Some horror is about creeping dread. The fear of what lurks in shadows. A teasing glimpse of monsters never on screen long enough to fully comprehend. And then there’s Splatterpunk, a genre that straps you in Clockwork Orange style and insists you take a good, long look.
Sometimes criticized as being gore for gore’s sake, the Splatterpunk genre is known for extreme violence and an emphasis on dramatic kills. But there’s a method to the madness, and the bloody content of these films serves a purpose beyond shocking or nauseating the audience. According to Brian Keene, as quoted in Fangoria, “If it's transgressive, addressing social or political ills, not pulling punches, and pushing the boundaries, then it's Splatterpunk.”
Splatterpunk is transgressive not only politically, but bodily, challenging what Canadian censors called “the dignity of the human body.” A cousin to body horror, Splatterpunk isn’t just about the horrors on the screen but the visceral, embodied experience of watching the film. If you’re ready for an experience of your own, dive into these six films for an entertaining sample of peak 80s Splatterpunk.
Putting the punk in Splatterpunk, The Return Of The Living Dead (1985) follows a group of mohawked, vibrant-haired, safety-pin-clad punks as they battle a zombie outbreak. An unofficial sequel to George A. Romaro’s Night Of The Living Dead, The Return Of The Living Dead is a collaboration between Night’s screenwriter John A. Russo and Dan O’Bannon, in his directorial debut.
Now a widely accepted genre trope, it was The Return Of The Living Dead that introduced the concept of zombies craving human brains. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the characters capture a zombie and secure her to a mortuary table in hopes of getting some answers. When asked, “Why do you eat people?” the zombie responds, “not people, brains,” because eating brains help ease “the pain of being dead.” Although not lingered on in the film, the notion that being dead hurts is the stuff of nightmares–perfect for a genre that explores the horrors of death.
Near Dark (1987) is a gory mashup of the vampire and western genres directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Near Dark stars many familiar faces, including Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, and Bill Paxton.
Unlike Count Orlock’s (Max Schreck) bloodless disappearance when confronted with the sun in Nosferatu (1922), Near Dark shows the audience–in excruciating detail–what sunlight does to a vampire. This brings the vampire’s embodied experience to the forefront of the film. While Near Dark’s vampires are still monstrously resilient, they aren’t indestructible. In fact, they can meet an end as bad–or worse–as the ones they dish out to their victims.
In the same way, Alien (1979) is an incredibly moist film, Near Dark is incredibly dirty. From the dust of the landscape to the ash of burnt flesh, the characters are always in desperate need of a shower and clean laundry. A sharp contrast with later vampire franchises’ well-coiffed leads, the vampires of Near Dark are not free of the mundanity of having a body. The vampires of Near Dark are spared no indignity, and they don’t have inherited wealth or long-lived investments to ease their way. Rather than hand-waving plot devices to justify a mansion, this crew lives out of vans and run-down motel rooms, offering one of the most “real” vampire portrayals on film, second to Romaro’s Martin (1976).
The film opens in a Berlin subway dripping with peak 80s fashion as a mysterious masked man hands out tickets to a movie premiere. Though it would be fair to say Demons puts style over substance, the style is mesmerizing. And the film’s soundtrack enhances its 80s time capsule feel with music from Billy Idol, Rick Springfield, and Mötley Crüe, among others.
In a meta twist, Demons features a film within a film in which the characters make a classic mistake: they read the Latin aloud. Soon, the horrors depicted on screen come alive in the movie theater–with set pieces that fulfill the promise of Chekhov's gun. The motorcycle and Katana shown early in the film get their spectacular payoff, as do additional elements no one can see coming.
Given the name, it's fair to expect this film's monsters to be demons. But they seem to reproduce by zombie logic–with a bite leading to infection–and have transformations akin to werewolves. Like the zombies of Return of the Living Dead and the vampires of Near Dark, being a demon looks like no fun at all. With cringeworthy close-ups of long claws breaking through fingernails, the audience sees every messy and painful detail of losing one's humanity–another reminder of the tenuous fragility of life.
Although a nightmarish sense of glee infuses much of the violence in Splatterpunk film, it usually doesn’t tip over into comedy–at least not intentionally. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 (1987) is a stunning exception.
Whether Evil Dead 2 is a remake or sequel of The Evil Dead is a matter of some controversy among horror fans. Perhaps it’s a “requel” in Scream’s (2022) parlance. Regardless of terminology, Evil Dead 2 follows the same basic outline as the first film. A group of vacationers heads to a cabin in the woods, and almost immediately, it’s clear something isn’t right. As if a mild haunting weren’t bad enough, once they find and play a recording of The Book Of The Dead, the situation quickly escalates.
Evil Dead 2 departs from the first installment by leaning into the film’s comedic elements, at times going full slapstick, such as when the main character, Ash (Bruce Campbell), battles against his own possessed hand.
Evil Dead 2’s awareness of its comedic elements permits the audience to laugh, and that laughter relieves some of the tension built by its gorier elements. This faux-lightheartednesses paired with Campbell’s incomparable performance also gives the audience permission to root for Ash, which means rooting for the bloody dispatch of his foes, the Deadites.
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) is perhaps the best example of Splatterpunk’s bodily transgression. A core theme of Hellraiser is exploring the range of sensations a body can experience, focusing on the (sometimes thin) line between pain and pleasure. As Frank Cotton (OIiver Smith) says, “I thought I'd gone to the limits. I hadn't. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits... pain and pleasure, indivisible.”
Hellraiser’s Cenobites appear as if from a BDSM-themed hell dimension whenever their puzzle box is solved. They even tout their own twisted version of consent, as the lead Cenobite, Pinhead, says, “The box, you opened it, we came.”
In true Splatterpunk fashion, the film isn’t coy about how the Cenobites inflict their gifts of sensation. The sound of chains and hooks tearing a body apart will make even the toughest horror enthusiast cringe.
Wes Craven's A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) is known for its creative kills–making it a splatterpunk classic. Because the movie’s villain, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), does his killing in dreams, he’s not limited by the physics of the real world. When Glen (Johnny Depp) is pulled through his mattress, the blood fountain he leaves in his wake far exceeds the paltry 1.5 gallons of blood found in a human body–and that’s a mild example.
The surreal dream logic of Nightmare also allows it to dabble in body horror territory. The scene where a telephone receiver morphs into a tongue and licks Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) would fit seamlessly into many Cronenberg films.
As with other films in this list, it’s not just the victims that endure horrors. Freddy himself is gravely disfigured, hinting at a villain origin story revealed by the film’s end. Like the Cenobites of Hellraiser, Freddy is transformed by the suffering he’s endured, and now gleefully inflicts suffering on others.
Many films in the horror genre grapple with the vulnerability of the human body and the fragility of human life. Splatterpunk does it with gore and style. And while these films may require a stronger stomach than some other horror classics, the payoff is worthwhile.