You remember your first time, don’t you?
The scratchy palms, the butterflies, the pools of sweat. Laying back and wondering what would come next, and then the moment when you knew you were crossing the line but you pressed on anyway, your anxiety outweighed only by the desire swelling deep within and compelling you to plunge headlong into dark, forbidden terrain.
Lots of us have moments like that. Usually they happen in the company of someone who’s just as nervous as we are. But I’m not talking about sexual virginity. We aren’t there yet. Because as any cinema lover will tell you, you don’t lose your virginity to a romantic partner. The first time you lose it, it’s to the movies.
I’ve been a die-hard horror fan for most of my life, but during my early adolescence you would have been hard pressed to find a genre junkie who was more Puritan in their tastes than I was. My first prolonged exposure to horror came at the tender age of eight in the form of the Universal Studios classics, starting with the 1943 remake of The Phantom of the Opera starring Claude Rains, and for the next few years my cinematic diet consisted primarily of these chillers and all their monochromatic brethren. We made for a good match; they indulged my fascination for spooky theatrics without challenging my sense of safety. Even in the vampire films, matters of flesh and blood were limited to drawing room dialogue. They were as warm and comforting as a hand-stitched quilt from Grandma.
As I entered junior high, I eyed anything released after 1960 with trepidation. Even the refined Gothicism of Hammer Studios seemed suspicious to me; the colors looked oh-so-juicy and there was a more grand and immediate sense of danger to their monsters, but then there were those other elements. The flash of gaudy, fluorescent blood and the threat of a torn bodice revealing an exposed nipple sent me into a fit of Eastmancolor blushing. Why did they have to bring that into my horror movie? Why couldn’t we just get another shot of a rubber bat flapping by or one of Peter Cushing’s whizzing dynamos?
Some part of me realized that this kind of thinking was… well, perhaps “repressed” isn’t quite the right word, but at any rate I reckoned that this area of my development needed some catching up to do, and so with a hardened resolved and a fortified stomach I proceeded to embark upon a journey into the world of the 80s slasher to break bread with my demons and spur on my appetite for bloodshed and bared skin. Looking back on this knowing what I do now of the shadowed and twisting grottos of genre cinema, my efforts to submerge myself in the “dirtier” side of horror by way of Camp Crystal Lake and Freddy’s boiler room seem amusingly naïve in retrospect, like a novice attending Senior Night at the local bingo hall as an entry into the seedy world of underground gambling. Such is the way of life; we skim that which bobs on the surface first before diving down to find the treasures hiding deep below.
For all the goofy frills and robotic slaughters that my 80s horror franchise kick might have offered, this excursion did perform the desired function of pushing me further along the darkly wooded path of sex and death. By this time I had joined a number of horror film fan clubs on Myspace, and I used the opportunity to eagerly pore through their posts in search of the next thrown gauntlet. (Despite whatever progress I had made on my journey up till this point, there were definitely some push-pull moments along the way, like when I asked a seasoned fan for recommendations and I responded to his suggestion to check out Jean Rollin’s stuff with, “Hey, that’s cool, but do you have anything that doesn’t have so many naked ladies in it?”) It was in one of these virtual clubs that I found a master list compiled by various group members that went to the tune of “The Goriest and Most Intense Horror Movies of All Time”.
Now we’re cooking.
This list of recommendations became my Bible, informing many of my choices when selecting what had previously been hard-or-impossible-to-find films to add to my family’s Netflix account. Oh, if only my mother knew half of the depraved shit that I mail-ordered on a weekly basis and watched within the more secretive confines of my sisters’ bedroom. Cannibal Ferox. Last House on the Left. New York Ripper. Some, like the aforementioned, I found mildly interesting; a couple genuinely delighted me, like Dead-Alive; others almost broke me. (I’m looking at you, Ichi the Killer.) There was more than one occasion throughout this odyssey where I was forced to sit myself down for a grueling interrogation. These introspective moments would contain the usual questions: “Why am I doing this?”, and, “Is this the kind of stuff that I like as a horror fan?”, and, “What is wrong with me?” I didn’t necessarily feel any older or wiser from having seen women’s breasts ripped in every conceivable direction, to say nothing of how all those images influenced my own burgeoning sexuality.
(I was fine for the most part, but horror films truly did curtail my sexual exploration in one significant way: having seen the infamous moment from The Exorcist described as the “crucifix masturbation scene”, I lost all interest in touching myself because I thought that the word “masturbation” meant [as I had confusedly perceived from the film] anal penetration and lots of bleeding for people of all genders. Even after I was set straight by my stepfather shortly after this erroneous assumption, I didn’t experience a self-inflicted orgasm until I was well into my sophomore year of high school.)
And then, in the midst of this battery of brutal images and puzzled identity, came Aftermath.
Let me be frank: I knew full-well what I was getting into before the double-feature disc of Aftermath and Genesis arrived in the wrinkled red envelope that fateful day. I had heard that Aftermath was one of the few but “great” bastions of that ultimate social taboo, necrophilia. But it wasn’t the promise of corpse sex that piqued my morbid interests. It was the words being used to describe the depiction of that taboo in the film. “Clinical” was the buzz word in the online reviews I read, and there were other assessments that similarly touched on the film’s chilly, detached nature. Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik (1987), a movie that Aftermath has been repeatedly likened to, held no fascination for me because the aesthetic that I spied from video clips and photo stills sent my sparkling soul into convulsions: it looked dirty, grungy, and even if feces never made an actual appearance in the film those snippets that I’d seen looked like they had a healthy coating of it anyway. Aftermath, on the other hand, with its crisp scenery and medical report pacing sounded like just the ticket. If I was going to grapple with scenes of mortification and desecration, then I was going to do it on my own terms.
