It’s been a long road but we’ve finally reached the end. After covering 98 other films, we now come to the two that stand head and shoulders above them all. These were the two easiest choices to make. They are films of profound insight and stunning terror. If you’ve never seen them, I urge you to watch both before any of the others. Horror is the most maligned of genres so I’m grateful that when people trash it, I can hold these two movies up to their faces and shut them right up. But enough of my blathering. I’ve dragged this out long enough. Without further ado, here are my choices for the two greatest horror films of all time.
2. Dawn of the Dead
Despite being one of the more prevalent horror villains, there’s nothing particularly interesting about zombies. They don’t have personality, they sort of shuffle around aimlessly, and they’re often not much of a threat. The zombies on The Walking Dead are more of a nuisance than anything else. Zombies work best when they act as a metaphor for humans. They’re not the most subtle metaphor in the world but, when handled well, a great zombie film functions as a criticism of the banality of everyday life. This can work to great comedic effect in films like Shaun of the Dead but it can also work to great disturbing effect like in George Romero’s masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead. Why are zombies drawn to the mall at the center of the film? Because they’re on autopilot and their bodies naturally seek out a place of comfortable familiarity. Isn’t that why most of us go to the mall?
George Romero is officially the MVP of this list. This is the sixth film of his I’ve included and the second one to appear in the top ten. In his best films, the horror elements are used to reflect real world issues. The Crazies is about mass hysteria, Martin is about abuse, Night of the Living Dead makes brutal points about racism and mob mentality, and Day of the Dead highlights the utter incompetence of government. Dawn of the Dead takes on the largest issue, namely how quickly society breaks down in the face of a crisis. Romero hits the ground running in the chaotic opening sequence as a news station scrambles to keep people tuned in despite the world crumbling to pieces. The manager demands that a list of shelters remain on the bottom of the screen despite knowing most of them have already been overrun by the undead. “If we take those listings down, people won’t watch,” he roars as he clings desperately to the idea that his old life still matters. Scientists debate what these creatures are while dumbfounded technicians and cameramen refuse to accept what they’re saying. Romero then jump cuts to a tenement building where the residents are keeping the reanimated corpses of their loved ones safe. A swat teams enters the building to stop the madness and avoid more deaths but it’s a classic case of “we needed to destroy the village in order to save it.” One team member goes completely mad and starts slaughtering everyone he sees. These early scenes eerily reflect on things like police brutality, racial discrimination, and propaganda.
They also provide a reason for our four main characters to want to escape and find a safe haven. After stealing a helicopter, they travel over rural areas where the locals are killing zombies like it’s the most joyous hunting season until they finally arrive at the mall. The montage of zombies stumbling around on escalators, crashing into products, and gazing into stores is funny but also biting due to what an accurate depiction of consumerism it is. The heroes aren’t much different than the zombies. Once they take control of the mall, material things become important to them again. They lose sight of what brought them to this place and succumb to past indulgences. When they’re besieged by the biker gang during the third act, it’s difficult to root for either group. The gang members are invaders but our heroes don’t own the mall; they’ve merely claimed it. The bloody and deadly conflict illustrates that it’s not zombies who are bringing the world to its knees, but the supposedly civilized humans.
Amidst all the social commentary, there are scenes of stunning terror and suspense. Despite the lackadaisical look on the faces of the undead, they are a genuine threat. Romero shows how they can strike when you least expect it and how deadly they are when in a herd. When one character opens an elevator at the absolute wrong moment, we feel as trapped as he does. There’s also some wickedly funny zombie kills, my favorite being the one who loses the top of his head thanks to the helicopter blades above it. The make-up effects by Tom Savini are fairly simple. These are not decaying corpses with their guts hanging out but ghoulish reminders of our own mortality. As for the characters, they’re all engaging. Ken Foree is the standout as the disillusioned cop. He’s the one who utters the classic line, “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth”, the best explanation for a zombie apocalypse you’ll ever hear. His decision to kill himself at the end only to change his mind at the last moment gives the film a needed sense of hope. Romero changed his original, much bleaker ending and let the character live, a decision he has expressed mixed feelings about over the years. I think it was the right call. It doesn’t provide an overly happy ending but it quietly suggests that maybe the human race isn’t doomed after all.
I’ve seen Dawn of the Dead over twenty times and I’m always shocked to find something new to appreciate about it every time I watch it. There’s so much to take in, whether it’s a haunting image I missed, a metaphor that went over my head, a character moment I’d glossed over, or a scene that frightens me in a different way than it used to. You can watch Dawn of the Dead as nothing more than an exciting, scary zombie picture and find it totally satisfying. You can also watch it for all the complex points it makes and discuss them for hours afterwards. The best way to watch it though is with both aspects in mind. It’ll thrill you, frighten you, make you laugh, make you think, and you’ll be able to fully grasp all the wonderful things the horror genre is capable of.
