My 23 Favorite Horror Movies by Jeff Burk
(Jeff Burk is the head-editor of DEADITE PRESS, ERASERHEAD PRESS’ horror imprint. He is also the author of SHATNERQUAKE, SUPER GIANT MONSTER TIME, CRIPPLE WOLF, and SHATNERQUEST. He has been a life-long horror fanatic and learned to read with reprints of TALES FROM THE CRYPT comic books.)
I love horror movies! I am completely obsessed with them. I try to watch every horror movie that comes out and seek out any title anyone recommends to me. My parents are responsible for this addiction. They were both horror freaks that introduced to me many classics of the genre at an early age. My Mom use to get me a Halloween present every year of a horror movie that she thought I should see (for the record, her favorite is THE HILLS HAVE EYES).
Over the years I’ve seen hundreds (goddamn, maybe into the thousands) of horror movies. From any country, any era, any budget – if it’s horror, I’ll watch it.
The Halloween season is upon us and I use to host horror movie marathons every year for my friends (now I lean more towards crazy parties but that’s another story). But I still like to rewatch my favorites during the season when I can find time. With that in mind, I spent a lot of time (maybe too much) internally debating and came up with the list of my twenty-three favorite horror movies. These are not what I would argue are the objectively “best” horror movies ever made – these are my personal favorites. These are the movies that I rewatch all the time and when someone asks for recommendations it’s something from this list.
Now let’s get this corn-syrup-and-red-dye-soaked party started!
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
1981, John Landis, USA/Britain
It seems so goddamn difficult to make a decent werewolf movie. But not only is AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON the best werewolf movie ever made (nothing comes close) it’s one of the best horror movies of all-time. Few movies can seamlessly switch from comedy to horror.
Rick Baker’s special effects are outstanding. The transformation has gone down in history as one of the best horror scenes ever put to film.
1980, Ruggero Deodato, Italy
In what may be the first found-footage-movie, a documentary team has gone missing in the jungle. When their footage turns up, a ground of producers watch it to decide if they want to release it as a nature documentary. What they find is the film crew being cruel and abusive to the natives and their eventual mutilation and devouring by the natives (no spoiler – it’s in the title).
For a low-budget exploitation gore flick, there is a surprising amount of intelligence on display. The movie asks a lot of questions about the differences between media and reality and the complicit role of the audience in violent entertainment.
But the real reason you watch this movie is to see how far it will go. This is one of the founding films of the hardcore horror sub genre. And there’s a reason why, to quote the film’s taglines this movie is “the one that goes all the way.”
Warning: this film does contain scenes of real animal death. The Italians just didn’t give a shit back then.
2005, Neil Marshall, Britain
Five women go on a spelunking trip to the middle of nowhere. But the cave they choose to explore is home to a race of monsters that eat anything they can catch. Now the five friends must battle their way out of the darkness if they don’t want to be dinner.
Marshall’s second film (his first being the awesome werewolf vs. soldiers epic DOG SOLDIERS) is an excellent study in intensity. The first act slowly introduces the characters and shit starts goes wrong in the cave immediately. By the time the monsters are introduced you’ll be practically falling off your couch with shock after shock. This movie also features my all-time favorite jump-scare – the camcorder scene (those that have seen the movie will know what I’m talking about).
Just make sure to see the original British cut of the film. The American edit cuts the last scene from the movie. It’s only about thirty-seconds missing but it changes the entire context of the story and neuters the film.
THE WOLF MAN
1941, George Waggner, USA
I said earlier that AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is the best werewolf movie ever made so why is this higher up on the list? Because THE WOLF MAN is my favorite of the old classic gothic horror films. Swamps shrouded in fog, old gypsy curses, classic special effects, and stellar performances from Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bela Lugosi make this a genre defining work.
While my tastes tend to lean towards the hyper-violent and sadistic, there is no denying the power and unique aesthetic the Universal horror line had.
