Media

The 10 Best Political Cult Horror Films Ever

Social commentary shows up in the unlikeliest places. Here, our list for the most awesome films that double as political allegory.

In a new book about John Carpenter's Orwellian masterpiece, They Live, author Jonathan Lethem does some well-deserved justice to the film -- if it’s not the best-ever social commentary out there, it’s at least one of the most fun to watch. But They Live is far from the only movie to shed light on society’s woes. Directors have a long tradition of using horror as an allegory for what we most fear. Here are 10 awesome films that analogize, encapsulate -- and, in some instances, predicted -- true-life political nightmares.

1.Night of the Living Dead(1968). A classic among classics, George Romero’s debut feature not only influenced every quality cult/B-movie to come, he developed a template for political commentary in horror films that both he and his disciples follow to this day. Released in 1968, its slow pacing set the tone for the paranoia that gripped the nation the following year and never left, and the utter humanness of the voracious zombies was a reminder of humankind’s capacity for horrific acts. At the time, Romero was praised for casting Duane Jones, an African American actor, as the star and lead, casting the film in the light of the civil rights movement. At the time, it seemed like an allegory for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., particularly with the pervasive quote, “They’re coming for you.” It’s the film’s most telling and scariest moment, though it’s also got another line that now seems prescient about Vietnam: “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn't going to solve anything.”

Romero has explored similar themes throughout his career, taking on the military, the media, American consumerism, local government, and big-money Hollywood, among other ghoulish entities. In an interview earlier this year about the series, he explained, “We were all 1960s guys who were all pissed off that peace and love hadn't quite worked the way we hoped. So it starts there, but...I don't know...I've thought that all six of them were basically social satires.”

Real World Parallel: The Birmingham protests, and the predatory nature of many police in the South during the civil rights movement.

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2.The Crazies(1973). A military plane crashes in a small town in Iowa, unleashing its deadly cargo -- a biological weapon that ravages residents with a mind-numbing illness. But as the infection spreads, it takes an even more sinister turn when afflicted citizens zombify and embark on enraged killing sprees. As if the fear of being violently murdered by your neighbor wasn’t enough, the government decides to cover up its blunder, quarantining the town and shooting everyone in sight... including non-zombies. A commentary on both chemical warfare and the government’s responsibility-shirking, it’s certainly along the lines of the great 28 Days Later, Quarantine and others -- but this one comes from the mind of Romero, who wrote the script with his signature incisive political undertones.

Real World Parallel: Monsanto’s toxic dumping and cover-up in Anniston, Alabama, which lead to the deaths of children and wildlife.

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3. .They Live(1988). The government is mind-controlling you... and the government is aliens. This campy treat follows wrestler-actor Roddy Piper’s efforts to save humanity after he finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see what’s truly going on. And that is: media propaganda meant to anesthetize the masses as the alien government takes over the world. Released shortly after the first George Bush took office, it served as a beautiful allegory for the Republican dominance of the ‘80s and the vast, greedy somnambulism that characterized the yuppie decade. Or, as Jonathan Lethem writes, We’re all fucking ghouls.

Real World Parallel: Fox News. Hands down.

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4.The Children(1980). Abutting the popularity of the No Nukes movement and predicting the escalation of the Cold War, this under-seen classic begins with an ominous leak at a nuclear power plant near a sleepy suburban town. As a bus full of perky schoolkids putters by, it’s enveloped in a dangerous fog, which transforms the children into radioactive automatons whose natural desire for parental love turns murderous... and pretty gross, too. In addition to blithely commenting on the unseen dangers of nuclear power and proliferation, The Children does a good job of playing off one horror trope that never gets old -- that kids can be extra, extra creepy when they want to be. Also, predated the rise of black fingernail polish.

