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Once upon a time, the wardrobe of the horror genre consisted of diaphanous white gowns and black vampire capes.
But by the 1970s, traditional Gothic wear was out-of-fashion, and high-tech horror chic was in.
In films such as Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), environmental, hazmat or “bio-containment suits” were often the only thing that could protect heroic scientists from a new and insidious form of monster: the virus or “germ.”
And yet, during the same era, in harrowing films such as George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973), the hazmat suit also became a short-hand for terror itself. There, American soldiers occupied Evans City, PA, in bio-hazard suits, and declared martial law during the military’s attempt to contain a biological weapon code-named “Trixie.”
These American soldiers carried flame throwers and guns, and saw the innocent families and denizens of the town as something akin to expendable cattle. Therefore, the protective suits – on one hand a protection from danger – also became a barrier to communication, an impediment to human and humane behavior on the part of those who wore them. Behind those suit masks, we couldn’t see how the soldiers felt, or if they were agonizing over their difficult choices. We could only see how (horribly) they acted in the face of fear.
In short, that’s the yin-and-yang of the hazmat suit in horror films. This wardrobe can work as a defense if a hero wears it, but represents a form of alienation or fear if worn by callous-seeming others or villains.
Some films, such as Outbreak (1995) play with the conventions of the hazmat suit by featuring scenes wherein the protective suits rip and tear, and our heroes are exposed to a bug and therefore mortally endangered. At another moment in the film, a scientist (Dustin Hoffman) is so convinced that he has discovered the cure for hemorrhagic fever that he (foolishly, in my opinion...) removes his helmet in the presence of the infected. Fortunately for him, his gamble pays off.
The late 1980s and early 1990s represents the era of what I term "the Horror Genome Project," wherein many genre films featured “science gone amok” story lines. These new age Frankenstein tales concerned irresponsible scientists who experimented with life – with the very building blocks of life – and created only…terror. The remake of The Blob (1988) concerned this idea, as did such efforts as Mimic (1998). In these settings, the hazmat suit was the scientist’s garb of choice. We know that “clothes make the man” (or woman), so therefore the hazmat suit became a de rigueur fashion touch in stories of scientists confronting their own creations, as well as seemingly alien or unknown terrors; Phantoms (1998) for instance.
In Steven Spielberg’s science fiction films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982), the hazmat suits are utilized by the master director as fearsome indicators of powers that audiences can’t understand. The suits and helmets themselves obstruct transparency, hiding either conspiratorial government deceit, or “grown-ups” who obscure their “heart-lights” beneath layers of inhuman, inexpressive protection.
The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Crazies (1973), Close Encounters (1977), E.T. (1982), The Blob (1988), Alien 3 (1992), Carnosaur (1993), Return of the Living Dead III (1993), The Puppet Masters (1994), Mimic (1998), Phantoms (1998), Sphere (1998), The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998), [REC] (2007), Carriers (2009), and The Crazies (2010).