Horror films in 1977 brought us one of the best adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a Dario Argento masterpiece, and a killer armpit vagina. 1978 brings us a horror film Roger Ebert called a “vile bag of garbage,” a more than competent Roger Corman Jaws rip-off, and perhaps the greatest zombie and slasher movies ever made.
As we truck along with our year-by-year breakdown, we present to you the 15 Best Horror Films Of 1978.
15. Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes
Director: John De Bello
Stars: David Miller, George Wilson, Sharon Taylor, J. Stephen Peace
In late-1978, Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes was set loose into the world. Billed as a musical-comedy-horror show, famous for its weirdly catchy theme song, and feted as the Worst Vegetable Movie Ever Made, it’s a film in the vein of (and made at the exact same time as) Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane!, as well as the Mel Brooks and Monty Python comedies that preceded it. Spoofing schlocky B-movies from the 1950s and ’60s, it follows the course of a seemingly unstoppable tomato attack on America and the brave team of government agents pledged to stop it in its tracks.
Against all odds, Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes became a part of pop culture, spawning three sequels (including George Clooney’s
first second feature film!) and an animated spin-off series. Mention the title to people of a certain age, and they’ll either roll their eyes or start giggling uncontrollably. The humor in the film follows the school of “toss it all toward the screen, maybe something will stick” which means that for every good joke, there are plenty of groaners. Of course, that’s the point of the film, it’s meant to be dumb, but, like a blonde cheerleader, it’s cheerfully dumb… which is indeed its appeal; that, and the tomatoes. Oh those tomatoes! The special effects in this film are bad to say the least. You can easily see the wheels underneath some of the larger paper-mache tomatoes as they roll toward their victims. None of this detracts from the film’s quality though as, again, it’s meant to be bad. Just turn your brain off and enjoy the ridiculousness.
14. The Grapes Of Death
Director: Jean Rollin
Stars: Marie-Georges Pascal, Félix Marten, Serge Marquand, Mirella Rancelot
Everybody loves to pretend they know what wine is supposed to taste like. “Woody” and “nutty” are not things you should like to hear when describing a beverage, but who are we to judge? Wine has always been a big thing in Europe, however, and specifically France. They love the stuff; drink it like it’s water. It’d sure be a shame if something infected the wine and made people sick, wouldn’t it? Maybe even turn them into pus-spewing, murderous zombies? Sound far-fetched? Well, this is exactly what happens in Jean Rollin’s 1978 slow-paced gorefest: Les Raisins de la Mort, or to us ‘mericans, The Grapes Of Death.
The Grapes Of Death is definitely the most straightforward of Rollin’s films, in a narrative sense. It follows the standard zombie apocalypse storyline of “hero/heroine is separated from loved ones by zombies, then goes through hell to get back to them,” and never strays too far from that plot. It’s also certainly the goriest Rollin flick you’re likely to see: the body horror of the zombified/Crazies-ed townspeople is gross and effective, as is the emotional turmoil they display while fighting their murderous urges. The aftermath of the zombies’ attacks are also very good – the Grand Guignol is evoked a couple of times, with one corpse showing a popped-out eyeball dangling by its optic nerve, and the fate of a particular blind character both pre- and post-decapitation is a little hard to take, even for a seasoned viewer.
Director: Juan López Moctezuma
Stars: Claudio Brook, David Silva, Tina Romero, Susana Kamini
Convents: they’re all well and good, but a functional convent rarely makes for an entertaining movie. Luckily for us, we have an entire genre based on what happens when good nuns – or their young charges – go bad, and this demented Mexican export, Alucarda (aka Sisters Of Satan), surely ranks amongst the most grisly, camp and compelling takes on the theme. Here, if a scene can be improved by extra nudity, Satanism or explosions – or all three at once – then you can count on seeing it. There are no half measures here, and it’s awesome.
Alucarda is about two teenage girls living in a Catholic convent that also serves as an orphanage. Justine arrives at the convent after her parents die, leaving no one to care for her. Taken in by the nuns (who wear weird, mummy-like wrappings) Justine is placed in a room with Alucarda and the two girls quickly become inseparable. On a walk in the forest one day, they happen on a band of gypsies selling charms and trinkets. After a gypsy tells Alucarda and Justine they have only darkness in their future, the girls run away and stumble upon an enormous old crypt in the middle of the woods. While they are exploring, they open an old coffin and unleash a demonic force that possesses them. Back at the convent, the demonic force is unleashed upon the kind nuns and other inhabitants.