THE WICKER MAN
1973, Edward Woodward, Britain
My favorite horror/murder mystery/occultic/musical. There has never been anything like THE WICKER MAN before or since. A fundamentalist Christian policeman is summoned to a small British island to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. To say anymore would spoil one of the most unique experiences in the horror genre.
THE WICKER MAN has been the victim of an extremely laughable remake and disappointing sequel (amazing mishandled by the writer/director of the original) but don’t let that dissuade you. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore and they never did.
TETSUO: THE IRON MAN
1989, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Japan
A style-over-substance (and I mean that as a compliment) masterpiece of nightmare filmmaking. A man gets a literal infection of technology that results in wires and machine parts overtaking his body and the loss of his humanity. Shot in grainy black-and-white, the movie is one surreal scene of horror after another.
TETSUO: THE IRON MAN is the perfect combination of American-style exploitation sensibilities with the genre-defying-craziness the Japanese horror scene is known for.
THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2
2011, Tom Sixx, USA/Britain/Netherlands
The first HUMAN CENTIPEDE movie was a fun little mad scientist flick. Somehow it developed a reputation in the mainstream as one of the most extreme and gross movies ever made. Exactly how that happened completely escapes me considering A SERBIAN FILM was released around the same time – but we’ll get to that later in the list. The first was original but far from graphic.
Sixx heard criticism that the movie wasn’t that extreme from the horror scene and took it to heart for his sequel. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 takes place in “the real world” and stars an obsessed fan of the first film trying to create his own Human Centipede. What the first film only suggested at, the sequel shows in explicit detail. For someone twisted like me that seeks out the most outrageous and sick movies, this is a goldmine.
What really elevates this movie is how it is filmed in pseudo-art-house style. The first half of the movie almost comes across as a parody of David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD. The use of black-and-white actually makes the gore even more graphic. But there is one use of color in the movie. Brown. Can you guess how that is used?
1981, Lucio Fulci, Italy
THE BEYOND is a psychedelic nightmare captured on film. It ignores logic for the sake of creating an atmosphere in which any kind of horror could happen at any moment. Fulci’s vision of a small town that contains a gateway to hell itself is a ignores any sense of rationality in favor of sheer madness. Zombies, eye-violence, and exploding heads litter this surreal and unnerving piece of European art-house exploitation. While Fulci made many other films worthy of praise (notably CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and ZOMBI 2) he never matched the mind-bending terror of THE BEYOND.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
1974, Tobe Hooper, USA
I would argue that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (which I’ll talk about later) and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE have defined modern horror. Everyone in the genre owes a huge gratitude to those two movies. Made during the height of the Vietnam War, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE perfectly reflects a world gone insane with no one seemly in control. The flower-power hippie generation was over and this movie was one of the nails in their coffin.
Horror fanboy pet peeve – It bugs me so much when people reference how bloody this movie is. There is almost no blood or gore in the entire film. Almost everything is very cleverly implied. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE should be held up as a masterpiece of suggestive filmmaking instead of cheap gory horror.
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
1945, Jack Arnold, USA
Breaking from Universal’s trend of adapting novels, plays, and legends – CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON stands out as the only truly original creation from the classic movie monster line. Set not in a gothic castle or a dank swamp but the sunny Amazon River, there is little that invokes the Universal style but for one thing – the monster. The Creature is the pinnacle of man-in-a-rubber-suit monster design. Played by two talented, and uncredited, actors, the Creature demands awe every time it appears on screen.
It was originally released in 3D and it always had been a dream of mine to see it that way. Recently I got to attend a revival showing in the original 3D – wow! The classic scene of the Creature swimming beneath Julia Adams never looked more beautiful or surreal.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS
1995, John Carpenter, USA
The best Lovecraftian movie ever made to never reference H. P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu, or black magic spell-books. Sam Neil (aka “hey, it’s that guy from JURASSIC PARK”) stars as an insurance investigator hired by a book publisher to investigate the disappearance of superstar horror author Sutter Cane. So begins a film that starts as a dark murder-mystery and veers very quickly in surreal nightmare territory.
