Monday, April 10, 2006

Fake Blood, "Blair Witches" and Low Budgets: Independent Horror Films

Independent horror films are among the scariest, funniest, and most disturbing works of cinema ever to meet the eyes and ears of an audience. The clever and uncompromising "do it yourself" (DIY) ethic of independent horror filmmakers has resulted in a massive, self-perpetuating body of work that continues to thrive today in films like "Hostel" and "Shaun of the Dead." But what defines an independent horror film? What sets one apart from a conventional, "studio" horror film? An examination of "Night of the Living Dead," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Evil Dead," "Dead Alive," and "The Blair Witch Project" will highlight defining characteristics of independent horror films as well as the pattern of growth that this category of films has experienced over the last forty years. These five films have been selected on the basis of their pervasive influence, widespread popularity, and exemplification of key traits of independent horror cinema.

Although silent films like Wiene’s "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and the hokey science fiction movies of the 1950s indeed laid the groundwork for horror cinema, George Romero’s "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) was a watershed of independent horror movies for multiple reasons. Romero’s film depicts a zombie infestation of a pastoral town. Surviving humans are bottled together in an isolated old house, where they argue over how best to stay alive as they ward off their undead would-be devourers. The end of "Night of the Living Dead" is wholly in the vein of independent film and similar to that of "Easy Rider" - the protagonist is killed, but not by zombies. In a not-so-subtle example of racial profiling, the rescuing law enforcement brigade shoots the sole black survivor of the zombie onslaught without first checking to ensure that he wasn‘t a zombie. Romero denies that the ending was intended to communicate any social messages and insists that the actor (Duane Jones) was cast not because he was black, but because he was the most qualified man for the part. The director’s point is believable; given Romero’s tight budget, it is difficult to imagine that he had hundreds of actors to choose from. But the decision to write the zombies as cannibals, made because of the shock value of eating human flesh, was indisputably an anti-mainstream move on the filmmakers’ part. Therefore this quality of "Night of the Living Dead" and the film’s bleak conclusion - ostensibly devoid of all hope for the human race - comfortably position Romero’s film within the canon of independent cinema.

"Night of the Living Dead’s" meager budget of $114,000 certainly tied Romero’s hands, but he proved to be an unparalleled escape artist by using many of the film’s crew to serve as actors in the film. Their performances are indeed awkward and stunted, but they do what is necessary: they scream, bicker, and in the case of the actors performing as zombies, groan and stumble. Writer John Russo portrayed a zombie and also assumed the duties of a stuntman - he volunteered to be set on fire when no other cast member would do so. Karl Hardman, who played a survivor languishing in the basement of the house, also served as the film’s makeup artist and sound engineer. Pulling double duty in this manner underscores the devotion of the crew to their project and, by extension, their similarity to other independent filmmakers.

The zombies in "Night of the Living Dead" exhibit the "DIY" approach of independent horror cinema to the fullest. Their make-up is indeed sparse and the black-and-white photography likely was an asset to the filmmakers in this respect by sparing them the difficulty of working with a color palette. Playing the role of bloody flesh was fried ham covered with Bosco chocolate syrup, and a local butcher provided authentic blood and guts where necessary in exchange for his own small role in the film. The house was lent to the filmmakers by an owner who had intended to bulldoze it after production, so Romero and company were free to destroy it to their liking. The dissonant music score was borrowed from the Capitol/EMI Records stock music library (the copyright of which was in the public domain) and thus cost the filmmakers only $1,500 to use.

Filmmakers tried, and failed, to reach distribution deals with Columbia and American Independent Pictures, who passed because the film was black-and-white and not upbeat or romantic enough, respectively. "Night of the Living Dead" was ultimately distributed by the Walter Reade Organization, who publicly advertised taking out a $50,000 insurance policy for any viewer who died of a heart attack while watching the movie. At its 1968 premiere in Pittsburgh, the film received a standing ovation only to suffer from a subsequent Christian backlash for what conservatives perceived to be Satanic themes. But the strongest influence of "Night of the Living Dead" was felt by filmmakers in the following decades who would draw inspiration from Romero’s film in order to make their own contributions to independent horror cinema.

