Determining the greatest gore films of all time is not an easy task. After all, splatter tends to measure its own value in gallons of blood and baskets of body parts. For some, any grue is way too much. Many felt that The Exorcist had pushed the boundaries of taste when director William Friedkin showed young Regan McNeal having her artery tapped for a CAT scan (apparently, the crucifix and the pea soup were easier to tolerate), while Broadway He-va Bob Fosse offered an extended sequence of open heart surgery smack dab in the middle of his autobiographical musical All That Jazz. From David Warner’s decapitation in the original Omen to the infamous fish tank frenzy in Silent Partner, the mainstream movie has readily embraced entrails as a means of making its point. This doesn’t mean viewers have enjoyed it. Like liver or limburger cheese, they are willing to sample small doses, and that’s about it.
No, in order to really understand and appreciate what gorehounds find exciting, one needs a crash course in cruelty – and these 20 films can provide said viscera enlightenment. Marrow mavericks and skull cracking connoisseurs will have their own special selections, movies that push the absolute limits of brain bashing and torso tearing, while others will question the overt Western angle that makes up the majority of these choices. It’s a conscious decision, one meant to highlight films actually seen vs. one’s merely rumored about. While it would be nice to experience each and every title that the world’s wanton cinema has to offer, it’s logistically impossible. Besides, this overview is meant as a mere stepping stone, a jumping off point for discussion and debate. It’s definitive in it’s narrow perspective only.
In compiling this list, SE&L has also purposely avoided certain titles that seem antithetical to any discussion of film. Offerings like the Guinea Pig trilogy and the Faces of Death mock docs are instantly discounted, since they are far more focused on the sordid (and the fraudulent recreation of same) than selling themselves as actual motion pictures. Similarly movies like Island of Death and Subconscious Cruelty are marginalized for being more hype than horror. Lastly, as it’s October, we’ve stayed firmly within the traditional fear factors. War is Hell workouts like Saving Private Ryan or Letters from Iwo Jima are purposefully left off, allowing more room for our favorite fright flicks, while deconstructionist Westerns such as El Topo and The Wild Bunch are missing as well. No, it’s frost on the pumpkin time, and in recognition of the upcoming fright night, we offer the 20 Greatest Splatter Films the fright genre has ever produced, beginning with:
20 - The Wizard of Gore
Among all his sluice defining films, this is one of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ most grim. Centering on a magician whose Grand Guignol inspired “tricks” eventually materialize in real life, we get nothing but nonstop nastiness. While the F/X are tame by today’s standards, they still pack quite a pus bucket punch.
19 - Maniac
Infamous for Tom Savini’s technically disturbing “scalping” sequences, this sickening slasher film caused a major controversy when it was released. Along with other foul blood feasts, it served as a rallying point for Siskel and Ebert’s eventual denouncement of the entire horror genre. Anyone who has seen this tasteless slice and dice understands why.
18 - Cabin Fever
Before he turned Eastern Europe into a most dangerous game style businessman’s paradise, director Eli Roth was exploring the stomach churning variables that arrive when people are pitted face to melting face with a flesh eating virus. This adolescents in danger effort brought fountains of foulness back to horror in a big, bad way.
17 - Ichi the Killer
Perhaps the most infamous film in the entire Takashi Miike catalog, this tale of torture and vengeance among sadistic members of Japan’s Yakuza contains some of the most hideous human vivisection ever. While some will argue that his horror romance Audition contains worse examples of violence, nothing can top Ichi’s relentless brutality.
16 – Demons
Dario Argento co-wrote and produced. Lamberto Bava directed. Audiences vomited. Really nothing more than 90 minutes of dazzling (and disturbing) make-up effects set inside a weird film within a film narrative, it was proof that ‘80s Italians had not forgotten the vile vein juiciness of their ‘70s counterparts.
15 - The Thing (1982)
It was quite an amazing accomplishment for a Hollywood mainstream movie: John Carpenter took the ‘50s classic monster in the Arctic backdrop and added in a splattery, shapeshifting element. Then the resplendent Rob Bottin brought it all to life. It remains a hideous high water mark in both of their careers.
