Practical effects are a divisive topic among film buffs, largely because people like to pit them against CGI and watch the pedantic bloodbath that follows. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to talk about some really cool moments in movies where practical effects lubricated my suspension of disbelief like a gallon of extra-virgin olive oil. They’re listed in the order in which I remembered them.
WARNING: this article is full of blood, guts, and spoilers
The walking head from The Thing (1982)
I tried to make a pun about The Walking Dead, but then I remembered that no one watches that show. The part in The Thing where a severed head gets up and walks around is underrated. It happens right after a really cool scene that involves Kurt Russel and a flamethrower, so I forgive people for not noticing. Most critics and essayists like to highlight the bigger and more dramatic moments from this movie, which is fine, but let’s take a second to think about the craftsmanship required to make a prosthetic human head that looks realistic. Now, it doesn’t just look realistic, it also sprouts spindly little legs and walks away, all independently, in one shot, and it doesn’t break down or fall over. Someone had to build a discreet mechanical system to make that shot possible. Rob Bottin and his team built a functioning, walking machine that made almost no noise, and they made it fit into a package the size of a human head. They also did this in 1982. It’s really impressive.
The Shark vs. Zombie fight from Zombie (1979)
Lucio Fulci’s Zombie is a real trip. It’s a genuinely disturbing zombie flick that was originally called “Zombi 2” in Italy, deceptively marketed as a sequel to “Zombi”, which was the Italian name for George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. They had no affiliation with the people who made that movie, and they’d get their pants sued off if the same thing happened today. Zombie is worth checking out for that alone. The actual plot is about a group of people who go to an island to find a missing scientist and explain a mystery regarding his boat and the death of a police officer. Leading up to the shark fight, we think we’re just watching the obligatory boob scene that you get in so many grindhouse films from that era, but then we get something far more interesting. There’s a part where a zombie fights a shark. It comes out of nowhere and it’s exactly what it sounds like. If that’s not enough for you, they actually had a stunt man dressed up as a zombie go underwater with no air tank or protective gear and wrestle a goddamn shark. It’s also a real shark, which is basically just a mouth full of knives that can swim around. It’s a stupid sequence, but so much effort and risk went into making it that I can’t help but show my appreciation.
The eyeball stabbing in Zombie (1979)
The most memorable moment in this movie that doesn’t involve a shark is easily the part where the doctor’s wife gets her head impaled by a shard of wood that gets pushed through her eyeball with agonizing slowness. This shocked American audiences and exemplifies exploitation cinema so well that people still talk about it today. Horror movies used to gain renown by word of mouth about scenes like that, like the severed head in The Reanimator or the facial mutilation in Poltergeist. Where the shark part was bizarre and goofy despite the tremendous effort and risk involved, the eye-stabbing is so believable that it’s made me numb to anything like it. Whenever I see eyeball mutilation in a movie, which used to be my Achilles’s–this pun won’t work. I no longer feel anything but cold recollection when I see a character get blinded, or goo shooting out of an eye socket, or that god-awful thing with the scissors in Hostel. My soul is dead, and it was murdered by a weird and legally dubious Italian film.
Any transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London (1981)
There are a lot of reasons why this movie is considered a classic, but the most impressive scenes are the werewolf transformations. They show how effective a scene can be when good storytelling is combined with convincing effects. The point of the transformation is that we’re watching a sympathetic character being tortured: he’s in horrible pain as he gets reluctantly turned into a monster, and the actor sells it. They easily could’ve cut away at the start, and then cut to a fully-formed werewolf, but instead they elected to torture us by force-feeding us every agonizing second. To do that without getting eye-rolls required some of the best practical effects ever to reach the silver screen. The makeup and stop-motion alone were incredible here, but they’re really memorable because they were done in the service of a well-told story, and that’s the lesson we should take away from it. Special effects don’t exist to impress people on their own. They exist to elevate stories by making them more believable.
The severed arm in The Howling (1981)
Outside of being a competent thriller with an entertaining depiction of werewolves in a modern setting, The Howling has really good practical effects, done by Rob Bottin before he worked on The Thing. However, this movie gets overshadowed nowadays because The Thing is a lot more famous and An American Werewolf in London has similar subject matter and even better effects. That’s a shame, because this is a good film. There’s a scene in The Howling where a woman is attacked by a werewolf (that’s not really a spoiler is it?) and she cuts the monster’s arm off with a hatchet. It’s a well-built scene, but what really stands out is the part where the severed arm transforms back into a human arm on screen. The prosthetic is inflatable, so they made it pulse, grow, and shrink in a disturbingly organic rhythm. It highlights what practical effects can do for a movie, because it pulls us in by convincing us that the monsters are tangible objects that the characters can interact with, just as real as props and furniture. The Howling is a competent thriller that’s greatly elevated by clever craftsmanship.
