Ten years ago, a trio of young actors led by grizzled veteran Woody Harrelson disembarked on a tragi-comic road trip through a world decimated by a horrific plague. The plot of Zombieland built on the venerable template of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and updates like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). Stories of total contagion are certainly well-suited to our era of xenophobia and interconnection; but the figure of the flesh-eating automaton and the unsentimental survivor were also, surprisingly, at the centre of a popular revival of the horror genre itself over the past decade. The Walking Dead (2010–ongoing) is concluding its tenth season, after birthing the prequel series Fear the Walking Dead (2015–ongoing) and several new spin-off films. The Zombieland sequel premiered in October 2019.
It was never a given that monster stories – long the province of adolescents, kitsch fanatics and arrested-development cases – would become a mainstay of ‘peak TV’ in the 2010s. Broadly speaking, the turn of the century was a bleak time for horror. The 1990s saw ironic, deconstructed slasher and exploitation mainstays such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996). The 2000s brought a renewed niche purism (especially in the splatter category) under the heading of ‘torture porn’. If franchises such as Saw or The Human Centipede courted outrage while delivering financial returns, they also drove horror back into what film theorist Carol Clover once called ‘the cinematic underbrush’, beyond the realm of social and critical respectability.
Clover was, at the time, writing of the classic 1980s slasher film, the sort in which teenage dreams were stalked by psychopaths, babysitters brutally stabbed and the placid corners of rural America revealed as anything but safe. Films like Halloween (1978), she argued, functioned like pornography, literally stimulating the corpus. They also provided a site of collective cogitation, especially about sex and gender ambivalences: such films were abject, but in that abjection lay uncanny power. Importantly, disturbing series like A Nightmare on Elm Street screened in parallel with cosy or campy monster fare, from E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) to The Lost Boys (1987). The long shadow of the 1980s has been difficult to shake.
Yet, with the emergence of streaming platforms and anthology series as staples of premium ‘television’ (can we really call it that anymore?) over the past decade, showrunners who came of age during the ’80s have returned unashamedly to the source material of their youth. This revival has taken a few routes. The path of high-gloss revivalism is the way of The Walking Dead: the zombie mythos is central to Haitian anthropology and American grindhouse alike, and it is a good fit for an era of seeming plenitude in the West nonetheless pervaded by a general apprehension of imminent social breakdown, factional conflict and mass epidemic. Based on a recent comic book of the same name, the show is timely but also partakes of the high production values that typify cable drama series: it did for the Evil Dead set what Deadwood or Westworld did for the spaghetti western. Similarly, Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story (2011–ongoing) relies on a gifted ensemble cast working in an anthology mode to plumb now-canonical clichés that yielded sub-genres such as the haunted house, the death cult and the mental hospital. Murphy and production partner Brad Falchuk have dominated US airwaves for the better part of 20 years with their splashy, tongue-in-cheek style that uses star power and brio to make the grotesque palatable for the masses. Call this the ‘jazz at Lincoln Center’ model, in which a once transgressive form is benignly (if appealingly) canonized and shared among polite company.
More compelling were a slate of films that breathed new life into the form, using horror conventions to scrutinize broader social rifts. After a run of mediocre sequels, a new Halloween (2018) marked the 40th anniversary of the original. Jamie Lee Curtis, the ur-teenage victim, returns as a steely shut-in. In the wake of a wider reckoning about sexism under the aegis of #MeToo, the new Halloween deftly returns to its source code, making explicit the voyeuristic pathos of the slasher movie and telling a story about intergenerational trauma that likely resonates with the lived experiences of countless women. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks returned in 2017, telling an interdimensional tale of good and evil across a vast and terrifying landscape. While it was a formally and metaphysically challenging outing, it mostly replaced the woodsy charm of the original with the deserts of Nevada.
Those seeking the spooky conifer groves of the northwest were better served by the under-the-radar gore-fest Green Room (2015), in which a youthful punk band is imprisoned in a remote venue-compound in Oregon by a group of murderous neo-Nazis led by Patrick Stewart. Green Room is tautly entertaining, but in retrospect also foreshadows the true-life re-emergence of the alt-right. Of course, the most surprising breakout film of the decade was comedian Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Essentially a merger of ‘meet the parents’ and ‘mad scientist’ storylines, it took up older debates around cultural appropriation in the age of Black Lives Matter: in short, that white people need to exploit black people for their culture, labour and even physiology.
Peele’s project, like Lynch’s, bends the boundaries of genre and explores pressing themes in an indisputably artful way. If their work elevates horror to new psychological and aesthetic highs, it was not, perhaps, the most emblematic of the decade. That would be the Netflix series Stranger Things (2016–ongoing). Although the streaming giant does not release viewer data, the Duffer Brothers’ 1980s-set pastiche is an undisputed phenomenon. Certainly, it tickles the memory banks of Gen-X brains. Stranger Things has it all: a rag-tag group of nerdy kid protagonists, a shady government installation, teenagers with mullets, inter-dimensional demons, a curmudgeonly small-town sheriff, even Winona Ryder! Set in the cornfields of rural Indiana, Stranger Things is an amalgam of a bygone world and the stories we once told about it.
But there’s more, here, than calculation or nostalgia. Stranger Things is an oddly hopeful show, and it treats its adolescent heroes with sensitivity. For all of its dangers, it makes us feel at home in a world that is increasingly inhospitable, rather than the other way around. When they aren’t staving off apocalypse, these kids are listening to cassettes and playing a weekly Dungeons & Dragons campaign – small, analogue rituals of human connection that have enjoyed a resurgence among adults lately. Stranger Things captures a bit of lost magic in a disenchanted world. This, too, is the prescience of Zombieland: Harrelson’s character Tallahassee may be a hardened hunter of the undead, but he spends most of the film in search of the soothing normalcy of a Twinkie. Even in a lost world, it is comforting – necessary, even – to revisit the serene pleasures of youth.