombie movies. Zombies are more dumb than evil. But I remember being surprised by how much I liked Evil Dead II.
Over 50 years later, I agree that kids probably shouldn’t watch really gory movies. At the very least, they shouldn’t find themselves watching one by complete surprise as Ebert recounts.
Rob Grigjanis says
cartomancer @9: That seems rather sudden and harsh. All the best.
On cavalier superheroes, I wasn’t thrilled with Deadpool, and never saw the sequels. My daughter was fine with it (and yet nearly traumatized by Uncut Gems, go figure, and not the violence but mostly by Adam Sandler yelling at people). Deadpool tries to turn cruelty into comedy. Who needs that?
Ray Ceeya says
@5 The Vicar
I think I found what you are looking for, but it wasn’t Cracked, it was The Guardian.
“America’s need for superheroes has led to the rise of Donald Trump”
Ray Ceeya says
In the movies, the characters’ status as superheroes allows them to act as judge, jury and executioner for their ideologies and preferences.
Quote from that same article
Rob Grigjanis, #12
I thought so too. But there is doubtless blame on both sides. I expect I will be in the depths of depression for the foreseeable. C’est la vie.
Paul K says
cartomancer @9: That’s awful, and my heart goes out to you.
The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs) says
@#14, Ray Ceeya:
No, it was Cracked.com, and it was published long before Trump began his campaign.
Given the review for the first movie I’m surprised they got to make a second one.
Thanks for the support everyone. It’s like the perfect storm – all the pain of the break-up without the joys of the relationship. But that’ll teach me for a decade and a half of unrequited love and my inability to balance trying just to be friends and trying to change his mind and achieve more intimacy than that. But I’m going off-topic something chronic, so I’ll stop talking now.
I remember that review and read it when it first came out. Being a kid, I didn’t have enough background to really agree or disagree with it.
These days, I’m burned out on horror, violence, and dystopian novels and science fiction. It is because our current existence is so dismal. I don’t want to relive the last few decades, I want to escape them.
I don’t think it helps any type of story to kill off the heroes at the end.
Garnetstar @ 6
Omen was a crappy film on several levels.
Myself, I prefer violence in the form of South Park and Family Guy -sometimes I must look away but it is because the humor is so gross, not because of the violence.
“The uncanny” -Films that are made with the skill to create this feeling are few and far between. Maybe the British “Under The Skin ”
The unintentionally entertaining films are heartwarming.
“The Bells of Innocence” – made by the son of Chuck Norris- has the christian protagonist touching a lot of children (not related to him) to see if they have been cursed by the satanist cult that controls the town he wandered into. The parents do not like their children getting touched by this stranger, confirming they are bad (the aircraft he was using to transport bibles to Mexico got engine trouble so they landed near the satan-run town) Genuinely “so bad it’s good”.
Alternatives to cynical slaughter films.
‘The Killer Condom’, ‘Gamera’, Big Man Japan.
God Awful Movies keep digging up real gems.
Try Flat Earth Clues, or the films claiming the aliens that abduct people are demons in disguise. And my two favv muslim films: “International Guerrillas” and “Day When Sun Rises in the West, Film That Shock (sic!) the World.
Hm, so I am 52 and grew up watching movies on TV like Soylent Green, Rollerball, Omega Man, Deathrace 2000, and Logan’s Run — dystopias with maybe not too much explicit violence relative to today, although the regressive sexual politics seem almost unbelievable now, and the view of the future was universally extremely dark. Also a lot of black and white WWII movies, a lot of Westerns, and some pretty crappy Sci-Fi. I saw Star Wars when I was 7 years-old, and watched a young man inspired by an ancient religion strike at an Evil Empire and kill hundreds of thousands of soldiers, technicians, service people, and probably some prisoners.
I don’t know that modern superhero movies are actually anywhere close to as disturbing, but that is just my perspective.
Rich Woods says
@PZ: Weasel survives.
Walter Solomon says
This film was James Gunn Unchained.
A part of me believes this was his way to spit in Disney’s face. Obviously, making films with them he was limited to PG violence which, I believe, made for a better film overall.
When Disney sacked him for his Twitter, I believe he was looking to take revenge and that came in the form of The Suicide Squad.
That said, I do believe there’s a place for R-rated superhero films. Deadpool and Blade are two characters who wouldn’t do well in a PG film but for superheroes the lighter stuff is more than adequate.
@26, When you cancel a big-time director, you better hope they stay cancelled. He’s back and it is going to be a while before we get another lighthearted sci-fi romp. IOW Suicide Squad is a zombie movie after all!
Saw the new Suicide Squad, about 90 minutes too long.
Sergio, Oslo, A Perfect Day; all three are good movies about humans, despite their flaws, working to resolve conflicts without resorting to bullets and superheros.
I do play online games with a bunch of guys I played with in a aerial combat game for over a decade. Recently switched to a modern, supposedly realistic, war game and I felt awful that I had to tell these cartoon friends that the mod they added to be able to use exploding bullets is a war crime, it is not ok to shoot civilians, and got very upset and vocal about a scenario were UN peacekeepers were the opposing force. Some listened about avoiding war crimes. The scenario was dropped. Some, though, still just delight in shear murderous body count and destruction.