Director: Richard Franklin
Stars: Susan Penhaligon, Robert Helpmann, Rod Mullinar, Robert Thompson
A young man named Patrick kills his mother and her lover by throwing an electric heater in the bathtub with them. Years later, Patrick is now in a coma, unable to move aside from spitting, even though his eyes remain wide open. When a new nurse, Kathy Jacquard, is hired in the hospital Patrick stays at, she soon forms a strange bond with him, much to the shagreen of both Dr. Roget and the cold Matron Cassidy. Rejecting the beliefs of both Roget and Cassidy that Patrick is beyond help, Kathy begins to work with him along with the help of another doctor, Brian Wright. Soon however things begin to go badly, for as it turns out, though Patrick is in a coma, he has developed psychic powers that allows him to manipulate both objects and people, essentially meaning that Patrick can continue to kill.
There are those who may find the slow-burn approach of this movie a little laborious. But on the plus side, the film’s leisurely approach will give you proper time to fully appreciate the wonderfully bizarre moments sprinkled throughout: Kathy’s job interview, during which the hospital’s Matron mentions that such a job attracts certain “types” (“lesbians, nymphomaniacs, enema specialists…”); two scenes in which frogs don’t do so well (one has his brain smushed with a needle and another is eaten by a doctor); and Kathy attempting to prove that Patrick can feel by giving him a little, um, Hando Calrissian wrist action. It’s all just splendid.
11. Blue Sunshine
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Stars: Zalman King, Deborah Winters, Mark Goddard, Robert Walden
In the midst of a party a reveler croons to the rest of the room and has his hair suddenly pulled off by a curious friend. The bald crooner then has a psychotic break and starts killing everyone. Jerry Zipkin, is wrongly accused of the murders, and tries to gather evidence to prove his innocence with the help of Alicia Sweeney. He discovers that ten years prior, a group of college kids had taken a new form of LSD called “Blue Sunshine,” which causes its users to lose their hair and become homicidal maniacs many years after their trip is over. Groovy!
The real fun for viewers of Blue Sunshine is trying to guess at a glance which characters are tainted and potentially dangerous and which remain pure, thick-haired, and sane. The filmmakers rely on a visual motif of full moon shots and bald shop mannequins to goose audience anxiety, while focusing on actors with thick helmet hair or wearing obvious wigs. A certain level of social criticism is also part of the equation, with the director dropping the horror squarely into the lap of a generation divided between devotion to duty (via medicine, law enforcement, and politics) and devotion to self; at times it seems Blue Sunshine was made with the express purpose of giving former hippies the willies.
10. Long Weekend
Director: Colin Eggleston
Stars: John Hargreaves, Briony Behets
A couple looking to repair their broken marriage goes on a weekend vacation to a remote beach for some camping, swimming, littering, random firing of guns and running over a kangaroo on purpose. Haven’t these people heard that it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature?
Yup, Long Weekend’s villain is indeed Mother Nature herself, who toys with her prey as playfully and maniacally as any villain in a slasher movie. In the way elements combine to work against the characters, the film is like a proto Final Destination, but far more diligently configured and with a mounting psychological intensity that eventually hits fever pitch. The tension and tumult build to a psychological conclusion in which menace radiates from virtually everything around the characters. In Long Weekend the villain has an omnipotent ubiquity, present in tiny bugs to beasts in the water and birds in the sky. When one of the terrified characters hopelessly waves a gun around, they have everything – and nothing – to point at. It is a breathless conclusion to a masterpiece in minimalist horror.
9. The Shout
Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Stars: Alan Bates, Susannah York, John Hurt, Tim Curry
An asylum director begins telling a visitor to a cricket game the story of one of his “better” patients, Crossley who is able to compete. Some time previously, Crossley accosted Anthony, a composer, just after church and was for some reason invited to dinner. Once at the composer’s home, he tells the story of his unusual upbringing among Australian Aborigines, and of the awful and strange gifts this has left him with. Among them is the ability to bring about another’s death by using a certain kind of shout. The next morning, he begins to weave an erotic spell on the composer’s wife Rachel, and then proves his killing ability on a sheep in a field. His influence increasingly disrupts their peaceful lives, until in a confrontation, the composer finds a way to best Crossley – but which results in his being placed in a mental institution.
The Shout is a wonderfully strange and beguiling piece of offbeat cinema that combines the sensibility of surrealist Eastern European film with Australian mysticism and English whimsicality to create a uniquely sinister yet often peculiarly funny one-off work, that continues to be well worth investigating.
