AD NAUSEAM Book Review: A Gloriously Lowbrow Answer To Poster Books

Journey through the black-and-white newsprint horror ads of the '80s.

Disclaimer: Michael Gingold is an occasional BMD contributor. 

We’re inundated with film art nowadays. Whether it’s concept art collections, large-format compilations of posters, or beautifully-printed custom art, film nerds’ shelves are festooned with books of gorgeous art to be appropriately ogled and celebrated.

Ad Nauseam: Newsprint Nightmares From The 1980s is not one of these books. Former Fangoria editor Michael Gingold's latest instead looks at the other end of the movie-poster spectrum: the black-and-white ads that would fill the entertainment pages of newspapers (back when newspapers were as ubiquitous as iPhones are today). Collected from New York papers of varying reputations over the course of the Reagan era and beyond, they represent a pretty comprehensive cross-section of the horror films released that decade. 

The art itself is a mixture of classy, lurid, and outright obnoxious imagery designed to do one thing: sell. Many films featured are recognisable titles anyone would know - you can see significant portions of the evolutions of franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, for example. But just as many, if not more, are weird obscurities known only to extreme enthusiasts - if at all, given some of the films in question have never been released on digital home video formats. Some appear here under alternate titles. Others, you'll likely have never heard of before.

Nearly all the ads, however, feature either images or text not found on their better-known theatrical campaigns. This was still the Wild West of film marketing, where you had to fight to be seen, and boy did they ever fight. Many movies were marketed with imagery not found in the films themselves - either due to a lack of photos available to the distributor, or to get bums in seats through whatever exploitative means necessary. You’ll even see a handful of images and taglines reused for multiple unrelated films across the decade, simply because they'd successfully sold movies before.

For New Yorkers around in the ‘80s, the ads function as a step back in time, thanks in no small part to listings of the various theatres in which each film played at the time. Many of the grindhouses and drive-ins that closed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are present and accounted for, while the more mainstream horror flicks made it to more prominent theatres and chains like RKO, United Artists, and Loews. The sheer breadth of these releases is staggering today, demonstrating how far theatrical exhibition has shrunk (and how far, specifically, towards mainstream titles). Even in 1989, as blockbusters were well and truly taking over, something as utterly deranged as Indonesian horror-action film Lady Terminator managed to get released into twenty-six cinemas across the New York area.

But the most interesting material to be found in Ad Nauseam, for my money, isn’t related to the ads at all. Gingold also dutifully clipped newspaper reviews of horror movies over the same period, which supply choice quotes for selected films throughout the book. Unlike internet reviews like those listed on Rotten Tomatoes, which are filtered through a haze of hindsight, revisionism, and nostalgia, these reviews represent the actual critical opinions of the time. Some opinions may seem eye-wateringly wrong to the modern cinephile, like the comprehensive drubbings received by Possession or John Carpenter's The Thing. Other films were surprisingly lauded even in their time - even extreme titles like Evil Dead 2 and Re-Animator. And most received amusingly quaint warnings for those weak of stomach.

For those looking for original writing, Ad Nauseam will leave you wanting. With the exception of an introduction by Gingold, and an interview with a pair of notoriously opportunistic film promoters from the era, the text is limited to brief paragraphs on selected ads. Given Gingold's reputation as a writer, it's a moderate disappointment - but it's difficult to say what more one could add. This is an art book, after all, if a self-consciously trashy one. You came here to see sleazy ads for things like Scalps or Night Train To Terror or Evilspeak. And that's what you'll get.

Ad Nauseam doesn't have a lot to offer the casual fan of film art. It's much more of a deep-dive than that. But for horror fans, or for those interested in how film advertising worked in the ‘80s, it’s a fascinating look into the genre’s past that’s less rose-tinted than many. Where else are you gonna find this stuff?