Night of the Living Dead (1968)
“The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying,” Roger Ebert wrote about seeing George Romero’s zombie opus Night of the Living Dead during its original release. “At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all,” he continued. During the premiere of the 1968 horror classic, the MPAA ratings system we now love to hate was not in place, allowing children to purchase tickets for the grim story about seven strangers who wind up stranded in a deserted farmhouse fighting for their lives. Now, young audiences are tuning into shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead on a regular basis. Zombies have infiltrated the pop culture mainstream entirely. Then, however, Romero’s bleak vision and hordes of flesheaters were a new and horrifying experience for viewers. Audiences today enjoy discussing NOTLD’s subversive socio-political statements about race, violence, and more. While the film remains nihilistic and incredibly depressing, we’re not certain that it’s still shocking.
We live in a culture where porn is easily and instantly accessible, and some porn stars are as popular as Hollywood celebs. Porn’s illicit storylines obviously make it difficult to bridge the transition into mainstream cinema and regular theatrical rotation, but Deep Throat managed to do it in the 1970s — shocking audiences far and wide. The Linda Lovelace epic made waves when conventional movie theaters screened the hardcore picture and made seeing an adult film a thrilling event. Federal investigations and obscenity charges abounded during the movie’s release. However, in an era where sex is used to sell everything from soda to cars, porn parodies are more popular than some mainstream movies, and Pinterest and Kickstarter for porn exists, is a movie centering on the star’s ability to perform an oral sex act that teens brag about on Facebook as big a deal as it once was?
Don’t get us wrong, some of us ’round these parts still find The Exorcist scary as hell. The story about a young girl who becomes possessed by a demon and spews filthy talk and green pea soup like it’s going out of style is genuinely unnerving in parts. The Exorcist, however, also suffers from decades of urban legends (namely that the film is cursed due to several on set injuries, a studio fire, a death, and a few embellished tales) and sensationalism that has overwhelmingly desensitized us to its horrific allure. In fact, many of the shots showing Linda Blair’s grotesque mug pale in comparison to body horror-esque scenes of the young actress in the hospital being treated like a lab experiment.
Last Tango in Paris
Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris saw its share of international incidents including walkouts, mass vomiting episodes, outrage, police seizure, destroyed film copies, and censorship controversy. In present day, the film about a depraved American man who carries on an explicit tryst with a young French woman in a ramshackle apartment is more commonly brought up as the punchline in a joke thanks to its famous scene involving a sex act with a certain diary product. Tango’s reputation is a mythical force, but the true brutality comes from what renowned film critic Pauline Kael described as an emotional violence that brings into sharp focus “realism with the terror of actual experience.” Without the pulse of the film’s controversy beating as fast and hard as it did during its theatrical release, Tango‘s scandalous scenes have cooled to a simmer. Even stories about troubled star Marie Schneider facing drug addiction and attempting suicide in the film’s wake seem familiar and, sadly, almost expected now that actresses like Lindsay Lohan have occupied our minds in recent years.
Life of Brian
Monty Python’s puerile, yet clever brand of comedy has often pissed people off. The group’s famous religious satire Life of Brian was banned in several countries — some up until quite recently — and drew protests and moral outrage worldwide. Of course, the troupe’s response to the controversy was equally offensive to many. “So funny it was banned in Norway!” became the movie’s tagline, not winning any love from Scandinavia. While British censorship regulations remain a force to be reckoned with, 1979 was a different story entirely, and the film suffered for it. Today, the movie still causes a ruckus with conservative Christian groups, but Life of Brian is a most-loved comedy and financial success that hardly shocks in today’s moral (or immoral?) climate.
A Clockwork Orange
To say that Stanley Kubrick’s ode to ultra-violence A Clockwork Orange caused a stir during its premiere is a serious understatement. Even the director tried to withdraw it from release after a series of copycat crimes and other censorship drama caused protests and provoked violent threats against Kubrick’s family. That year (1971) Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, and The French Connection also appeared on scene, sparking further chatter about Clockwork‘s deplorable violence. The dystopian satire has since become a reality in our society where the word “rape” is casually and carelessly tossed around and jihadist beheadings are Internet viral sensations.
“I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it,” director Michael Powell said of his controversial 1960 film Peeping Tom. The psychological thriller was vilified upon release due to its sexual, violent overtones, destroying the filmmaker’s career single-handedly. Powell previously found success with moviemaking partner Emeric Pressburger — most notably in the 1940s, thanks to genius works like The Red Shoes — but after Peeping Tom the movie industry shunned him completely. It wasn’t until his death that Powell was considered one of the premiere filmmakers of all time, celebrated by giants like Martin Scorsese. By today’s standards, Powell’s voyeuristic tale of madness seems tame. Thankfully modern audiences have found a lot to appreciate in the memorable and important work.
Before Scarface‘s Tony Montana became a pop culture phenomenon adopted by hip hop artists and parodied on network television, Al Pacino’s over the top portrayal of a Cuban refugee who takes control of the Miami cocaine trade was brought to task for glorifying violence and drug abuse. Now long separated from the initial shock it caused, Brian De Palma’s nasty, foul-mouthed opus has since revealed itself as a melodramatic, and sometimes downright silly movie — helped by lines we love to laugh at like, “Say hello to my little friend!”