Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship From VHS to File Sharing

Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship From VHS to File Sharing

by Caetlin Benson-Allott

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Since the mid-1980s, US audiences have watched the majority of movies they see on a video platform, be it VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Video On Demand, or streaming media. Annual video revenues have exceeded box office returns for over twenty-five years. In short, video has become the structuring discourse of US movie culture. Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens examines how prerecorded video reframes the premises and promises of motion picture spectatorship. But instead of offering a history of video technology or reception, Caetlin Benson-Allott analyzes how the movies themselves understand and represent the symbiosis of platform and spectator. Through case studies and close readings that blend industry history with apparatus theory, psychoanalysis with platform studies, and production history with postmodern philosophy, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens unearths a genealogy of post-cinematic spectatorship in horror movies, thrillers, and other exploitation genres. From Night of the Living Dead (1968) through Paranormal Activity (2009), these movies pursue their spectator from one platform to another, adapting to suit new exhibition norms and cultural concerns in the evolution of the video subject.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520275126
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/22/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Caetlin Benson-Allott is Assistant Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Georgetown University.

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Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens

Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing

By Caetlin Benson-Allott


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95449-6


Distributing the Dead

Video Spectatorship in the Movies of George A. Romero

Movies construct the video spectator differently than they do the cinematic spectator; that is the fundamental claim of this chapter, the thesis I set out to prove by examining how one filmmaker altered his presentation of the same subject for different popular distribution platforms. Critics have been quick to affirm that movies look different on video and that filmmakers reimagined many of their formal and narrative conventions during the home video era, but no one has provided the close readings that would identify what these shifts actually look like, how they alter the viewer's relationship to the motion picture and reimagine the spectator. Viewers may intuitively recognize that movies of the home video era address them differently than their cinematic predecessors do, but film theorists have not yet analyzed the nature of that change or how it happened. Therefore, this chapter systematically works through the construction of the spectator in one director's oeuvre over forty years to demonstrate how new motion picture apparatuses bring forth new spectators.

All spectatorship studies—from the 1970s apparatus theory through the 1980s and 1990s reception surveys and contemporary material culture criticism—rest on the abiding assumptions that movies try to elicit specific affects or responses in a viewer and that they do so by manipulating the apparatus through which they anticipate meeting her. Hence, Jean-Louis Baudry, Christian Metz, Laura Mulvey, and the other 1970s screen theorists all appeal to the basic architecture of the movie theater—the location of the projector, the darkness of the auditorium, the size of the screen—to explain how this space constructs its spectator. When subsequent scholars challenge the 1970s theorists' "master narratives" and argue that some audiences actively resist ideological indoctrination, they implicitly affirm the idea that motion pictures exploit their form and format to direct the spectatorial response. Platform studies and new media critics likewise focus on the unique methods digital image productions offer for exciting the viewer. This last approach inspires the methodology for this chapter, but rather than focusing on innovations in motion picture production, I examine how innovations in motion picture exhibition have changed the way filmmakers imagine and address the spectator. What one can show influences what one can say, so the effect of video platforms on filmmaking matters not only because they influence production (as Janet Wasko, Frederick Wasser, and David Bordwell have shown) but also because they shape the transmission of ideas. By examining how the movies' production design, cinematography, and editing anticipate video distribution, we begin to recognize new patterns in how they interpellate the spectator. By reading these formal innovations in conversation with the narratives they convey, we can see how filmmakers negotiate story, platform, and form to achieve a particular response in a viewer.

Such an account cannot limit itself to movies produced after the video revolution, however, at least not if it hopes to convey a sense of how the drive for "videoability" changed the spectator. To do that, its analysis needs to include movies made both before and after video profits eclipsed box-office receipts, while simultaneously controlling for as many other production variables as possible—such as director, subject, and genre. Hence my turn to George A. Romero and his zombie oeuvre. Romero made six zombie movies between 1968 and 2009, and this corpus collectively proves that each new apparatus constructs a new spectator. There are two specific reasons Romero's zombie oeuvre is ideal for this study of video spectatorship. First, the director's forty-year hexalogy follows the same subject in the same genre across no less than five dominant distribution platforms, which facilitates close readings attentive to formal changes. Second, each movie exploits the commonly perceived strengths of its contemporaneous platform to involve the spectator in critiques of the mass media, US military policy, racism, and classism. Although these polemics emerge most obviously in the movies' narratives, as David Bordwell observes, "style is not simply window-dressing draped over a script; it is the very flesh of the work." Romero's zombie movies politicize their spectators by reflecting reputed possibilities and limitations of the apparatus dominating motion picture distribution at the time of production. In 1985, for instance, Romero's Day of the Dead reinterpreted zombie attacks for VHS, a lower-resolution platform that was dominating horror distribution in the mid-1980s. By racking focus on its attacking ghouls, Day transforms the zombie from the lumbering pest of yore to a threat based on limited visibility to suit its new apparatus. They are slow, those zombies, but you have to see them coming, and on an analog video a viewer might not.

