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posted: 7/4/2016 9:07 AM

Of thee I scream: How American politics oozes into horror films

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  • A masked Purger confronts Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell in "The Purge: Election Year."

    A masked Purger confronts Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell in "The Purge: Election Year."
    courtesy of Michele K. Short, Universal Pictures

  • Danny Pino, left, Johnny Ray Gill, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Nikki M. James star in "BrainDead."

    Danny Pino, left, Johnny Ray Gill, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Nikki M. James star in "BrainDead."
    Courtesy of Jeff Neumann, CBS

 
By Scott Tobias
Washington Post

In the lead-up to "Purge night," an annual 12-hour window of government-sanctioned lawlessness, a local Washington news crew files a breathless report from the airport baggage claim. A rowdy group of young Europeans, dubbed "murder tourists," have arrived to satiate their bloodlust on the streets of America, and scores like them have become a boon to the economy, adding another perverse incentive to keep this barbaric night going year after year. Call it cash for slash.

That's just one throwaway detail in "The Purge: Election Night," the third entry in the popular movie franchise, but it says a lot about how this country sees itself -- and how the world does in kind. In the year 2025, global travelers may choose to visit the Louvre in Paris, sample the hawkers of Singapore or sip an earthy red wine under the Tuscan sun, but America is the hot destination for violence. Short of including a Zagat guide to assault weapons, the film's message is clear: We are a country associated with guns and violence -- an importer-exporter, in fact -- and not only that, we're also a country where some believe the key to solving our problem with guns and violence is more guns and more violence.

In the months after the Orlando shooting and leading up to our own election night on Nov. 8, this is a conversation that's happening in debates, at the dinner table, in the editorial pages and among the telegenic partisans of cable news. But it's rarely a conversation that spills over into movies or television shows, because those are the places we go to retreat from uncomfortable topics, not engage in them. If we directly assess history on-screen at all, it's usually from the rearview mirror, enough distance from the events that troubled us that we can safely file them away.

But escapist entertainment may speak to us through metaphor, like seeing the presidential race through the prism of "Game of Thrones." And the horror genre is a particularly fruitful source of such metaphors. "The Purge" franchise follows a long tradition of American movies that couch the fears and anxieties of contemporary culture in allegory or simply reflect them right back to us. They're the space where artists can purge, too -- a repository for deep-seated hostilities or the unsettling thoughts that keep us up at night.

At the height of the Red Scare, there was "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a 1956 chiller about an insidious alien plot to turn ordinary American citizens into group-thinking "pod people." As the nightly news trafficked in horrific images of the Vietnam War, young directors including Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper responded with shockingly blunt depictions of human cruelty -- Craven with 1972's "The Last House on the Left," a rape-revenge thriller shot with sickening home-movie intimacy, and Hooper with 1974's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," which follows members of the younger generation as they're literally led to the slaughter. The tone of the entire genre had shifted with the times.

Flash-forward to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another uptick in extreme horror films, led by two franchises, "Saw" and "Hostel," that reflected a darkening mood. In the wake of the 2003 Abu Ghraib scandal, mainstream entertainment passed on dealing with the morals and efficacy of torture, aside from the ticking-time-bomb fantasies of "24." But the "Saw" series, beginning in 2004, steered right into the curve. Over seven straight Halloween weekends, young audiences turned up in large numbers to watch like-aged victims wriggle under elaborate torture devices. And as post-9/11 goodwill eroded into hostility toward U.S. foreign policy overseas, 2005's "Hostel" imagined the grimmest possible fate for American backpackers in Europe.

The undisputed master of political horror, however, is George Romero, who single-handedly turned the zombie subgenre into a vehicle for editorial commentary. Starting with 1968's "Night of the Living Dead," which has been read as a counterculture allegory for the country's racial and social ills, Romero's "Dead" series accommodated a new theme with each entry: mindless consumerism (1978's "Dawn of the Dead"), the arrogance and folly of the Iraq War (2005's "Land of the Dead"), the spinning of media lies (2007's "Diary of the Dead"). In their soulless, relentless, dead-eyed pursuit of braaaaaaaiiiins, zombies became a catchall metaphor for conformity.

The new CBS curio "BrainDead" nods to Romero in depicting Washington political culture as its own kind of zombie wasteland. Although it falls more accurately under the banner of satire than horror, creators Robert and Michelle King's offbeat follow-up to "The Good Wife" is premised on an infestation of space bugs that turn politicians from both sides of the aisle into lobotomized tools of some curious alien agenda. The jokes practically write themselves: Who hasn't imagined politicians as hollow-sounding boards for party talking points? Or as backroom co-conspirators on some nefarious agenda? At times, the zombie angle hardly even seems necessary. This is the Congress we already know.

"BrainDead" was a political show from the start, but "The Purge" series has been slower in opening up to provocative commentary. The last two entries, "The Purge: Anarchy" and "The Purge: Election Year," have dabbled in government conspiracy and all-out class warfare, like a real-world updating of "The Hunger Games." The high-concept hook of the franchise -- that a "cathartic" half-day period of murder and mayhem would drive the crime rate down -- is fundamentally ridiculous, but as writer-director James DeMonaco keeps bringing in up-to-the-minute political references to justify it.

The second "Purge" suggested the annual ritual was a secret capitalist plot to winnow down the poorest and most vulnerable members, who can't afford the expensive security systems that protect the wealthy elite. "Election Year" goes much further, folding in messages not only about income inequality but also racial injustice, with its nasty, cartoon vision of America's future. The film makes a reference to "hands up, don't shoot," and the government is run by a white supremacist cult willing to assassinate a political challenger (Elizabeth Mitchell) in order to keep the presidency.

If she survives the night, she still needs to win Florida's electoral votes. As the 2000 election demonstrated, that state can be a tricky one.

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