Director: Richard Attenborough
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter
Corky Withers is a struggling magician with almost no charisma. In his lonely home with his dying mentor, Corky believes that he will never succeed in show business and resigns himself to despair. Fast forward one year, however, and Corky, with the help of a ventriloquist’s dummy named Fats, is a rookie sensation. Shortly thereafter, his agent secures a deal with NBC for a TV pilot. Unfortunately, Corky balks when he is told that he must take, per “network policy,” a medical exam. Corky, who we have already seen is more than a bit unbalanced, flees to a cabin in his hometown. There he meets up with a high school sweetheart, but a visit from her jealous husband and his agent finding his hiding spot only add to his mental deterioration as his dummy sidekick starts to control his mind.
Magic is a psychological horror tale at its core. Fats is never actually “alive” in the sense that his dummy-body isn’t animate; he exists only within Corky’s delusional mind. It’s rather similar to an episode of The Twilight Zone (The Dummy) in a few ways, so if you recall that popular episode then you might have an idea of how this movie was handled. While Fats is never actually alive, you’ll find yourself forgetting this fact at times. Despite being an inanimate doll, Fats truly steals the show in this film. It’s amazing how frightening he can be. He never actually moves on his own (save for one scene where the dummy operator screws up), yet he becomes such an entirely separate character from Corky, that you discover yourself finding Fats scary and Corky not, despite them being the same person.
7. The Toolbox Murders
Director: Dennis Donnelly
Stars: Cameron Mitchell, Pamelyn Ferdin, Wesley Eure, Nicolas Beauvy
A lunatic runs around an apartment complex, apparently home only to attractive women with a tendency towards exhibitionism. While there, the lunatic tries to kill all the tenants with the contents of a toolbox. It doesn’t get anymore straightforward than this.
This $185,000 Texas Chainsaw inspired trash classic, loosely based on a true story, is one of those movies that grows on you over the years. Once upon a time, this was one of those controversial ’70s movies that was causing a huge stir during its release when TV programs and news shows were all aflutter over screen violence and misogyny. The opening 30 minutes is in a class all its own, but quickly deteriorates into a half-and-half police procedural and Hardy Boys Mystery combo with an occasional sprinkle of sleaze. It’s quite well made for what it is, but most may be disappointed that the remaining hour never matches up to the opening reel or two. Still, that opening half delivers on the promise of the films title, which is ultimately responsible for the films everlasting notoriety.
Director: Joe Dante
Stars: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies-Urich, Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele
Two teenagers are out exploring one night, and they come across an abandoned military compound that happens to have an artificial pond. An obvious invitation to skinny dip, the two kids waste no time in jumping right in. It seems pretty harmless until something in the water begins to eat them alive! Since the kids never came back home, Maggie McKeown is sent to find them, and she hires a local backwoods resident, Paul Grogan to guide her. They both come across the military compound, which is crawling with all sorts of mutated creatures, the results of failed experiments. Maggie decides to drain the pond to see if the two kids’ bodies turn up, and she unwittingly unleashes a swarm of killer piranha into the local river and lake system. There’s both a campsite and a resort nearby, so both Maggie and Paul have to warn everyone… if only the military (who wants to cover up the experiments) will let them!
In the wake of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975 came countless man vs. nature flicks with everything from bunny rabbits to frogs having us mere humans running for the hills. Joe Dante’s B-movie classic Piranha is considered one of the best imitators, primarily because of its tongue-in-cheek approach and its deliberately campy writing and casting (the Jaws video game appearance was a nice touch as well). And let’s all take a moment to appreciate the tagline: “Then… you were shocked by the great white shark – Now… you are at the mercy of 1000 jaws!”
5. I Spit On Your Grave
Director: Meir Zarchi
Stars: Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols
I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day Of The Woman) is one of the most controversial cult classic rape and revenge films of all time. The story follows a New York City writer who heads up to a secluded cabin in the woods to write her first novel. While there, she is heartlessly raped by four country boys and left for dead. Surviving the assault, she carefully plots and implements horrific, bloody revenge against her attackers.
I Spit On Your Grave was widely panned and discredited upon its release (Roger Ebert called the movie a “vile bag of garbage”), but the film does have its admirers, and managed to spawn a remake in 2010, and even a few sequels to that remake a few years later. Those willing to defend the film do so on the grounds that I Spit On Your Grave is as merciless and relentless as the brutal act of rape that it is attempting to portray – raw, bloody, and unflinching. Does that make it a good movie? Hard to say. But a list of 1978 horror movies would certainly feel incomplete without it (you can debate its ranking on the list in the comments below).
