Why the violence of 'The Passion' hits so hard

Mel Gibson's film is not the usual gory escapist flick for teen-age boys


March 28, 2004|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,Sun Staff

One movie features rapid-fire sequences of cannibalism, civil warfare and mass destruction.

The other chronicles a man's pain as he endures horrific torture and abuse.

Both are extremely violent. Both have gruesome outcomes.

But why did the latter, The Passion of the Christ, incite heated debate (religion aside) over its violent content and rating while the similarly R-rated Dawn of the Dead was greeted with a wink, a giggle and a box-office run that pushed it past Passion this week to No. 1 in the land?

Film critics say the double standard stems largely from viewer expectations.

"One of the things that got people upset about The Passion of the Christ was their idea that it should be a different kind of story, a more acceptable story," said Nell Minow, who since 1995 has been reviewing films for parents on her Internet site, Moviemom.com.

Many Christian moviegoers (often with their children in tow) anticipated a religious experience, while others simply hoped to learn more about Jesus' role in history. Either way, they endured a graphic portrayal of the seemingly endless beatings that filled Jesus' harrowing last hours on earth. Though some were moved, Minow called director Mel Gibson's depictions of torture "fetishistic and pornographic."

And "if you have a commitment to a particular view of the story, then you may find it a little more unsettling," Minow said. "The violence ... causes a lot of conversations. If you want to talk about a sacred cow, [then] this is it."

Similar arguments surrounding the content and rating of horror films such as Dawn of the Dead are few and far between because fans of that genre usually prepare for -- and even welcome -- the onslaught of graphic imagery.

"The core [horror] audience has been and will always be teen-age boys. [They] go because they like to see blood spurting and they like to see peoples' appendages falling off -- and why they enjoy that is another conversation," Minow said.

To capture the goriest effects possible on film, director Zack Snyder recruited makeup designer David LeRoy Anderson, who modeled his creatures after the corpses in actual crime scene and forensic photos, and screenwriter James Gunn, who noted during production that he was trying to make people "scream, cry and get queasy."

"[The zombies] needed to be a real threat -- you just can't walk right by them," Snyder says in the film production notes. "When our dead walk, you run."

But, unlike The Passion, it's just a movie.

So perhaps the nature of gore determines its acceptability.

Michael Gingold, managing editor of the monthly horror fan magazine Fangoria, said he believes the Motion Picture Association of America, much like the public, is accepting of films that bombard the viewer with graphic depictions of gore and violence -- cannibalism and creeping death included -- as long as the blood-and-guts scenes are clearly fantasy.

"If there's a level of unreality to it, then they're a little more lenient. The MPAA have been a little more lax when the violence is committed by or against inhuman creatures than when it's human-on-human violence," said Gingold, who noted that the MPAA recently gave the French slasher film Haute Tension an NC-17 rating for "strong graphic violence."

For the record, MPAA spokeswoman Phuong Yokitis noted, the association's rating board does not make its decisions based on a film's level of historical or factual accuracy. "They just rate what they see on film." In short, it's all about the feel.

"Zombie movies are numbing, over-the-top experiences" that allow viewers to experience sensations of loss in a safe environment, Minow said. In other words, the audience can look at death and destruction on the screen and know the unreality of what they're watching.

But because The Passion lacks these escapist themes and "cartoonish" depictions of gore, she said, the film forces viewers -- whether or not they believe the story of Jesus -- to empathize with its tortured subject.

"It's so different from the typical kind of R-rated movie violence. It's intimate. It's sustained.

"In [his] movie, Gibson is saying, 'Feel every wound.' "

Too violent for kids

In 1990, the MPAA replaced its old X rating with the NC-17 designation. Since then, more than 70 films (including some previously released titles) have been identified as such. Though dozens of movies have been slapped with the label because of sexually explicit scenes, only a few have been marked due to violent content. Here's the scoop on two that were considered too much for kids. Strangely enough, they both focus on the untimely doom of vacationing college students.

* Haute Tension / High Tension (2004)

Director: Alexandre Aja

MPAA Designation: "Rated NC-17 for strong graphic violence."

Plot: Two female college students, Marie and Alex, go to a farmhouse for rest and relaxation, but they're terrorized by a mysterious truck driver.

* Evil Dead (1981)

Director: Sam Raimi

MPAA Designation: "Rated NC-17 for substantial graphic horror violence and gore."

Plot: A group of college buddies make a trip to a cabin in the woods, but the vacation goes sour when, one by one, they become possessed by evil spirits. These so-called "deadites" can be killed only by complete dismemberment.

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