The 101 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century: The Year 2004

It took the 2000s a little bit of time to catch its footing.  By 2004, however, much of the machinery was in place for the genre both at home and abroad.  It was at this point that the uniquely 21st century anxieties began emerging in earnest (not just retreading on more decidedly 90s-based fears).  The result was an increasingly potent series of horror movies that much more intimately expressed the unspoken dread that so many of us were feeling… fears that still linger in the air today like the last gossamer wisps of cigar smoke before blowing itself out of the newly opened room.

Saw (2004)

There really is no getting around how much September 11 ultimately changed everything.  In its smoldering wake, Americans’ whole sense of the world had been upheaved, unmooring an entire country’s ironclad belief that they were the unshakable center of universe.  And while the  anxieties resulting from that were most clearly expressed in something like Hostel (2005), it first began to emerge in James Wan’s and Leigh Whannel’s Saw, the progenitor of the so-called torture-porn vein of horror that dominated much of the rest of the decade in domestic scares.  Eventually sprawling out into a long-running franchise of remarkably consistent quality and a needlessly (but welcomely) elaborate mythology, this franchise first married nascent American anxieties about random and omnipresent acts of shattering violence with the emergent trends in extreme Euro-horror (best expressed by the New French Extremity, but veins of this kind of terror were similarly popping up throughout the continent).  While its limited budget and inexperienced creators occasionally breached the film’s surface, this grisly first film acted like a sucker punch to the American id, and unlike many of its more poorly-crafted imitators, it actually had something to say beyond the headline-grabbing violence roiling at its surface.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

The resurgence of zombies in Western horror movies may have started in Britain, but it soon circled back home with this unlikely remake of the classic George A. Romero Night of the Living Dead (1968) sequel.  Eschewing much of the original’s more overtly satirical elements for visceral thrills and well-crafted scares, this new Dawn of the Dead succeeded by venturing out into a decidedly different direction from its forebears.  Further acting as a proving ground for director Zack Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn, it presents both in the element with which they have always worked best: character-driven horror (a mode that Snyder has thankfully returned to with this year’s Army of the Dead and which Gunn continually flirts with despite gravitating toward very different genres elsewhere in the Hollywood ecosystem).  While it will always play second fiddle to Romero’s sophomore zombie flick, there is plenty of great material here to come back to: fortunate for a film so eminently rewatchable as this.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Although he has since gone on to work in so many other genres and styles of film – most of them comedies – I have always had a soft spot for Edgar Wright the horror director.  It’s not that Shaun of the Dead was his best film (his best Cornetto entry was easily The World’s End and I would be remiss for not singing the praises of movies like Baby Driver to high heaven), it’s just that so many of his directorial fixations are so thoroughly entrenched in this genre that it seems like such a shame that he hasn’t elected to revisit them before this year’s Last Night in Soho.  A raucously funny sendup of Romero-style zombie movies and modern British culture, Shaun of the Dead is a richly layered standup routine: with background and midground gags aplenty to discover after you’ve recovered from the more obvious jokes you focused on the first time around.

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