Top Ten Favorite Horror Films and Series
11/01/2022 (darn, too late for Halloween!)
Horror is my favorite genre for film, writing and video games. For the site’s first Halloween, I am going to list my ten favorite horror films and series. Please note that this is not necessarily the top ten best horror films- I haven’t seen enough of the classics to make a full conclusion regarding that. Even with what I have seen, some of the objectively best horror films are not my favorites. This list is going to have the sillier, exciting, fun and possibly absurd films that are always a blast to watch. There is definitely going to be a bias toward zombie films in this list as it is my favorite subgenre (and maybe in the near future, I will do a list of just zombie films.) I am not particularly fond of possession type films or anything with ghosts; science fiction elements, humor and gore are appealing to me, but may not be appealing to everybody. Technical prowess is also something that I lean favorable on, as I love seeing how special effects are made to be as realistic and convincing as possible.
For some of these entries I am going to lump in a sequel or series if the quality is comparable and it’s hard to pick my favorite. Each entry will have a short explanation for why I picked it and my personal history with the film(s) if applicable. Now that I have provided some context for my list, here are my top ten favorite horror films:
10. Dead Snow (2009)
This is a fairly obscure Norwegian zombie film that features Nazi zombies. Yes, you heard that right, Nazi Zombies. I saw it listed many years ago on Netflix and thought it looked stupid from the thumbnail image- until I saw a gore compilation that showed a character having his face and head ripped apart by zombies. In typical Sebastian fashion I knew I had to watch it so I did…and was very pleasantly surprised. Just like with Return of the Living Dead, this film combines some comedic elements with genuine horror. It has a fairly straightforward storyline that is almost a complete reworking of Evil Dead, but is interesting and fun enough to be an awesome film on its own. If the words “Nazi zombies” didn’t entice you enough, then you’re sadly missing out.
9. Dead Alive (1992)
I mention in this article that George Romero’s Day of the Dead may be the goriest mainstream movie ever made. If the 1992 film Dead Alive were more popular and had a wider release, I guarantee you it would be the uncontested winner. Known in its home country of New Zealand as Braindead, it is the Southern Hemisphere’s version of The Evil Dead. A zombie outbreak is caused by the bite of a wretched monkey-rat thing; first biting the mother of the main character Lionel but quickly spreading throughout the city. Perhaps the most notorious fact about this film is that it was directed and written by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame. Not to say that Dead Alive isn’t a masterpiece like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it is um…jarring, to say the least. Lionel, very much like Ash in Evil Dead, must grow up and face the monsters- ultimately facing off with his domineering mother. He is armed with a variety of weapons, with the most distinct being a modified lawn mower he attaches to the front of his body as a form of shield/weapon. Blood, guts and detritus spill all over the place- sticky goop and coagulated blood covering every inch of the house. Lots of decapitations, vivisections and other “-ections” occur. I’m pretty sure you see every body part in the human body at least once. It is very gross, very detailed but also very comical and entertaining. You cheer on Lionel as he confronts his mother; ultimately disconnecting from her so he can be his own person. It sucks that it couldn’t have been fixed with therapy- but a shotgun suffices too.
8. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Yes I know…it is a comedy, but I would argue that it has enough horror elements to make it qualify for this list. I mean come on- the special effects, makeup and violence make some legitimate horror films look lame in comparison. I saw it at the recommendation of my uncle way back in 2005 and never looked back- encouraging me to see Hot Fuzz in theaters during its limited US run. While it is marketed as a spoof of films like Dawn of the Dead, this movie really stands on its own and isn’t as derivative as some may think it is. England had been used as the location of zombie movies before (notably the 28 Days/Weeks Later series,) but this is the most prominent zombie film utilizing London as a central location. This creates a claustrophobic experience as Shaun and his friend Ed navigate the city retrieving their family and friends- holing up in “The Winchester” to wait out the zombie apocalypse. The special effects are the highlight of the film- almost as good as Day of the Dead, and even mimicking a famous gore scene from it. It is funny, charming and a thrilling adventure- it surprised me with how great of a job it does with balancing humor with horror.
7. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
This is a prime example of a super fun horror film. Just like the Romero zombie films, it is excessively gory and violent but has a comedic spin. Instead of slow lumbering zombies, they are now fast moving and shout “BRAINS!” before ripping into someone’s skull. The zombies are also intelligent- being able to access memories to manipulate humans, and utilizing radios to ask for more “treats.” This is likely the first example of fast zombies- becoming commonplace in the 2000’s with 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. Invulnerable to almost all weaponry, it adds to the terror and excitement- making you wonder how they can possibly be killed. A key part of the film (and to some, the most famous part) is the stripping scene with Linnea Quigley; being watched by a group of punks going around the town causing trouble. The soundtrack is awesome- mainly punk tracks from bands like The Cramps and T.S.O.L., and the theme “Partytime” being a particularly strong banger. The movie as a whole is a roller coaster ride and not one to neglect watching.
6. Horror of Dracula (1958)
While not the most faithful adaptation of Dracula, this is the one that I find most appealing and entertaining. More influenced by the 1931 Universal film than the book, it follows a similar plot but is filmed in glorious Technicolor. For a 1950’s film, the gore took me completely by surprise and is accentuated with Technicolor- blood appearing in bright red. Christopher Lee’s performance as Dracula is my favorite of the “traditional” Dracula films- while I still think Klaus Kinski’s performance in Nosferatu is the most frightening, Lee exudes a masculine sexiness that modern interpretations strive for but rarely achieve (can we be honest and say that Bela Lugosi is not and never was “sexy”?) His baritone voice and striking features make him convincing in the role- he doesn’t speak much, but when he does he means business. The set design and special effects are top notch- while not as convincing as say Nosferatu, the castle is ornate and draped in expensive fabrics. It is simultaneously warm and inviting, while also holding in the pain and suffering of his victims. Red is utilized throughout the film- to show off the technical marvel of Technicolor and to shock audiences with oozing blood. There were several sequels made over the years with Christopher Lee of varying quality, but none match the original 1958 Horror of Dracula.
5. Nosferatu the Vampyre
Many consider the 1922 version of the film to be their favorite- I call nonsense, as the 1979 Werner Herzog film puts almost all horror films to shame with how insanely creepy and disturbing it is. Starring Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula, it is fairly faithful to the Bram Stoker novel “Dracula” but also borrowing elements from the aforementioned 1922 film. The atmosphere is dense with dread and fear- filmed at a real castle in Europe, enveloped in fog and dampness. Darkness permeates the castle- contrasting with the pale, pasty flesh of Dracula’s mortal body. He speaks very little verbally, but novels with his actions. Kinski moves throughout the castle like a snake- smoothly, rapidly and with almost no noise. He is perverse and grotesque without being absurd- contrasting with the popular view of what Dracula really is (at that point, a stereotype.) This is definitely not a movie for children to watch- while it is not excessively gory, the film will fill your soul with unease and dread. You feel like you are actually in Dracula’s castle- being hunted down like the prey you are, knowing you will spend your final moments being drained of blood against the cold, mossy floor. All the while having to stare at the horrid creature feasting on you- with sharp teeth, disgustingly long fingernails and sunken eyes. This film makes my skin crawl and may be the creepiest film on this list, tied with Hellraiser.
4. The Evil Dead (1981,) Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) & Army of Darkness (1993)
I like all three of the mainstream Evil Dead titles. The first film goes for a more serious horror film angle- doing a wonderful job on a shoestring budget, all the while launching the careers of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. The second film is a loose remake of the first- adding more comedic elements while also retaining the over-the-top gore of the first film. This is where Ashley “Ash” J Williams gains his famous personality; spouting one-liners and kicking ass. He grows from a shrimpy teenager into a hulking, broad shouldered man that looks like he can actually handle a chainsaw arm and boomstick. The final film (as of now) greatly reduces the amount of gore and swearing, taking it down to a PG-13 rating. Luckily it’s larger budget provides a more believable set design, awesome special effects and retains the humor of Evil Dead II- amping it up even further with Three Stooges references and slapstick humor. All three films have their strong points- I’d say II is probably my favorite, but it’s really hard to pick one film as my absolute favorite.
3. Hellraiser (1987)
I didn’t see Hellraiser until I was 22- and oh boy, I felt like I waited far too long to watch it! I’ve long been a fan of shock horror, gore and the macabre and it very much satisfies all of these affinities. By the time I saw it as a young adult I had become very desensitized to violence and gore from consuming some of the most gruesome horror movies and video games. When watching Hellraiser it reignited the spark I felt when I was a kid watching Dawn of the Dead for the first time, or playing Resident Evil back in 1998. It has all the makings of a perfect horror film: a mysterious cube, Cenobites, BDSM undertones, an old “haunted” house and the creepy uncle disguising himself as his brother (making very odd advances toward his own niece.) It is one of the few films that truly disturbed me- I felt weird and profoundly creeped out for days after watching it. I never get nightmares, but elements of it pop up in my dreams even to this day.
