As America honors its fallen soldiers, The Scariest Things is taking time out to remember some of the warriors lost to the big screen in the world of horror movies. Semper fi, zombie guy!
Happy Memorial Day to all of our American fans! On this day of remembrance, The Scariest Things celebrates the contribution and sacrifice of fictional heroes. The tricky thing with war horror movies is what I call Eric’s Rule #2: The effectiveness of a horror movie is often found in the disparity of power between the protagonist and the villain/monster. In war-themed horror movies, the “good guys” usually have a fighting chance, since they are usually armed to the teeth, so the antagonists are commensurately powerful… or tricky.
Fans of the genre borrow tropes from both genres, and you are almost guaranteed that you will get a few of the following:
- An introduction to “the crew”, often a colorful assembly of tough guys (and sometimes women) with personalities and roles specific enough so you can tell the soldiers apart from their uniforms.
- Firefights! One of the elements of this sub-genre is that there is usually at least one opportunity to show how powerful the soldiers are, and a follow up to show how nasty the opposition is, and how futile the weaponry may be.
- Noble sacrifices! It’s the staple of every war film, and the horror film adds in the monstrous element to… “You go on! I’ll hold them off!” old hoary chestnut.
- The corrupt or incompetent officers (a favorite in war movies) plays out particularly well in horror-themed war films.
- Seeing brave men laid low to cowardice. Once the firefights have ended and the bullets have either run out or proven ineffective, even soldiers can get scared beyond their limits. There’s usually at least one who gives up in a panic in these movies. (And gets summarily lunched by a monster.)
- Gory endings. A separator between a sci-fi action war movie and a horror-themed war movie is the amount of gore and bloodletting that is happening. There is a fine line here, and the #1 film on this list walks that tightrope of distinction.
- Guilt-free killing sprees. The moral ambiguity of humans fighting humans goes away. Empty the clip! Though, some movies do go back and question the ethics of wantonly killing other creatures. (Like Monsters Dark Continent.)
Not included in this list are the more decidedly science-fiction tales: Starship Troopers, Independence Day, War of the Worlds, Edge of Tomorrow, and Battle Los Angeles. I tried to sample from wars from different ages. The closest I could find for the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and I just couldn’t do it. Also, I’m not suggesting that these are necessarily the BEST in the horror genre, but it certainly gives you lots of options for your Memorial Day watching.
And with that… here’s the list!
20. It Conquered the World (1956)
The U.S. Army is here to save the day! From, that… uh… funny looking cone-shaped monster with all those teeth! Look out! It’s gonna trick your mind! This is a stand-in for all the stompy 50’s atomic monsters that featured the army versus an invading force. Roger Corman understood that kids wanted a little scary stuff, and he also had teeny tiny budgets, so voila! It Conquered the World! Or The Mole People! So, you could lump in The Day The Earth Stood Still, THEM!, War of the Worlds, and the films they inspired like Mars Attacks and Independence Day. We are, and Mystery Science 3000 are all the richer for these cheesy offerings from the Atomic age.
19. Monsters Dark Continent
The Conflict: The Gulf War (sort of)
This movie, seemingly shot entirely in the golden hour, follows a platoon of new grunts leaving run-down Detroit, to face the giant Lovecraftian Horrors in the Middle East AND to put down post-Gulf War insurgencies. The first Gareth Evans movie, Monsters, was a quiet marvel of cinema efficiency and elegant storytelling. This movie, however, jettisons that efficiency in order to provide a more prolonged philosophical war film. It manages to channel Black Hawk Down and Kaiju movies, but unlike the Kaiju films, it goes for authenticity. Visually, it’s great. Audibly, it’s a hot mess, until the 3rd act where the film gets lyrical. It also has a jarring film structure, throughout, that moves in fits and starts, with unnecessary stories that occasionally meander into false climaxes. Overly long, and needing more monsters, it is still a worthwhile watch if you are a fan of these military/monster mashups.
18. Deathdream (AKA Dead of Night) (1974)
The Conflict: The Vietnam War
This conflict brought all the anxieties and societal issues of the way America treats its veterans and PTSD. In the opening scene of the movie, Andy Brooks is killed in action, but that doesn’t prevent him from going home. Undead Andy brings complete disruption to his parents home, as he is now distant, violent, and disturbed. It’s a metaphor for many returning vets trying to adjust to real life. A touchy subject handled… with a zombie! It’s a fine story, and one that should be told, but the acting can be grating.
