Getting shut in your apartment during a health crisis, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a century, does predictable things to a horror fan’s brain. For me, it’s meant revisiting The Stand, which I’m now re-reading for the second time in two years. Max Brooks’s World War Z is next on the docket, and I know it’s only a matter of time before I inflict Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion on myself once again, now that I’ve got the end times on my mind.
This revisitation process has made me see a lot of my favorite art in a whole new light. Suddenly, I’m realizing that a very different kind of post-apocalyptic movie has been hiding in plain sight in my personal canon, ever since I first watched it one life-changing night my sophomore year in high school. In a single viewing, Nightbreed made me a horror film fan — now, it’s sustaining me all over again.
Written and directed by Hellraiser auteur Clive Barker and based on his novella Cabal, Nightbreed is the story of a mentally ill young man named Boone (Craig Sheffer) who is shot to death by police, then returns to life as an undead shapeshifter with a taste for blood and an opportunity to join an entire underground community of freaks like him. The movie begins wildly: As Danny Elfman’s score swirls and blares (it was 1990, and Elfman was at the peak of his powers), monsters conjured from a prosthetics department’s nightmares caper and race across a field into the cemetery where they live. You see smiles on their gruesome faces, hear a lot of madcap joy in their roaring voices. They may be freaks and outcasts and abominations, but the message is clear from the start: The Nightbreed have each other, and for now that’s enough.
It’s not until much later in the film, when Boone’s human girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) enters their underground sanctuary to search for her slain and resurrected lover, that we learn the truth: The Nightbreed are not some newly spawned demonic force waiting to inflict havoc on humanity, but a community that’s already bonded together in the wake of tragedy. The apocalypse came and went centuries ago: In an unspecified dark age, agents of Christianity hunted non-humans to near-extinction, torturing and executing every superhuman and subspecies they could get their hands on. Midian, their subterranean hideout, is their post-apocalypse. It’s a place where they can be themselves without persecution, caring for one another (at times with moving tenderness) despite their deformity and monstrosity — or, rather, because of those things, since no one else will care for them instead.
In the end, the coming of Boone and Lori to Midian spells the community’s doom. A small army of gun-toting, god-fearing men, led by Boone’s serial-killer psychiatrist Decker (director David Cronenberg, in a cold-blooded and compelling acting role), storm the cemetery, destroy the sanctuary, and mow down the Nightbreed indiscriminately. It falls to Boone, renamed Cabal by the ’breed’s dark god Baphomet, to repel the attack and lead the survivors to safety. It’s not a happy ending exactly, but it is a hopeful one: The Nightbreed have fled into uncertainty, but they remain an indissoluble community, which is the secret of their continued survival.
During and after production, Barker battled continuously with studio execs who couldn’t understand why the monsters were the good guys. Nightbreed arrived at the end of a decade during which apocalyptic cinema was dominated by metaphorically monstrous gangs in flamboyant clothing, ruling their particular hellhole or wasteland with an iron fist: the Duke of New York from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, the Lord Humungus from George Miller’s The Road Warrior. It predates, by nearly two decades, the rise of The Walking Dead’s fascistic survival horror, but it has more to offer us than either of these visions, eschewing both the battle against a single supervillain and the Hobbesian war of all against all. In its monsters, something more humane emerges.
Barker, a gay man who was closeted at the time he made the film, told me once that Midian, the Nightbreed’s dwelling place, was simply a stand-in for the West Village or Boystown or the Castro — queer communities that developed when conditions for their residents in the outside world were little better than post-apocalyptic. These neighborhoods would eventually weather a plague that, through official negligence and malfeasance, decimated them; like Midian, they were not impregnable fortresses, and the losses they suffered were tremendous and irreparable. But as a whole, as a community, they survived the plague years through a collective drive to persevere and preserve.
Far be it from me to suggest that all art, especially genre art, needs to be morally instructive or even didactic — that way lies madness, or adult Steven Universe fans. But given the unprecedented crisis we’re all currently plummeting into, we should try to imagine a future for ourselves that doesn’t require racing S&M punks through the desert for gasoline, or guarding our in-group against outsiders and interlopers at riflepoint.
Bad news can and should be delivered in artistic form, but it can be equally bracing and inspiring to tell and embrace stories where the apocalypse is met with solidarity, with care, with love.
Dredging up Nightbreed from the depths of my personal canon at the present moment — imagining us in the place not of the pitchforks-and-torches humans but the gloriously bizarre creatures they choose to persecute — has given me unexpected solace. The post-coronavirus society in which I wish to live is one of herd immunity and mutual aid, one where workers whose vital services we take for granted are justly compensated for their indispensable labor, one where the art that sustains our spirit is created by artists we strive to support, one where health care and housing are recognized as universal rights.
Perhaps that seems impossible, given the ruling party’s cruelty and the opposition’s fecklessness. But so much that seems unthinkable may prove no more illusory than the virus itself turned out to be. Mutual aid, in the form of both individual good deeds and entire networks, promises help to the people the authorities have failed. Labor action is fighting back against dangerous exploitation. Spontaneous acts of self-expression and joy beat back the isolation and misery. The awful system and the bad actors who created and sustain it deserve exploration and excoriation, yes. Bad news can and should be delivered in artistic form, but it can be equally bracing and inspiring to tell and embrace stories where the apocalypse is met with solidarity, with care, with love.
I want to tell one more story from Nightbreed before I go. Long before Lori enters Midian’s subterranean labyrinth and sees its wonders and horrors for herself, she stumbles across a sick animal of an indeterminate species, its wide eyes glassy and body writhing in pain. From within a tomb, a woman begs her to pick up the creature and bring it to her. She does so, trepidatiously perhaps, but without real hesitation. She cares about the creature she’s only just met, and the woman who’s trying to care for her in turn.
As Lori passes from the sunlight of the cemetery into the darkness of the tomb, a miraculous change occurs. The animal morphs in her arms into a little girl, one who’d stumbled out into the daylight and been reduced to that vulnerable animal state. Without thinking about what’s in it for her, Lori has saved a life.