2. Dawn of the Dead (1978) & Day of the Dead (1985)
It was a difficult choice picking between Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, and if I had to choose separately I would put them both in my top ten. For the sake of brevity I put them both as one entry, as they are both excellent zombie films and the epitome of classic zombie horror. The extreme violence, gore and shock reel you in; the engaging stories, characters and statements on society keep you watching. In terms of technical prowess I’ll give the award to Day for being Greg Nicotero’s first foray into special effects. He is Tom Savini’s protege (who did the SFX for Dawn) and is easily the most talented special effects artist in modern cinema. The traditional special effects are hyper realistic, grotesque and outright stomach churning. When someone’s guts are being ripped out you feel your own midsection being ripped open- same with heads being ripped off, bites on the neck and blood gushing from arteries. I am not the foremost expert on special effects, but this may be the goriest mainstream film ever made (there are certainly others that are gorier, but not released to a mass audience.) The claustrophobic underground base contrasts with the sunny above ground area that is flooded with zombies- presumably nearly a decade after the initial outbreak in Dawn. Scientists and soldiers bicker over how to deal with the ever growing problem- should they focus on shooting them all, or try to find a long term solution in domesticating them? The gray areas are wide with the story and characters- making you wonder who is the good guy, or if anyone is actually doing the right thing.
“Dawn” excels more in its storytelling- it takes place in multiple locations, from downtown Philadelphia to the far suburbs where they hole up in the Monroeville Mall. The gore isn’t as spectacular- blood looking paint like and the makeup application being subpar compared to Day. What is exciting, however, is seeing the time capsule that is the mall. You can see 70’s era stores such as Penney’s and A&P Supermarkets- along with fictional stores (a gun store, in a mall? For this film, it’s completely made up.) After indulging in the excess of suburban America, the characters grow wearisome and concerned about the growing threat outside the mall’s door’s. I always thought it was an allegory for white America fleeing cities and moving to the suburbs- fearful of poverty, minorities and civil unrest. They stay in the mall because it is safe and familiar; a refuge from the chaos of the outside world. Especially after the tumultuous 1960’s and 70’s, you can see how this influences the film. The safe bubble of the mall is sterile, unfulfilling and boring; after a while, the characters start doing more daring tasks just to excite themselves. There is a lot to think about after watching Dawn, and I highly recommend viewing it (with Day, of course.)
1. Halloween (1979)
There are many pedants out there that argue over the origin of the slasher film. Some say it is Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Stranger in the House. There may even be some obscure film from before those that did it first. It doesn’t matter though, because Halloween is the granddaddy of the genre and isn’t matched by any other slasher. Filmed on a shoestring budget and released in 1978, the film put director John Carpenter on the map as a legitimate Hollywood director and introduced the famous killer Michael Myers. Tame by today’s standards, it is still a tightly made film that scares audiences both new and old. There is hardly any blood or onscreen violence, but it makes up for it with ambiance and great performances by Donald Pleasance and Nick Castle (as Michael.) The famous soundtrack was composed by Carpenter himself- eschewing an expensive orchestra for an economical synthesizer. It’s a spartan film but utilizes creative filmmaking and problem solving skills- notably, Michael’s mask being made from a “Captain Kirk” mask painted white and modified. Not much time is spent on Michael’s background, making his appearance and backstory mysterious. How can he be shot multiple times and not die? Why is he killing the teenagers in the neighborhood? Is there going to be a sequel? It says a lot without saying much- leading to suspense and terror. It is also one of the first horror movies I ever viewed- I remember as a child seeing the VHS cover and being intrigued by it. Just like the film itself, it is simple and practical while also eliciting interest.
It may not be the flashiest or newest horror film, but it remains my favorite and the movie that most profoundly affected my interest in the genre.
The Thing (1983)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Witch (2015)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
House of 1000 Corpses (2000) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
Child’s Play (1988)
The Human Centipede (2010)
And many more that I can’t recall off the top of my head. I’ve seen so many.