Horror's 'Shock Value' Redefined In The 1960s Rosemary's Baby, Night of the Living Dead and Targets all came out in 1968. Theater critic Jason Zinoman says the three films redefined Hollywood horror in the aftermath of the Vietnam War — and influenced the genre for the next several decades.

Horror's 'Shock Value' Redefined In The 1960s

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Not everybody likes to be scared at the movies, but for those who do, the late '60s through the early '80s was a golden age, with films like "Night of the Living Dead," "Rosemary's Baby," "Halloween," "Last House on the Left," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th."

My guest, Jason Zinoman, is the author of the new book "Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror." Zinoman is a critic and reporter who covers theater for the New York Times.

We're going to talk about three films he says launched the modern horror film. Let's start with a relatively obscure one, the 1968 film "Targets," which was directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich also co- stars in the film as a film director. In this scene, he's trying to convince an old washed-up horror-film star, Byron Orlok, to take a new role, but Orlok wants out of movies. Orlok is played by the real horror film star Boris Karloff.


BORIS KARLOFF: (as Byron Orlok) Everybody's dead. I feel like a dinosaur. Oh, I know how people think of me these days: old-fashioned, outmoded.

PETER BOGDANOVICH: (as Sammy Michaels) Not after this picture they wouldn't.

KARLOFF: (as Byron Orlok) You can't change a whole lifetime with one picture.

BOGDANOVICH: (as Sammy Michaels) Well, what have you got if you quit?

KARLOFF: (as Byron Orlok) Oh, Sammy, what's the use? Mr. Bogeyman, King of Blood they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream. (Unintelligible) an actor. Oh, it's not that the films are bad. I've gone bad. I couldn't even play a straight part decently anymore. I've been doing the other thing too long.

BOGDANOVICH: (as Sammy Michaels) Of course you could.

KARLOFF: (as Byron Orlok) And even that isn't the point. Do you know what they call my films today? Camp, high camp. Wait a minute, I want to show you something. My kind of horror isn't horror anymore. There they are. Look at that. No one's afraid of a painted monster.

GROSS: That's Boris Karloff and Peter Bogdanovich from Bogdanovich's 1968 film "Targets." Jason Zinoman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you see this movie as a eulogy for the old horror film. Why?

JASON ZINOMAN: Well, in the clip that you just heard, you get a sense of Peter Bogdanovich, who made this movie, his point of view about the horror film in 1968, when it's made. He didn't like horror. He didn't even like "Dracula" and "Frankenstein."

And he thought that in an era where you had all this political tumult, and you had, you know, assassinations in the news, that these old Vincent Price and Boris Karloff movies were no longer scary.

And when Roger Corman, who produced this movie, gave him a chance to do his first movie, it was under the condition that he use Boris Karloff in the movie. So this was a real problem for Bogdanovich, because he didn't think that Karloff was relevant anymore and wasn't frightening.

So he came up with a pretty kind of ingenious solution, which was that he broke up the movie into two halves, one which is Karloff playing a Karloff-like figure, an aging horror star who no longer is very relevant and who delivers this speech which says that, you know, no one's afraid of a painted monster anymore. And then in the second narrative, he articulates, you know, what he thinks is truly scary, which I think anticipates the new school of horror.

GROSS: And the real horror in "Targets" is a serial killer.

ZINOMAN: It's a serial killer, and it's essentially - you see this guy who's inspired by Charles Whitman, the sniper, in Texas, and it's a very realistic, almost mundane portrait of him buying bullets to a gun, going about his daily life, seeing his family.

We learn very little about his psychology, his motivation, and then he goes to the screening where the Karloff character, Byron Orlok, is introducing his movie, and he goes behind a screen and he starts shooting at people in a drive-in movie theater.

The only thing we know about this guy in terms of what his motivation is, is you get one shot of him in Vietnam. So you know he's a Vietnam vet, and these movies in '68 have a kind of counter-culture edge to it. But what I think is more important is the fact of what we don't know.

KARLOFF: spooky old houses, this kind of expressionistic lighting, which has become a little campy.

GROSS: So are there other things that you think separate the modern horror film from the older horror films?

