As America’s preeminent zombie auteur, George Romero is no stranger to death in its various guises. The writer-director responsible for the groundbreaking “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) shook up the horror genre, making low-budget popcorn movies with a recurrent plotline: The deceased return en masse from the grave, the living fight them, havoc ensues.
But in fall 2001, when it came time for Romero to sell his new script, “Land of the Dead,” he, along with the rest of the country, faced a grim reality. “I sent the first draft out a few days before 9/11,” said Romero. “And then I got all the expected responses.”
In the wake of the national tragedy, his script was DOA. “Everybody wanted to make the warm, fuzzy movies,” the director recalled.
Since then, the public’s appetite for “comfort movies” has proved to be enormous. But what cultural pundits and industry analysts grossly misjudged was the kind of escapist fare audiences would also want: a good scare.
“You’d think they’d just want to go to the theater and laugh,” said Mark Canton, CEO of Atmosphere Entertainment, a production company. “But human nature is such that you don’t turn away from the horrific images you see on TV. You go to the theater to be scared with a bunch of people around you. You go to get a release.”
In the last few years, the increasingly diverse horror genre has shed much of its guilty-pleasure status and infiltrated the mainstream with unstoppable, zombie-like momentum. Midnight movies shot on minuscule budgets regularly haul in huge box office receipts along with a surprisingly large female audience and have become Hollywood’s flavor of the month. Accord- ingly, all of the major studios (as well as their genre divisions and independent film distributors) have placed at least one horror film -- or, in the case of Universal, four, and Screen Gems and Lions Gate Films, five -- on their upcoming slates.
“It’s effective and economical,” said Walter Parkes, producer of the 2002 horror hit “The Ring” and head of DreamWorks’ motion picture division.
To hear movie marketing mandarins tell it, the genre’s popularity seldom relies on costly star power or brand-name directors, and the films reliably generate powerful word-of-mouth buzz with minimal overhead.
“At a time when big-budget movies are carrying absurdly high break-even numbers, a good scare elicits a visceral reaction in a moviegoer that doesn’t require hundreds of thousands of dollars in special effects,” Parkes added.
It’s so popular it’s scary
Just how hot is horror? On Dec. 24, Dimension Films’ “Darkness” was released after gathering mold in the Miramax vault for more than two years and without being previewed for critics. Since its opening, the European-made, $10-million movie has grossed $21 million domestically -- nearly double the take of Jude Law’s $60-million dud “Alfie.”
Many studio chiefs and movie producers attribute horror’s popularity to the nation’s wartime psyche. “People want to go and have a fantasy scare to distract themselves from the really scary things that are actually going on in the world,” said Valerie Van Galder, president of TriStar Pictures.
Added Marc Abraham, producer of last year’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake: “A horror film is a cathartic experience. The good guys usually win and we can vanquish the bad guys -- as opposed to the Iraqi war or Osama bin Laden in some cave making a little digital video that actually scares people to the point where they don’t want to travel.”
And Romero? Last year, Universal’s $30-million remake of “Dawn of the Dead” was directed by newcomer Zack Snyder and took in nearly $100 million worldwide.
The studio also gave the green light to Romero’s script for “Land of the Dead” and a $15-million budget. “When the horror genre gets popular again, I get a lot of calls about my old scripts,” Romero said from Pittsburgh, where “Land” is in postproduction.
It would be a mistake, of course, to think the desire to be scared is unique to today’s moviegoers. “There was a time ... when horror was a mainstay of Hollywood filmmaking and attracted the best kind of filmmakers and actors,” Parkes said, pointing to the ‘60s and ‘70s. “Look at the classic movies of that era: ‘The Exorcist,’ ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ ”
Depending on whom you ask, the genre’s renaissance is its fourth or fifth bloom of popularity since the ‘60s. “In the ‘80s, there was a spike in popularity because you could make your money back on home entertainment,” said John Hegeman, president of worldwide marketing for Lions Gate Films. But soon, so many horror films were in the works that audiences grew bored. “It destroyed the genre,” he said. “It got to the point in the ‘90s when you couldn’t say ‘horror.’ You had to say ‘psychological thriller.’ ”
The genre’s increasing sophistication in recent years has helped shed much of its guilty-pleasure status. For decades, the industrywide perception held there was no glory in making horror films.
“Most studios had disdain for the movies because really good writers didn’t want to write them, movie stars didn’t want to be in them, and generally, a best picture Oscar doesn’t come from a horror movie,” explained Clint Culpepper, president of Screen Gems, which is releasing five horror-related features in 2005, including “Boogeyman.”
That conventional wisdom began to change in 1999 with the blockbuster successes of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” and the indie sleeper “The Blair Witch Project.”