17. Below (2002)
The Conflict: WWII
Below is not a great horror movie, but it serves as one of the few naval themed horror outings you’ll find. The mystery in it is pretty nifty, and you get all the claustrophobic beats necessary for a submarine tale. Bruce Greenwood is excellent as the Commander with a dark secret, and there’s a fun supporting role for Zach Galifinakis. The ghost story seemed to be a bit of an overlay, though and it never quite capitalizes on what it had. (A real submarine to shoot in).
15. The Objective (2008)
The Conflict: American Operations in Afghanistan.
Director Daniel Myrick brings his Blair Witch sensibilities to the Hindu Kush, as a CIA operative Keane (Jonas Ball) leads a secret mission to find reclusive Afghan cleric who has some very mysterious intelligence. Ball channels his best deadpan Apocalypse Now Martin Sheen, as a man in search of the unknowable. The operation is beset with numerous strange and inexplicable events that whittle the troops down. Myrick again uses the power of suggestion over the explicit, which gives some nifty spooks and shocks, but the end result is a bit baffling and unresolved. Rather like our current involvement in the region.
14. Dead Snow (2009)
The Conflict: WWII (sort of)
Not exactly a high concept movie, but boy is this fun. Bloody, gory, gut spewing, head popping fun. Nazis make for great villains. Zombies make for great villains. Combine the two and what do you get? Great-great villains? I dunno, what is the sum total of two greats? Dead Snow is low-brow cinema taken to the next level. This movie is so much better than it has any right to be.
13. World War Z (2013)
The Conflict: Zombie Armageddon
This is a slick movie, wonderfully produced and well-acted, with great nods to the Max Brooks Zombie Survival Guide. But, it could have been so much better as a Walking Dead-style mini-series. The source material of Brooks’ World War Z was barely scratched as the production focused in on Brad Pitt’s
12. The Thing From Another World (1952)
The Conflict: The Cold War
Snappy Mid-Atlantic military dialogue full of quippy one-liners and a room full of dashing leading men and their snappy dames makes this Howard Hawks productions a fun watch. Absent of the great shape-shifting promise of the novella Who Goes There by John W. Campbell, this movie instead goes for the camp conflict between the scientists who want to push the boundary of knowledge, and the soldiers who are smart enough to see the danger of it all. This trope will flip its allegiances from era to era, even in the 50’s. Science is scary! Science is good! The military is smarter than the scientists! The military is corrupt and blind! We’ll see many variations of this in the years to come.
11. Trench 11 (2017)
The Conflict: WWI (2017)
I’ll bet you missed this one when it came out. The Germans are at it again, this time, not Nazis (this is WWI after all), but they are doing some strange bio-experiments deep below the trenches, and as the war closes they have abandoned their secret lab. The Brits sense an opportunity to find out what they left behind and the overzealous Major Jennings (Ted Atherton) has put together a crack crew including Canadian tunneler Lt. Burton (Rossif Sutherland) who find a maze full of crazies and really icky parasites. Good times!
10. 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later (2002/2007)
The Conflict: The Zombie (sort of) Armageddon
The military plays a role in both of these movies, but they are secondary to the primary plot. They are the second-level antagonists. In the first movie the British soldiers bunkered up in a mansion are abusive and rape ready sickos. It’s a superior movie, but you cheer in 28 Days Later when the soldiers get what’s coming. In the sequel, they start out as the protective force, but then are told to train their guns on the civilians. Jeremy Renner and Rose Byrne end up being soldiers who do the right thing in 28 Weeks later but in a movie filled with bad decisions, big and small, each of them make tragically foolish decisions.
9. Day of the Dead (1985)
The Conflict: Another Zombie Armageddon
If the soldiers in the “28” movies were bad news, the soldiers in George Romero’s epic Day of the Dead were complete assholes. But, they were assholes who had a point. Don’t fool around with the zombies! In this case, you have a bunch of violent lunatic soldiers and a bunch of hubristic idiot scientists. The loud and unruly bunch of Rhodes, Steele, Torres, Rickles, and Fisher are a bunch of louts, leaving the one noble soldier in the building… Bub, the zombie.
