Horror Films are unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst fears

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Land of the Dead (2005) - a symbolic 'haves & have-nots' story, between the elites who live in walled-off urban skyscrapers in a city called Fiddler's Green (led by feudal overlord leader Dennis Hopper) and are protected by mercenaries who battle the zombies, and the lower class masses who live in squalor

Zombie Horror Films in the 30s/40s and Beyond to the Present:

Zombies are 'walking dead' creatures, often with decayed flesh, that are destructive, malevolent, prey on human flesh, and almost impossible to 'kill.' The word zombie was derived from the Bantu language of Angola (n-zumbi meaning ghost or departed spirit), and zombies (involved in Haitian voodoo) debuted in William B. Seabrook's book The Magic Island. It could be argued that the 'somnambulism' in the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) was one of the earliest examples of a hypnotic, sleep-walking state similar to that exhibited by zombies.

The first 'true' zombie film was director Victor Halperin's and UA's low-budget, atmospheric White Zombie (1932), with Dracula (1931) star Bela Lugosi as 'Murder' Legendre - an evil voodoo master, necromancer and hypnotist. He runs a Haitian sugar mill with empty-faced, mindless zombie slaves and enters into a perverse pact to control and win the soul of a bride-to-be (Madge Bellamy). Its sequel or 'continuation' film was Revolt of the Zombies (1936), with another preposterous plot, poor acting (from Dean Jagger), and ineffective direction. During the war years, King of the Zombies (1941) from 'Poverty Row's' Monogram Studios, told of a crash-landing on a remote Caribbean island with a suspicious Nazi-spy/doctor (Henry Victor) and a horde of zombies ready to be released. In its B-film sequel by Monogram, director Steve Sekely's Revenge of the Zombies (1943) (aka The Corpse Vanished), John Carradine starred as a Nazi scientist building a zombie army in a Louisiana swamp. This 1943 film was Academy Award-nominated for Best Scoring for a Dramatic Film! [Both films featured African-American character actor Mantan Moreland in a stereotypical role as a bug-eyed manservant - for comic relief.]

One of the better zombie films of the 40s was RKO director Jacques Tourneur's (and producer Val Lewton's) atmospheric, intelligent and spooky I Walked With A Zombie (1943), based loosely on the Jane Eyre novel. Its most famous scene/moment was the encounter with a sinister zombie guardian (Darby Jones) in West Indies sugar cane fields. Monogram's Voodoo Man (1944) recycled Revenge of the Zombies (1943) and brought back Bela Lugosi as practicing voodoo master Dr. Marlowe, and John Carradine as a retarded manservant. The zombie sub-genre declined after the mid-40s, although there were a few notable entries, such as Republic's 12-part serial Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), producer Sam Katzman's The Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), Voodoo Woman (1957), and Hammer's The Plague of the Zombies (1966) - notable for a realistic zombie decapitation in a dream sequence.

After the late 60's, Romero's first zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968) inspired many other examples in the horror genre:

  • The Plague of the Zombies (1966, UK), d. John Gilling, from Hammer Films, with a voodoo cult centered in Cornwall

  • Astro-Zombies (1967), again with John Carradine as a mad zombie master who revitalizes corpses as super-human agents

  • Voodoo Girl (1974) (aka Sugar Hill), a blaxploitation horror film

  • Phantasm (1979), a great low-budget horror film with an arachnoid undertaker villain known as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), with series sequels in 1988, 1994 and 1998

  • Night of the Zombies (1981), d. Joel Reed

  • The Evil Dead (1982), d. Sam Raimi; a splendid trilogy of gore-comedy, with the remake Evil Dead II (1987) and the sequel Army of Darkness (1992)

  • Lifeforce (1985), d. Tobe Hooper, a sci-fi film about London over-run by zombies

  • Re-Animator (1985), based on H.P. Lovecraft's book

  • The Return of the Living Dead (1985), d. Dan O'Bannon, followed by two sequels: Ken Wiederhorn's Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988), and Brian Yuzna's Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

  • The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), d. Wes Craven, based upon the autobiographical book with the same title from Wade Davis, about a Harvard researcher sent to Haiti to investigate voodooism and drug-induced zombies

  • Zombie High (1987), with Virginia Madsen

  • Pet Sematary (1989), based upon Stephen King's book, with a sequel in 1992, features demonic revival of the dead

  • Night of the Living Dead (1990), a re-telling of the original (with significant changes in the character of Barbara and advanced production design/make-up), based on an updated script (by executive producer Romero) and shot in color by makeup wizard and Romero's special effects expert for NOTLD's two sequels, Tom Savini (with his feature film directorial debut)