Such practical attention to distribution markets and to changes in the motion picture apparatus marks Romero's entire zombie oeuvre. Because Romero undertook his first movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), as an entrepreneurial project to transform himself from a televisual filmmaker (of commercials, primarily) into a feature-film director, Night was shot with the drive-in market and spectator in mind. It also interrogates celluloid as a platform, challenging its capacity to record and represent violence in order to reveal the political limitations of visual media and help the spectator question her insularity from recorded traumas. Romero maintains a similar attention to exhibition and the motion picture apparatus throughout his career as an independent filmmaker (albeit one occasionally hired by the studios for individual projects) and in the rest of his zombie movies: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009). Because of the temporal breaks between each of Romero's sequels, each had to be sold through a different exhibition platform; thus, each reflects a different motion picture apparatus and imagines a different spectator. Dawn went out to the multiplexes and midnight-movie circuit that characterized 1970s cinema going; Day premiered in independent movie theaters but found its funding and its audience through VHS; Land opened in theaters that were understood to be merely advance advertising for a DVD release; and Diary came out to a video marketplace increasingly influenced by new media convergence and user-generated content. So while Steven Shaviro notes that "Romero's zombies could almost be said to be quintessential media images," it might be equally instructive to observe they are media-contingent images whose relation to the spectator changes as their platforms of replication change. Over the course of this chapter I will address each of Romero's movies in turn, noting changes in his framing, cinematography, depth of field, editing, and color palette that reflect changes in contemporaneous exhibition practices and the kind of spectator a director might anticipate. By tracking the political life of key tropes—such as the blue hue of the zombies' skin or the suspense of a zombie attack—I demonstrate that Romero's zombie movies adapted to exploit the political potential of each new apparatus, not to mention the spectator herself.

But before proceeding, I want to reiterate that the goal of this chapter is to unpack the history of the video spectator, not the zombie. Had Romero made six werewolf films in forty years, this chapter might seem to be about werewolves; in either case the monster matters because of what it reveals about the way the movie imagines its spectator. Had Romero made this same hexalogy about witches or robots, they, too, might appear to possess a privileged relationship to motion picture spectatorship—as, indeed, the zombie does—but only because of the unique engagements with the motion picture apparatus Romero pursues in his monster movies. That said, it is also the case that I wrote this chapter in the midst of a zombie renaissance, an unprecedented multimedia surge of interest in the undead. I leave it to other scholars to catalog and contextualize all the zombie movies,literature,games,and ephemera that emerged during the first decade of the twenty-first century,but to the extent that the zombie resurrection includes a new twist in video spectatorship, I would be remiss to ignore it entirely. Therefore, this chapter concludes with a few notes concerning the effect of 1990s zombie video games on the zombie renaissance. Between 2002 and 2004 a new breed of zombie movies reimagined their narrative space, cinematography, and even the speed of their zombies to court the video game user as spectator. In so doing, they achieved what Romero's last zombie movie did not: the survival of the dead.


It has become a convention of Romero criticism to recount how the same financial pressures that led his production company, Image Ten, to green-light a horror film for its first project also contributed to the stylistic decisions that make Night of the Living Dead a political and aesthetic achievement. However, critics have yet to address how Image Ten's distributive plans affected Night's style, content, and construction of its spectator. Image Ten made a horror movie because the company thought it would be an easy genre to sell: it knew both who its potential distributors might be (Columbia or American International Pictures) and where the distributor would rent the film (mostly drive-ins and grind houses). These expectations helped to determine the movie's horrific production design and to shape the antiracist polemic it impresses upon the youthful, politically skeptical spectator that characterized that era and those venues. For example, Night was shot in black and white both because Image Ten could only afford 35 mm black-and-white or 16 mm color film stock and because American International Pictures was still distributing black-and-white creature-features in the late 1960s. Consequently, the movie uses its gray scale thematically to give its production design a banal realism that Technicolor or Eastman Color could not produce. In that regard the black-and-white cinematography affirms the narrative's intertextual relationship with the television news reports that pepper the second half of the film, since in 1968 most television news reporting was still filmed in black and white. Shooting Night in black and white thus allowed the zombies to appear verisimilar to their spectator, no more or less real than the scientists, policemen, and military officers in the film's news reports and the actual televisual violence viewers saw at home every night. Furthermore, while the film uses contemporary televisual trends and aesthetics to interpellate its spectator, it also plays on the stillness inherent to the film strip's imitation of life and thereby prompts her to question both the mimetic power of the motion picture and media representations of US racism and violence.

