Horror films can do many things. They can creep you out, terrify you, jolt you, make you bite your nails in anxiety, or just imbue you with an ongoing sense of lingering dread. But despite coming in all kinds of forms, from the most lowbrow schlock to bona fide Best Picture Oscar winners, one thing horror can deliver better than any other genre of film is gore. Blood, viscera, skin, internal organs—you name a body part, and there’s a horror film out there that has rendered it absolutely disgusting. But people’s tolerance for gruesome cinema varies wildly, which is why The A.V. Club has put together the following primer. Join us as we descend into the depths of the macabre, and take a tour—that may or may not be based on Dante’s circles of hell, who can say, really—of the varying circles of gore in movies. Each circle is represented by a different film, one that best embodies a particular degree of bloody imagery, and the deeper you delve into the circles, the gorier it gets. By the time you reach the final circle of gore, it’s probably best to borrow a page from the tagline for Wes Craven’s disturbing 1972 shocker The Last House On The Left: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie.’”
In the first circle of gore, the blood runs, but not too heavily. It may not be entirely appropriate to call Evil Dead II the Citizen Kane of modern horror comedy, but its influence is so far-reaching and omnipresent in the genre that it undoubtedly deserves to stand in for all subsequent films that deliver just enough icky imagery to qualify for the initial level of gruesome cinema. After making his initial horror film, The Evil Dead, a mostly straightforward horror film, Sam Raimi and his collaborators returned for a more slapstick reworking of the basic concept. Starring Bruce Campbell as a man who takes his girlfriend for a weekend at a remote cabin, it’s not long before he unwittingly unleashes an ancient evil intent on turning him into a demon—or a dead man. But there’s as many laughs as there are scares, with Raimi achieving the rare feat of successfully integrating humor into his chills without lessening the effect of either one. The gross moments are sparse but memorable, from self-amputation to a demon eyeball flying across the room and into a shocked bystander’s mouth. Evil Dead II isn’t particularly gory, but as legions of devoted fans will attest, it’s absolutely unforgettable.
“Be afraid, be very afraid.” The Canadian writer-director David Cronenberg’s domain is alienated body horror, more nightmarish than gruesome: the pulsing growth, the sprouted orifice, the unknown organ, the queasy merger of man and machine. But he dialed up the revulsion for his 1986 remake of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, a scientist whose experiments with teleportation lead him to accidentally splice his DNA with that of a common housefly. Deteriorating as he transforms, Brundle makes for a tragic monster, losing teeth and spitting bone-dissolving digestive juices as his body becomes covered in pus and boils. Cronenberg ended up cutting some of the goriest scenes to maintain the viewer’s sympathy for Brundle. Nonetheless, the film remains one of the most graphic and gorily accomplished examples of a specific vein (pardon the wordplay) of horror: the fear of our own bodies in disgusting revolt against our selves.
Z-grade schlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis’ most famous film, The Wizard Of Gore, is unbelievably clumsy, boasting sub-community-theater production values and performances and the sort of doddering, forgetful pace that defined American regional cheapies in the 1960s and early 1970s. A few of its effects are laughably bad (e.g., a papier-mâché severed head), but some are truly revolting: mutilations and disembowelments created cheaply using animal carcasses and raw meat. (This may be the only film where knowing how the effects were accomplished makes them more disgusting.) A former journalism professor, Lewis carved out a bloody niche for himself as the father of the splatter movie. His horror films, which all seem to be shot in front of randomly hung curtains, make no pretense to atmosphere or suspense, opting for pure bad taste—a gaggle of Midwestern non-actors writhing in real sheep viscera for the amusement of a dirty old man.
Gore has gotten much more sophisticated since the 1980s heyday of makeup maestro Tom Savini. But has it gotten more imaginative, more ballsy, more flat-out disgusting? The apex of Savini’s barf-bag oeuvre—and probably still the essential Fangoria movie—is Day Of The Dead, the third (and, at the time, final) entry in George Romero’s seminal zombie-apocalypse series. Savini, who also masterminded Kevin Bacon’s blade-through-the-neck death scene in the original Friday The 13th and the exploding head in Maniac, builds off the lasagna-orange carnage of his work on the earlier Dawn Of The Dead. Where he really pulls out the stops is the film’s Grand Guignol climax, wherein the undead finally breach the walls of the film’s bunker setting and messily dismember one screaming victim after another. Shots of faces being torn off and bodies being ripped in two—their severed torsos dragging real animal intestines, per Romero’s insistence—don’t look entirely “real.” But that doesn’t make it any easier to keep your dinner down while watching them.
Last decade was a pissing contest of depravity for global genre fare, with everywhere from South Korea (The Isle) to Japan (Ichi The Killer) to the United States (Hostel: Part II) pumping out their most repellently extreme exports. Surprisingly, it was perhaps the French who won this arms race, thanks to a line of grisly, grueling thrillers that made the concurrently produced Saw series look like all-ages entertainment by comparison. Inside, about a pregnant woman fending off the home invader who’s come for her unborn child, isn’t the most harrowing of these Gallic endurance tests, but it’s probably the most gallon-for-gallon gory: Writing-directing duo Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury orchestrate a revoltingly realistic bloodbath, counting on their diligent prosthetics-and-squibs team to make every erupting vein and corporeal atrocity look medical-school accurate—especially during the film’s shocking climax, featuring one of the gnarliest effects shots ever put up on screen. The title itself is a warning.
