by Matt Moore
I love horror movies. And it’s October, which means I am going to tell people what horror movies they should see. Coincidentally, from classics like The Birds to modern disasters like The Happening, topics related to Agriculture, Food, and Environment have served as a platform for scares and social commentary in horror cinema for decades. Here are seven movies to watch this month, in chronological order, that broach issues that are still contentious today, including GMOs, pesticides, climate change, and the American diet.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Four years before George Romero’s iconic condemnation of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, Spanish director Jorge Grau used zombies to criticize pollution and experimental agricultural technology. The film tells the tale of George (Ray Lovelock), an antique shop owner traveling to the English countryside from Manchester. When his motorcycle is wrecked at a gas station by Edna (Cristina Galbó), who plans to visit her sister, they are forced to unite against the living dead while trying to clear their names after a local detective becomes convinced they are responsible for the increasing body count.
The source of the zombie outbreak: an experimental machine designed to kill insects and parasites using ultrasonic radiation. George confronts “Agricultural Department Experimental Section” workers who manage the machine several times, and they argue that the technology offers a safe and government-approved alternative to chemical pesticides. The radiation emitted by the machine affects the “primitive” nervous systems of insects, causing them to fight and kill one another. Unfortunately, while effective in wiping out pests, it also activates the nervous systems of the recently deceased.
Grau’s concerns with pollution and agricultural technology is apparent from the start, as his camera follows George out of a Manchester filled with bad air, dead animals, and dirty nuclear power plants. The journey is interspersed with images of the green, tranquil, “untouched” countryside in juxtaposition to the ugly city. The characters give voice to Grau’s distrust of modernization and science by making despondent claims such as “when we all die, only the scientists will survive,” and that it is futile to appeal to the government when it won’t even take action on more “important” issues. Don’t write off the film’s premise as being silly since most early zombie films reached for bizarre explanations of what makes the dead walk, and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is one of the best films to come out of the subgenre’s golden age.
Long Weekend (1978)
If you fantasize about nature rising up and fighting back against polluters and perpetrators of animal cruelty, this movie is for you. The Australian offering tells the story of Pete (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets), a married couple attempting to patch up their relationship during a weekend camping trip at an isolated beach. Marcia’s complaint during an early phone conversation that “Pete’s being a real shit” sums up the plot well, as he inflicts environmental harm by flicking a lit cigarette into brush, cutting down a tree for no reason, and shooting a dugong, among other infractions.
Of course, Marcia is not innocent: she drenches pests with insecticide and smashes an eagle’s egg, which serves as part of an underlying commentary on abortion that may still resonate today. Director Colin Eggleston lets you know that things may not end well for the couple with ominous opening music, close-ups of insects and plants, and typical horror tropes (e.g., locals telling outsiders that their intended destination does not exist) that are guaranteed to lead to danger.
Overall, it’s a decent film that unfortunately reflects the difficulty and awkwardness of depicting live animals attacking humans without the aid of today’s special effects capability. Its most memorable moments include the dugong that refuses to die and a tagline reminiscent of I Spit on Your Grave and other contemporary revenge films: “Their crimes was against nature…nature found them guilty.”
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes succeeds as a B-movie parody…for about 20 minutes. The film opens with a direct reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, explaining that viewers laughed at the notion of nature attacking humans in 1963—until millions of birds descended upon the real-life town of Hopkinsville, KY in 1975 (and again in 2013!). From there, viewers are launched into the story of government agent Mason Dixon (David Miller) leading a team tasked with solving the growing problem of tomatoes killing humans. Apparently, a USDA experiment has caused tomatoes to grow at an “unprecedented rate,” and they are now on a murderous rampage, immune to “chemicals, bugs, and bullets.” In what may be considered a copout, viewers are never told what caused the tomatoes to attack, although one agent does wistfully explain that “All we wanted was a bigger, healthier tomato.” Familiar shots are taken at the government with cuts to an aging Senate Subcommittee on Domestic Tomato Growth and Expansion that decides to take no action after an interminably long period of review.
The film has become a cult hit, and a large part of its charm is the lack of many special effects: in one scene, actual garden tomatoes are showing floating (accompanied by a recurring dubbed grumbling) to the surface of a bay to attack unsuspecting swimmers. Unfortunately, the jokes start to fall flat relatively quickly—although Dixon’s master of disguise expert provides solid laughs while he infiltrates the tomatoes—and food waste activists might cringe at scenes of vengeful humans stomping on tomatoes.
Warning Sign (1985)
When you combine skepticism over GMOs (transgenic tobacco had just been developed, and further GMO field testing was about to begin) with lingering Cold War paranoia, you get BioTek Agronomics, the fictitious Monsanto counterpart at the center of controversy in Warning Sign. In real life, Monsanto had recently moved into the field of agricultural biotechnology, and it is clear that director Hal Barwood was concerned.
The film focuses on Sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston) as he attempts to contain a mysterious outbreak BioTek with the help of his wife Joanie (Kathleen Quinlan), who is on security duty inside the building. A pathogen that acts much like the “rage” virus from 28 Days Later has infected workers who begin to attack their unexposed colleagues. Placing Warning Sign on this list is bit of a bait and switch once you find out the nature of the pathogen, but the film’s criticism of modern agricultural practices is obvious. Its opening scenes could come straight from Tim Griffin’s ASP slides: experimental USDA cornfields and plants being doused with chemicals. BioTek is said to be developing a new kind of corn that does not require fertilizer: a “revolution in agriculture” thanks to genetic engineering. A closing line delivered by ex-BioTek employee Dan Fairchild (Jeffrey DeMunn) adds a final parting shot: He invites the Morses to a meal that includes genetically enhanced corn on the cob and mockingly comforts them by insisting, “Relax, I’m a scientist. I know what I’m doing.”
