Gore films are perhaps part of the most under recognized genre of film today. This paper argues that gore is a legit film genre, separate from the horror genre. It also covers the history of gore movies from Bloodfeast to Evil Dead. One only needs to look to Peter Jackson to see that gore is going legit. (for those of you who don't know Peter Jackson directed some of the goriest and best gore flicks to grace the video store shelves- Bad Taste to Dead Alive. Peter Jackson made the leap to the mainstream with Heavenly Creatures and will wow the world later this year with the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you've got any interest in gore or zombies, you've got to check out Shawn Rider's essay The Silenced Majority: Colonization of the Mind and the Flesh Eating Zombie.


Gore: Gross but Legitimate

For the last thirty-five years there has been an underground movement all over the world. gore movies have been overlooked by academic film critics for too long. It is important to realize that gore movies are not simply the cheesy low budget bombs that the film world classifies them as. They are a distinct subgenre of horror, with their own set of traits and rules. When viewed in the context of other gore movies it becomes apparent that they are not all horror movie flops, some are well written and directed. Ignoring this subgenre is akin to disregarding the western as a poorly produced drama simply because one doesn’t understand the genre. After learning about the gore subgerere it becomes apparent that some of these gore films are well worth watching, acknowledging, and analyzing.

In February of 1920 the genre of horror was born. It was a tale of murder, with a twist of the supernatural. Most importantly it set up the elements of horror. It was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene in Germany. It is generally believed that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari if the first modern horror movie- it even fits the contemporary horror genre format. There are a number of traits a film must exhibit in order to be classified as a horror movie. The most important traits are: the intention to scare the audience, is the building and eventual release of suspense, a dark, oppressive, or dreamlike quality, and the inclusion of a supernatural or highly unusual element. It is the intention of the horror genre to inspire fear combined with the use of suspense that are integral to the viewing enjoyment of a horror movie. These two features evoke a physical response in the viewer: the pulse rate rises, the palms become sweaty, there is a small release of adrenaline. The viewer not only has a mental response but also a physical one. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first horror film to set the trend for horror movies to come. It definitely forfills all of the horror movie traits. It has the intention to scare, there is murderer on the loss, and we latter find out that Dr. Caligari is making him do it. There is also obvious building of suspense, It is in some sense a whodunit, for the first part of the film, there is a murderer on the looses and we as the audience don’t know why or how. It’s sets were built by the German Expressionist painters Warm, Rohrig, and Reimann adding to the mise en scene and overall darkness of the film. The inclusion of supernatural comes through as Dr. Caligari’s ability to hypnotize and enslave for his own evil purposes.

Horror movie evolved along more or less linear lines into the monster movies of the thirties (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, King Kong, etc…) and on to the horror movies today. Even current blockbusters such as Scream exhibit the same traits unique to horror movies. But in 1965 a new type of horror movie was unleashed on America, one that didn’t follow the same rules as the typical horror films. Bloodfeast was that movie and it marks the birth of the gore movie. The gore genre, encompasses many (but not all) "slasher" movies, "b"-horror movies, as well as serial killer films, must be classified as a subgenere of horror because it violates some of the rules of horror and includes rules unique to itself. Most gore movies follow a fairly strict formula. The most important element is: gratuitous use of blood and guts. In addition they are usually filmed independently and generally on a low, and they have a distinct lack of suspense.

It is the lack of suspense in gore movies that comes in direct conflict with the "rules" of horror. Gore movies never withhold the action; they attempt to surprise or shock, but they always reveal all the action to the viewer. Take for example, a horror movie will try to conceal the identity of villain. Where as in a gore movie concealing the villain’s identity would mean not showing him in the murder scenes, which is an important part of a gore movie. It is this very noticeable difference between horror and gore that must be acknowledged. Gore is a category of horror and should not be judged as a horror movie, but as a gore movie. Although gore does not differ so radically from horror to warrant it’s own genre it does differ form the average horror movie quite drastically. It is also important to note that there are movie that walk that fine line between the categories of horror and gore.

As mentioned before, gore movies have their own set of traits, the most important being the gore (blood and guts) aspect. Where horror movies use the elements of fright and suspense to evoke a physical response, gore movies use graphic portrayals of extreme violence to illicit a corporal response that can vary from nausea to the sweaty palmed adrenaline rush. Horror movies tend to imply the disgusting details, gore movies revel in them. The line between scariness and gore can be a fine one. Take, for instance, the famous shower scene in the horror movie Psycho; instead of showing the victim getting stabbed, or at least a close up of her dead body, we see the knife raised, hear a desperate scream, and then view blood running down the drain. Instead of showing the violence Hitchcock merely implies it, and we as the viewer are not left to imagine the gore. There is no doubt, in a gore movie the emphasis is on the gore.