What Carpenter got right that so many directors of more explicitly Cthulhu Mythos films got wrong was the sense of meaningless and mind-bending terror in the face of forces much greater than yourself.
1992, Peter Jackson, New Zealand
The goriest (in terms of gallons of blood on screen) zombie movie ever made! This ultra-gore/comedy is one of the most fun films ever made. Each scene will have you squirming and howling with laughter. There is a kinetic energy in this movie that is unmatched. Once you make it to the scene of the Kung-Fu Priest kicking ass for the Lord, you’ll be completely in love. There is no greater crowd-pleaser than DEAD ALIVE.
It still shocks me that the man who made this would later go on to adapt THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
1994, Nacho Cerdà, Spain
The easiest way to sum up this short film is it’s the most beautiful film about necrophilia that you will ever see. No joke. The movie is essentially one long scene of a mortician fucking a corpse. Cerdà took an extremely ugly subject matter but presents it through stunningly gorgeous filmmaking techniques to create an extremely affective art-house gore flick.
1982, John Carpenter, USA
The best sci-fi/horror film ever made. A research expedition in Antarctica finds an alien spaceship buried in the ice. But when it turns out the creature onboard is not dead and can shape-shift at will while infecting other life-forms, the team must stop the monster before it can reach the mainland and take over civilization.
THE THING is a masterclass in paranoia. No matter how many times you see it, moments like the blood-test scene and the creature’s amazing transformations never lose their power to shock.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
1968, George A. Romero, USA
The first modern horror film. Before this almost all horror movies were in the Universal/Hammer vein. But NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD took the horror out of gothic castles and English swamps and placed it modern America. It also single-handedly created the modern concept of zombies.
Romero’s first film still has the power to shock. The scenes of the zombies eating flesh were amongst the most graphic images put to film for its time. Some of the scenes involving race and child death are still too ballsy for many directors working today.
And that ending. Dear god. It might be the best ending to any horror movie. Unlike PYSCHO, the shocking finale surprise has not become a pop-culture stable. If you somehow haven’t seen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, drop what you’re doing and go watch it. Even all these decades later it’s still a bleak and soul-crushing vision.
2006, Eli Roth, USA
The film to kick-start the torture-porn trend. Because of how influential it was, many forget what a breath of fresh air it was after the SCREAM-rip-off and PG-13 ghost dominated 90’s. HOSTEL brought the viciousness back to horror.
It was also the quintessential post-9/11 film. It’s world of Americans being bought and sold for torture perfectly reflected the nation mood in the same way the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE did for the Vietnam-era.
Roth also showed filmmaking techniques and intelligence that his many imitators and detractors missed. The film half of the film with the tourist’s exploitation of local women is directly mirrored in the second half with their own violent exploitation. Shots and music cues are directly reused but under dramatically different circumstances.
While torture-porn has been regarded as nothing more than cheap prurient trash, Eli Roth proved with HOSTEL that it can be used to make real art.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD
2004, Edgar Wright, Britain
The funniest horror comedy ever made! A group of slacker friends decide to wait out the zombie apocalypse at their favorite bar. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg demonstrate a hopeless love and adoration for the horror genre as they go through shout-outs to almost every zombie film you could name. And you don’t have to be a horror-nerd to love the movie. Their wit and creative gags will entertain anyone who watches. While Wright and Pegg have an incredible body of work (the TV series SPACED and films HOT FUZZ and THE WORLD’S END), their tribute to the horror genre is far and away their best work.
THE EVIL DEAD
1981, Sam Raimi, USA
The originator of the “Cabin in the Woods” horror archetype. Five friends go to a cabin, find a cursed book, and accidentally release demons. While the series is remembered as a comedy because of THE EVIL DEAD 2 and ARMY OF DARKNESS. The first film is straight-up hardcore horror.
DEADITE PRESS is named after the villains of this movie. To me THE EVIL DEAD is in many ways the ideal horror film. Graphic violence, colorful monsters, and surreal breakdowns all combine into a genre-redefining experience that still shocks.