  • Voodoo Dawn (1990) (aka Strange Turf), d. Steven Fierberg, adapted from a horror novel by John Russo (who scripted Night of the Living Dead)

  • From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), d. Robert Rodriguez and by screenwriter Quentin Tarantino

  • The Dead Hate the Living (1999), debut film of writer/director Dave Parker

  • I, Zombie (1999), the first film produced by horror magazine Fangoria

  • Resident Evil (2002), d. Paul W.S. Anderson, but originally to be directed by George Romero, adapted from the popular video game and with numerous Alice in Wonderland references; with a sequel in 2004

  • 28 Days Later (2002), a sci-fi horror film set in London - that has been overrun with crazed, diseased zombies

  • Dawn of the Dead (2004), a remake from Zack Snyder (his feature film debut)

  • Shaun of the Dead (2004), a horror comedy by director Edgar Wright, featuring star and co-writer Simon Pegg, about two London slackers experiencing a zombie invasion

  • Undead (2005, Aus.), a sub-par independent film that was both a serious film and a parody

Horror Films in the 70s:

In 1968, the MPAA created a new rating system with G, M, R, and X ratings, in part as a response to the subversive, violent themes of horror films.

In the 1970s, nightmarish horror and terror lurked everywhere. One of the top box-office hits in the early 70s was Willard (1971) about a wimpish 27 year old loner (and Mama's boy) who trained his rodent friends to vengefully attack his enemies - it launched an equally awful sequel Ben (1972) (with an Oscar nomination for Best Song for its title song - performed by Michael Jackson). [The cult classic was remade by writer/director Glen Morgan as Willard (2003), starring Crispin Glover as the title character.] Master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971) was a brilliant adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel about rape, murder, and behaviorist experiments to eradicate aberrant sex and violence. And in the kitschy The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), madman Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) let loose Biblical plagues against his victims - physicians who failed to save the life of his wife (Caroline Munro).

Future director Steven Spielberg's first notable film (originally made-for-TV) was the paranoic Duel (1972) about a monstrous and malevolent gas-tank truck without a driver. Director Nicolas Roeg's psychological thriller Don't Look Now (1973) duplicated Hitchcockian terror in a tale of disaster in Venice for Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Although it was a musical/comedy, the cult-campish Frankenstein classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was set in a haunted castle with a group of transsexual aliens, and starred a young Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, and Tim Curry. The weird and bawdy film soon became a cultural institution and phenomenon as it played for many years in packed midnight showings, with costumed audience members participating in the screenings. Jack Starrett's fast-paced horror chase film, Race With the Devil (1975) starred Peter Fonda and Warren Oates as innocent vacationers - with their wives (Loretta Swit and Lara Parker) - who are pursued by Satanists after watching them perform a human sacrifice.

As the decade of the seventies progressed, the horror genre was subjected to violence, sadism, brutality, slasher films, victims of possession, and graphic blood-and-gore tales. Director John Boorman's terrifying Deliverance (1972) examined primeval human evil and included graphic mutilation and sodomy by crazed hillbillies upon an unsuspecting group of wilderness adventurers.

Two of the most effective, box-office successes of the 70s included the camp classic It's Alive! (1974) about a murderous baby, and Tobe Hooper's exploitative, low-budget, hand-made cult film - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The notorious first film about a terrorized group of teenagers was loosely based on the true crimes of grisly, notorious Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, as was Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Three on a Meathook (1972), Deranged (1974), and Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The lead horror character Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) was both repulsive and muscular, in his Grand Guignol pursuit of victims to butcher. [There were four sequels to the TCM film: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) also directed by Hooper, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (1990) directed by Jeff Burr, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995) directed by Kim Henkel and featuring future stars Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger, and producer Michael Bay's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) with Jessica Biel as one of the terrorized teenagers.]

John Carpenter's influential, and acclaimed independent-sleeper horror classic Halloween (1978) with a creepy soundtrack, featured Michael Myers as the deranged, knife-wielding killer of teenage babysitters (notably Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh who had earlier starred as the 'scream queen' in Hitchcock's Psycho) who had returned to his old neighborhood of Haddonfield, Illinois after an escape from a mental institution. His spooky doctor (British horror actor Donald Pleasance) pursued the mad slasher as he wreaked havoc. [This popular slasher, serial killer film inspired numerous, mostly inferior sequels - seven more by the year 2002.] Steven Spielberg's second horror film Jaws (1975) - was a terrific summer blockbuster about a threatening great white shark off an Eastern beach community - Amity Island. Horrible conflicts could occur with supernatural, Jaws-like monsters in space, such as in director Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), with the tagline: "In space, no one can hear you scream." The monster's defeat called for a superhuman power or effort to destroy the threatening evil. A heroine (Sigourney Weaver) challenged the murderous alien invader within the dark and creeky Nostromo. An adapted Stephen King tale provided the basis for Stanley Kubrick's masterfully-directed gothic film The Shining (1980) about a crazed husband (Jack Nicholson) with personal demons in the Overlook Hotel, closed and snowbound for the winter in Colorado, with his emotionally-abused wife (Shelley Duvall) and psychic young son.

