Vernon Zimmerman’s Fade To Black (1980) follows the popular trend of the psychological thriller of the seventies, charting an anti-hero’s mental deterioration. Fade To Black doesn’t take itself seriously like Taxi Driver (1976) or Coming Apart (1969). Zimmerman prefers to incorporate a reflexive element into the film via the main character’s modus operandi that locates the many ways that films echo visually and narratively across genres.
The premise of Fade To Black is that when the nerdy Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher) has taken all the abuse he can he adopts the name Cody Jarrett and begins to cosplay as his favorite characters from the films he loves while going around murdering people. It’s corny and it’s campy but it’s an idea that works. Not only does this allow Zimmerman to locate the various kinds of intertextuality in films but it also enables the filmmaker to explore the fundamental nature of the spectator’s relationship with the cinema.
Film for Binford is the only escape. The spaces where he lives and where he works are littered with movie paraphernalia. The escape from reality promised by the cinema is the only comfort Binford has. In moments of duress Binford acts out scenes from films which Zimmerman intercuts with the originals. As Binford inserts himself into White Heat (1949) so does Zimmerman insert White Heat into Fade To Black.
Binford’s obsessive relationship with the cinema is so extreme that he loses himself in the very act of participating in the ritualized escapism of the movies. The power of the cinema becomes the danger of the cinema which Zimmerman reiterates through the character of the criminal psychologist Dr. Moriarty (Tim Thomerson). Binford’s immersion of his identity into the world of movies isn’t all that different than Norman Bates’ immersion into the identity of his mother. The two characters are remarkably similar (Zimmerman even recreates the famous shower scene) with the notable difference being that Binford’s obsession is drawn from the public sphere of mass culture while Bates’ obsessions stem from the intimate familial unit.
Remarkably Fade To Black is highly absorbing despite the fact that the main character is never depicted as sympathetic. Yes the viewer pities Binford, but Zimmerman never attempts to make his audience feel with Binford. The campiness of the performances and bizarre nature of the plot create a Brechtian remove from the narrative. Zimmerman asks the audience to engage with the ideas in Fade To Black rather than the emotionality of its narrative.