That pencil scene still makes me squirm.
POULTRYGEIST: NIGHT OF THE CHICKEN DEAD
2006, Lloyd Kaufman, USA
All hail Troma, the kings of trash! No one does low-budget gore, tasteless nudity, and bad taste better than Troma Studios. Founded by director Lloyd Kaufman, they are the oldest independent film studio in the world and have never backed down from their mission of genre anarchy.
While they are best known for THE TOXIC AVENGER and THE CLASS OF NUKE’M HIGH, Kaufman’s greatest achievement is the zombie/gore/comedy/musical POULTRYGEIST: NIGHT OF THE CHICKEN DEAD. There is no taboo that director Lloyd Kaufman does not approach with gleeful abandon. A corpse finger butt-plug, a talking Hispanic sloppy joe, and dancing-and-singing zombie-chicken-demon hybrids are just some of the insanity in this masterpiece.
TOKYO GORE POLICE
2008, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Japan
This is just totally bat-shit insane! Taking place in the future, the Japanese police force is dedicated to taking out “Engineers,” which are basically genetically-mutated living weapons. There is little disputing that the Japanese make some of the most genre-defying films in the entire world and this is the cream-of-the-crop. This is part horror/sci-fi gore and part anarchist satire. TOKYO GORE POLICE is ROBOCOP for the torture-porn generation.
Stunning special effects, outrageous creature design, and fountains of gore make this a truly unforgettable viewing experience.
A SERBIAN FILM
2010, Srdjan Spasojevic, Serbia
Milos is a retired porn star but financial troubles and the promise of a huge payday have pulled him back to do one last film. The catch is he can’t read the script or know what the scenes are about until they start filming. If you think you already know where the movie is going – you’re wrong. It goes to much darker and nastier places than any other movie has dared.
This and THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 are easily the two most visually graphic movies ever made. Nothing is left to the imagination and everything is shown in explicit detail. But the obscenities that A SERBIAN FILM revels in are unrivaled in all of hardcore horror (only SALO comes close).
It’s difficult to recommend this film due to how far it goes. This one’s only for the real fans of extreme cinema. It makes the SAW series look like Disney flicks.
1983, David Cronenberg, Canada
The concept of losing one’s identity is common in horror but no film does it better than VIDEODROME. Max Renn runs a television station that specializes in cheap sleaze and he’s always looking for the next perversion he can market. When he stumbles across a pirate TV broadcast of what might be a real snuff show, he gets sucked into a dark underworld of sex, torture, and technology.
Cronenberg is known for his intellectual body-horror and nothing shows off his skills better than VIDEODROME. This film almost makes more sense if it were to come out now instead of thirty years ago. It’s commentary on losing one’s identity to social technology is shockingly relevant to today’s age of Facebook and Twitter. It’s not often that one can say a film is truly visionary but Cronenberg did it here.
DEATH TO VIDEODROME! LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH!
1987, Clive Barker, Britain
My all-time favorite horror movie! From the incredible monsters, the puzzle-box, the moody soundtrack, and gothic set-up – this one has it all!! From the iconic opening scene to the many creative tortures and deaths, this movie never lets up.
What really separates HELLRAISER from the rest of the eighties horror boom is its villains are not motivated by unexplained cruelty or revenge but pleasure. The characters are seeking the ultimate pleasures of heaven and hell – they just have to kill a few people to get there. I once read a review that put forward the idea that you could replace every moment of spurting blood with cum and the movie still makes sense.
In my opinion, this is the most beautiful horror film ever made. Every shot oozes with equal parts moody atmosphere and body fluids. Clive Barker’s design work for the Cenobites and Hell are unmatched in how they combine equal parts fetish-sex and terror.
The title HELLRAISER wasn’t decided upon until well into the movie’s production. Fun titles that were tossed around by the crew include SADOMASOCHISTS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE and WHAT A WOMAN WILL DO FOR A GOOD FUCK. I think both capture the movie’s themes quite well.
What do you think of my list? What are your favorite horror flicks? Let me know in the comments.