On The Ambitions of The Defiled
Good Horror films manage both to scare us and disturb us with imagery that channels deep-seated psychological and social anxieties. Then there are the even more intellectually ambitious ones. In addition to viscerally thrilling their audience, they inspire philosophical reflection about how cinema, and especially the Horror genre, mediate and transform our understanding of the world and history itself. In a post-1960s North American context, the two masters of this brand of intellectually challenging Horror film have been George A. Romero and David Cronenberg. Romero is obviously best known for his Night of the Living Dead (1968) and five other zombie films. As influential as those have been, for me Romero’s masterpiece remains his film Martin (1977). Martin is both a shocking viewing experience and a complex examination of vampire myths, alienation, and belief. In addition, it provides an almost unparalleled ethnographic record of American economic decay in the late 1970s, right before Reganism came along to usher in the final victory of financialization and corporatism over life in the United States. Cronenberg, too, in his best films mixes the visceral with the philosophical. No matter how many times I view his Videodrome (1983), I always manage to be disgusted by its imagery and intellectually enthralled by its vision of a world where media and medium and external reality become indistinguishable.
Julian Grant’s The Defiled firmly belongs to this tradition of intellectual Horror films perfected by George A. Romero and David Cronenberg. Rest assured it has enough gruesome imagery to churn the stomach of even the most desensitized of Horror film fans. Yet, the opening scenes of the film immediately alert us that The Defiled has far more ambitious and eccentric aims than just revolting its audience. With its beautiful blue-toned black and white cinematography, it certainly does not look like other post-apocalyptic zombie/ virus films to which the audience may be accustomed. Even better, The Defiled has no intelligible dialogue. Why not you ask? This is because Grant subverts the conventions of the zombie/virus sub-genre by giving us a zombie who is the main protagonist of the film. Recall that George A. Romero flirted with the idea in his underrated Land of the Dead (2005) with the African-American gas-station attendant zombie who is more compelling than most of the humans in the film. Without spoiling anything about the plot, suffice it to say that The Defiled ultimately does not ask us to identify with a zombie protagonist for the purposes of satire or direct social commentary. Instead, it invites its audience to revert back to older historical forms of Horror film spectatorship: to empathize with the humanity within the monster rather than reveal the monstrous within the human.
For all its compelling subversions of the modern post-apocalyptic zombie film, there is something, therefore, also old-fashioned about The Defiled. Rather than replicating the nihilism of recent Horror films that imagine the end of humanity without mourning its demise, it asks us to reconsider our origins and fate as humans—origins that it implicitly filters through the lens of film history. The Defiled, in other words, contains several homages and references to a diverse spectrum of films: Frankenstein (1932), George A. Romero’s aforementioned zombie films, and Eraserhead (1977) are but a few that stood out to me. I was even reminded of the apes from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as I watched an especially de-evolved zombie early in the film. Such homages, however, are not just empty citations. Instead, cinema itself functions as the historical past in The Defiled in order to trace how we have arrived at our own era of economic crisis and to remind us that the catastrophes that beckon need not mark the end to human empathy.