History results from timing and convergence. The late 1970s saw the rise of the horror-auteur director just as Star Wars was causing a paradigm shift in the movie business. The fuse had already been lit on the upcoming home-video revolution. Italian filmmakers would soon find a new, global audience, and independent movies were coming back into prominence.
Combine those elements, and you get a 10-year span, 1978-87, unmatched in horror history both in terms of total output and in an incomparable run of major classics. From Halloween to Hellraiser, from Jason to Freddy, the conventions of modern horror were defined in—and continue to radiate from—this era.
That doesn’t mean 1978 represents a break in continuity from the past. Hollywood was still knocking out movies inspired by the then-recent success of The Exorcist, The Omen, and Carrie, such as Patrick and The Manitou. Even the director of Carrie, Brian De Palma, copied himself with The Fury, another movie about telekinetic teens.
But it wasn’t Hollywood self-imitating that would launch the new wave of horror. The two films at the top of today’s list played a slightly bigger part.
My 10 Ten Horror Films of 1978
- Dawn of the Dead
Is there another horror film more effective at making you feel so present as the events unfold? From the entropic opening sequence, to the SWAT attack on the apartment building, to the siege at the shopping mall, George A. Romero’s masterpiece sinks its rotten teeth in and drags you into the action. This movie catapulted Tom Savini into the realm of make-up FX stars, and with good reason.
Dawn is arguably the best zombie film ever made. For whatever record anyone is keeping, I prefer co-producer Dario Argento’s European edit, but both it and the U.S. versions are equally brilliant.
Choosing between Dawn of the Dead and this film to top today’s list was like choosing a favorite child. Halloween would have come in first place in nearly every other entry in this blog series.
With his third feature, John Carpenter put horror in a place it had rarely ventured: the suburbs. If the genre had scared you out of the ocean, the woods, the desert, the city, and the mountains, at least you felt safe in your suburban neighborhood. That is, until the night he came home.
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Invasion of the Body Snatchers may just be the best remake in horror history, aside from The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly perhaps. It’s also likely the scariest PG-rated film you’ll ever see. Every scene is that much more unnerving than the one before, until the movie reaches its devastatingly bleak climax (which, of course, has been ruined by internet memes. Damn you, internet).
A masterpiece of paranoia that can be read many ways.
- Grapes of Death
As this blog series leaned heavily on Italian, Spanish, American, and British films to round out its top-10 lists, our French pal Jean Rollin was hovering on the periphery. In 1978, while taking a break from vampire flicks (and softcore porn), Rollin delivered this most excellent and underappreciated zombie film.
Borrowing a few ideas from Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue but putting his own spin on them, Rollin tells the story of a woman (Marie-Georges Pascal) trapped in a nearly abandoned village by a horde of undead flesh eaters, who were rendered so by pesticide-contaminated wine. If you enjoy the vibe of European horror of the 1970s and haven’t seen this one yet, put it on your watchlist right away.
Roger Corman gets it.
While other producers and studios try to mimic hit films by making inferior versions of the same thing (e.g., Orca imitating Jaws), Corman made films that looked superficially like knock-offs but in actuality embraced their uniqueness. Starcrash, for example, may have been a Star Wars cash-in, but it maintains a quirky look and feel all its own. You could say the same about Piranha relative to its inspiration, Jaws.
Directed by Joe Dante, who went on to make The Howling and Gremlins, Piranha is a silly good time as shallow as the water the nasty little bastards swim in, and it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than The Deep.
A histrionic Mexican nunsploitation flick featuring a rather spirited performance by Tina Romero in the title role. Trashy, gory, erotic, and overwrought … all the qualities you want in a film about Satan-possessed nuns.
If the word “creepy” hadn’t existed in 1978, they would have invented it for this movie. Starring Anthony Hopkins and a ventriloquist’s dummy, the story concerns a … ah, I don’t really need to keep going, do I? That was enough to certify creepiness right there.
- Damien: Omen II
This sequel to the 1976 hit is so polished and tautly suspenseful that you kinda don’t notice it’s little more than a rehash of the previous film and does absolutely nothing to move the story forward. There’s no arc, as we end up in exactly the same place we were at the end of part one. You get a higher body count this time, though.
- Blue Sunshine
Underappreciated director Jeff Lieberman’s offbeat thriller about recreational drugs turning people into murderers serves as a sort-of bridge between Romero’s The Crazies and Cronenberg’s Scanners, both of which explore the unexpected side effects of chemicals on the human mind and behavior.
The film is missing (in my opinion) some of the visceral qualities of those classics, which leaves it somewhat unsatisfying. Still, Lieberman’s attempt at literate, provocative horror on a low budget deserves recognition.
- Toolbox Murders
When you say something is “half” this and “half” that, you usually mean the two haves are blended together. Half-vanilla and half-chocolate swirl, for example. With Toolbox Murders, we get half a splatter movie and half a psychodrama spliced together. Meaning, the first half is about gory murders, and the second half is about getting into the killer’s head.
The mix of gloomy character study and graphic violence prefigures the approach taken with Maniac, Don’t Go in the House, Christmas Evil, and Nightmare a few years later.
I Spit on Your Grave
Some will wonder how this film didn’t crack my top 10. While I Spit on Your Grave is hardly the first rape/revenge film to shock audiences, it‘s surely the most notorious. Camille Keaton brings a lot of screen presence and acting skill, making the gang-rape sequence all the more grueling to watch.
However, beyond Keaton’s performance, I don’t think it’s especially well done. The pacing is flat, and the revenge portion is unsatisfying. I venture to say that if this film had gone out under the original title of ‘Day of the Woman’ sans the lurid ad campaign, it would not garner as much attention.
Also known as Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, this is a movie so absurd but played so straight that I can’t determine if it’s crap or brilliant satire. If it’s satire, what are they satirizing? If it’s crap, why is it so cool to see a vampire dog rising from his coffin?