One of those filmmakers was Tobe Hooper, who along with Kim Henkel would write "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in 1974. There would likely be no Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers without this film and its psychotic Ed Gein-inspired terror, Leatherface. For this reason the film is almost equal to "Night of the Living Dead" in the magnitude of its influence upon subsequent horror cinema. It depicts a group of college students heading through scenic Texas to visit the desecrated grave of one of their grandfathers. After being horrifically slashed by a deranged hitchhiker, they stop at a dilapidated house nearby, wherein resides Leatherface, his psychotic cannibal relatives, and a ghastly interior pieced together from the family’s human trophies.

The cannibalism in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is even more appalling than that depicted in "Night of the Living Dead" because the cannibals are not dead or devoid of human consciousness. Indeed, Leatherface and his relatives are biologically - albeit not necessarily psychologically - human beings. A living human conscionably killing another human and devouring their flesh is much more difficult to wrap one‘s head around than a zombie infestation. The characters’ roots in the true life story of serial killer Ed Gein make the cannibalistic elements of the film even more horrifying, because audiences familiar with Gein’s story are having their faces rubbed in the disturbing figments of the film’s truth. Hooper’s disregard for the audience’s comfort level is indicative of the type of intractable vision and anti-mainstream attitude that marks many independent filmmakers.

Unlike the majority of mainstream film stars, the cast of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" truly suffered for their art and placed their well-being in the hands of a slipshod crew. While being chased outdoors by Leatherface, actress Marilyn Burns suffered enough cuts from shrubs and tree branches to visibly stain her clothes with blood. Another actress who appeared to be strung up with a meat hook by Leatherface was actually placed in a great deal of pain by a nylon cord that was tightly wrapped between her legs. And Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, repeatedly banged his head against doorways and other raised objects because his peripheral vision was so limited by the prosthetic mask he wore. The interior of the house was adorned by dead animals, rotting food, and real human skeletons imported from India - all of these ingredients combined to make for a putrid and unbearable smell on the set. Vietnam veteran Edwin Neal, who played the hitchhiker, claimed that filming conditions on "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" were worse than those he had experienced during the war - so miserable and wretched that he would kill Hooper if he ever saw them again.

The film’s mainstream reception, or lack thereof, is also the stuff of which independent cinema is made. Sneak previews were met with numerous walk-outs, while censors in Britain and Australia wouldn’t allow the film to screen until years after its initial release. But the film’s weighty influence has been felt universally, in the barrage of imitative slasher films, the parade of sequels, and the recent remake produced by James Cameron.

Sam Raimi’s "Evil Dead" (1981) and its higher-budgeted revision, "Evil Dead 2" (1987), would expand upon the independent horror film formula devised by "Night of the Living Dead" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" by crystallizing their inherently humorous elements and bringing them to the fore. Meanwhile, the films’ bloody excess reaches a pitch not even hinted at by its independent horror predecessors. Like "Dead" and "Chainsaw," "Evil Dead" occurs in a small deserted cabin and its surrounding desolate wilderness. When a group of twenty-something vacationers happen upon a crusty old book labeled the "Necronomicon," they blithely recite its contents and unwittingly raise literal hell in the process. Suddenly undead creatures attack the cabin and convert its residents into fellow soldiers in the army of darkness. These brutal events force the sole survivor, independent horror icon Bruce Campbell in the role of Ash, to take action against the evil engulfing him.

The independent spirit of "Evil Dead" is evidenced in Bruce Campbell’s frequent busting out of his lead actor credit to assist director Sam Raimi with ornate camera movements, such as the creature point-of-view shots that careen across the ground and water. Like "Night of the Living Dead," the majority of makeup effects in "Evil Dead" are culinary in substance. The unsightly white liquid bled by the maimed dead is actually 2% milk; creamed corn was dyed green and used as zombie guts. The actors were by no means in the hands of the most professional makeup artists - Betsy Baker, who played Linda Williams, lost her eyelashes when she removed her "zombie face." The opaque white contact lenses Baker wore while battling Campbell with a dagger rendered the actress effectively blind. These consequences of "Evil Dead’s" production could be expected on its measly $50,000 budget.

