Radiation fears in the new Chernobyl Diaries make for just another worn-out zombie flick. But after Fukushima, surely another Godzilla awaits.
There are few horrors that any filmmaker has ever devised to put onscreen that can match those that face us in the real world and within our own psyches. That's why the language of horror has always been metaphor: vampires for the fearful power of lust and sex, werewolves for the repressed and violent sides of our own natures, and zombies for the slow, unstoppable march of death.
But with the birth of the atomic age, horror saw a sea change. Who needs monsters when mankind has the ability to wipe out millions of people in an instant with the press of a button? In terms of things that go bump in the night, a nuclear warhead creates an awfully loud bump. But how dependent were the scares in those films on the tenor of the time? Does nuclear radiation still provide enough energy to fuel 90 minutes of fright, as director Bradley Parker and writer/producer Oren Peli (creator of the Paranormal Activity series) hope is the case in the new Chernobyl Diaries?
The answer to that question is probably a definitive, resounding, "maybe." That's because Chernobyl Diaries doesn't really seek to follow any of the conventions of atomic age horror. This is a standard-issue slasher movie without much slashing, substituting the ghost town of Pripyat—the city that housed the workers and families of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, hurriedly evacuated in the wake of that plant's disastrous 1986 accident—for the likes of Friday the 13th's Camp Crystal Lake. It's essentially exactly the film many audiences thought they were going to see when they turned out for Cabin in the Woods last month: unironic boilerplate horror, with a cast of young, attractive archetypes secluded in a remote location, being picked off in the dark one by one.