ZINOMAN: Yeah, I think - I mean, several things. I think that as you look at this period from '68 to the end of the '70s, generally, first of all, you see a lot more unhappy endings. There isn't this kind of catharsis at the end that you see in a lot of movies before that.

The central kind of monsters are no longer werewolves and vampires and the supernatural. The central monsters are - or I guess I would say the central monsters become serial killers and zombies. And of course there's still a lot of vampires in the '70s as well, but I think the most significant one is probably the serial killer.

And I think the other thing that marks it is there's a certain kind of moral ambiguity about these movies and just generally a sort sense of confusion and disorientation that marks most of these films.

GROSS: One of the films you write about is the 1968 film "Night of the Living Dead," a zombie classic, directed by George Romero. Before we talk about it, let's hear the opening scene. And in this scene, a brother and sister have reluctantly driven a long way to their father's grave, at their mother's request, for their annual visit to lay a wreath on the grave.

And the brother and sister have been quarreling in the car because he's been grumbling about having to drive so far. He doesn't want to go. And she's annoyed with him. Meanwhile, it's a very bleak day. It's starting to thunder as they get to the cemetery. And once at the cemetery, the sister is kneeling at the grave in prayer.

As the scene goes on, the brother tries to scare the sister because he knows she gets a little skittish in cemeteries. She gets really annoyed. And then he says: Oh, look who's coming now? And it turns out the person coming now is a zombie. So let's go back to the beginning of the scene, where it's starting to thunder, and she's kneeling at the grave praying.



Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) Hey, come on, Barb, church was this morning, huh?


KARLOFF: (as character) Hey, I mean praying's for church, huh? Come on.

JUDITH O: (as Barbra) I haven't seen you in church lately.

KARLOFF: (as character) Well, there's not much sense in my going to church. Do you remember one time when we were small, we were out here? It was from right over there. I jumped out at you from behind the tree, and grandpa got all excited and he shook his fist at me and he said: Boy, you'll be damned to hell. Remember that? Right over there. Why, you used to really be scared here.

DEA: (as Barbra) Johnny...

Man #1 (Actor): (as character) Well, you're still afraid.

DEA: (as Barbra) Stop it, now, I mean it.

Man #1 (Actor): (as character) They're coming to get you, Barbara.

DEA: (as Barbra) Stop it. You're ignorant.

Man #1 (Actor): (as character) They're coming for you, Barbara.

DEA: (as Barbra) Stop it. You're acting like a child.

Man #1 (Actor): (as character) They're coming for you. Look, there comes one of them now.

DEA: (as Barbra) He'll hear you.

Man #1 (Actor): (as character) Here he comes now. I'm getting out of here.

DEA: (as Barbra) Johnny...



DEA: (as Barbra) Johnny, help me!

GROSS: Once the zombie appears, they're trying to eat the sister. The brother grabs him, grabs the zombie, and then the zombie starts eating the brother and kills the brother. The sister gets away but dies before the movie ends.

It's a really incredible opening scene. It's very atmospheric. It's really spooky and, you know, very surprising the first time you see it. So how do you think George Romero's zombies, his now-famous zombies, compare to all the zombies that preceded "Night of the Living Dead"?

ZINOMAN: Well, first off, every time I go to a cemetery, I think about this scene. I mean, this scene is just terrifying.


ZINOMAN: And I mean the impact - you know, my day job is I'm a theater critic, and just last week I reviewed a zombie Western, which was - had zombies which were like Romero's zombies. And today I got an email telling me there's a play which is "Our Town" with zombies. And I've seen a play called "Twelfth Night of the Living Dead."


ZINOMAN: So, I mean, it's just - you cannot imagine how influential this tiny little movie in Pittsburgh has been, and so these zombies - I mean, in the horror world there's this huge, angry, polarized vibe between people who love slow zombies and people who love fast zombies, and these are obviously the quintessential slow zombies.

And I mean, what you hear in that clip, I mean it's great that you played this clip after "Targets" because when he is doing the voice, the creepy voice of the old horror, that's a voice which is meant to evoke Karloff, who is one of the great voices in the history of movies, and Price, and...

GROSS: This is when he's saying: They're coming to get you, Barbara.


