Zombies aren't scary. The more we see zombies getting chainsawed, shotgunned, run over and decapitated, the more zombies become a laughable cannon fodder for action movies and video games.
But zombies have never been especially scary. Sure they're hungry for flesh and brains and will come in hordes to break through windows and smash down doors and tear you limb from limb but, when you think about it, zombies are slow moving and stupid and we non-zombie people have tanks and tall places. Any zombie threat would be easily and quickly put down by a dedicated millitary operation.
Zombies aren't scary.
But people are fucking terrifying. That's why, in any zombie movie, the real horror is the collapse of society and the descent of humanity into barbarism. In the film 28 Days Later, the addition of running zombies doesn't add much. They can still be knocked on their arse by a well swung shopping bag full of chocolate. But Christopher Eccelston and his band of rapey soldier boys is horrifying. That's the real tension. That's the scary stuff, right there.
The best zombie stories have always used zombies as a means to explore the darkness of humanity. They are a framing device for the drama that arises when people are desperate and isolated and afraid. But zombies, on their own, aren't scary.
You all know this story. A family moves into a new house. It's an old house but a nice house. It's a bit of a fixer-upper and it's a bit isolated, sitting on the edge of town, but it was cheap. It's perfect for a husband, a wife, their kid(s) and their dog. After all they've been through, after whatever vague turmoil has ravaged their life and drove them to move into a new home, this new start is exactly what they need.
But you all know this story. The house is already occupied. It's haunted. It's haunted and the resident ghosts don't want company. They create horrific visions of death and mayhem, they manifest as rotting corpses, eviscerated bodies, recreating the final horrible moments of their life. The ghosts are compelled torture the family physically and psychologically. They can't pack up and leave, now. All their life's savings were sunk into this home.
And, you know, who actually believes in ghosts?
You all know this story. It's a cliche. Family, new house, ghosts, dead dog at the end of Act 1.
There's an obvious reason that all haunted house stories begin with the family moving into the house. If they didn't just move in, they'd already be having this ghost problem. Either they've just arrived at the house or we're joining the story half way through. It's practically a narrative requirement.
But what if I told you the haunted house story is a metaphor? What if I told you the ghosts aren't really ghosts?
The ghosts represent the anxiety of being alone in a strange place. Moving house is a huge upheaval of one's life and when you're trying to settle into a new place, any number of things can go wrong. You might have bought a house practically falling apart, there might be limited professional opportunities in the area, the town might hate outsiders, the church might be fall of extremist hate mongers, the supermarket might not carry cocoa pops. A family must establish new routines and new boundaries as the change in environment forces their relationships to adapt. All of this anxiety is reduced into a spectral haunting that plagues the family while they're trying to adjust to this new life. The house is on an old stretch of dirt road outside town because the family, being new to the community, are alone in the community. They have no friends, no family, no social network at all they can call on for help. They are literally and figuratively isolated. Just a group of equally anxious and exhausted people trying to make life work.
Stop me if you've heard this one. A group of teenagers are picked off one by one by a murderer in a mask.
What? You know this already?
Of course you do. Scream spelled this out for us over a decade ago. The teenagers have sex and do drugs and they die. The killer is a punishment for breaking the rules, for acting against society's expectations, for being different to their conservative parent's generation.
But now we expect kids to have sex and do drugs. We call it normal. That's why the slasher film died out.
Okay, but let me say that Scream really didn't take it far enough and because of that, it missed the mark just a little.
Let's look at Friday The 13th, a nigh perfect slasher film. A group of teenagers, isolated from the world of adults, having sex, smoking in bed, being reckless and hormonal and irresponsible. They are stalked by Jason Vorhees and killed one by one. They are punished for their behaviour.
Well, that's not all true. It's Jason's mother killing them. She's killing them to avenge her son's death. Poor Jason died in the lake, drowning while the camp counselors were off having pre-marital sex instead of watching the children. It's not so much cosmic justice as it is revenge. But, still, that's splitting hairs. They're being punished. But it's important to note that the punishment is actually really specific. It wasn't just that the teenagers were having pre-marital sex, it's that their doing so resulted in Jason's death.
If we extend out from Friday the 13th, even beyond Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street to some lesser known slasher films like Valentine and Prom Night, and even the bigger hit that was I Know What You Did Last Summer, we see that the whole sex and drugs are punished by death theory begins to fall apart. Nobody is going to argue Prom Night isn't a slasher film. Likewise for Valentine. But neither include much in the way of sex and drugs. Valentine isn't even about teenagers.
But there is still a common theme between them and Friday the 13th. The main characters, the killer's victims, are being punished. Whether it's for bullying or accidental murder or a whole host of other crimes and social wrong-doings, the characters are guilty and they would go unpunished for their crimes if not for a masked killer.
In essense, a slasher film is a warning. Sometimes it does only go as far as pre-marital sex and drugs. In the earliest slasher film, Black Christmas, it's a warning against the debauchery and sin of being in a sorority, of abusing the freedom of early adulthood. "Behave yourself," says the slasher film. "Do as society expects, obey your elders, live a life of virtue. If you don't, your sins will be punished with death." It's an idea as old as humanity.
Slasher films are super conservative, when you think about it.
Good horror is not about monsters and masked killers. Good horror uses these spooks and creeps to say something about humanity. Michael Myers, the villain of the Halloween franchise, has been in 9 movies and has always played second fiddle in his own franchise. Michael Myers isn't interesting. He's not a character, he's a force of nature. Horror movies are never about the monster, they're about the people. They're about people dealing with adversity and anxiety and whether or not their humanity can weather the storm of terror around them.
And when Michael Myers is the main character of his film? That film sucks.
Sorry, Rob Zombie.