The hot desert is a land of extremes: extreme heat and extreme dryness; sudden flash floods and cold nights. Because deserts are such a harsh environment, they often have names likes “Death Valley,” “the Empty Quarter,” and “the place from where there is no return.” Naturally, setting a horror film within this environment makes perfect sense.
With that, we’ve decided to count down ten great modern horror films that take place (for the most part) in the desert. So, make sure you’re fully hydrated and let’s get started.
10. Highway To Hell (1991)
Director: Ate de Jong
Stars: Chad Lowe, Kristy Swanson, Patrick Bergin, Adam Storke
Rachel and Charlie are young lovers who take a desert back road on their way to Vegas, where they plan to marry before the night is out. On the way they stop for gas, where the old attendant begs them to turn back, but when they refuse, he warns them not to fall asleep between two Joshua trees further up the road. Of course, they fall asleep and a demonic police officer appears, kidnaps Rachel and takes her to Hell. Charlie returns to the gas station immediately where the attendant informs him he only has 24 hours to enter Hell and get her back or else they’ll be trapped there for eternity. Armed with a special car and a gun, he travels the highway into Hell and proceeds to get his woman back, while running into various hurdles on the way.
Highway To Hell is a fun hour-and-a-half ride of strange characters, silly gags, car chases, and interesting locations. The flick kicks into gear pretty quick and keeps at that pace until the credits roll. You can pretty much see what the filmmakers were striving for here, which was an all out, original, and weird comedy/horror film with tons of action. They succeeded.
9. The Car (1977)
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Stars: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, R.G. Armstrong
Opening with a quote from top banana at the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey (who has a technical advisor credit here), and a score comprising of a theme lifted from one of the more diabolical sections of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, The Car unequivocally lays its cards on the table regarding the origins of the film’s mechanical menace. It seems that Beelzebub likes nothing better than spending his days away from the office tearing up the dusty highways of Utah in a black Lincoln Continental looking for pedestrians to run down.
Surprisingly, nearly forty years after its release, The Car still holds up well. Admittedly, it does suffer from a bit of clunky dialogue, and hits the brakes too often (pun intended) for scenes of cops planning roadblocks and patrols, but it is still very much enjoyable. It boasts some great cinematography, lots of cool stunts, and a Shining-esque score that helps build a little tension when Satan’s Lincoln materializes out of the desert.
8. The Dead (2010)
Directors: Howard J. Ford, Jonathan Ford
Stars: Rob Freeman, Prince David Oseia, David Dontoh, Ben Crowe
The Dead is a refreshing tribute to the early Romero zombie films, building suspense and atmosphere rather than implementing other well-worn tropes that we’ve grown so accustomed to. Set in an unnamed war-torn region of West Africa, the film begins with the zombie apocalypse already in full swing. The first zombie we meet is a definite throwback to the slow moving Romero breed. These are not infected people or fast moving CGI-ed creatures. They are good old-fashioned vacant-eyed, lumbering undead craving human flesh.
Even in the scenes without zombies, their presence is constantly felt. You’ll notice them in the background of shots, lingering off to the distance, hobbling slowly toward the camera. This sort of unnatural determination is part of what made slow paced zombies so creepy to begin with and The Dead understands this. A simple, straightforward zombie film, The Dead is exactly what purists of the genre should be looking out for.
7. Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Stars: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Oded Fehr, Iain Glen, Ashanti
Picking up where 2004’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse left off, Extinction once again follows near-mute heroine Alice as she battles undead monsters and ominous corporate scientists who make their evilness plain by speaking in phony, Star Wars-style British-esque accents. Alice eventually hooks up with a diverse group of scrappy survivors, who are hiding out in sand-covered Las Vegas before heading to a safe haven in Alaska.
Equal parts Mad Max and Day Of The Dead, this third entry in the Resident Evil franchise is no less derivative than its predecessors but moves along at a brisk clip. It’s terrific B-level zombie havoc – surprisingly agile, annoyed, and joyously straight-to-the-point violent (and it also features zombie crows that plays like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds on acid).
6. Southbound (2015)
Directors: Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, Radio Silence
Stars: Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Fabianne Therese, Hannah Marks, Nathalie Love, Kate Beahan, Susan Burke, Tyler Tuione, Gerald Downey, Dana Gould
Five interlocking tales of terror follow the fates of a group of weary travellers who confront their worst nightmares – and darkest secrets – over one long night on a desolate stretch of desert highway.
While all of the entries in this horror anthology are solid, the real reason Southbound is worth watching is the centerpiece story, Accident. The story of a motorist who runs down a woman and then tries to save her. It’s a darkly humorous piece of work and a solid morality tale to boot. The acting is superb, as the overwhelmed motorist must incriminate himself for his own carelessness in order to save the woman he hit. His desperate attempt to save her while speaking to some demonic EMT’s will have you alternately gasping and laughing in equal measure.