ZINOMAN: Exactly, exactly, that kind of echoing voice. That's - I mean, these movies in '68, you have to - the horror movie was really having a tough time in 1967. I mean, there weren't many horror movies that Hollywood was putting out that were successful. And so these movies were really grappling with what to do about the horror movie, and they all are kind of - you see in that movie, again, Romero evokes the old horror, and then the new horror comes lurching towards us, and...

GROSS: The new horror has so much more blood, guts, gore, intestines. I mean, one of the producers of the film was from the meat-packing industry, and he loaned a lot of innards for it.

ZINOMAN: He's a key figure in the history of horror. I mean, the fact - I mean, this was the movie that kind of made gore mainstream. It wasn't the first movie that included a lot of gore, but it used it incredibly effectively and it became, you know, part of the kind of artistic palette of horror movie.

And, you know, there's a scene, probably the most memorable scene in the movie is when a daughter who's a zombie eats her father, and it's messy. And you know, since then, of course, movies have gotten more and more gory.

But I mean, the interesting thing is that the intentions of George Romero were one thing, but how the movie was received was something else.

GROSS: What was the difference between the two?

ZINOMAN: Well, a lot, but the key thing was that the main character of "Night of the Living Dead," the hero, there was this sort of defiant hero who was an African-American actor named - played by an African- American named Duane Jones. And you know, at the end of the movie you had this very strong African-American actor who at one point slaps a blonde woman and who faces off against all these zombies and is, you know, just a wonderful horror hero.

And he gets gunned down by the law in this very ridiculous way after defeating all these zombies. It was viewed as a statement about civil rights and a kind of anti-authority statement.

Now, the fact is, is that I talked to every - you know, a lot of people who worked in this movie, and they said that this guy, the part was written for a white truck driver, and he just happened - you know, they didn't have a lot of money. They didn't have a lot of good actors, and this guy auditioned, and he was the best guy for the job.

He insisted - he sort of didn't want this - his character to be a truck driver and to be kind of a gruff guy. So he played him with this great dignity. And it was sort of by accident.

And a lot of these - I mean, one of the things I'm fascinated by, by these movies, is how they - a lot of their greatest elements happen through a combination of, you know, strong vision and happenstance and accident.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Zinoman. He writes about theater for the New York Times. His new book is about modern horror films. It's called "Shock Value." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Zinoman. He writes about theater for the New York Times. His new book is about modern horror films. It's called "Shock Value."

So we've been talking about how there are three kind of turning-point horror films from 1968: Peter Bogdanovich's "Targets," which starred Boris Karloff; George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead"; and the third that you mention is "Rosemary's Baby," which was a big commercial success in 1968. Roman Polanski directed it. It starred Mia Farrow as a pregnant woman who thinks there's maybe something wrong with her baby. She doesn't feel right.

But her husband, her neighbor, her obstetrician all reassure her. Of course it turns out they're all part of a devil-worshipping cult, and Rosemary has been impregnated with Satan's child.

So let's hear a scene with her husband.


MIA FARROW: (as Rosemary Woodhouse) Guy?

JOHN CASSAVETES: (as Guy Woodhouse) Yeah?

FARROW: (as Rosemary) I'm going to Dr. Hill Monday morning. Dr. Sapirstein is either lying or he's - I don't know, out of his mind. Pain like this is a warning something's wrong.

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) Rosemary...

FARROW: (as Rosemary) And I'm not drinking Minnie's drink anymore. I want vitamins and pills like everyone else. I haven't drunk it for the last three days. I've thrown it away.

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) You what?

FARROW: (as Rosemary) I've made my own drink.

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) Is that what those (bleep) were giving you in there? Is that their hint for the day?

FARROW: (as Rosemary) They're my friends. They're...

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) They're a bunch of not-very-bright (bleep) who ought to mind their own (bleep) damn business.

FARROW: (as Rosemary) All they said was get a second opinion.

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) Rosemary, you've got the best doctor in New York. You know who Dr. Hill? He's a Charlie Nobody. That's who he is.

FARROW: (as Rosemary) I'm tired of hearing how great Dr. Sapirstein is.

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) Well, we'll have to pay Sapirstein, we'll have to pay Hill. Well, it's out of the question, uh-uh, uh-uh.