But even though I knew “full-well” what I was getting into as far as the carnival barker-worthy content was concerned (SEE THE MAN OF MEDICINE UNLEASH HIS DARKEST PASSIONS UPON AN UNYIELDING LOVER), Cerda’s eye into the act itself and death in general is what eventually unmoored me.
The film begins in a manner not unlike Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) with a fragmented view of red meat and gristle eventually expanding to reveal the sight of a corpse, but the effect of the full view in Aftermath is different than that of the earlier film. Whereas Hooper depicted the excavated remains of a human cadaver mounted on a gravestone like a macabre billboard, Cerda shows us the body of a squashed dog in the street, apparently the incidental victim of a roadside accident. This revelation, paired with the mournful strains of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa,” paints a very different picture despite the similar framing to Hooper’s. Both shots make clear the inevitability of death, but in Aftermath the horrific aspect of death, though still readily apparent, is weighed down by a heavier feeling of sadness that’s bigger and in some ways more frightening than the shock value of Hooper’s grinning skeleton. It plays into our worst fears about our eventual demise, fears that are intrinsically tied to our humanity and dignity: will we reach that enviable achievement of going quietly in our sleep or will we die messily, guts strewn and faces torn, shitting the proverbial bed on the way out?
If the visuals of Aftermath are any evidence, the answer is one we’d prefer not to hear: it doesn’t really matter.
In a 1997 interview with Offscreen, Cerda spoke of the research he conducted to achieve the film’s realistic feel, citing his experience watching three autopsies within a span two hours: “…I had to stop and sit down for a while because originally I was walking around but then after a while I starting [sic] getting dizzy and had to sit down. I remember I still had the notebook where I took my notes and on that particular day I can remember my hands shaking.” This anecdote is especially interesting when held up against the controversy that Aftermath inevitably provokes. As viewers we tend to develop tunnel vision on the film’s naughty bits, like the coroner running his knife along dead Marta’s belly before ramming it into her vagina. But for me, Aftermath is not (and perhaps never was, not even all those years ago) frightening for its depiction of a cadaver’s sexual assault. Its bone-deep terror lies in the surrounding images, the two autopsies that occur at the film’s start, autopsies like the ones Cerda witnessed that day in the morgue. The idea of a necrophiliac coroner is a nightmare but the notion of our bodies being maneuvered, dissected, and examined with the blasé attitudes of employees fulfilling their daily tasks is an inescapable truth. Thus Cerda’s shaking hands. Thus the real reason why Aftermath gets stuck in our mental craws.
The film’s prosthetic mannequins, replete with genuine innards, are unnervingly authentic, and one of the keys to Aftermath’s purloined emotional chord. Horror fans are certainly no strangers to dummy corpses popping up in the films they watch, but the mise-en-scène here forces us to realign our thinking. These are not special effects replacing characters we’ve come to love or hate for the purposes of a grand and glorious death scene. They’re nameless cuts of meat, yet isn’t it funny how seeing them in this setting provokes thoughts about who they were before they ended up in the morgue? Was the bald corpse a father who stroked his daughter’s head every night to lull her to sleep? Was the emaciated gentleman once the infamous class clown of his high school? Was Marta, the coroner’s dead paramour, on her way to her boyfriend’s house for a late-night screw before she lost control of her car?
If what we see happens to all of them is any evidence, the answer is one we’d prefer not to hear. At the end of the night, everyone’s brain is getting sewed back into their stomachs and the fatty tissues that swirl down the drain are all the same shade of yellow. Who cares if you were a good dad or a defensive driver? Once you stop breathing, somebody’s going to be desecrating that holy temple of a body of yours, and whether it’s a surgeon with a saw or a psycho with a lubricated dick seems to be strictly a matter of semantics when all is said and done.
That’s the horror of Aftermath, and that’s what I watched behind the closed blinds of my sisters’ bedroom that day, the scent of their bubbly perfume combating the old stench of dog piss on the floor. Strangely enough, I don’t recall feeling especially dirty or transgressive or even broken in any way after I ejected the disc from the DVD player. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how I felt. All I can recall is that there was something inside of me, perhaps a heavier feeling of sadness that was bigger and more frightening than anything that I had confronted in my gory odyssey up until that point, that had seen something in Cerda’s film and that had answered it in recognition, like when a hatched turtle sees the ocean for the first time.
When I included Aftermath on that countdown of my “favorite” horror films on my first blog, it wasn’t from a sense of love or enjoyment. It came instead from a place of growth, of having felt a seismic shift occur in my brain after seeing the film. My journey had matured me, but not in the way that I anticipated. From the beginning I had thought that “growing up” meant starting to like more grown-up things, like people graphically hurting each other and giving each other pleasure.
But Aftermath aged me in a different way. It had contradictorily frightened me of death’s dehumanization and assured me of life’s worth all at once. I was short on words in explaining this to others who were rankled by my inclusion of the movie on my list. Though my vocabulary may have expanded since that time, who can say for sure if I’ve gotten any closer to getting to the heart of its fascination for me? But, if growing up has taught me nothing else, it’s that the greatest mysteries of life and death are not for answering.
In looking back at Cerda’s film, it’s easy for our eyes to go directly to the bloodshed, to the violation. And while that may indeed be a part of the deal for all of us after we’ve shrugged off the mortal coil, I find myself looking to the very first image that begins the film: a black heart beating in the dark. Each pulsation echoes in my mind as I think about who each of the three cadavers were before they died, before they stopped being people, and the sound of that heart keeps echoing in my mind as I learn to live my life, and to accept whatever comes in the aftermath.