Most gore movies are independently made and more often then not filmed on a low budget. These facts also help to categorize gore movies. In general low budgets cause gore movies to have inexperienced actors, the script (usually written by an amateur in a short amount of time) isn’t as polished as most horror movie scripts, the special effects are low tech but innovative, and they usually exhibit an inexperienced yet fresh directing style. The film quality is also generally poor. With the advent of VHS there was an abundance of amateur gore videos. VHS and super VHS are cheap formats to record in, but the quality is horrible. Other gore movies use super 8 film stock, it much more expensive than VHS (but much cheaper than the 16mm that most studio productions use today), it can range from fair to very poor in quality. In fact the most expensive super 8 film ever made was 1991’s gore flick The Dead Next Door, at $100,000 it is the one of the most expensive gore movies ever made. $100,000 is a very small amount of money when compared to the $100 million price tag for Waterworld, which has only set the precedent for even bigger budget blockbusters.

The first gore movie, Bloodfeast, came out in 1965. It was directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, the so called "Godfather of Gore." Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the first horror movie, set the style and traits for that genre, Bloodfeast sets the trends for all gore movies to follow. Bloodfeast has a high gore factor- buckets of stage blood and sheep parts serving as human flesh. Far from being even a medium budget film with a total budget of $20,000 it definitely fits the low budget criteria for gore movies. There is also a very noticeable lack of suspense: While the police struggle to find this serial killer the audience knows his identity all along. Even after thirty-two years Bloodfeast sets the tone of gore movies today.

Bloodfeast opened in Peoria, Illinois. Lewis was worried that it was going to flop so he opened it in a small town, where if the worst happened it could easily be brushed under the rug. The best happened and it became a huge drive-in success. Teenagers by the thousands went to see it. gore, it turns out, has a huge appeal, and teens dared each other to watch. The special effects are dated; consisting mainly of stage blood, butcher shop meat, and strawberry jam, they are tame by today’s standards. There is still a fairly horrifying scene where the movies occultist madman rips a pretty young girl’s tongue out. Overall there are six horrific deaths and much more carnage. The fact that Lewis shows the gore and violence, rather than implying it as a horror movie would, rocked the film world. Film critics hated it, parents despised, even preachers spoke out against it; but the kids loved it.

Lewis started out as a "nudie" film director, legend has it that he suggested that "boobs and blood" would have twice the appeal. Bloodfeast was filmed in nine days in a hotel. Starring in the film was Tomas Wood (a.k.a. Rooney Kerwin) and Connie Mason (a former Playboy centerfold). In the first scenes it is obvious that Mason is reading her lines off the back of the furniture. Every time the occultist bad guy speaks, it is very slow as if he alone is trying to increase the running time of the movie. The plot is thin and ill formed. The occultist is also the caterer for a posh family’s Egyptian feast. Right before they sit down to eat they discover the madman about to decapitate their daughter in the kitchen, but he eludes capture. Luckily the family learned about the source of the meat for their dinner before they sat down to eat it. The madman gets way in the back of a garbage truck only to die, compacted with the trash. Bloodfeast represents the first and one of the worst gore movies made, along with the rest of Lewis gore films (Color Me Blood Red, Gruesome Twosome, Taste of Blood, 2,000 Maniacs, and The Wizard of Gore) it is made simply for the gore and the shock value, with no regard to taste or storytelling.

Not all gore is as tasteless and cheesy as Bloodfeast or any other Lewis movie for that matter. Gore has come a long way since the slasher pics of the sixties. The seventies were an exciting time for gore. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) became a cult favorite a few years after it’s original release. It is now considered one of the best gore movies ever made and helped to bring gore to a new and larger audience. Many gore films were made in the seventies and to some extent this allowed gore to affect the horror genre by making even main stream horror much more gory. With the advent of VCRs in the late seventies and early eighties it became easier to bring the low budget gore movies to a larger audience. Most theaters didn’t (and still don’t today) like to show X, NC-17, or non-rated movies, which leaves out at least half of gore movies. Theatre owners also want to show the newest and most popular films and gore is never either one. Bringing gore to video opened up a whole new realm.

In 1982 The Evil Dead was released, and remains one of the most popular gore movies to date. It represents a change in gore movies. It has a great (very black) sense of humor, and it is the first (at least first widely distributed) gore comedy. Evil Dead II is the more funny remake of the first. it is a more stoogeish sort of comedy with demons and detached body parts. Sam Raimi directed these two films, as well as the last in the series, Army of Darkness, which can’t really be classified as gore. Raimi has gone on to direct popular movies such as Darkman and the Quick and the Dead. Evil Dead is fairly representivitive of the better gore movies being put out today. It is satirical, it can make fun of itself, has amazing and innovative cinematography, and the make-up and effects are impressive.

The number made every year has been dropping steadily from the beginning of the nineties. This is mainly because big budget horror movies have been getting bloodier, which is pushing gore out of it’s niche. In the sixties, when gore originated, no film studio wanted to show gore. Today shows like Real Video are on prime time TV showing real life violence that is almost more horrific than the violence on an unrated gore film. Americans are almost unshockable, and without the shock what is the point of a gore movie. But they are not dying quite yet, and there has been thirty-two years of gore. It is time that gore is recognized as legitimate form of film. It is not for everyone, but what is? It is time that the film establishment recognizes gore films before they are gone. When they are viewed as simply horror movies, much is lost. It is possible to make a gore movie that is good, but it is imperative that it must be judged on the merits of it’s subgenre and not those of a typical horror film. It is important to realize gore is fun, it is not trying to undo the social fabric, it is trying to entertain.


(C) 1997 Sarah Wichlacz