The Stuff (1985)
A horror comedy that hits its mark, The Stuff tackles the consumerism and marketing side of the food system. The film opens with a miner discovering a white substance bubbling out of the
ground. On a whim, he decides to taste it—and he loves it. The movie then jumps to a point where “The Stuff” has been mass harvested and approved for human consumption. It has become a staple in the American diet and the preferred dessert, which causes the ice cream industry to fight back: Corporate spy Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) is hired to steal The Stuff’s recipe.
As he discovers that The Stuff is literally killing its consumers, it slowly becomes the only source of food for many Americans. Consumers become walking advertisements, claiming that it “kills the bad things inside us” and has 0 calories while providing all other nutrients even though nobody knows what’s in it. Made during a time before ingredient labels had been standardized and recipes were protected as trade secrets, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes a number of hits.
Characters constantly discuss how the entire committee that approved The Stuff to be sold retired. It is assumed they were all paid off, which one character describes as “The American Way.” In one scene that mirrors the recent incident in which a GMO supporter claimed Roundup was safe to drink but refused to consume it, a distributor who has become rich off of The Stuff refuses to actually eat it. While today’s consumers may be better educated about processed foods, The Stuff still holds up as a parody of the corporate, consumerist food system and provides plenty of laughs and gore along the way.
The Last Winter (2006)
Ron Perlman plays Ed Pollack, a representative of KIK Corporation, which is an oil corporation that symbolizes any evil energy company du jour. His job is to prepare sites in Alaska where KIK has gotten Congressional approval to drill oil wells. KIK performed a test drill several years prior, but nobody knows the actual results since they have been sealed. Regardless, KIK touts the development as a step towards “energy independence” for the United States—viewers can tell the movie was made during the time of related presidential campaign debates. Pollack soon butts heads with James Hoffman (James LeGros), a scientist contracted by KIK who warns against the project due to thawing permafrost; rising, erratic temperatures; and a potential sour gas leak from the test site.
In a complete reversal from the previous films on this list, The Last Winter uses scientists as the main protagonists who are under pressure from politicians and corporations despite looming environmental hazards. Viewers are never explicitly told what the original test drill uncovered (wendigos are involved), and the full extent of the environment’s revenge is largely left up to their imagination, but it is clear that humans have hastened their own destruction. At one point, Hoffman asks, “Why do we despise the world that gave us life?”
Between the setting and escalating tensions between human characters, you’d be forgiven for mistaking The Last Winter for 1982’s The Thing. However, it stands on its own as an effective psychological thriller. As a bonus, “Friday Night Lights” fans are treated to a touch football game scene involving Zach Gilford and Connie Britton in supporting roles.
The Bay (2012)
Originally, director Barry Levinson (The Natural, Rain Man) was approached about making a documentary about the “40% dead” Chesapeake Bay, but he decided it would be more effective to engage audiences with a fictional narrative told through found footage. Originally covered up by the government, the footage depicts an ecological disaster and its effects during Fourth of July festivities, including, of course, a crab eating contest interrupted when participants start vomiting. The narrative unfolds through the lenses of several characters with interwoven storylines, the most heart-wrenching being a young girl abandoned by her parents and whose final, agonizing hours and spent with a friend via FaceTime.
As it turns out, industrial dumping into the bay (e.g., chicken poop) has led to an infestation of parasitic isopods that feast on human hosts. The film’s scapegoat is the local mayor, who naturally insists that there are no environmental problems to worry about and that the weekend should go on as planned, even when the isopods are discovered. The found footage subgenre may be oversaturated at this point, and the science may not be as accurate as Levinson claims it is, but The Bay is a solid movie that serves its job to emotionally invest viewers in the plight of the Chesapeake, and you can watch the trailer below.
If you prefer your eco and food horror straight up without having to think, here are some other movies you may enjoy:
- Beginning of the End (1957): Radiation-enhanced crops grown by the USDA in an effort to end world hunger are eaten by locusts that grow huge and terrorize humans. This one ended up on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
- The Birds (1963): The Alfred Hitchcock classic in which birds descend upon a California town to attack its citizens without any explanation.
- Blood Feast (1963): “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis presents this tale of a caterer who sacrifices women to an Egyptian goddess and includes their body parts in his meals.
- Ravenous (1999): Actually an intelligent black comedy with a fantastic ensemble cast set after the Mexican-American War and involving cannibalism and more wendigo legends.
- Cabin Fever (2003): Known mostly as the only thing Rider Strong has done since “Boy Meets World,” gratuitous shots of Cerina Vincent, and a kid yelling about pancakes, it features a water-borne flesh-eating illness.
- The Gingerdead Man (2005): Gary Busey plays an executed serial killer who winds up possessing a gingerbread cookie to continue his killing spree.
- The Ruins (2008): In a plot better than it sounds, American tourists in Mexico find themselves under physical and psychological attack by vines while be prevented from escaping by the locals.
- The Happening (2008): Nature drives humans to mass suicide. Despite an amazingly intense opening scene, the less said about this movie the better.
- Grace (2009): An assumed-to-be-stillborn baby is revived and develops a taste for blood—because her mother is vegan, maybe?