5. Rubber (2010)
Director: Quentin Dupieux
Stars: Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida, Wings Hauser, Jack Plotnick
Not to be confused with an effervescent sex education film, Rubber is not for the uptight analytical type who needs to know the precise motivations of a sentient tire (credited here as Robert) who develops telekinetic powers and then uses these powers to go on a murderous rampage.
At the beginning of the film, a group of spectators have assembled in the desert. They are addressed by a man in a state trooper uniform named Lt. Chad. He delivers a monologue on the topic of things happening in movies for “no reason.” Why is E.T. brown? No reason. In JFK, why is the president assassinated by a complete stranger? No reason. He then informs the gathering (as well as the audience) that, in the film they’re about to watch, everything happens for exactly no reason whatsoever. Why does the tire come to life? No reason. How does it have telekinetic powers? No reason. Just sit back and enjoy the preposterousness.
4. Carriers (2009)
Directors: David Pastor, Àlex Pastor
Stars: Chris Pine, Piper Perabo, Lou Taylor Pucci, Emily VanCamp
Carriers follows four 20-somethings as they trek across a desolate land, the human race all but wiped out by a virus that transforms men, women and children into walking, talking death sentences. You don’t want to contract this virus, that’s for damn sure. And Brian, Danny, Bobby and Kate are not only aware of this, they take the strongest measures possible to avoid being infected. They keep to themselves, they abide by a certain set of rules. But, you know how these movies go: some random stranger has to show up and spit in the cereal. In this case it happens to be a man (experiencing car trouble) and his daughter. While the man seems completely healthy, his youngster is infected, making her an imminent threat.
Carriers doesn’t feature many horror elements and is quite slow and restrained in its depiction of a post-apocalypse world. It is terribly sad – showing the difficult decisions we have to make in such a world and also the human tragedy that will occur amongst the living. As per usual in the apocalyptic world, it is not survivors joining together to help each other, there is hostility, violence and every man for himself. Perhaps it’s better to die from the virus rather than survive in an empty, lonely, barren world.
3. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Director: Wes Craven
Stars: Susan Lanier, Michael Berryman, Dee Wallace, John Steadman
The upper crust Carter family is traveling on vacation towing a travel trailer from Ohio to Los Angeles. On the way, the family insists on seeing a silver mine in the Nevada desert as part of their trip. An hysterical old man at a petrol station tells them not to go there, but of course our intrepid family ignore him and end up with a broken car in the middle of nowhere. They end up in the hands of mutant, redneck cannibals who survive in the barren area by preying on unsuspecting families like the Carters. After a night of extreme violence at the hands of the cannibal family, the remainder of the Carter family decide to take revenge on the rednecks which leads to even greater bloodshed.
While the film itself is great, one of its biggest problems is that, out in the desert, it stretches credibility quite a bit to say that a family of six would be able to get enough food from travelers to exist all these years. Further, it’s especially unlikely that their predations, on the level required for mere sustenance, would not be noticed in rural California. Other films, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, dealt with this issue by having the cannibalism be an occasional treat rather than their main source of nutrition. But whatever…
2. The Hitcher (1986)
Director: Robert Harmon
Stars: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey DeMunn
With The Hitcher, we are presented with one of the most disturbing antagonists in movie history. Apparently polite and affable when young driver Jim Halsey finds him hitching a lift by a quiet road one night, John Ryder gradually reveals himself to be a complete and utter maniac. And try though Jim might, he just can’t get away from this knife-wielding killer, who murders numerous innocent people, blows up a petrol station, and leaves a severed finger in Jim’s chips. And that’s just the beginning of the madness.
How great is The Hitcher? Well, Roger Ebert gave it zero stars and called it “diseased and corrupt,” that’s how great it is. It’s definitely one for the books. A thriller with brains, an action flick with soul, a horror film with purpose, sporting a captivating baddie to boot. Engagingly vague, razor directed, well acted and heavy on the suspense, it’s one of those rare genre films that simply works on every level.
1. Tremors (1990)
Director: Ron Underwood
Stars: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Reba McEntire
Unfortunately for the quaint desert town of Perfection, Nevada their name is a total misnomer in this cult classic horror, thanks to the presence of the prehistoric underground worms – later named “Graboids” – who pay a visit to terrorize the fifteen residents of the town. The irony of the entire film is the fact that these creatures live underground and travel by burrowing around this town, which used to be reliant on mining. Devoid of eyes, the creatures hunt and travel by way of sound, picking up on vibrations underground in order to track down their prey.
Tremors is actually two movies in one. On its own terms, it’s an enjoyable modern sci-fi horror-thriller, with good pacing and a sense of humor; but it’s also a loving tribute to such 1950s low-budget desert-based sci-fi films like Them, It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula, and The Monolith Monsters. All in all, this is what a movie of its ilk is supposed to be like, and it’s terrific.