Zombie Attack Method Depends on Medium, Professor Says
October 30, 2013 – Zombie attacks in films shown at drive-in movies were slow because of the huge screens available, but tend to sneak up on you in later works because of smaller platforms, according to Georgetown film and media studies scholar Caetlin Benson-Allott.
In her new book, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (University of California Press, 2013) the assistant professor of English explores the how horror filmmakers shoot movies on the big screen versus video versus computer.
One of Benson-Allott’s examples in the book is the stark contrast in the way zombies creep up on victims in George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, which she says was designed for drive-in theaters, versus his Day of the Dead, filmed in the 1980s.
Slow Attack, Sneaking Up
“In Night of the Living Dead, you’ll get these extreme long shots where you see across an entire field, and these zombies are just slowly walking across the field,” she explains. “You know that even though they’re slow and you can see them coming, they still outnumber you, and they will get you in the end.”
The film and media studies scholar says Day of the Dead was filmed with TV sets in mind.
“Those TV sets couldn’t show deep focus shots, so in Day of the Dead the zombie attacks are all set underground in this dark military bunker [with] a really shallow focus shot of just the protagonist in front of the screen and everything in the background blurry,” she says.
Viewers may see a vague shape moving in the background before a sudden camera switch puts a zombie close enough to the protagonist for attack, Benson-Allott says.
Zombies in a Box
“[Romero is] doing the attack differently because television has different capabilities than gigantic movie screens,” she adds.
She notes that the 1968 zombie movie was followed by Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in 1978, which she says was designed for new movie multiplexes at shopping malls.
Being a scholar of horror films doesn't mean they can't scare you. A night at home alone watching Dawn of the Dead on DVD inspired her to write the book.
“It kind of occurred to me that the zombies were in a sense still in there, still in this little black box,” says the professor, who was pursuing her graduate studies at Cornell at the time. “It was the middle of the night. I was alone. I was scared, but I had this paranoid fear that they somehow were going to get out.”
A month after Benson-Allott’s scare, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) was released. The supernatural horror film featured a videotape that, if watched, was supposed to cause the viewer to die in seven days.
A Way to Unwind
The cinema scholar talks a great deal about technological nuances in horror films with her students. She teaches a course on Horror, Technology and Technique every other year in addition to two film and media studies minor core courses – Gateway to Film and Media Studies and Senior Capstone.
Her affinity for the horror genre developed as a teenager after she watched Leprechaun (1993), starring Jennifer Aniston. She found watching the film to be a good way to unwind from studying for the SAT.
“I thought why do I feel so much better after watching horror movies,” she recalls, “It was because I sort of felt like if Jennifer Aniston can kill this demonic troll then I can make a 1500 on the SAT.”