But Hollywood didn’t take serious notice of horror’s minimum-output-maximum-intake moviemaking strategy until last year. That’s when “Saw,” a claustrophobic neo-horror indie about a sadistic serial killer, was made for $1.2 million and went on to gross more than $55 million. And DreamWorks’ “The Grudge,” an American adaptation of the atmospheric Japanese horror-thriller, was shot for $10 million and did $110 million domestically.
“It made everyone hungry,” said Kevin Williamson, who wrote the “Scream” trilogy and produced the upcoming “Cursed” and “Backwater” for Dimension. “So now everyone wants their $10-million, $100-million-making ‘Grudge.’ ‘Where’s our “Grudge?” Where’s our “Saw?” ’ I’ve heard that several times now.”
Ironically, “Saw’s” first-time feature director, James Wan, admits he and co-writer Leigh Whannell never intended to make a film in the genre. “We didn’t set out to do a film that was specifically horror-oriented,” Wan said. “Leigh and I have always seen ‘Saw’ as more of a dark thriller with horror elements in it.”
But Lions Gate had a different strategy. “They told us, ‘Horror’s really cool right now ... so we want to sell it as a horror movie.’ ” Wan recalled. “We didn’t put up a fight.”
After all, the Melbourne, Australia, native was 26 when he made “Saw” with no directorial resume to suggest him for the job. But Wan and Whannell were fortunate to have crafted their pitch (a four-minute, $4,000 DVD that was shot in a basement but showed potential) at a time when producers and studios have shown a willingness to put their money behind novice filmmakers making their feature debuts.
“In general, you can give someone a chance when there isn’t an enormous budget,” Van Galder explained.
“If they wrote the film, they will have a better idea of what the film should be,” Culpepper said. “I tend to believe that you can surround a writer with a good production team -- a really good [director of photography], first [assistant directors], good crew, editors and composers -- they’ll have all the support system they need and take the opportunity to shine.”
When it came to finding a director for “Dawn of the Dead,” Abraham says he consciously avoided hiring someone with extensive feature experience in favor of commercial hotshot Zack Snyder.
“There are plenty of guys who have been doing movies forever who I wouldn’t want to do a movie with,” Abraham said. “They don’t stay current. Their best stuff is behind them. It’s better to have someone who’s passionate, who’s not a hack.”
The box office performance of horror movies from first-timers -- such as “Underworld,” directed by Len Wiseman; rocker Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses”; or “Open Water,” directed by Chris Kentis -- seems to have borne out that wisdom. But then too, horror movies benefit from uniquely targeted marketing campaigns.
“When you distribute a horror movie, you are more often than not targeting a specific niche within the moviegoing audience,” said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Film Releasing. “You can do that more effectively and cost efficiently than if we were looking to sell a broader kind of movie.”
Lions Gate’s Hegeman elaborated: “We’ll start marketing ... at all the genre conventions, and online is very important. It’s like the alternative music concept: In horror, being legit is very important.”
Toward that end, Lions Gate recently signed a deal to market and distribute nine horror movies produced by Twisted Pictures, the company that co-financed “Saw.”
“Lions Gate isn’t looking for us to make romantic comedies -- the deal is to duplicate the effect of ‘Saw,’ ” said Oren Koules, co-owner of Twisted, who is also producing “Saw 2.” “Then they can sell [the movies] as ‘From the producers of “Saw.” ’ They told us to brand ourselves so they can turn around and sell the brand.”
Women with ticket stubs
A demographic shift may also be responsible for the genre’s resurgent popularity. “What has changed since the late ‘70s, early ‘80s is, it’s not just guys,” Hegeman said. “Fifty percent of the horror audience is now female. That’s why you see so many movies that have a female protagonist: ‘Resident Evil,’ ‘Underworld,’ ‘Texas Chainsaw [Massacre].’ Horror has gotten a bit younger and more female.”
Of course, with so many successful horror movies in the marketplace and even more in the pipeline (including planned sequels for “The Ring,” “The Grudge” and “Resident Evil,” as well as “Saw” and “Dawn of the Dead”), there is a danger of once again over-saturating the market.
“The more [that] come out, the more opportunity there is for them to be bad,” said Hegeman, whose company, Lions Gate, is devoting some 20% of its 2005 roster to horror films. “If the audience is disappointed when they go to the movies, there is more opportunity for them to be turned off to the genre.”
But Romero believes the horror genre will continue to resurrect itself from the grave again and again for new generations of filmgoers -- much like his zombies.
"[The genre] has always had its peaks and valleys. I think people enjoy being scared in a safe context,” the 65-year-old director said. “I can’t image doing anything else, so I’ll keep doing it,” he added, chuckling softly. “Maybe I’ll return from the grave and do another one! Then I’ll know what it’s really like.”