Photo: Flavio Pedota, retrieved

Flavio Pedota got no warning and no explanation. His movie was flat out censored.

It’s the type of attitude that you’d expect from a dictatorship against political movies and too-close-to-home comedy. The thing is that Flavio’s movie, Infección, is about zombies. It’s a horror flick, and the Cinema National Center is having none of it, not so much because of the plot or the violence; there’s a scene in which chavismo denies that a zombie plague is happening. You know, just like it has denied a lot of other tragedies. This movie is portraying it as itself.

Our cinema, historically, has been about crime, about poverty, about love. Then chavismo came about and, as things got worse, all of our horror production came to be.

Politics aside, horror cinema is controversial by nature (famed director John Carpenter once said that if you’re associated with the genre, “you’re treated almost like a pornographer”) and even under democratic regimes, they do get heavily censored. But there’s another aspect about the production of horror movies in times of convulsion, an actual, studied, sociological trend that we can clearly see in Venezuelan films nowadays. Our cinema, historically, has been about crime, about poverty, about love. Then chavismo came about and, as things got worse, all of our horror production came to be.

El Silbon: Origins (2018). Directed by Gisberg Bermudez.

Other than Flavio’s Infección (2019,) we have La casa del fin de los tiempos (2013,) El infierno de Gaspar Mendoza (2015,) El vampiro del lago (2017,) El Silbón: Orígenes (2018) and La presencia de Tamara (2018.) All but two of these are about the supernatural and our folklore, which is a Venezuelan tradition, whenever we deal with horror (and you can see it in the TV horror flicks that sporadically came out) we have a foot in Hammer Film Productions’ territory: things are gothic and wraiths drag their shackles in the dark. Much like Silence of the Lambs and Psycho, El Vampiro… it brings the horror closer to home; the plot isn’t happening in a village a century ago, it’s here, in our towns, in our streets, and the monster is as human as we are. Infección embraces the global trend. It’s good for the gringos, good for the blokes, good for Koreans. It sure as hell is good for us.

But the theory I just mentioned, and I can’t recall where I first came across it, explains why this is happening right now. Whenever a society is distressed about its present and future (and it has the means to actually produce movies) horror comes about. Prime example: American cinema. The first wave of horror was the Universal Monsters pictures, right after the Great Depression (it began in 1929, Dracula was released in 1931). The ’40s were a decade of silence, because the world just went through a lot of real-life horrific stuff, and the ’50s were about the horror of the atom. But in 1963 JFK is assassinated. Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King were killed later in the decade, and America got involved in a catastrophic war that questioned its status as leader of the free world. Charlie Manson became a thing in 1969 and Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. All of the sudden, American cinemas are flooded with what’s seen today as a golden age of horror. Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Jaws, Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, Halloween, The Shining, Carrie and The Last House on the Left are all from this period.

The Lake Vampire (2017), directed by Carl Zitelmann.

Of course, you cannot compare the resources that the Venezuelan film industry has with those of the Hollywood juggernaut (then or now), but if you look at the dates of release of our first actual horror movies, the theory holds ground: you have a society that just awoke from the oil boom and the CADIVI-fueled dream. Everybody leaves and the national infrastructure crumbles. We’re all grieving about the present and anxious about the future, so facing some gothic ghosts on a screen is way easier than facing the black market dollar. You can point your finger at a folkloric ghoul and direct all your anxieties to it and it’s gonna be comfier than, say, facing the actual decision of leaving your loved ones to sail to terra incognita, without the promise of a job or knowing where you’ll be living for who knows how long. El Silbón: Orígenes premiered on December 7th, last year, and it went on to be the most seen Venezuelan movie in all of 2018.

It brings the horror closer to home; the plot isn’t happening in a village a century ago, it’s here, in our towns, in our streets, and the monster is as human as we are.

I’m a lover of Venezuelan cinema but I have to confess that I haven’t seen all of the spooky movies from our national repertoire; even if they dodge censorship (Infección hasn’t premiered on our screens and it has no release date), distribution is a bit flimsy. What we know for a fact, and you can see it on the trailers, is that these are well-filmed stories. They look like movies, which talks about the technical capacities of their crews, a noticeable feature of the Chávez-era cinema. With the oil barrel at $120, there was a lot of money running around and our film production had investors, a boom that didn’t dare to go into horror. So this is not a thing about money and resources that were already there, this is about our collective fears and the stories we tell ourselves when the day-to-day of the real world is so scary.

“In my movie,” Flavio tells me, “power goes out. There’s shortages in stores, you see billboards amid the city ruins reading ‘Another achievement of the Bolivarian revolution.’ There’s a street graffiti saying ‘Maduro dictador,’ and these are things that you normally see in Venezuela, I filmed about our nation today. Wherever you point your camera at, that’s what you see.”

Chavismo doesn’t care about censoring zombies and gore, it cares about censoring reality, its real-life fears reflected on the screen. The danse macabre embraces us all as a sign of our times then, and if horror cinema is an expression of our anxiety, get ready for a lot more of criollo vampires made in Venezuela.

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