FARROW: (as Rosemary) No, I'm not changing. I just want to go to Dr. Hill and get a second opinion.

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) I won't let you do it, Ro. I mean, because it's not fair to Sapirstein.

FARROW: (as Rosemary) Not fair to - what are you talking about? What about what's fair to me?

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) If you want a second opinion, you tell Sapirstein and let him decide.

FARROW: (as Rosemary) No, I want Dr. Hill. If you won't pay, then I'll, I'll...

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) Ro? Rosemary? What is it? What?

FARROW: (as Rosemary) The pain stopped.

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) Stopped...

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) What was in that drink you made?

FARROW: (as Rosemary) Eggs, milk, (unintelligible)...

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) What else? What else? Tell me, Rosemary. For Christ sake, what else was in that drink?

FARROW: (as Rosemary) It's alive. Guy, it's moving. It's alive. It's all right. (Unintelligible). Don't be scared. It won't bite.

CASSAVETES: (as Guy) It's wonderful. It's really...

FARROW: (as Rosemary) I feel it kicking. It's alive. It's moving.

GROSS: So that's a scene from "Rosemary's Baby," which was released in 1968. My guest is Jason Zinoman, the author of the new book about modern horror films called "Shock Value."

So how do you think "Rosemary's Baby" breaks from the past?

ZINOMAN: Well, "Rosemary's Baby" adopts this strategy that became very common, which was - in the horror movie, which is to set up a very kind of normal, realistic, mundane landscape and then introduce the supernatural to get the audience to suspend its disbelief for a little bit.

And you know, I think what you see with "Rosemary's Baby," what Polanski wanted to do was to really - and it's a little hard to see now because we've seen so many movies like this since then, but he really wanted to keep the audience guessing on whether or not Rosemary was crazy and imagining this, the fact that she was about to have the devil's child, or that this was really happening. And he did it by shooting it - emphasizing how subjective the movie's point of view was. And that's the real suspense of the movie, which is, you know, is this really going on?

It's this very paranoid movie. And I think you see in a - say, like "Black Swan." You know, it's one of the many movies today that uses a similar tactic.

GROSS: Now, you point out that there's a decision that the filmmaker made to not show what the baby looked like, what Satan's child looked like, and in a more conventional film, you might have seen this, like, monstrous little creature. You don't.

ZINOMAN: Right, right, because in Polanski's mind, this is a movie that really wanted to be more about suggestion and wanted to be in the mind of Rosemary, and that if you saw the monster - first of all, I find it hard to believe that whatever special effects they had at the time wouldn't date rather fast. So to not show it in this case was probably a smart move.

GROSS: I want you to know that I recently interviewed Nick Pomgarten(ph), a writer for the New Yorker, who wrote a piece about online dating, and he says one of the people who works at one of the online dating sites told him that a good way to find your match is to answer the question: Do you like horror movies? And if you answer yes, and somebody else answers yes, it's an indication you're probably a good match.

Now, I tell you think this because I think your marriage might be in trouble...


GROSS: Because you mention at the end of your book that your wife doesn't really like horror movies. So I thought I owed it to you to warn you.

ZINOMAN: Trust me, I know. I know. It's on thin ice. I mean, I put this in the end of the book, but when my - I have a two-and-a-half-year- old daughter, and when my wife was, I don't know, eight-and-a-half months pregnant, I was finishing up the book, and I was watching, you know, "Alien" over and over again, and "The Brood," which are movies you really don't want to watch when you have a pregnant woman in the house.


ZINOMAN: But yeah, I think my wife is at first sort of puzzled by how much I love these movies, but she's game. I mean, I think she actually likes them a little more than she used to. But no, they're definitely not her cup of tea at all.

GROSS: Well, before we end, I want to apologize to any listeners who feel that their most loved, their most despised, horror film was not mentioned in our interview. But I will say there are many, many more films mentioned in your book "Shock Value." So they can find some more there. There was only so much time to get to so many movies.

Jason Zinoman, thank you so much for talking with us.

ZINOMAN: Thank you, it was a real pleasure.

GROSS: Jason Zinoman's new book about the modern horror film is called "Shock Value." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Zinoman also writes about theater for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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