Director: George A. Romero
Stars: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Tom Savini
Everyone always associates George Romero with his zombie flicks, but if you ask the director, he’ll say the dark character study Martin is his favorite work. Martin is a young man who believes that he’s actually an aged vampire who must drink blood in order to live. Since he has no fangs, Martin must resort to razor blades to draw blood. A regular caller to a local radio talk show, Martin is encouraged by the ratings-conscious host to persist in his vampiric behavior. Despite his random bloodletting, no one takes Martin too seriously except his grandfather, who knows all too well that a vampire curse has befallen the boy.
So, is he a vampire, or isn’t he? This is the question in this forgotten Romero masterwork. What if a “real” vampire has nothing to do with bats, crosses, garlic and chic black capes? What if the whole “sunlight thing” is just fantasy and vampires are merely immortal beings that need blood to survive, with no special powers at all? Then again, what if there is no such thing as a vampire at all and severely imbalanced and murderous behavior is just that, and any fantasies of being an immortal night-stalker have no more basis in reality than an unrequited love for Jodie Foster or Nikes and Kool-Aid in preparation for Hale-Bopp aliens? Interesting stuff…
3. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Director: Philip Kaufman
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright
In this elaborate remake of the 1956 horror classic (which, of course, is based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney), health inspector Matthew Bennell is dispatched to investigate the curious behavior of several San Francisco restaurateurs. He begins to notice that even those closest to him are behaving in a detached fashion. The source of this ennui is an alien attack. He discovers that humans are being replaced by alien duplicates; each is a perfect copy of the person replaced, only devoid of human emotion.
On top of being an engrossing conspiracy thriller, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is also a genuinely creepy film which slyly suggests there is something sinister beneath the surface. Emotionally stirring, visually striking and having not aged a day, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers cries out for individuality in a skewed, nightmarish totalitarian reality. The results are as squirmily potent in [insert current year] as they no doubt were in 1978. Whereas the original film was a Cold War allegory, this film is an allegory of the loss of self in the modern world, and it succeeds on every possible level. If Francis Ford Coppola gave the public Apocalypse Now, director Philip Kaufman, in this film, gave the public Apocalypse Wins, a year earlier. It is a work that is of its time, ahead of its time, and of all time, a rarity, especially in genre films.
2. Dawn Of The Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Stars: Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, Scott Reiniger, David Emge
Perhaps contrary to popular opinion, Dawn Of The Dead is rather superior to George Romero’s predecessor, the also brilliant Night Of The Living Dead. By a small margin, but still superior. Dawn was made 10 years after Romero’s first foray into zombie terrain, and the filmmaker decided to change things up. It drops all the characters and the setting of the original (which if you’ve seen Night is no real surprise) and picks up at a point where the zombie apocalypse is very quickly growing out of control, despite the apparent containment of the epidemic at the end of the first film.
Moving from shock horror to more of an action/horror vibe, along with plenty of dark comedy and satire, Dawn’s famous shopping mall setting gave Romero plenty of ammunition for more of his patented observations on the non-zombie real world. Well, the technically non-zombie real world, anyway. Plus, this time we get full-color head-exploding action! Yeah buddy.
Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, Nancy Kyes
While it’s often wrongly credited as the first ever slasher movie, there’s no denying that Halloween was the first to really nail it and the one that would inspire the endless stream of low-budget slashers that followed it (a stream that would flow right through to the present day). Its simple premise – a babysitter stalked by a faceless, unstoppable killer – made it easy for the viewer to relate and as such made it terrifying to the teenage audiences that came in droves to see it. Simply put, Halloween changed horror cinema forever.
The film, of course, tells the story of Michael Myers, a young boy who suddenly snaps one Halloween. Putting on a clown mask, Michael grabs a kitchen knife and goes upstairs, stabbing his older sister over and over. When his parents get home and find that young Mike has turned his sister into a human colander, he’s sent to a mental asylum for the rest of his life. Fifteen years later he escapes and returns to his hometown to kill again. Simply put, to call Halloween merely brilliant isn’t giving it enough credit. As a horror film and as a historical milestone that single-handedly shaped and altered the future of an entire genre, it’s downright transcendent. Oh, and it has one of the best boob shots ever!
What was your favorite horror film of 1978? Let us know in the comment section below.