"Evil Dead" and, to a much larger degree, "Evil Dead 2," were two of the first independent horror films to demonstrate the humorous elements of the genre. But they were by no means the very first: the 1978 sequel to "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead," also contained some Swiss Family Robinson-like humorous elements in its mall location. In "Evil Dead 2," Campbell’s battle with his possessed hand ranks with Buster Keaton’s movies as some of the greatest physical comedy caught on film. Replacing his severed hand with a chainsaw was not only a nod to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but another hilariously absurd moment in "Evil Dead." The sheer volume of blood and guts spilled in each version of "Evil Dead" eventually numbs the audience to the gore and leaves them with no other option than to laugh. Despite the levity, Raimi did not neglect to include the type of horror that marked "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in "Evil Dead." A sequence featuring a female vacationer being bound, lacerated and raped by tree branches was excised from the film by order of censors in some countries.

"Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead 2" reinforced the ghastly qualities of independent horror cinema while cementing its capacity for horror. Peter Jackson went even further than Raimi with "Dead Alive" (1992) by upping the fake blood ante to record-setting levels while including enough humor to bring the film to the verge of a comedy classification. The film tells the story of a milquetoast young New Zealand man named Lionel whose mother is bitten by a rabid "rat monkey" at the local zoo. As Lionel attempts to pursue a romance with an attractive woman named Paquita, he is forced to confine his raving blood-thirsty mother to their basement. Despite his efforts, mum manages to infect a growing number of neighbors. The rising tide of the undead living below him brings Lionel to overcome his reserved instincts and take action against the crowd of zombies infesting his basement.

"Dead Alive" is perhaps most notorious for its conclusion, when Lionel confronts the zombie hordes in the lobby of his house and uses a lawnmower (lifted up and used like a buzz saw) to decimate them in a brutal orgy of blood and guts. The fake blood was pumped at 5 gallons a second to bring the total tally of blood used in the film’s final moments to 300 liters. True to the DIY ethic, maple syrup was used as the crimson substance, while pork fat, latex, polyfoam and human hair were combined in varying degrees to create fake guts and limbs. On the whole, the film is believed to have used the most fake blood in movie history during its production, but an accurate measurement of this statistic is no easy task.

Like many independent horror directors, Peter Jackson’s filmmaking was full of both passion for his film’s schlocky story (written by Stephen Sinclair) and taut efficiency while making it come to life. The final cut of "Dead Alive" featured no deviations from Jackson’s original screenplay and the film even finished $45,000 under its budget of $3 million. Jackson used the remaining money on a two-day shoot in the park that featured Lionel and Paquita.

The hilarity of "Dead Alive’s" absurd surplus of gore was indeed lost on censorship boards. In Germany and the U.S. the film was cut from 104 minutes to 85, while Australia and the United Kingdom exhibited the film in full. In Jackson’s native New Zealand, where "Dead Alive" was filmed, the film grossed more per screen than "Batman Returns," the box office smash of that year. Aside from its financial success, "Dead Alive" demonstrates both the comic zenith to which independent horror can ascend and the influence of "Evil Dead" and other independent horror films in areas as removed as New Zealand.

After Jackson and Raimi pushed blood and guts to the limit, "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) represented a redirection of independent horror film by committing to an ethos of "less is more." Indeed, after Raimi and Jackson’s torrential bloodbaths, writer/directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s depiction of the horror you can‘t see was far more frightening than any rotting zombie or chainsaw-wielding maniac. In fact, the scariness of "Blair Witch" can be demonstrated by comparing two shots from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," one of which features Leatherface fully lit while the other depicts only his silhouette. Indeed the silhouette is scarier - mystery trumps gory detail. "The Blair Witch Project" demonstrates just how scary mystery can be.