By the early ’80s, the balletic athleticism of the Shaw brothers’ kung fu output alone was no longer enough to maintain their domination of the Hong Kong film market. Faced with competition from abroad and from upstart studio Golden Harvest, Run Run and Runme Shaw decided to just go ahead and give the people what they want: gory horror films laden with excessive violence and explicit sex. Any of the Shaws’ black-magic-themed films from this era have the ability to scratch the gore-hound itch for over-the-top viscera—1983’s The Boxer’s Omen is one famously surrealistic example—but perhaps the most outrageous of them all is 1983’s Seeding Of A Ghost. Released later than the rest of the so-called “Black Magic trilogy” due to problems with the censors, Seeding Of A Ghost starts off as a rape-revenge movie, but quickly descends into supernatural chaos, picking up and dropping story lines at will before culminating in a demon birth sequence that rivals Rob Bottin’s celebrated special effects for The Thing in sheer insanity. Brain eating, worm eating, rotting corpse sex, exploding abdomens, sodomy by giant matchstick—truly, this movie has it all.
While the first circle of gore found Sam Raimi’s innovations setting the stage for a new era of slapstick horror comedy and its attendant “splatter” special effects, by the time of Dead Alive just five years later, the subgenre had already seemingly reached its apex of crazed, over-the-top bloodshed. Peter Jackson’s cult classic follows reserved, nebbish young Lionel, who finds his budding relationship with local girl Paquita stymied by his overbearing mother—that is, until Mom is bitten by a rabid rat monkey, transforming her and eventually the rest of the town into flesh-hungry zombies. The film contains its share of gross-out moments throughout: severed body parts, rotting bodies, and Lionel’s mother squeezing her suppurating wounds to shoot bodily fluids into the soup of visiting guests. But the film becomes the best representative for a truly gruesome level of splatter-gore with its still-unparalleled finale, a nearly 20-minute-plus odyssey of bloody carnage, visual gross-out gags, and a central role played by a running lawnmower. You have to keep laughing to avoid the nausea.
Exploitation cinema reached new heights (depths?) of repulsiveness with the cannibal subgenre, a cycle of mostly Italian movies from the ’70s and ’80s that depicted Western explorers being tortured, murdered, and consumed by the jungle natives of various far-flung locales. The most infamous of these grimy shockers is still Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, which remains banned in several countries to this day. One of the earliest horror films to adopt a found-footage framework, Holocaust earns its place in the Eighth Circle Of Gore for not just the extremity of its violence but also its faux-documentary realism: The lo-fi aesthetic enhances the authenticity of the primitive but still pretty convincing effects work, like a villager impaled vertically through a wooden pike. (The snuff-film illusion was believable enough that the cast had to appear on television to prove to Italian authorities that they hadn’t really been killed on screen.) Holocaust’s coup de grâce is the graphic, unsimulated animal slaughter that accompanies its simulated murder—a quality that makes this mondo-style monstrosity really tough to stomach, even for die-hard gore-hounds.
Our previous circles of gore certainly contain horrifying and even deeply scarring imagery, but in the service of “characters” and “plot.” Down in the gooey depths of the ninth circle, however, there’s no need for such frivolity. At the bottom are Japan’s notorious Guinea Pig movies, an extremely low-budget labor of love (if “love” can be applied to such nastiness) for producer-directors Satoru Ogura and Hideshi Hino. The first two films in this six-film series are essentially faux snuff films, consisting of nothing more than scenes of women being kidnapped, tortured, and dismembered in various extremely explicit ways. The lack of music, professional lighting, and other typical signals that we’re watching fiction only heightens the nauseating verisimilitude, as does the fact that the films were distributed internationally on fuzzy second-, third-, and beyond-generation VHS bootlegs during their initial run in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (The strings show, so to speak, on DVD.) The second film in the series, Flower Of Flesh And Blood, was so convincing that Charlie Sheen (yes, that Charlie Sheen) called the FBI after viewing a dubbed copy in 1991. The FBI launched an inquiry, only to be informed that the Japanese authorities were already investigating director Hino, who eventually had to prove in court that he hadn’t actually murdered anyone. This incident forced the makers of Guinea Pig to adopt conventional narratives for the rest of the series, which are also fucking disgusting, but obviously not real.
This post is sponsored by The Belko Experiment. The film follows a group of 80 employees at a corporation in Bogota, Colombia, who are locked inside their high-rise headquarters and given an order to begin killing their fellow workers if they want to survive. Written by James Gunn (Guardians Of The Galaxy) and directed by Greg McLean (Wolf Creek), the film opens March 17.