NutmanCoffeeSampleMany of us thought eight years under the Bush administration were a nightmare.

But unless you were detained at Gitmo or Abu Ghraib, the closest you’ve probably come to unspeakable terror and horror are what you’ve uncovered in books or late nights at the movie theater.

Phil Nutman contributed to that. The Atlanta writer’s credits include the zombie novel “Wet Work” and the screenplay for “Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door.” He wrote the cover story in Fangoria magazine on the new movie “Zombieland” — filmed in Atlanta and Valdosta.

Nutman (www.philipnutman.com) says he’s working on a new novel and the script for a Western. He recently wrote and directed his first comedy short for Blast-Off Burlesque in Atlanta.

And this weekend he’ll be in Orlando for the launch of Wet Work coffee (www.coffeeshopofhorrors.com) during the Spooky Empire’s Weekend of Horrors convention. (If nightmares don’t keep you up at night, maybe the caffeine will.)

Here, Nutman discusses horror in the South, violence vs. suspense, and why vampires and zombies won’t go away.

You’re English. What brought you to Atlanta?

PN: I had been living in New England off and on for nearly five years and grew tired of the winters. I was ready for a change of scene and warmer weather, or at least short winters. Plus, my wife has family here. I moved here in 1993, but never expected to stay so long.

Is there something unique about horror or supernatural stories set or produced in the South?

PN: Southern fiction has its own flavor, definitely. William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor immediately come to mind. Davis Grubb, too. There seems to be an inherent darkness in the Southern voice. The phrase “Southern Gothic” has become a cliche. But there’s so much about the South which lends itself to the horrific, the supernatural: slavery, the brutality of early Southern culture. A lot of that still lurks beneath the surface. It seems like the South is haunted by its past.

Why do you think there has been a rise in supernatural fiction and movies, vampires and zombies in particular?

Would you buy a used screenplay from this man?PN: Traditionally, horror has always seen a resurgence in popular culture during times of stress, and the past decade has been a dark time for America. I see vampires more in a fantastic context — I think they provide a romantic escape for a tremendous audience: Look at the success of the TWILIGHT novels. Zombies I see in a more metaphorical context. Romero tapped into that with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and explored the notion further in DAWN OF THE DEAD. DAY OF THE DEAD was hit and miss. But I believe that most of the zombie novels and movies we’re seeing at the moment are purely exploitive — there are a lot of writers and filmmakers who mistake violence and gore for horror. Horror is an emotion; it’s not violence; it’s not gore. Violence, if it is justified by the nature of the story, should make a dramatic point, should be cathartic. Gore, if it’s presented right, should bring a certain level of realism to the narrative table. When it’s used gratuitously, it’s just gross. I actually scaled back the violence and blood in my novel WET WORK, but my editors then complained: “Put it back in! That’s what we bought the book for!” (Laughing) I see a direct correlation between the popularity of first-person shooter video games and the number of zombie movies we’ve seen over the past decade. As Romero taught us with his original trilogy, you’ve got to shoot ’em in the head to make certain they stay dead. So zombies equal violence. Don’t forget RESIDENT EVIL is first and foremost a video game; the movies are just another form of merchandising.

Violence seems more explicit and grotesque in each new horror movie. Do you think it increases or decreases the suspense?

PN: I think I’ve just answered that question in one sense. Explicit violence is not suspense; it’s just brutality. Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II is a case in point. I found that movie unnecessarily brutal — do we really need to see Michael Myers stomp some guy’s head to a pulp and the aftermath of his footwork? Did we really need to see him stab someone ten times with the sound of the blade penetrating flesh cranked up? The threat of violence should heighten tension, the threat of bodily harm can increase suspense. But violence per se is not suspenseful.

What is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?

PN: It’s an even split between the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and the original DAWN OF THE DEAD. Both are highly claustrophobic, suspenseful. The former deals with un-checked madness and the desire to escape from it; the latter is about trying to keep death out. The thought of being trapped in a shopping mall surrounded by the living dead gives me nightmares 31 years after I first saw it.

What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?

PN: Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND. Again, it’s a novel about being trapped. That novel was so obviously a major influence on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It’s the novel I read at age 11 which inspired me to become a writer. That’s why I dedicated WET WORK to Matheson. I hated the Will Smith movie, though.

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Alan Gordon

Alan Gordon is a veteran journalist.