Another October in sweltering Los Angeles, and another top ten list for this website. But this year things are a bit different on my list. In previous years writing these things for Horror Digital, I always strove to find an eclectic mix of obscure but deserving films and combine them on a list with some more established classics. There was generally no Another October in sweltering Los Angeles, and another top ten list for this website. But this year things are a bit different on my list. In previous years of writing these things for Horror Digital, I always strove to find an eclectic mix of obscure but deserving films and combine them on a list with some more established classics. There was generally no theme to my lists other than the desire to strike the proper balance between those two poles. But the current version of this top ten list owes itself very much to this article by David P. Goldman, a conservative intellectual who, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, observed that the production and distribution of horror films in America has exploded since the attacks, with the genre now totaling a higher percentage of the American film business than at any other time in history and offering his beliefs as to why that is. While Goldman and I are often at odds with each other politically, I almost always enjoy reading his work, and while I do not endorse every single observation in his piece, it did prompt me to re-examine my list (which previously had almost been finished), adding some films and deleting others, until I had a list of top ten horror films that were either representative of the past ten years, or older films which had relevance now in light of the events of the last decade of war, terrorism, revolution, energy scarcity and economic collapse. 10. Saw (2004) Despite occasional pretensions of being a thinking person’s horror film, James Wan’s Saw is more effective when it stops trying to engage viewers on an intellectual level and settles for engaging them on the same gut level as an Italian cannibal film. More often than not it is deep down there where the basic truth of the matter lies, and although Saw and its sequels are mostly notable for raking in a lot of money, they often did succeed in capturing the social zeitgeist of the moment. My colleague Rhett has often referred to torture porn as the genre that Iraq built, and it is in that far off land that my countrymen found their own horror movie scenario. Instead of the superficially peaceful, idyllic village where hidden evil lurked beneath the surface, we found a superficially modern and secular country where medieval barbarism and religious fanaticism lurked, waiting to be unleashed. And like the characters in a modern horror tale, in dealing with those forces we found ourselves capable of horrific acts that we never thought we were capable of, acts that ran completely counter to our own image of ourselves. The stated motivations behind the villain of Saw – teaching people not to take their lives for granted – perhaps rang a little truer in 2004 than it would have had there been no 9/11, but what really distinguishes it is how it so thoroughly locks into our collective horror of what we did and what was done to us in Iraq. It is far from the best horror film of the past decade, but someday it will be looked back on as one of the most representative, a dark reflection of an even darker time. 9. Dawn of the Dead (2004) Zack Snyder’s remake of the 1978 original is a film that alternately thrills and annoys me as it lurches from scenes of brilliance to scenes of mind numbing stupidity. There are many things that I love about it, and almost as many things that I virulently hate. Like Saw, it is not the best horror movie of the last decade – far from it, in fact – but it narrowly beats out Saw as the horror film that is the most emblematic of the Bush years. From its early scenes of a McMansion-filled subdivision burning and overrun with zombies to its annoying dual endings, the first happy, the second tragic, Snyder’s film puts its characters in a situation where survival is utterly impossible and then sadistically lets them – along with the audience – come to believe that they actually have a chance of winning. Whether you want to take that as a metaphor for the impossibility of defeating the faceless enemies of Iraq and Afghanistan or the hopelessness of pursuing the American dream while the country was being systematically plundered by corporate and governmental elites, one can’t help but feel very sorry for its poor, dumb, normal everyday characters who inevitably all get screwed over by the situation and end up as zombie food. 8. American Psycho (2000) Like other cult classics of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s – and here I’m talking about films like Starship Troopers, Fight Club and Office Space – Mary Harron’s adaptation of the grotesque Bret Easton Ellis novel is a film whose relevance only seems to increase with the passage of years. When it first came to theaters in the spring of 2000 it did a reasonable job of finding an audience (its box office take was adequate considering its low budget, and even the normally impenetrable Roger Ebert gave it a surprisingly positive review), but for many younger audience members it came and went without any understanding of the context in which the original novel was