Night of the Living Dead's microcosm of US violence thus reflects not only its filmmakers' budgetary constraints and aspirational distribution platform (film) but also the ideological investments they wish to pass on to the viewer.These influences emerge in the opening sequence and in depictions of the main characters, and they come to political fruition during the climactic murder of Ben (Duane Jones), the movie's African American hero. Close attention to the formal construction of the introductory sequence also reveals how the movie uses drive-in exhibition norms to introduce the spectator into its eventual critique of Americans' appetitive self-interest. The movie begins on an open road like the ones that led its viewers to their open-air theaters, but this shot also suggests a sly nod to the filmmakers' promise that, if necessary, they would distribute their movie by delivering it from drive-in to drive-in themselves. Night's abandoned dirt road snakes through Pennsylvania farmland, and its gray scale provides dire contrast for Romero's deep staging and grim—if banal—rural setting. As the camera lingers for thirty-seven seconds, a car almost imperceptibly crests the horizon and slowly winds its way across the landscape before passing the camera and transporting its occupants into zombie territory. The black-and-white stock gives this shot a startlingly bleak realism that cannot but recall the bland, gray Kansas of Victor Fleming's Wizard of Oz (1939). The monochrome also obscures the movement of the gray car along the gray road until it is almost upon the spectator. The shot thus initiates all three of the aesthetic techniques Romero will exploit during his drive-in zombie movie: banal production designs that underscore the horror lurking in the mundane American countryside, classical Hollywood deep focus that employs multilayered blocking to heighten the movie's suspense, and a static camera that frames movement and violence for a seemingly objective, documentary effect. These artistic choices allow Romero to present both his zombies and his living characters as American horrors; they encourage the spectator to recognize Romero's monsters as her family and neighbors at their most ignoble and most base.

Given the complicity of production design, cinematography, and framing in a movie's mise-en-scène, however, one can hardly isolate them or analyze them fruitfully out of context; indeed, it is their imbrication and cooperation that draw the spectator into Night of the Living Dead's horror and social critique. Together these techniques characterize Romero's nightmare as distinctly American in both style and setting, as iconic yet mundane locations and props belie the surreal horrors that Romero records along the "one-directional axis of 'deep-focus' cinema that emerged in the mid-to-late 1940s." As the movie's heroine, Barbara (Judith O'Dea), flees to a nearby farmhouse to escape the first zombie attack, the movie blends its deep focus with canted camera angles and incongruous framing devices and thereby increases the spectator's investment in Barbara's plight. These techniques emphasize the uncanny horror of Barbara's homecoming by implying that it will not turn out as planned—or that it was not preplanned, that it was captured live, like television. After she finds the front door locked, Barbara turns and runs downhill toward the camera, careening around the house to locate its kitchen door (Figure 2). Romero records this mad dash from a tilted low angle that increases the spectator's empathetic anxiety while also implying both avant-garde artistry and an inexperienced cameraman following events as they happen.

As Barbara approaches the camera, its slight left tilt positions the porch columns at an angle with the frame's edge, implying that the cinematographer had not had time to line up his shot before Barbara appeared. Indeed, it looks as if the cameraman just barely slid into place before Barbara ran toward him. This angle initiates a highly stylized cinematography that nonetheless conveys haphazard realism thanks to the film's frenetic pace and banal domestic setting. Yet despite this documentary illusion, Barbara's run has obviously been carefully choreographed for the camera; she runs right to it, trips directly in front of it, and then climbs uphill away from it so that it can record her alongside the imposing facade of the house that is her only hope. In short, it utilizes "the linear perspective employed in pre-widescreen films" that John Belton sees encouraging "the spectator's eyes, via depth cues, to explore the depth of the frame." In this case it also prompts the spectator to accept Barbara's plight as real, an important impression for the film's subsequent critique of indexical media.

Night of the Living Dead continues to influence the spectator with metaphoric framing and blocking strategies after it moves inside the farmhouse. There, deep blocking and deep focus exacerbate the claustrophobia and desperate attention to television that drive the interpersonal tensions, accelerate the narrative, and build the political allegory. After Barbara makes it into the abandoned farmhouse, she is joined by Ben, Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and the young lovers Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). Tempers flare when both Harry and Ben try to become "boss" of the group, and the dangers within the house soon rival those outside. These hostilities come into focus through Romero's layered blocking and perspectival use of screen space. By packing as many people into a shot as possible, Romero communicates that the dangers of human society can be just as lethal as those of the undead (a point of irony that later becomes the movie's moral). Thus, when the adults gather to watch a television news report, Romero stacks his characters in three levels of action that precisely mimic the social hierarchy that Harry is at that moment describing and eventually leads to their undoing.


Excerpted from Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens by Caetlin Benson-Allott. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Opening Up to Home Video

1. Distributing the Dead: Video Spectatorship in the Films of George A. Romero
2. Addressing the “New Flesh”: Videodrome’s Format War
3. Reprotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring
4. Going, Going, Grindhouse: Simulacral Cinematicity and Postcinematic Spectatorship
5. Paranormal Spectatorship: Faux Footage Horror and the P2P Spectator

Conclusion: Power Play

Filmography, Videography, and Gameography

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