Four decades on, there doesn’t seem to be any­thing left to say about the wave of New Horror films ush­ered in by Night Of The Living Dead.  The films of George Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and any oth­er gen­re auteur who came to promi­nence in the 1970’s have been cov­ered in exhaus­tive detail sev­er­al times over since they made their orig­i­nal impact.  It’s tough to believe that any­thing new could be gleaned from a study of this era.

Thus, it’s a pleas­ant sur­prise how fresh­ly Shock Value reads.  Jason Zinoman cov­ers the same mate­ri­al many a hor­ror scribe has cov­ered before but he does so from a dif­fer­ent van­tage point by mix­ing in fresh jour­nal­ism alongside the expect­ed film crit­i­cism.  He has inter­viewed dozens of peo­ple in the lives of the film­mak­ers for Shock Value and the sto­ries he uncov­ers serve a dual pur­pose: not only do the­se tales add to the mythol­o­gy of the­se film­mak­ers, they also inspire inter­est­ing new crit­i­cal insights about their work.

Zinoman breaks with hor­ror crit­i­cism ortho­doxy by reach­ing back before Night Of The Living Dead to begin his tale with a thumb­nail sketch of the pro­duc­tion for Rosemary’s Baby.  William Castle picked up the Ira Levin source nov­el with the inten­tion of earn­ing a place in “respectable” Hollywood cir­cles by adapt­ing it but Paramount Pictures pro­duc­tion head Robert Evans hand­ed the reins to Roman Polanski — as Zinoman frame it, this is the moment that “old hor­ror” that Castle rep­re­sent­ed made way for the new breed.

From there, Shock Value alter­nates back and forth between two types of chap­ter.  Most of the chap­ters are film-speci­fic, delv­ing into a par­tic­u­lar New Horror clas­sic, a selec­tion that mix­es low-bud­get gut­ter­snipes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House On The Left with stu­dio-fund­ed (but no less assaultive) items like The Exorcist and Alien.

The lives and psy­cholo­gies of the film­mak­ers are explored behind the sce­nes, with Zinoman accen­tu­at­ing a trend of com­pat­i­ble but dif­fer­ent film­mak­ers com­bin­ing skills to cre­ate a sin­gu­lar work.  For instance, The Exorcist ris­es up from the gulf between William Peter Blatty’s faith and William Friedkin’s cyn­i­cal real­ism and the com­bi­na­tion of Sean Cunningham’s exploita­tion-film sen­si­bil­i­ties and Wes Craven’s will­ing­ness to go to extremes for social com­men­tary is revealed to be what makes Last House On The Left such a provoca­tive expe­ri­ence.

Along the way, the sto­ries of the film­mak­ers’ lives become as com­pelling as the sto­ries behind the films.  Zinoman does a noble thing for hor­ror fans by explor­ing the impor­tance of Dan O’Bannon.  If you don’t know the name, he act­ed and starred in Dark Star, wrote the orig­i­nal script for Alien with Ronald Shusett and would write and direct the fan favorite Return Of The Living Dead.  He is pre­sent­ed as a dif­fi­cult but gift­ed fig­ure who nev­er got his due despite his work with tal­ent­ed direc­tors — and his some­times comic, often trag­ic sto­ry is riv­et­ing.

The oth­er type of chap­ter is done in a crit­i­cal style, explor­ing how New Horror film­mak­ers made a break with pre­vi­ous norms of the gen­re.  For instance, there’s a chap­ter that dis­cuss­es how Alfred Hitchcock and his film Psycho actu­al­ly were not influ­ences on the new breed of hor­ror direc­tor as well as a chap­ter about how the new direc­tors brought out a new vig­or in the hor­ror gen­re by replac­ing its tra­di­tion­al use of an onscreen mon­ster with sub­tler kinds of ter­ror (like the blur­ring of real­i­ty or Manson-inspired “human mon­sters.”).  Quotes from the “new hor­ror” film­mak­ers are used to sup­port the­se argu­ments and the­se chap­ters make a pret­ty con­vinc­ing case for Zinoman’s asser­tions.

The worst that can be said about it is that there are hand­ful of minor fac­tu­al mis­takes regard­ing films (most notably, a key shock­ing moment from Last House On The Left is described incor­rect­ly).  It’s a shame the edit­ing of the book wasn’t a lit­tle more thor­ough but the num­ber of moments like the­se are small in num­ber and easy to over­look in light of all the thought-pro­vok­ing mate­ri­al this book serves up.

There is plen­ty more that could be said about the book (exam­ple: how Zinoman pin­points H.P. Lovecraft as a cru­cial, oft-over­looked influ­ence on both Carpenter and O’Bannon) but per­haps it is best for read­ers to dis­cov­er its many sur­pris­es for them­selves.  Simply put, Shock Value finds a new way into vin­tage mate­ri­al by encour­ag­ing the read­er to look at the archi­tects of New Horror as peo­ple instead of icons.  That’s an impres­sive achieve­ment for a book that cov­ers such famil­iar crit­i­cal ter­rain — and it makes Shock Value a must-read for New Horror fans.