Real World Parallel: The Chernobyl disaster, six years after the film was released.
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5.The Stuff(1985). The Reagan era bore such great fruit for this genre. The Stuff takes on unchecked consumerism, misleading marketing, even the junk-food industry with a tale that will probably make you laugh, and potentially keep you off ice cream for a little while. Two miners are at work when they discover a mysterious, marshmallow-like substance deep in the earth. Naturally, they decide to taste it (naturally!) and discover it’s the most tantalizing sweet since, well, marshmallows. Being good capitalists, they market it as the best dessert Mother Nature ever made and it becomes wildly popular. The problem is, it’s alive... and it’s hungrier than you are.

Real World Parallel: GMOs and Frankenfoods made to cut corporate costs. Also, rBGH.

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6.White Dog(1982). Forget Cujo -- this is the scariest film ever made about a killer dog. The white dog is a dog trained to kill black people on sight, and the film is a deep foray into the scourge of racism -- whether it can be eradicated, whether we should respond peacefully or fight back, whether it’s learned or a symptom of society. There’s not a lot of subtlety going on here, but director Samuel Fuller did a great job of teasing out the storyline.

Real World Parallel: Terrifyingly, it is real -- the script is based on a true story written by Romain Gary in 1970. His wife, actress and civil rights activist Jean Seberg, brought home a stray German shepherd, which they eventually discovered was a former police dog trained to attack African Americans. By all accounts, though, Gary’s book is decidedly more nuanced than the film.

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7.Teeth(2007). Possibly the most feminist horror ever made, this deliberately campy-funny-scary flick took a different tack on the age-old idea of women avenging violence incurred by men. When an abstinent, sweet-faced teen feels uncomfortable with men, she discovers that she’s got a full set of choppers “down there,” and they’ll avenge any violation at a second’s chomp. Toying with the age-old, woman-fearing myth of vagina dentata, it’s a witty, brilliant film, and actor Jess Weixler is amazing as the protagonist. Warning: In my experience, even the most staunchly feminist men find certain parts of this film difficult to watch.

Real World Parallel: Anti-feminists. Flip the script!

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8.The Hills Have Eyes(1977). Playing off the terror and fatigue of Vietnam, director Wes Craven placed a “normal” American family in the uncharted realm of the poor and disenfranchised, who wreak havoc on the family's psyches, previously cradled in a sense of well-being. Of course, the poor and disenfranchised in this case are cannibalistic lunatics whose characters are steeped in ideas of primalism, but as an allegory for the ugly truths that destroyed the country’s sense of happy identity and nuclear-family perfection, they win. To quote the trailer, “She thought she knew what the world was all about... but nothing prepared her for this.”

Real World Parallel: The Tea Party, minus the poverty, cannibalizing our idea that America is a rational place.

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9.Hostel(2005). Director Eli Roth’s insanely popular horror tale borrowed liberally from images of Iraqi prisons and hammered in the idea that the rest of the world isn’t exactly psyched on Americans. Three hapless, rather douchey dudes from the good old USA travel to a hostel in Eastern Europe, only to learn they’ve been duped into being victims for well-off sadists paying to enact their torture fantasies. Even if Roth was ham-fisted in his approach to a vague commentary, you have to give him some credit for trying. Wish Susan Sontag had been around to see this one.

Real World Parallel: Abu Ghraib.

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10.Machete(2010). A horror by definition of its grisly murder scenes -- and a revenge fantasy made for terrifying racists -- director Robert Rodriguez reacts to immigration laws in the form of a fierce, gun-wielding former Federale called Machete. Hired in Texas to assassinate a senator who’s heavy-handed on deportation, he soon learns nothing’s as it seems and bands together with a badass collection of Mexican freedom fighters to exact revenge. It’s likely Sharron Angle hasn’t seen this film, but she probably would have been offended by the trailer directed at Arizona, released this year on Cinco de Mayo.

Real World Parallel: No hardened renegade and busted ass on the border patrol yet, and hopefully never will... but the anti-Mexican attitudes depicted in this one are, disturbingly, not that far off from some of the rhetoric we saw in the midterm elections.

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Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of the FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.