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Cinema of Shadows

By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 6, 2007

Though made before the Iraq invasion, the film hinted at catastrophe to come. The sequel released this summer, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later, gets more specific. After the plague has seemingly burned itself out, with all victims dead, a NATO force led by the US has occupied Britain, with the intention of repatriating survivors in a tightly secured “Green Zone” in London. Inevitably, though, the virus returns (good intentions again — through a kiss, no less) and despite the gruesome toll on infected and innocent alike by guns, bombs, poison gas, flamethrowers, and that old Romero standby, helicopter rotor blades, humanity’s only hope of survival seems to be a plague victim who carries the virus, but displays none of the symptoms. Should the army spare the victim in order to research a cure, which is kind of like negotiating with terrorists and insurgents to find common ground? Or kill them all and let God sort them out?

Hurts so good
The echoes of the present day in 28 Weeks Later may raise an extra chill, but what’s more disturbing is the same thing that bothered me in Romero’s original Dead movies — the fine line between good guy and evildoer; between a sympathetic, desperately endangered character and a terrifying, non-human thing to be whacked with a crowbar or a .60 caliber sniper rifle. Love may be just a kiss away, but so are dismemberment, evisceration, and cannibalism.

The same kind of tension can be found in what is probably the most debased genre to flourish in the post-9/11 environment: the so-called torture-chic movies. The Fox TV show 24, which pioneered the movement, first aired on November 1, 2001, but the first big screen hit, Saw (2004), debuted a few months after the revelations about Abu Ghraib. Sequels quickly followed, as did the equally lucrative and even more graphic Hostel (2005) and Turistas (2006).

The phenomenon is understandable, to a point. People are angry and scared. They want to punish the terrorists and protect themselves and their loved ones, and so interrogations involving torture can seem reasonable, if contrary to the Constitution and international treaty. Perhaps, like those who made The Dirty Dozen and other throw-out-the-rulebook portrayals of war so popular at the start of the Vietnam quagmire, those who rejoice in such torture are frustrated and just want to get the whole thing over with.

Why is it, then, that in the most popular torture movies (unlike, say, in 24), the victims aren’t Al Qaeda villains, but people like the viewers themselves? In “We Love to Torture,” a December 16, 2006, op-ed for the LA Times, the critic A.S. Hamrah notes, “Torture is a duty that filmmakers . . . have convinced us is a lot of fun . . . a form of therapy that’s good for its victims, who deserve — even need — it.”

True, maybe, for Sheik Omar, but what about the yuppies in Hostel or the co-eds in the upcoming Hostel 2? Do these victims, identical for the most part with the people watching the movies, need torture therapy because they feel guilty about wanting to inflict torture on others, about responding to the dark side by going over to the dark side (as Dick Cheney said might be necessary in waging the war against terror) and keeping America supposedly safe from evildoers by unleashing hell on someone else? The war in Iraq might not yet be obviously lighting up movie screens, but it’s already found a dark place in our soul.

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Related: The pain hits home, Examining the state of Iraq's democracy, The way they tell stories, More more >
  Topics: Features , Politics, Terrorism, War and Conflict,  More more >
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