Culture and Trends ›

Trust No One: Cinema Paranoia

Paramount Pictures / Promotional Image

A look at the unsettling science fiction and horror films of 1968

Fifty years ago, it seemed as if America were being torn apart. Vietnam, the ongoing civil rights struggle, campus protests, urban riots, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy helped create a landscape of fear and loathing, while sweeping social changes fueled generational conflicts played out over dinner tables across the country. "Trust no one over 30" became a common youth mantra. But cinemagoers exposed to science fiction and horror movies of 1968 might have come away with an even more bluntly paranoid directive: Trust no one.

Released less than three weeks after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, "Planet of the Apes" — written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling (the latter one of America's all-time greatest paranoiacs) — imagines an astronaut landing on hostile alien planet populated by warring apes. The ape society that imprisons Charlton Heston's George Taylor functions as a dark parody of humanity: warmongering, racist, bickering, and more primitive than it realizes. In the famous twist ending, the alien world is revealed to be a future version of our own. Serling's "Twilight Zone"-esque tweak of the source novel's original climax not only made audiences reflect on man's destructive impulses, but upon the likelihood that 1960s aspirations for space exploration meant nothing for man's future if he couldn't learn to live peacefully on Earth. Accompanying Heston's famous performance, Oscar-winning actress Kim Hunter lends humanity to Zira, the ape scientist who helps Heston's Taylor find his freedom. Equally unforgettable is Jerry Goldsmith's modern orchestral soundtrack, the staccato alien heartbeat to the film's primal bloodstream.

George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" — made on a shoestring budget and released just in time for Halloween 50 years ago — is familiar to most as the seminal zombie flick. But dig deeper, and it's also a fierce commentary on America's war with itself during the Vietnam era. The protagonists, once bitten by zombies, suddenly switch sides and join the ranks of the undead. Survivors battle each other as much as they do the zombies. And in the end, the African-American protagonist Duane Jones is the victim not of some monster, but a gunshot blast from a zombie-fighting lynch mob. Romero's justification for the zombie outbreak is a fallen spacecraft carrying radiation, but it's just a means to the real end: a way of exploding and wrestling with social unrest. Nearly as instrumental to the film's release as Romero himself was Karl Hardman, the film's producer, who also played the role of distrusting survivor Harry Cooper. His real-life wife and daughter, Marilyn Eastman and Kyra Schon, play his wife and daughter in the movie. They must have had fun reminiscing at family gatherings about the scene in which — talk about generational conflict — the zombified daughter lunches on her father's remains and then kills her mother with a cement trowel.

Those looking to start their own families in 1968 probably avoided reading respected playwright and novelist Ira Levin's latest book, a slim novel entitled "Rosemary's Baby." Adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski as his first U.S. production, the film focused on Mia Farrow's innocent Rosemary, a woman who gets duped by her husband and Satanist neighbors on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Ruth Gordon won an Academy Award playing Farrow's deceitful neighbor, who persuades her husband (John Cassavetes) to make a deal with the devil — creating Rosemary's baby as the devil's spawn — in order to advance his own acting career. The film terrifies because the storyline and characters are so eerily normal and plausible. Rosemary is told repeatedly by everyone that she's merely hysterical. When her worst fears are realized in the paranoia-confirming ending, Polanksi fires a warning shot to all those who trust the media or their elected leaders over their own feelings. Just because you're paranoid, the film tells us, doesn't mean they're not after you.

Even art films got a little scary in 1968, with three of the biggest names in European cinema — Federico Fellini, Roger Vadim, Louis Malle — directing "Spirits of the Dead," an anthology based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. A gothic horror tale called "Hour of the Wolf" was directed by no less a figure than Ingmar Bergman, one of the great masters of modern cinema. The premise — a painter named Borg whose very fears of that dark hour when demons come cause him to lose his sanity — examines the psychology of paranoia, treating Borg's descent less as product of delusion than perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy. The human mind is thus added to the list of those entities not to be trusted.

Once you start getting paranoid, it's difficult to shake off. As we continue wrestling with our social and political values and examine our subconscious minds, contemporary filmmakers ranging from David Lynch to David Cronenberg, Oliver Stone, David Fincher, and M. Night Shyamalan are still mining those fearful landscapes that obsessed filmmakers in 1968. Though biotech has largely replaced space exploration as the technology most likely to generate boogeymen, we still fear for the dystopian future we might create ("Children of Men" and the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"), we're still afraid of zombies ("28 Days Later," "Resident Evil," "I Am Legend," "Quarantine") and we're still less than trusting of our own minds ("Memento," "Mulholland Drive," "The Machinist," "Bug"). Maybe it just goes to prove the old saying — no matter how paranoid we get, it's never enough to keep up.

Originally published in 2008

Scott Stein is a playwright and writer who has covered tech, gaming and entertainment since 2001 for Maxim, Men's Journal, Playboy, Esquire and Laptop Magazine, among others. He is a senior editor at