created. As someone who, at the age of seventeen, saw it on its initial theatrical release, I can remember that I was enthralled by so much of what I saw, from Christian Bale’s amazing turn at Patrick Bateman to the script’s careful emphasis on the bizarre status symbols that he and his fellow executives obsess over. But I had almost no memories of the 1980’s outside those of my own small childhood, no real memories of Ronald Reagan or the Savings and Loan scandal or anything else political or economic. These characters onscreen might as well have been eighteenth century Persians for all the apparent relevance they had to me. At the dawn of the twenty-first century stockbrokers, investment bankers and hedge fund types were the good guys. They had conquered the eternal boom and bust cycle of the markets for all of us (or so we thought) and we thought we were all going to grow up wealthy. What we didn’t realize was that, even at the time, so much of the wealth they were creating was - much like Patrick Bateman’s gruesome murders - utterly illusory. In the cold harsh economic light of 2011, the titans of Wall Street look more like demons than heroes, and American Psycho continues to provide a hilarious and horrific look into a world that never actually went away, and has now come back into the spotlight with a vengeance. 7. The Crazies (1973) Although George Romero was clearly making a commentary on Vietnam with The Crazies, the themes that run through his fourth feature film are still going to strike a sensitive chord in today’s world. The institutionalized brutality of the government, which seemingly cannot be overcome even if there are individual characters who want to do so, is exceeded only by the incompetence of their response to the outbreak of the madness-inducing virus. Considering how ineptly Romero’s federal government and military deal with a crisis of their own making, it’s certainly no surprise that his sequels to Night of the Living Dead show them completely botching a problem that comes out of left field. In the 1960’s, not long before The Crazies was made, opinion polls showed that a huge segment of the public trusted the government to always do the right thing. Nowadays those same polls show that trust is at historic lows, and with political movements rising to demand that those institutions be abolished or defunded or even violently overthrown. The Crazies was relevant to the times in which it was made, but now the times have become even more relevant to The Crazies. 6. J’Accuse (1938) An anti-war drama with a horror ending more powerful than anything in most pure genre films of the decade, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse may be naïve when it comes to the politics and psychology of how wars start, but it remains deadly accurate in its depiction of how war destroys both bodies and souls. Haunted World War I veteran Jean Diaz struggles to create inventions that will make war impossible, but the products of his toil are instead co-opted by war hawks when another conflict threatens the land, causing him to call upon his dead comrades in arms to rise from the grave and stop the impending madness. The cinematic style behind J’Accuse is somewhat dated, despite being the first film to depict a mass zombie event of the kind we now see regularly in modern horror. What is not dated is its earnest pacifist message; in the past several decades the number of wars, and the number of people killed in them, has steadily declined, even though not a month seems to go by when some conflict isn’t threatened to start in some corner of the globe, and every time I see some talking head on TV blubbering about how Iran or some other country needs a good bombing to whip them into shape, I can’t help but think of this movie. 5. Gojira (1954)/Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) Browsing through a bookstore devoted to film subjects, I came upon a tome about Godzilla, the greatest of all movie monsters, written sometime post-9/11. To my surprise, the text included quotes and discussions from longtime kaiju eiga fans about how the attacks had caused a crisis of conscience for them. After all, was it really right for them to enjoy the sight of buildings being brought down, of terrified civilians fleeing for their lives, when they had now witnessed those same things live on TV? Was there a future for the giant monster genre now? The grim American edit of the first Godzilla film had been widely available on home video for many years at the time of the attacks, but the even grimmer Japanese cut remained stuck in the world of fan-subbed bootlegs until 2004, when a limited theatrical release from Rialto Pictures put it on the radar of many cineastes. Some contemporary reviewers of the Japanese cut couldn’t help but to comment on how the sight of the burning Tokyo models evoked their own memories of the attacks. The striking difference, though, between the two cuts of Gojira and what ultimately played out in real life is that in the films the ultimate destruction of the monster is met not with celebration and joy, but with sad contemplation of what had been lost and what was needed to stop it from happening again. 