Shockumentary: A Horror Genre for Our Times

They say we know who we are by the myths we cherish.

I’d planned to weigh in on the third-season finale of “Mad Men,” a show that is both a valentine to and a critique of the 1960s. But I got sidetracked by another kind of myth – a tale of horror.

Last night I watched the 2008 film “Quarantine.” Whether filmmakers intend it or not, all horror movies tap into the anxieties of their times. With “Quarantine,” it’s the war we’re now fighting.

Japan’s 1954 “Godzilla” put the trauma of the atomic age on display for all the world to see. The 1956 film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” reflected the fear of communism taking over our minds, bodies and ultimately our country, and 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” reacted to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The shaky-cam technique began with 1981’s “The Evil Dead,” but it took on a new meaning in the 1999 low-budget film “The Blair Witch Project.” We had footage ostensibly shot by the missing and presumed-dead teenagers, along with the rumor of a child killer who lives in the woods (which could have been inspired by any number of real-life cases).

The 2008 film “Cloverfield” took the same concept – a faux documentary made of seemingly raw, unedited footage – and moved it from the woods of “Blair Witch” to the streets of New York City. Watching “Cloverfield,” I could not help but think of the chaos and terror of 9/11 and the collapse of the twin towers.

Yet another 2008 shaky-cam movie, “Quarantine” is set in Los Angeles. The 2007 Spanish film on which it was based is set in Barcelona. Even so, the specter of New York still hangs in the air.

The footage begins outside a fire station where a cameraman is shooting a young TV host announcing her plans to shadow the night shift.

She watches and engages the firefighters as they eat, play handball and shamelessly flirt. This joie de vivre in such abundance in the first quarter of the movie will stand in stark contrast to what happens after the station gets the first call of the night.

The rest of the film takes place in an apartment building. The only thing the police, firefighters and TV crew know is that a female resident is in some kind of trouble.

She’s in trouble, all right, and so is everyone in the building. A cop tries to calm the woman with all the familiar phrases – we’re here to help you, ma’am – but instead of surrendering, she lurches forward and bites a chunk out of the officer’s neck.

A rabies-like disease quickly goes viral, and one gory victim after another turns the tables on relatives, friends, co-workers and rescuers. Survivors run for their lives.

As far as they can run, that is. The CDC has locked them in the building. If the terrorized victims approach a window or door, gunmen outside start shooting. It turns out that no, the lame haz-mat guys won’t save them, and neither will anyone else. The people inside are expendable.

Although the filmmaker probably didn’t have anything in mind other than scaring his audience, reflections of the world in which we live still emerge in “Quarantine.”

The energetic, testosterone-charged atmosphere of the fire station could easily be a boot camp in the States or a military base in Iraq or Afghanistan. The woman that the cop tries to help eventually turns on him. A little girl is charming one minute, deadly the next.

The survivors don’t know who’s infected, so they don’t know whom to trust. No room is safe.

Sadly, with recent massacres at Fort Hood and the United Nations guesthouse in Kabul, “Quarantine” turned out to be prophetic. Maybe the poetry of Donald Rumsfeld had a kernel of truth after all: It’s the unknown unknowns that will get us.

How the movie ends? You don’t want to know.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2009]

About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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