What makes many quality filmmakers opt for practical effects and prosthetic makeup, even though it's arduous and risky compared to handy CGI #technology? Realism. Movies try to convey a story, and no matter how large of a fantasy world they build, it only has an impact when it feels real, because the human mind only connects to something it can relate to, visually or emotionally.
The genre that is most effective when it feels realistic is #horror. The horrors we see on-screen is something most of us don't encounter in real life (hopefully). Despite this, conveying something gory and truly horrific on-screen still has the ability to disturb audiences on a real emotional level. This is why most horror films in the '70s and '80s opted for practical effects — to make horror real enough to actually be scary. Many legends like Tom Savini, Rick Baker and the late Stan Winston, for example, not only utilized these techniques but MASTERED them and set a standard for practical effects that still holds up today.
So, to celebrate the world of practical effects I've created a list of 10 most iconic usages of this technique in horror movies, judged on the basis of their realistic qualities and their impact on pop culture and later generations. For the sake of distinguishing them from splatter, I haven't added slasher movies because of their over-the-top effects.
10. Decapitation Scene ('30 Days Of Night')
Long before he annoyed us with that deep Australian accent for his take on Deathstroke, Manu Bennett appeared in this gory vampire flick. 30 Days of Night, like its #comicbook source material, takes place in an Alaskan town that enters a 30-day-long polar night every year. This year, however, it's overtaken by vampires.
Bennett's character gets his arm torn and bit by a vampire, and his partners are left with no choice but to kill him. The protagonist (Josh Hartnett) axes his head, but to make it feel extremely gruesome and realistic, he requires multiple strikes to totally decapitate the screaming Bennett. With a heavy tint and the use of dark-colored props, though the matter isn't very clearly visible, the entrails-filled blood looks horrible.
9. Face Melt ('Poltergeist')
Though #Poltergeist revolves around a family and is pretty jolly in the beginning, don't even think of watching it with your family — it develops into a full-fledged nightmare, Under the guidance of Spielberg, this scene would certainly put you off and make you have second thoughts next time you order your favorite medium rare steak.
Marty, one of the parapsychologists, has a vision in which the flesh on his face starts melting and completely peels off to reveal his eye sockets and jaw. To achieve this effect, a bust was built and Spielberg was made to sit underneath it, using his hands to claw off the skin, nailing it in just one take.
8. Captain Rhodes's Disembowelment ('Day Of The Dead')
For most of you who are unaware, he is the brash bike gang leader in Dawn of the Dead. Savini has been one of the leading men in the development of gore and sickening practical effects on the big screen. Though he has a lot of credits, I'll be selecting this one for its popularity. The Living Dead series have been the go-to set of movies for the zombie sub-genre and, though they didn't fare well towards the end, no one can deny the huge cult following they have garnered.
After betraying his own partners, Captain Rhodes gets torn apart by a horde of zombies in one of the goriest scenes from the series. They say "When revenge is not in your enemy's plans. You tend to f*ck yourself on your own," and that's what his cockiness gets him.
7. Head Bulging Scene ('The Beast Within')
This is the only movie on the list that I would advise you not to check out because it doesn't offer much beyond this particular transformation scene. The outer makeup isn't appealing, but the slow process is simply a work of genius, with two different body parts in focus. The bulging warts and the tearing lump of flesh at the spine must have sparked tension among audiences back in the '80s and the cyst-like head expansion is still a big NOPE.
6. Head Explosion ('Scanners')
You must have seen this scene in countless gifs and memes, and Scanners unfortunately is quite notorious for this, with people overlooking the concept and sound design behind it. The movie gives no indication of this instance whatsoever, and though many people feel nothing towards practical effects nowadays, this is a huge WTF moment.
The bust was apparently filled with wax, corn syrup, latex scraps and leftover burgers, with gelatin used to make the frame. The head was intended to be blown by explosives, but after constant failure it was done using a shotgun, which lends a raw outburst to the brain matter.
5. Face-Splitting Baby ('Braindead')
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Braindead a.k.a Dead Alive is a slapstick body horror film directed by Peter Jackson. (Yes, the same guy who directed LOTR). Braindead is one of the messiest films I've watched. It's not bad; it's dirty and filled with semi-solids and liquids colored in every shade of red in such excess that it becomes difficult to process the stuff.
The hilarious lawnmower scene is followed by this shocker in which a girl gets her face split in half by a zombie baby born inside her skull. Though the tear may feel very solid (more like a crack), the effects used are brilliant and the cackling baby gives you the chills.
4. Transformation Scene ('An American Werewolf In London')
The scene that forced the Academy to introduce a new category for makeup (The Elephant Man debacle played a role too). An American Werewolf in London is a horror comedy, and obviously involves a werewolf. Now, despite having comical elements, it did not compromise on the horror elements. The attention to scary details is evident in the fantastic transformation, which was accomplished using prosthetic and robotic body parts.
The film uses clever camera angles to focus on parts to draw attention from the prop, but then focuses on the facial transformation — an astounding scene, as there's excessive movement and expressions of suffering on the actor's face. Makeup expert Rick Baker won an Academy Award for his work on this film.
3. Defibrillator Scene ('The Thing')
You can't have a horror list without #JohnCarpenter. From the the Kennel-Thing to the huge monster at the end, the movie only made use of practical effects that were lambasted for being visually repulsive and excessive. The scene is pretty long and is actually frightening to watch because of three things in particular: 1) the unexpected stomach tear and the medic's hands getting chopped off, 2) the body stretching and monstrous transformation and 3) the decapitated head morphing into a different creature. All of this conveys the Thing's unstoppable nature.
2. Chestburster Scene ('Alien')
After almost four decades since its release, this scene still remains one of the most memorable one from the #Alien franchise. The crazy part about the scene is that other cast members were unaware of how the scene would play out. They had seen the puppet but weren't told about the blood spraying all over the place, making many of their reactions genuine, adding to the realism of the scene.
This became so famous it was parodied in Spaceballs, with late actor Sir John Hurt reprising the role of the victim.
1. Transformation Scene ('The Fly')
Talking about practical effects, nothing lurks near Cronenberg's The Fly. Move forward to 2050, spend 100 million on computer designed effect and it still won't hold a candle to Chris Walas's work (he later created the Gremlins). The Fly is a body horror masterpiece and is a monumental film, both aesthetically and technically.
This whole scene was divided into eight different stages over three months, meaning eight whole bodies were created for it, with each having distinctive features and parts. The final form was intended to be asymmetrical and unorganized, highlighting the physical disfiguration, which is a metaphor for aging.