4. They Live (1988) An over-obvious allegory to the economic excesses of the Reagan years, this second tier John Carpenter classic was probably a bit too literal for audiences in the late 80’s (and some clumsy changes in the editing room surely didn’t help the script become more accessible). In a sense, even now it is probably better appreciated by overseas viewers, as evidenced by the fact that foreign DVD releases have been consistently better in terms of special features. That’s really too bad, because not only have the economic excesses of the 80’s come back with a vengeance now, but the film also foretold the globalization epidemic of the 1990’s and 2000’s, with a new transnational elite spreading out to loot and corrupt new countries the same way the aliens of the film spread across the galaxy in order to loot our world. The other parts of the story’s basic scenario - with the use of technology to create mass illusions while conditioning behavior through the use of hidden messages – seems eerily appropriate to today’s political situation. 3. Videodrome (1983) There was a time, not that long ago, when mass entertainment and mass media was called such not only in the mass reach they had, but also in the mass audience that consumed them. This was especially true in the realm of television, where even big markets had far fewer broadcast outlets than are available today on any basic cable package. David Cronenberg’s script for Videodrome is disorganized and cluttered with a few too many ideas, but one of the most enduring concepts it pioneers for me is the way that mass media would eventually devolve into media with a mass reach but smaller base of consumers, and by doing that, would essentially create its own reality for the consumer much in the same way that Videodrome ultimately creates its own reality for James Woods’ Max Renn. Today finding entertainment (like, say, horror movies) and news (especially political news) specialized to your taste and viewpoints is very easy, and it’s just as easy to tune out the parts that you don’t like or don’t want to acknowledge. Despite its Canadian origins, Videodrome seems particularly relevant to the American media landscape, where opinion polls have regularly found that large chunks of the population are living in almost a completely separate reality from each other. 2. Day of the Dead (1985) Back in the days when I was a teenager watching this movie on VHS, I used to think that Captain Rhodes was wrong and that Sarah and the other scientists were right when it came to whether or not the team should continue its zombie research. Now that I’m older I realize that I had it backwards, and that Rhodes and his troops had good reason not to want to risk their lives in pursuit of a foolish and impossible goal. Of course, this is the Romero universe, and just as Harry Cooper was a jerk who happened to have a point about the safety of the basement, it turns out that in the Romero universe being an asshole and being right are not mutually exclusive things. The older generation who had lived through the 60’s and 70’s had the right historical context to understand what was really going on in Day of the Dead. My generation needed a few jolts from reality before we could process it. At the end of the 1990’s, the breakdown of military command and morale, the breakdown in relations between the military and the civilians and the whole atmosphere of tension looked like relics of the past. They weren’t relics, but they looked like it because of the unique historical moment we were in. Day of the Dead has not aged as badly as I once thought it had, and although it is still one of the weaker entries in the “Dead” series – the horrible overacting of Joe Pilato and other members of the cast does not improve as the years go by – it is definitely still a relevant and engrossing horror classic. 1. Dawn of the Dead (1978) There was no way that I could put the Zack Snyder remake on this list without putting on the 1978 classic, but even had it not been for that the original Dawn of the Dead would still have a place here. I remember once, towards the end of my college career (I was in a fraternity, if this puts things in context), meeting a bunch of younger students who were mostly freshmen and who were on their way to party and give money to an upperclassman who would buy them liquor. And I warned them that they were all going to be very, very sick the next morning. They had not started drinking yet, they had not even gotten their alcohol yet, but I could see it in their eyes and in the way they carried themselves that they were going to really raise hell once they did. And that is very much the role that George Romero found himself playing with his sequel to Night of the Living Dead. The consumerism party had barely started when Dawn of the Dead went before the cameras (“It looks like a shopping center – one of those big indoor malls,” says Roger when they first view the Monroeville Mall from their helicopter, a line whose very existence in the movie shows that not all Americans were familiar with the concept at the time; the structure would have been instantly recognizable as a shopping mall to almost anyone a decade or two later). It would not truly start until there was a sustained return to cheap gas and low interest rates before that could happen, but even then Romero knew that it would someday leave us all with a very bad hangover, and as overbuilt shopping centers and commercial space across the country goes empty and stays vacant, it is increasingly obvious that the day has arrived.