[Jed Mayer's script for the video essay follows.]
The cover of the June 1979 issue of Newsweek featured an image of Sigourney Weaver from Alien. The caption read: "Hollywood's Scary Summer." I was thirteen. The horror movies released that summer would form a grotesque carnival that mirrored my own and the world's anxieties. Earlier in the spring there was the disastrous nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. That summer, major oil spills polluted the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic Ocean. This year, oil prices doubled, Margaret Thatcher was elected, and the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power. I slowly came into awareness of the political and environmental degradation around me that year. The films I watched reflected that, as well as my own thirteen-year-old desires and fears .
As tag-lines go, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead sports a pretty good one: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.” I stared for weeks at the lurid poster bearing these ominous words. It hung in the front windows of the Maplewood Mall multiplex. Looking back, I think a more fitting tag-line might have come from a speech given by President Jimmy Carter later that same summer: “Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. What can we do?”
Carter was addressing what he described as a “crisis of confidence” in America. His July 15, 1979 address has been called “the malaise speech” for its focus on the country’s financial woes and lack of direction. Like Romero’s film, the speech offered a disturbing vision. It showed a world drained of vitality and meaning.
What better setting for such a vision than a mall, where the film’s protagonists hide out to weather the zombie apocalypse? And what better place for me to have seen this film, in the mall where I was to spend so many pointless afternoons, wandering the aisles and riding the escalators like Romero’s zombies?
1979 was also the year when my family decided we needed solutions to our own paralysis and stagnation. We sought it through family therapy, proudly airing our co-dependencies and dysfunctions, along with many other American families caught up in the family therapy movement.
Few films expose the limitations of therapy narratives more ruthlessly than David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Cronenberg explored the psychosexual demons haunting the individual human psyche in Shivers and Rabid. He then anatomized the late-70s zeitgeist by turning his attention to the monsters lurking within the fractured family.
The poster advertising John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy featured a grotesque image of a monstrous fetal creature wrapped in its placenta. I responded to this image with equal parts fascination and horror. After seeing the film, however, I discovered that horror could help me to make sense of the era’s toxic events. With Prophecy, Frankenheimer wanted to create an environmentally-conscious horror film that would raise the ethical stakes of popcorn fare. It can hardly be said that he succeeded in this goal—the director has blamed his own alcoholism at the time, as well as production issues, for the film’s relative failure. However, the film did succeed in presenting images and settings that managed to distill the toxic environments of the 1970s, at least for one young filmgoer.
Star Wars was predicated on an escapist premise that used science fiction conventions to blast us into a galaxy far, far away. In the universe of Alien, on the other hand, space is confined, claustrophobic. It is a universe very much like our own, subject to the laws of supply and demand. As we watch a complex mass of space-borne metal slide slowly across the screen, a superimposed text tells us this is the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo. The ship is hauling a refinery and twenty million tons of mineral ore. Space, the final frontier, has become, like all frontiers, a resource to be exploited.
Although I wasn’t yet old enough to have a driver’s license, like everyone in 1979 I was highly conscious of rising gas prices and their effects. I watched those daily images of gas station lines so long they looked like shanty towns with a grim fascination. They closely resembled the conjoined images of excess and destitution common to those post-apocalyptic films I loved from that era. Films like The Omega Man, Damnation Alley, and Soylent Green seemed half in love with the world’s death. What did the earth that the Nostromo’s crew were trying to return to actually look like? Probably something much like the one depicted in these films. The images I watched on the nightly news seemed to be offering a disturbing preview of that world.
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.