Jim Jarmusch didn't have to look far for zombies.
"I see a lot of soulless ghouls on the streets at night walking along staring into their phone and they don't even know they're in the world anymore," says the director. "Sometimes I just want to shove them out of the way like, 'Wake up! Get off your screen!'"
Since Jarmusch's "The Dead Don't Die" (June 14), a zombie comedy starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Tilda Swinton, was first announced, excitement has steadily grown for what one of cinema's most deadpan auteurs — himself a devoted creature of the night — might be up to with horror's slobbering standbys. For Jarmusch, telling a story about today inevitably led him to stumbling, inarticulate ghouls, and to George Romero.
"In the past, zombies were like Haitian voodoo entities that you could control and have them do your bidding. But in George Romero, zombies are uncontrollable and a problem," Jarmusch said in a recent interview. "They're not monsters attacking society from outside it. They're from inside the social structure that has somehow failed or is collapsing."
Collapsing social structures haven't been great for, well, the world. But they have been a boon to the horror film. And this summer movie season — usually a sunny time of air-conditioned escapism in theaters — is, fittingly, teaming with demons, serial killers and possessed dolls.
Jarmusch's film is a more comic post-modern riff on the genre; Adam Driver's character, Jarmusch notes, knows he's in a movie. But more than ever, Hollywood's summer is turning darker, more disturbed and scarier.
"Now, along with the theatrical experience changing, the summer is changing," says Guillermo del Toro. "When you have a massive, massive overload of action, superhero movies, it's great to counter that."
Del Toro, the modern don of horror who stretched the genre in new, fantastical directions in "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Devil's Backbone," produced "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" (Aug. 9). The film, directed by André Øvredal, adapts Alvin Schwartz's celebrated campfire tales, stitching together a single, slinky narrative.
"Horror always connects with the social anxiety. It's always alive," says del Toro. "And right now, there's a great awareness of its social implications, and I find that exciting."
The summer blockbuster, of course, was born with the sound of screams echoing through packed movie houses. Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" ushered in the era of mass-release, heavily marketed summer thrills. But the season, built on the lucrative opportunity of kids out of school for months, came to be swamped by superheroes and cartoons and the occasional monster movie.
That began to change with releases like Warner Bros.' "The Conjuring" and Blumhouse Productions' "The Purge," R-rated films that made profitable inroads for horror in the summer of 2013. While studios have often gravitated toward the less primetime months on the movie calendar for horror releases, box-office hits like "It," ''Halloween" and Jordan Peele's landmark "Get Out," along with his hit follow-up "Us," have proven the genre's ability to attract mainstream audiences — and usually on a much skimpier budget.
"People are more open to releasing horror in the summer for sure," says Jason Blum, the producer and founder of Blumhouse. "The reason it's traditionally not been is because it's more expensive to release a scary movie in the summer. And people have tended to look at scary movies as singles and doubles and you shouldn't go for singles and doubles in the summer. But recently, these movies have been much more than singles or doubles."
Nothing this season captures the new order like the brashly scheduled release of Orion Pictures' "Child's Play" reboot (June 21) opposite Pixar's "Toy Story 4." The film, in which Mark Hamill (the original summer movie hero) voices the homicidal doll Chucky, on Tuesday released a poster featuring what appears to be Chucky walking away from the mangled body of Sheriff Woody.
On Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the marquee weekend for the summer movie season, Blumhouse will release "Ma" against "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" and the Elton John biopic "Rocketman." Blum compares "Ma," starring Octavia Spencer and directed by Tate Taylor ("The Help"), to the Stephen King adaptation "Misery," with Kathy Bates.
"The kinds of movies we want to go see in a movie theater are narrowing," says Blum. "The collective theater-going experience is being redefined. What we're finding is clearly superhero movies people want to see together in a theater, and horror movies people want to see together in a theater."
Sony's superhero horror film "Brightburn" (May 24) hopes to attract fans of both genres. Produced by James Gunn ("Guardians of the Galaxy"), the film has a "Superman"-like set-up before taking a menacing turn: an alien child with powers crash lands on Earth but turns out to be, to put it mildly, a handful for his adoptive parents (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman).
Banks says that "Brightburn," a dark parenting parable, was for her a way to examine "our hero worship in a new light."
"For a long time there was this great trust in institutions and in people. If an alien comes from outer space, let's assume the best! Let's hope they're a gift from heaven!" says Banks. "Now, more and more there's so much distrust of people and supposed heroes. So many of our quote 'heroes,' especially the men who have been perceived heroic in the world, there's a curtain being pulled back on so much bad behavior."
"Also on the way are "Conuring" spinoff "Annabelle Comes Home" (June 28), "Crawl" (July 12), "Brahms: The Boys II" (July 26) and "47 Meters Down: Uncaged" (Aug. 16). Netflix, which has claimed last year's "Bird Box" drew tens of millions of viewers on the streaming platform, is also in the mix with "The Perfection" (May 24), staring "Get Out" and "Girls" star Allison Williams as troubled musical prodigy.
But for many, the most anticipated — or, in a good way, dreaded — release of the summer will be "Midsommar" (July 3), Ari Aster's follow-up to his 2018 breakthrough, "Hereditary." Wildly hailed as the scariest movie in years, "Hereditary" (released last June) summoned a steadily-mounting frenzy from the transmissible terrors of a multi-generational family. Its distributor, A24, even charted heart rates from moviegoers, revealing ever-larger graphical mountains of dread.
Aster cautions that "Midsommar" isn't "Hereditary." ''It's something different," he says, that almost belongs to a separate genre. "Really, I see the film as being much more of a dark adult fairy tale."
The filmmaker has been quoted as calling its story of an American couple (Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor) visiting a strange and remote Swedish festival "a 'Wizard of Oz' for perverts,'" but he says the better corollary is "Alice in Wonderland." Like "Hereditary," it tells a personal story through the demands of genre. If "Hereditary" was about family, "Midsommar" is a break-up movie. Aster wrote it four years ago after a relationship of his ended.
In the slow-burning "Midsommar," a sunny summer holiday turns sinister. "It's a vacation movie," laughs Aster, who believes moviegoers get a kind of catharsis from a good horror movie.
"Right now, I think people are feeling particularly fatalistic and defeatist. I feel that way too," he says. "There's some comfort in going to a theater and electing to watch s--- hit the fan as opposed to just sitting helplessly in your own life and watching everything fall apart. There's maybe power in dishing out the $15 to have it happen."