If you enjoy using Halloween and the overall month of October as an excuse to binge on horror movies (I sure do), including modern-day horror movies, you owe a debt of gratitude to Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and George Romero.
Those three men are the geniuses who changed horror forever, who introduced what I call “true horror,” a sense of inescapable dread and despair, the sense that all is hopeless — and in their movies, sometimes all truly is hopeless.
Granted, I’m a little uncomfortable not adding Alfred Hitchcock to this list. There’s little doubt his masterpiece Psycho (1960) — the 14th greatest movie ever made — still has a tremendous amount of influence on modern-day horror, most especially the idea that no one is safe. Hitchcock famously killed off the movie’s star and protagonist, Janet Leigh, within the first hour. If that wasn’t audacious enough, he then turned the movie over to her murderer, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
John Carpenter is another game-changer. He didn’t invent the slasher movie. Psycho and Bob Clark’s brilliant Black Christmas (1974) accomplished that years before Carpenter’s Halloween arrived in 1978. But it was Carpenter’s stunning direction of Halloween that launched a genre that is not only still with us, but a cultural touchstone.
People like myself look back on slasher films from the late 70s and 80s, not only with affection; we also have a newfound appreciation for just how good those movie were, how effective and fun and memorable.
At the time, slasher movies were written off as cheap, exploitative junk. Granted, many were, but the best of the bunch worked with surprisingly deep themes that keep bringing us back long after we’ve forgotten all about their imitators.
The worst of the bunch at least delivered a good time — gore, T&A (man, I miss T&A), and an infectious desire to entertain.
Another name I’d be remiss in not mentioning here is make-up artist Tom Savini, who I’ll talk more about below…
Which brings me back to the holy trinity of Craven, Hooper, and Romero…
All three of these visionary geniuses are now gone, and all died within a year or so of the other.
Craven died in 2016 at age 76. Hooper died in 2017 at age 74. Romero died in 2017 at age 77.
Like all true artists, they live on through their art, so if you haven’t yet been introduced to them, here’s your chance.
We’ll start with Romero. He was the first of these iconoclasts out the door. He’s also my favorite of the three.
Before George Romero released his 1968, black and white masterpiece Night of the Living Dead there were zombie movies. But not like this. Nothing even close.
A full 52-years ago, Romero wrote the rules of the flesh-eating zombie whose bite turns you into a zombie.
Incredibly, for decades afterwards, no one, outside of Romero fanatics like myself, cared about just how awesome and awesomely terrifying this concept is. And because of that indifference, Romero toiled in this vineyard pretty much on his own trying to get his movies made. That seems absurd today with zombies everywhere, with zombies becoming the mainstream, pop culture phenomenon they are today.
But it’s true, and George Romero not being able to get his movies made is one of film history’s great injustices.
No one can look at horror landscape as it stands, at the zombie phenomenon, and not thank Romero, who not only created it, but also managed to outdo all the competition.
Of all the zombie movies out there, and there are literally hundreds, Romero outdid them all.
Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005) and Diary of the Dead (2007) are, for my money, still the greatest zombie movies ever made. An incredible record, especially when you consider that the only other zombie movie Romero made was his last, Survival of the Dead (2009), which continues to grow on me.
Romero painted only in theme: anti-consumerism (Dawn), anti-authority (Day), the evils of elitism (Land), and the poison of overwhelming media (Diary).
With Night, Romero turned stereotypes on their head and then twisted them in two. His hero is not only a black man (a big deal in 1968) — his hero is wrong, dead wrong, and the obnoxious white businessman is right… Yep, they should have hid in the basement.
In Day, Romero delivers a female hero and protagonist, but… she so emasculates her boyfriend it destroys everything.
Other must-see Romeros: The Crazies (1973) and Creepshow (1982).
I also very much recommend the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake. Romero wrote the script but turned directing duties over to the great Tom Savini.
Savini is a legend, and justifiably so, for his breathtaking practical effects, the genius behind the work in Dawn and Day, as well as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (more on that below).
Of the three, there is no question Craven was the most successful. While Romero spent most of his professional life trying to scrape up money to make his movies, Craven transferred into mainstream horror with elegance and ease. You’ve probably heard of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises… Freddy Krueger is Craven’s creation, he directed the first four Scream movies.
Craven’s true masterworks, however, came early…
Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) are still, even after five decades of visceral horror coming at us from everywhere, including TV, two of the most disturbing and terrifying movies you will ever see. When I describe them as “brutal” I don’t mean the gore and violence, although there is plenty of that… What I’m talking about is a brutality in how the story never lets go, in how you keep telling yourself this can’t happen, and it still does.
There’s no let-up, no escape, no interruption.
More great Craven titles: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), The People Under the Stairs (1991).
I also recommend the 2006 The Hills Have Eyes remake. Of all the remakes of all the movies discussed here, this and Savini’s Night of the Living Dead are my only remake recommendations.
Like Romero and Craven, Hooper is responsible for launching his own franchise, one that began in 1974 with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the single most terrifying and horrifying (yes, there’s a difference) movie I have ever seen.
The Leatherface franchise didn’t really takeoff until 12 years later when Hopper delivered Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which was considered both a commercial and critical failure at the time. It was so hated and disparaged that, until this week, I never bothered to give it a try.
Well, let me tell you, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is one of the most gonzo, hilarious, unsettling horror masterpieces ever created.
It’s also, quite simply, the most inappropriate movie I’ve seen in a long time, so I cannot wait to watch it again.
And again Tom Savini is one of the stars of the show… Watching a Leatherface victim get up and walk around after being skinned… Well, all I can say is holy moly. No CGI trickery here. It’s all in-camera, it’s all Savini, and nothing will ever top it.
If you are looking for an over-the-top horror experience that will have you laughing out loud, covering your eyes, and hoping it never ends, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 simply blew my mind. When I write the words “Dennis Hopper purchases chainsaws,” nothing you picture in your own head can top the actual scene.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 also feels like one of those movies the woketards are going to quietly make disappear, so my Blu-ray copy is on the way.
Other Hooper titles worth your time: Poltergeist (1982), Lifeforce (1985), Invaders from Mars (1986), and what is still one of the best Stephen King adaptations — the 1979 Salem’s Lot miniseries.
Happy Halloween, everyone!