Italian cult horror film director Dario Argento featured gory, blood-and-guts special effects in the malevolent, art-horror, stylistic classic Suspiria (1977) that starred Jessica Harper as an American dancer in a European ballet academy run by witches. Argento also directed the bloody thriller Unsane (1984) (originally titled Tenebrae).

Master of Horror Brian DePalma:

In the early 1970s, shock director Brian DePalma (often using film techniques comparable to horror Master Alfred Hitchcock) emerged as a significant contributor to the horror genre, breaking out with his original mainstream film Sisters (1973), followed by his first commercial hit Carrie (1976) - an adaptation of writer Stephen King's best-selling story about a socially-outcast, shy schoolgirl (Sissy Spacek) possessed with retributive telekinetic powers, and her religious fanatic mother (Piper Laurie). His next successful film was the erotic horror/thriller Dressed to Kill (1980) with an imitative Psycho-shower scene, and a marvelous seduction-stalking scene in a museum.

Devil-Possession Films:

Evil spirits possessed the body of a young 12 year-old girl (Linda Blair) in director William Friedkin's manipulative critical and box-office success The Exorcist (1973) from William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel, with extravagant, ground-breaking special effects and startling makeup. Its twisting head, pea-soup vomit spewing, and other horrific visuals terrified audiences. The blockbuster, about the attempted exorcism of the demonic entity by two priests (Max von Sydow and Jason Miller), inspired inferior sequels of its own:

  • Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), d. John Boorman

  • The Exorcist III (1990), d. William Peter Blatty

  • Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), d. Paul Schrader and uncredited Renny Harlin; a prequel

Some of the better devil-possession sequels in the late 70s and early 80s were The Amityville Horror (1979) about a devilish haunted house, Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982) - a supreme ghost story about menacing spirits that kidnap a young child (in a film produced, co-written and 'co-directed' by Steven Spielberg) by sucking her into a TV set ("They're heeere!") and taking her into a parallel dimension. Poltergeist encouraged two sequels in 1986 and 1988. The Omen (1976), with a memorable score by Jerry Goldsmith, about a young adopted son (of parents Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) named Damien - Satan's son, also inspired two sequels to compose a trilogy: Damien: Omen II (1978), and The Final Conflict (1981)). There was also a made-for-cable TV sequel titled Omen IV: The Awakening in 1991. Other devil films included: Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate (1997) with tempting Al Pacino, and Peter Hyams' action horror thriller End of Days (1999) with Gabriel Byrne as the seductive Devil Lord

Wes Craven:

Wes Craven also began his career in violent horror films in the 70s, with the low-budget shocker Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) about brutal, desert-dwelling, hillbilly cannibals. His two most famous films were teen slasher flicks that spurred a flurry of imitations and sequels: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) featuring Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) as a re-incarnated child molester and serial killer with razor-fingered gloves and a burn-scarred face, and the surprising horror hit-spoof Scream (1996) that helped to reinvigorate films in the genre in the late 90s, with a slasher dressed as the Grim Reaper. Scream's success brought about sequels in 1997 and 2000 - again with Neve Campbell as the terrorized teen and the few remaining characters from previous versions (Courteney Cox Arquette and David Arquette). The success of Scream was set up by his direction of the sequel Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), the 7th film in the series, with original star Heather Langenkamp, Craven himself, and Englund all playing themselves.

Horror in the 80s and 90s:

Many of the more successful horror films spawned inferior, low-budget, sickening slasher, 'schlock' or 'splatter' films in the 80s (and 90s). Most of these sequels or imitators were exploitative and featured shock, gory violence, graphic horror, 'teens in peril,' computer-generated special effects and makeup, and usually a homicidal male psycho who committed a progressive string of gruesome murders on female victims (where brutal killing/slashing/hacking metaphorically substituted for a rape). Many of these films told tales of a vengeful murderer motivated by some past misdeed or sexual perversity.

Friday the 13th (1980), the first of the horror genre's most recognizable horror series - with an astonishing number of sequels (eleven), ripped off more original films of the 70s (such as director Mario Bava's definitive slasher/gore film A Bay of Blood (1971, It.) - R-rated) with tales of terrorized teen camp counselors. It also inspired a TV series and several spoofs. Jason, like the psychopathic Freddy Krueger before him in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, became a landmark name.