8. Annihilation (2018)
The Conflict: The Exploration of the Shimmer
This is as high concept as this list is going to get. Most war horror films are filled with familiar beats. Like a wind-up toy you can spool it up and let it go, and you’ll probably know where the story is going. Not so with Annihilation. Not only is this team all-female, but the story goes in a decidedly loopy path. It’s an exploration of discovery, but what is on the other side is a complete mystery, apart that those who come back from the other side of the shimmer veil arrive… changed.
7. The Terror (2018 AMC TV)
The Conflict: The Franklin Expedition
If you listen to our podcast about some of our favorite literature adaptations, you will hear about this film, adapted by the great Dan Simmons, and based upon the fantastically true story (with a polar monster embellishment) of the lost Franklin Expedition, one of the last great earth-bound epic missions of discovery that took place in the 1850’s. The AMC production is exceptionally well crafted looking like the frozen hellscape that killed off the expedition. Ciaran Hinds, Jared Harris, and Tobias Menzies all bring out fantastic performances. The only thing that really holds this show back is the uncanny valley of the Tuunbaq. I believe, both for the book and the show, a big angry polar bear would have sufficed. Or if you ARE going to do a spirit creature, something a little less polar bear-like would have been good, a dragon-bear was what I always envisioned when reading the book.
6. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
The Conflict: Post Vietnam War
100% pure nightmare fuel. Not really a war movie, but it is very much a war PTSD movie, the effects of war upon the human mind. Tim Robbins brings down the house with his portrayal of Jacob, a Vietnam vet struggling with hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and conspiracy theories. It’s a mind-bending exercise that extracts out all those horrible things in the back of your brain and puts them on the big screen. This probably would be more appropriate for a Veterans’ Day movie, but it really does bring up the need for mental health awareness for our vets.
5. Ravenous (1999)
The Conflict: The Mexican American War
This might be the rarest movie combination ever! It’s a war-western-horror movie and does all three things really well. It’s an all-star cast of character actors including Guy Pearce as the cowardly Captain Boyd, Robert Carlyle as the mysterious Colqhoun, Jeffrey Jones, Neal MacDonough, and John Spencer. In a classic western tale, this is a search and rescue tale, with a cannibal twist. The ending is wild, unpredictable, and supremely well-staged, with subtle hints of foreshadowing without putting a spotlight on the future plot. A largely forgotten, but essential watching gem.
4. Dog Soldiers (2002)
The Conflict: British Forces Training Exercises
It’s One Night Ultimate Werewolf! (Shout out if you know the reference.) Hands down the biggest, scariest, best-looking werewolves ever put on the big screen. They are creatures of terrifying menace, and they have to be since they are up against a British ranger squad on a training mission. Many of the great war-horror tropes show up here; the camaraderie of the troops is great, but it really is the werewolves that steal the show.
3. Predator (1987)
The Conflict: Central American Cold War Ops
The most testosterone possible in one movie. The HGH oozes from the screen, as two governors and a true motley crew of easily identifiable cliche soldiers takes on a huge dreadlocked stealthy creature. The crew carries a lot of firepower that looks more appropriate mounted on a helicopter (Old Painless the Chaingun… it has a name!) Explosions, harpoons, night vision, and Ah-nold smearing himself in mud. I’m getting acne just looking at the pictures this has so much macho in it. Others (including three direct sequels/adaptations and two Alien hybrids) try to emulate this, but this is the touchstone for 80’s action
2. Overlord (2018)
Last year’s surprisingly effective D-Day meets Nazi mad scientist in a castle movie was an entertaining romp. It’s counterfactual history, because, yes they didn’t integrate the U.S. forces until after WWII, but they didn’t actually find undead super-zombie Nazi soldiers either… so, even, right? Charismatic turns by newcomer Jovon Adepo, and Wyatt Russell (I love that Kurt and Goldie named their son Wyatt) help elevate this movie from B-movie to supreme adventure time. Just enough gore and scares to satisfy the horror fan, and enough D-Day pyrotechnics to satisfy a war film buff, this was perhaps the best blend of the two genres.
1. Aliens (1986)
The Conflict: The Rescue of LV426
So here it is, the blend of science fiction, horror, and war movie that helped set standards for all three. This movie features all of the criteria I mentioned at the top of the post. Magnificent and furious gunfights that proved futile, the failure of technology, the fabulous cast of gung-ho marines, the coward (Hudson), and the heroic sacrifices (Vasquez and Gorman). Relentless pacing and featuring the apex of practical effects from the master of the craft, James Cameron. It will take a monumental effort to supplant this movie from the top of genre war films.