Shadow. 2009. Directed by Federico Zampaglione. Screenplay by Federico Zampaglione, Domenico Zampaglione, & Giacomo Gensini.
Starring Jake Muxworthy, Karina Testa, Ottaviano Blitch, Chris Coppola, Emilio De Marchi, & Nuot Arquint.
Not Rated. 77 minutes.
A lot of genuine war movies are made in Hollywood and otherwise, about every battle imaginable, from more obscure foreign wars to the World Wars themselves and everything in between. The horror genre’s not exactly a stranger to depictions of war, though the list of great war movies which cross into horror are few. Perhaps it’s because the horrors of war are bad enough, and amplifying any of that with the genre of horror itself can be tricky, so as not to fall into utter exploitation. Either way, there are some movies in the genre which have depicted war, its consequences and effects, and especially PTSD in a new light that’s more psychological than visceral.
One such example is the 2009 Italian horror Shadow. While it’s not perfect, Federico Zampaglione’s movie does a great job of taking the nightmarish world of war into a more personal space of horror without becoming needlessly exploitative or disrespectful to victims of wartime atrocities. Instead, Zampaglione crosses a backwoods horror with a PTSD allegory laden with symbolism and heavy imagery.
Above all, Shadow functions as that PTSD allegory concerned with its mental terror, and exactly how torturous war becomes emotionally on those affected by it, as well as those who’ve participated in it. The journey of soldier David (Jake Muxworthy), who’s returned from the hideous Iraq War and heads out mountain biking in Italy, is a brutal and terrifying one which strikes direct at the heart of war’s mental and visceral damage(s).
Horror’s always been a fantastic way for audiences, and creators, to confront their fears and the terror of real life issues such as PTSD, trauma, rape, violence(etc) in a safe space where there’s no actual danger. Here, the focus is on atrocity and torture.
David, along with a few others, gets trapped by an eerie, mysterious man called Mortis (Nuot Arquint), whose fascination and dedication to torture is totally unnerving. The captives are subjected to a variety of nastiness, such as being fried like bacon, having eyelids cut off. Because David’s also a soldier, one who fought in the Iraq War, the concept of torture brings parallels to the American government and its use of torture. This is revisited on David, an American. He unwillingly took part in a wider, more brutish war than he even knew – as is fully evidenced during the movie’s finale, when his past in Iraq is revealed. The torture itself becomes a corporeal, visceral, and literal symbol of this veteran’s PTSD and mental trauma, the shadow cast over all those who survive war.
Zampaglione does well with positioning war v. real life in this story. The horrors people commit against each other in everyday life are no less tragic or disgusting than in war. However, we’re conditioned to see war as a separate space than supposed real life whereas war affects life/lives, though it does not happen in a vacuum. What Zampaglione accomplishes with a parallel between ‘real life’ and ‘war’ is a merger of the two, so the audience becomes wholly incapable of separating the two – what ought to be the case, anyway. The inextricable links between life and war come out thoroughly in the subtle ways Zampaglione and his co-writers weave nightmare and reality together through the plot, plus the heaps of war-related imagery and symbolism which draws on all sorts of military connections in the 20th and 21st centuries.
A significant moment later in the movie sees David shuffling around by candlelight through the bunker-like facility where Mortis has been keeping him and the others. He passes several important images, but one that lands with a deft blow is a shelf filled with old reels of film. Each is labelled, including the following references: Abu Graib, Saigon, Cecenia (Chechnya), Beirut, Sabra and Shatila, September 11th, Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ethiopia, North Korea, Kosovo, and many more. These are all references to either general wars and their laundry list of atrocities, or specific massacres involving genocide, torture, rape, and other horrific acts.
But then Zampaglione throws a lot more at the viewer. Such as a photograph of German director Leni Riefenstahl, autographed, sitting on Mortis’s desk; pictures of Holocaust victims; a jar of Zyklon B; ash-like sculptures symbolic of the victims caught in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There’s almost more symbolism and imagery than a single viewing can handle. It all goes to speak to the major themes of the story, and also the trajectory of the plot. Mostly, it says that war is a perpetual cycle, and nothing changes, it only repeats, gets bigger, gets worse.
Father Gore’s favourite image is wrapped up in the character of Mortis. He represents the shadow of war, looming everywhere, over everyone – definitely those who’ve taken part in war, on any level. He transforms into a living embodiment of death, as if the Grim Reaper himself. Near the end, Mortis even dons a black hood and wields a small scythe to try killing those left. His lair is packed with all forms of relics from all the major wars, massacres, and other violent military events throughout history. He’s a combination of an Italian fascist and a Nazi doctor. It’s this last connection that’s so compelling.
Angeline (Karina Testa) makes a comment about war coming to the Shadow, the area where she and David are both biking and exploring, and how war touches all places, even the more obscure ones. She reveals a horrible event occurred there involving rebels and people being burned alive in the nearby caves. What’s of note is that Shadow was filmed in Tarvisio, Italy. Why’s it noteworthy? Tarvisio is on the border of both Austria and Slovenia, which was very relevant during World War II. And so, the atrocities of Italian fascism and Nazism are alive in the geography of the movie alone, allowing for the themes and the intensity of the plot to take on even more significance.
The events in Shadow are like war purgatory for David – a crazy yet more palatable version of events for a soldier to bear, so that he doesn’t have to accept his responsibility and complicity in the horrors war inflicts on its innocent victims. He has to come to terms with his taking part in a civilian massacre during his Iraq tour. So, his mind invents a Grim Reaper figured, one symbolic of war and violence in general, to whisk him away into a nightmare dreamscape that’s somehow less vicious than the realities of war. Zampaglione offers up some horror cinema which plays like a bad dream in a dark war memorial.
Ultimately, what’s worse – a psycho in the woods capturing a few bikers and hikers, torturing them, or whole nations engaging in torture, murder, rape? Neither are good. Regardless, reality is worse than any fiction. Shadow deserves more eyes than it got on release. It becomes more relevant every year, as the United States of America keeps pushing its imperialism everywhere it can, to the corners of the Earth. It’s no small thing the main character of this movie is an American. Because throughout the 20th century, and slouching along into the 21st too, America has been a catalyst for war and terror, despite presenting itself as some guardian against the two.
While the characters in danger from Mortis make up Allied Forces – one Frenchwoman, one British lad, two American boys – and Italian fascism is clearly in the cross-hairs at times, there’s a huge implication about America’s role in the Iraq War, and its shadow looms over many frames throughout the movie.