  • Friday the 13th (1980)

  • Friday the 13th, Part 2 (1981)

  • Friday the 13th, Part 3 (1982)

  • Friday the 13th - The Final Chapter (1984)

  • Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)

  • Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

  • Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

  • Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

  • Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

  • Jason X (2002)

  • Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

Fantasy Author H.P. Lovecraft and His Horror Tales:

Stuart Gordon's gory, cult-classic comedy about re-animated dead people, Re-Animator (1984) - was based on an H.P. Lovecraft serial tale, Herbert West—Reanimator. The twisted film was followed by additional sequels, also starring Jeffrey Combs as the demented medical student-turned experimental regenerator of dead bodies - Dr. Herbert West:

  • The Bride of Animator (1990), d. Brian Yuzna

  • Beyond Re-Animator (2003), d. Brian Yuzna

Another Lovecraft short story, From Beyond, was the basis of another Gordon/Yuzna collaboration, appropriately titled From Beyond (1986) - with the tagline "Humans Are Such Easy Prey", again featuring veterans Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. Many films have either been based upon or inspired by H.P. Lovecraft tales, such as the following:

  • The Haunted Palace (1963) - from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, from director Roger Corman - one of his "Poe" films; remade in 1991

  • Die, Monster, Die! (1965, UK), aka Monster of Terror - from The Colour Out of Space; remade in 1987

  • The Shuttered Room (1967, UK) - aka Blood Island - from The Shuttered Room

  • The Crimson Cult (1968, UK), aka Curse of the Crimson Altar and The Crimson Altar - based on The Dreams in the Witch-House; featuring a late appearance by Boris Karloff

  • The Dunwich Horror (1970) - from Lovecraft's own The Dunwich Horror; a Roger Corman-produced film

  • The Curse (1987) - adapted from The Colour Out of Space

  • The Unnamable (1988) - from The Unnamable

  • The Resurrected (1991) - from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

  • The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter (1992) - from The Statement of Randolph Carter

  • Necronomicon (1993) - a triple anthology, based upon The Rats in the Walls, Cool Air, and The Whisperer in the Darkness; the Necronomicon was also featured in Sam Raimi's trilogy of Evil Dead films: The Evil Dead (1983), Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987), and Army of Darkness (1993)

  • In the Mouth of Madness (1994) - from director John Carpenter; with Lovecraftian themes

  • Lurking Fear (1994) - loosely based on The Lurking Fear

  • Dagon (2001, Sp.) - based upon both Dagon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Sequel Horrors:

In many cases, sequels of popular titles were designed to cash in on an initial film's success: for example, all of these films cranked out sequels too numerous to mention: Halloween, Poltergeist, The Exorcist, It's Alive, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Howling, Hellraiser, Darkman, and Scream. Here are other examples of the decreased (or sometimes imitative, uninventive) quality of horror films beginning in the 80s: Mother's Day (1980), Motel Hell (1980), Prom Night (1980), He Knows You're Alone (1981), I Spit On Your Grave (1981), My Bloody Valentine (1981), the comedy parody Student Bodies (1981), and Sorority House Massacre (1986).

Sam Raimi:

Writer/director Sam Raimi created some of the most exuberant, inventive, comic-book, tongue-in-cheek parodies with horror themes ever produced starring Bruce Campbell as the one-armed protagonist with a chain saw. The low-budget series began with The Evil Dead (1983) about a cabin possessed by evil spirits. It was followed by Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987), and Army of Darkness (1992). Raimi's more mainstream film Darkman (1990) brought together elements of gothic horror and characters (the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and the Phantom of the Opera) and featured Liam Neeson as the tortured, vengeful, and disfigured scientist Peyton "Darkman" Westlake. He also directed the major blockbuster Spider-Man (2002) with the comic-book super-hero Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) battling his evil nemesis, the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). Director Raimi's sequel was equally successful both critically and at the box-office: Spider-Man 2 (2004) with a villainous Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina).

Tim Burton:

Tim Burton contributed his unique and original vision to the horror genre with a number of imaginative films including the horror/comedy Beetlejuice (1988), two Batman films (the blockbuster original Batman (1989) and a sequel Batman Returns (1992)), the fantasy/horror film Edward Scissorhands (1990) about a boy/creature with blades for fingers, and the musical and macabre The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) - with superb stop-motion animation in a tale about the saving of Christmas by Jack Skellington. Burton's biographical horror film Ed Wood (1994) included scenes with an aging Bela Lugosi (played by Oscar-winning Martin Landau), and his light-hearted, campy, escapist satire about Martian invaders titled Mars Attacks! (1996) spoofed disaster, science fiction, and monster films all at once. The famed director also retold and updated the famous Washington Irving legendary fable of The Headless Horseman in his Sleepy Hollow (1999) with Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane.

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