Shooting for eight days on a $22,000 budget likely made the minimalist approach all the easier. It worked. "Blair Witch" doesn’t look cheap or humorous. Indeed, as a "home movie" depicting the forest journey of three college students the film looks uncannily realistic. The film begins in Burkittesville, Maryland, where filmmakers Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard interview townspeople about the legend of the Blair Witch. Young children have been disappearing into the Black Hills Forest since the 1940s and residents of the small Maryland village have blamed the Witch for the unexplained phenomena. The three inquisitive students take cameras and camping materials deep into the forest only to discover piles of stones whose arrangement is altered every time the campers see them. Unending passages of unusual noises accompany the night sky. As Donahue, Williams, and Leonard grow increasingly distressed, their chances of escaping the Black Hills Forest grow dimmer. A year after their trip, the students’ video cameras are found and their footage is pieced together to form the movie.

The documentary aura surrounding "The Blair Witch Project" is perhaps its scariest quality - although documentaries are not the exclusive property of independent cinema, the type of ingenuity that would give birth to such an idea is the mark of a independent filmmaker. Myrick and Sanchez were so committed to the authenticity of their idea that the actors actually filmed the movie. Further, "The Blair Witch Project" was filmed with spontaneity that runs counter to the rigid planning of Peter Jackson. Donahue, Williams, and Leonard improvised all of their lines and their preparation for the film came solely in the form of a 35-page outline of the Blair Witch mythology. They entered the woods unaware of what phenomena they would experience and thus their reactions to the eerie noises and bizarre occurrences are entirely extemporaneous.

Unbeknownst to the actors, Myrick and Sanchez were the ones who shook their tent. The townspeople interviewed by the students were planted by the directors, and their responses to the students’ questions were met with surprise by the unprepared actors. To make the them genuinely agitated while filming the later days of their journey in the woods, the directors gave the actors decreasing quantities of food. Although Donahue, Williams, and Leonard didn’t experience much physical pain while filming "The Blair Witch Project," the psychological torture they endured is easily on par with that sustained by any cast in the history of independent horror.

In addition to their sadistic treatment of their actors, Myrick and Sanchez’ devotion to their subject is evident in the way they presented it. Namely, they claimed the Blair Witch legend was true. Even the actors wouldn’t learn until after the film’s release that the legend was pure confabulation on the part of Myrick and Sanchez. The myth extended into the internet, where the three actors were listed as "missing, presumed dead" on the Internet Movie Database.

"The Blair Witch Project" represented a redefinition of independent horror. Eschewing buckets of blood and armies of zombies, it instead reaches for the real as its source of horror. As the cheapest of the five films examined in this analysis of the genre, it is also perhaps the most independent. Yet it is the most successful: the film grossed $240.5 million. Still, Myrick and Sanchez’ film is somewhat rooted in the traditions of independent horror - it is experimental, its filmmakers possessed a bold and determined vision, and it was wildly popular with audiences.

So what defines an independent horror film? After analyzing "Night of the Living Dead," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Evil Dead," "Dead Alive," and "The Blair Witch Project," many criteria immediately arise as defining characteristics. Perhaps most salient is the low budget: even the most expensive of the five films, "Dead Alive," was made with such an efficient DIY ethic that it finished $45,000 under budget. A humorous detachment from macabre subject matter is also common, but not as ubiquitous as humor prompted by the film’s exposure of its cheap means of production. Physical and psychological actor punishment stemming from the low budget is another recurring feature of these films. Also, independent horror shares with independent cinema at large a disavowal, conscious or not, of mainstream conventions. The happy ending and the euphemistic glossing over of nature’s darker elements have no place in independent horror cinema. Lastly, perhaps the most trenchant fixture of independent horror cinema is the cultish appreciation these movies have engendered in audiences. The tradition of independent horror has been self-sustaining in this manner - members of those cultish audiences have often been the ones who would go on to contribute their own films to independent horror cinema.

(photos courtesy of,,,

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