14 - The Evil Dead
Though he didn’t have much money to realize his aims, first time filmmaker Sam Raimi had a bounty of artistic vision to draw on. The results are this gore drenched trip into Kandahrian demonology and the Book of the Dead. One of the few films that’s just as noxious now as it was a quarter century ago.
13 – Tenebrae
Dario Argento revisited his giallo beginnings by taking on this surreal story of a novelist whose violent books are seemingly coming to life. Features a famous slasher tracking shot, an axe to the head, and a last act example of arterial spray that remains one of the artform’s most visceral.
12 - Cannibal Holocaust
For anyone who thinks that all Goona Goona movies are alike, a trip through this particular jungle hell should quiet those concerns once and for all. Ruggerio Deodato made a geek show as Greek chorus, a strident social commentary on the state of the news media glossed over with offal and gratuitous animal slaughter.
11 – Versus
Like a far more serious version of Riki-Oh, this 157 minutes of mind boggling body busting from director Ryuhei Kitamura is about as blatantly balls to the wall as zombie crime action films get. In fact, it’s one of the clearest cases of cinematic blood lusting ever to make a major international splash.
10 - Re-Animator
It has so many favored fright scenes – death by disemboweled intestines, sex with a severed head, a last act undead roundelay – that it’s hard to single out just one for acknowledgment. Indeed, this fascinating first feature by former Chicago theater director Stuart Gordon stands as the benchmark for all Troma-inspired horror comedies.
9 - Hellraiser II
While the original film had more atmosphere and narrative intricacy, this splashy sequence was overflowing with major F/X set-pieces. From an asylum inmate given a razor to slash at the imaginary bugs crawling on his body to the head psychiatrist’s Cenobite transformation, this is about as grotesque as Clive Barker’s mind’s eye gets.
8 - Street Trash
Like a Technicolor yawn come to life, or a trip to Skid Row accented by actual liquefying members of the homeless, this gorehound grand slam hasn’t been topped in over 20 years. It’s a fright freak’s love letter to fellow film nerds, a shockingly surreal social indictment dripping with make-up effects magic.
7 - Nekromantik
This German atrocity represents director Jörg Buttgereit’s most demented vision. The story of a street cleaner who brings home a corpse to spice up his sagging sex life, this unrelentingly depressing exercise in excess is one of those “see it to believe it” experiences. The ending remains one of gore’s most unsettling ever.
6 - City of the Living Dead
Known to American blood fiends by its far more evocative name, The Gates of Hell, this undeniably brutal effort from splatter master Lucio Fulci has it all – a woman vomiting up her own guts (in long, extended takes), a man taking a huge power drill through both temples, and lots of flesh hungry zombies. Tasty.
5 - Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky
This epic Hong Kong sluice fest stands as a cartoonish companion piece to all the serious slice and dice out there, but that doesn’t make the blood any less bountiful. Telling the tale of a young man with superhuman strength, this is nothing more than mindless mayhem accented with human punchlines. And it’s genius.
4 - Planet Terror
Robert Rodriguez’s homage to the grindhouse films that he and pal Quentin Tarantino obsess over is so blatantly overdone and “yes” to excessive that you actually believe the filmmaker can’t find another terror taboo to bust. And then he goes and paints the screen with gallons of logic defying and tolerance testing funk.
3 - Poultrygeist
Proving that no one does Troma better than the company itself, this greatest hits package from the studio that started the joyful celebration of splatter is a remarkable achievement. In such a CGI heavy day and age, it’s all foul (or is that fowl) physical effects. The results are truly a disgusting step beyond.
2 - Dead Alive
Peter Jackson’s zany zombie stomp is really a comedy. The only difference between this Kiwi’s sense of humor and that of your typical Hollywood rib tickler is the use of the living dead as macabre Marx Brothers. For the notorious lawnmower scene alone, or the classic baby in a blender bit, this film remains a mangled masterpiece.
1 - Day of the Dead
Tom Savini’s autopsy level work here remains so completely disconcerting and ultra-realistic that fans still flinch when the Frankenstein’s lab scene is disgusted. Topping everything he’s done before, the make-up wizard has never been better. While Night and Dawn remain Romero’s best, Day delivers on what the genre really craves – literal vats of bodily fluids.
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