1. Don’t Look Now
The father sits quietly on his couch and looks over some architectural slides while his daughter plays outside. The mother goes about her day while the son rides on his bike. This should be a portrait of divine safety and contentment but it isn’t. Something seems off right away. The boy rides over a piece of glass, the girl throws a ball in the pond, and the father spills a drink, which looks remarkably like blood as it drips across his slides. He senses something is wrong and rushes to the pond but it’s too late. His daughter has drowned. He cradles her lifeless body, clings to her red raincoat, and lets out a howl. This is the opening scene of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I can think of no other horror film that begins with this level of dread present from the very first frame. That overwhelming feeling will persist throughout the entire film and build to a moment of shocking, unbridled terror.
The mourning couple, played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, travel to Venice some time later. Sutherland has accepted a job to restore an ancient church and both seem to think that time away will help them heal. Their grief has consumed them and created a wide gulf between the two partners. Both struggle with it in different ways. Christie longs to speak with her daughter one last time and seeks out assistance from two sisters, one of whom is blind and claims to be a psychic. Sutherland dismisses them entirely and concentrates on problems he can control, believing cold hard reason to be the only thing that will get him through his loss. He denies the visions he sees of the figure in red and ignores the premonitions he’s prone to. It doesn’t take us long to ascertain that he is the character with precognition, not Christie. Despite her willingness to believe, she has no access to visions. He does and his staunch refusal to accept that is what brings about his end.
Visual motifs occur throughout the film. Red is the most predominant color, appearing in Sutherland’s visions constantly. Roeg blends the past, present, and future in a way that makes time fluid. The film’s most controversial moment upon its release was the passionate sex scene between Sutherland and Christie. It’s a graphic sequence that depicts two people embracing each other for what is most likely the first time in ages. This allows them to rise up from their grief, if only for a few moments. The way Roeg juxtaposes the act with images of them dressing afterwards illustrates that their moment of release is fleeting. The loss is still there to consume them, is even present during their love-making. The portrayal of grief in Don’t Look Now is central to the success of the film. It drives the characters forward and influences every decision they make. Sutherland’s visions are as much the product of second sight as they are of a man dealing with trauma, which is part of the reason he refuses to accept them. Roeg’s blending of events makes it hard for him, and us, to determine what is and isn’t real. This greatly heightens the sense of dread and apprehension.
The way Roeg shoots Venice adds to the mood of the film as well. It’s not portrayed as a luscious vacation spot but an old and ominous city made up of nothing but narrow alleys and dark corners. The ancient architecture looms down on Sutherland and closes him in. A killer stalks the streets. There’s no safety in this place, only more dread and menace. When Sutherland finally takes it upon himself to chase down the mysterious figure in the red hood, we are lead through a series of cold places with sharp edges. Everything in this city feels like it’s out to hurt him. Even the water, which acts as another visual motif, is threatening. He associates it with the death of his daughter and the consistent image of him rising up from cold, black water with her in his arms indicates how much he wants to save her. This is what causes him to confront the figure in red.
That split-second when that figure turns around remains the scariest moment I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. It shook me to my core when I first laid eyes upon it and caused me to gasp out loud. Much has been made about just who that figure is but it honestly does not matter. Sutherland has begun to accept his visions but he has deduced the wrong meaning from them. Despite his insistence to his wife that their daughter is dead and that’s that, a part of him needs to believe that the figure in red is her. He can’t accept that his visions were warnings about his own demise. The figure in red simply represents the end of his life and needed to be anybody but his daughter in order to get that idea across.
I’ve been a fan of horror movies as far back as I can remember. I’ve always liked their forbidden nature. My choice to start this list with Wes Craven’s Scream as #100 was a deliberate one meant to bring the list full circle once we reached the end. Scream was a seminal horror film for me and my favorite movie for awhile…until I saw Don’t Look Now. Everything changed after that first viewing. Don’t Look Now showed me that horror can be a lot more than clever jokes, killers, and blood. Horror can be a profoundly moving genre, one that uses supernatural elements to help us process our own lives. After seeing it for the first time, I left my more immature friend Scream behind. I promised it I’d still visit from time to time–and I still do–but I also let it know that if it needed me, I’d be hanging out with films like Don’t Look Now. I’ve never regretted that decision. There was never any question that this was going to be my choice for the greatest horror film ever made. It’s a mature, thoughtful, moving look at the human condition channeled through images of terror and a prevailing sense of dread. In other words, it’s everything I want in a horror movie.
Thanks for reading everybody! Hope I’ve given you more than a few movie suggestions to keep you up at night.