Think everone should have to play This War of Mine where you play a civilian trapped in a war zone before they get to play first person shooter war games. Very sobering.
John Morales says
Well, it’s the suicide squad, no? Suicide mission and all that.
Exactly what I expect of a “team of bad guys”.
Bad guys aren’t supposed to be nice. They’re supposed to be bad.
Seems to me it’s what it says on the box.
The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs) says
@#29, John Morales:
That post reminds me of a What’s New With Phil And Dixie strip from Duelist magazine circa 1998 (thanks, Google, for filling in the blanks that the print collection left) where they were supposed to plug an upcoming expansion to the Magic trading card game, to be titled Stronghold, but the editors of the magazine knew nothing about it except the name and nobody from the company would return Phil Foglio’s calls, so he did a strip which was explicitly about what you could deduce about it from the name, with an introductory panel explaining that he had no information to share. The strip literally contains this text (along with much else in the same vein):
It goes on like that for another 4 panels. It contains nothing official, not even a picture of whatever the heck the stronghold was actually supposed to look like copied from promotional material, because Wizards of the Coast hadn’t even shared that much with the magazine.
And then people from Wizards of the Coast contacted the Foglios after publication to ask who had leaked the information.
John Morales says
When I was in grad school in the seventies, my office partner and best friend used to make a weekly pilgrimage into town to catch the latest horror/splatter movie. Why such a mild-mannered guy considered such gore-fests as popcorn-worthy entertainment is something I never understood, although he explained it was cathartic fantasy and completely unreal, hence unperturbing fiction. For my part, I am subject to graphic flashbacks of unsought glimpses of grotesque scenes (whether in movie previews or news reports of disasters), and my mind’s perverse tendency to torment me this way has taught me the virtues of averted vision (like during the friendly prep video on eye surgery provided by my ophthalmologist; the chirpy narration was enough to make me queasy). Strangely enough, as a farm boy I was inured to dead animals being hauled away to the tallow works, but I never found any entertainment there.
Although I’ve enjoyed some of the superhero movies of recent years, it’s always troubled me how urban demolition certain to entail dozens or hundreds of casualties never seems to cast a pall over the requisite happy ending, where surviving cast members are quite cheerful. This even occurred in Star Trek into Darkness, where Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh destroys a huge part of San Francisco by crashing a starship into it, but happy survivors at Starfleet Academy demonstrate their amazing resilience in a celebratory conclusion. (Was there even smoke remaining from the surrounding wreckage of the destroyed city?)
Halcyon Dayz, FCD says
You are telling me it is even an option to take kids to an R-rated movie?
Tabby Lavalamp says
The reason modern superhero movies are inherently fascist is because that’s the source material they have to work from. Superheros period are inherently fascist. Ubermensch who aren’t restricted by meaningless things like “rights” and who have unchecked power to clean the streets of undesirables aren’t something to be desired. Who needs things like evidence when a masked man can leave a couple of people he claims are thieves tied up outside a police station after they’ve received a brutal beating?
The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs) says
I really, really wish I could find that article, because it had something like five or six distinct points, all of them really good. I have found another article, which I’m pretty sure was published later than the one I want, which has a lot of overlap: here.
The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs) says
And on a lighter note, perhaps superheroes should advertise on TV like cheap lawyers. Or fundraise like charities.
I’m ok with gore and violence, but I care more about the storylines. And yeah, please don’t engage in a competition of “who shows their kids the most gore at the youngest age”. Children aren’t small adults with a lack of knowledge. they are different, their brains are developing. They need to learn about storylines and characters and they can only do so at certain ages. Now, I’m the last person to tell you about 15 minutes screen time, because I’d be a massive hypocrite if I did, but yeah. Start them on Peppa Pig: easy plot, everybody wears their heart on their sleeve. Go on to Frozen where they encounter a villain who is not obvious from the start. Give them time, give them opportunity. Talk to them, also about violence and gender roles.
At school we do “crime stories” in year 7. The kids usually love it. We learn about typical elements (motive, suspects, witnesses, detective,…), solve some crime stories ourselves, and do some creative writing.
At that point you see pretty quickly what kids were raised with media and what kids were raised by media. The latter group often only knows violence. They have huge difficulties finding clue or reasons. When they write their own stories, it usually starts with a massacre and ends with one. “Why did the gunslinger kill those three hundred people?” “Because he does so in the video game”. Another kid wrote a bank robbery placed in the world of Pokémon. You could say “yeah, so he just copied media as well”, but that kid showed that he had understood the narrative structure of an episode and applied it to a crime story, that he understood the characters.
Do i have to mention that the former kid is pretty unable to resolve any kind of conflict peacefully?
Walt Disney was racist and a lot of other bad things, but his films rarely featured mass murder.
Let kids watch children’s programs* and keep them away from blood-soaked stuff.
*I am aware that some programs aimed at children are of abysmal quality. Let them watch something from Studio Ghibli instead.
Even the Japanese Gamera films are relatively harmless (but stupid).
Objectively, most superheroes are supervillains but the 1960s Batman is silly enough to be harmless.
Maybe I should add that I like British TV detective programs, less blood but still engaging. If the kids stay up to watch that they will be OK.