The resurrection scene in Hellraiser (1987)
This Clive Barker classic has left a footprint on the face of pop culture fit for a trailer shot in a monster movie. If you haven’t seen it, then you’ve at least seen the pale guy in the black outfit with all the nails coming out of his head who doesn’t actually have much screen time. He sure looks cool though. Easily the most impressive sequence is the part where the guy rises out of the floor in the attic, as his body is returned to our world from another by an accidental blood sacrifice. I have no idea how they did it, but it looks incredible. It’s disgusting, but my eyes were glued to the screen as a half-formed human body materialized out of a gooey pool of blood and tried to drag itself across the floor. Everything from the prosthetics to the sound design is amazing here. Barker doubled down on his disturbing content and did everything in his power to make it look as realistic as possible. He didn’t care if it grossed people out, because that was the point. Hellraiser is memorable because it’s a horror movie that’s genuinely horrifying.
The handgun in Videodrome (1983)
I’m not really a fan of this movie. David Cronenberg movies tend to be overrated, and the only parts that I have an easy time remembering are the premise and the practical effects. The effects look great, but they usually come off as gratuitous. The parts with James Woods’s very personal storage place were well-produced, but the showstopper of Videodrome is the shot of the handgun burying itself in the protagonist’s hand and wrist. He pulls out his 9mm automatic and watches in horror as tubes with spikes on their ends slowly emerge from the gun’s grip and burrow through his flesh, wrapping themselves around the bones inside his forearm. It’s the most disgusting image up to that point, and it also affects the plot: he can no longer drop his gun, and now he’s forced to carry out his mission. The event is a great example of body horror, where human flesh is easily destroyed by an antagonistic force, and there’s also a degree of psychological horror rooted in the fact that he’s being forced to do something that he’s reluctant to do. The story is paced too slowly and there’s almost a total lack of emotion in this film, but it might be worth watching just to see the craftsmanship and originality in the handgun scene. I still haven’t seen anything like it.
The power loader fight in Aliens (1986)
Simply put, Aliens is one of the most badass movies ever made, the product of a great cast and crew at the top of their game with a large amount of resources and tools at their disposal, and a straightforward premise that oozed with conflict. There’s a long list of other reasons why it’s so good, but Cultured Vultures isn’t paying me by the word. The fight between Ripley, using a power loader, and the Alien Queen at the end of the movie is a monument to high-quality production and it’s made legendary by its context within the story. There’s setup when the audience learns about Ripley’s job on the space station, and then we get payoff when she makes herself useful on board the warship by using the marines’ power loader to move munitions and help them prepare for their mission. She earns some respect from her colleagues, which is gratifying after she gets emotionally pooped on at the beginning. James Cameron, who wrote and directed Aliens, could have stopped there and it would’ve been fine, because that two-step setup and payoff is a trope that every moviegoer is familiar with, but he didn’t stop there. He brought back the power loader again for the ultimate thematic battle between two mothers as Ripley fights to redeem herself for missing out on her own daughter’s life. It’s the perfect use of special effects because every piece is present and executed properly: character motivations, conflict, emotional appeal, and surprise. The special effects themselves are complementary, and they help the scene by selling it to us and making it look suitably spectacular, after we’re already invested in what’s happening. We didn’t need the power loader, but it made the fight badass. Movie moments like this are special.
CHOKE ON IIIIIT! Day of the Dead (1985)
A lot of people don’t like Day of the Dead and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I could understand disliking the remake from 2008 that abandoned the most important parts of the premise, and I could understand not enjoying the meanest and cruelest zombie flick that George A. Romero ever made, but I really enjoyed it. It’s about a bunch of scientists, technicians, and soldiers holed up in a bunker during the zombie apocalypse desperately trying to find a cure for zombification with bad equipment and limited resources. They’ve been there for years and everyone’s on edge with each other. Worse, it’s implied that all the real soldiers are zombies now, and the unhinged bullies that run the bunker are the film’s real antagonists. By the way, hundreds of zombies are locked underground with them. I love this movie because it has amazingly-done and grotesque gore effects that match the tone of all the human interactions. It’s a mean and cruel film full of awful and tired people, and the practical gore effects don’t give you a respite of entertainment. They’re just gross and they mirror the human destruction that’s on display everywhere else in the film. There are a lot of great examples of gushy scenes that’ll make you wince, but my personal favorite is the ending where Cpt. Rhodes, played by Joseph Pilato in a really entertaining fashion, gets cornered by a horde of zombies. Basically, they tear him apart and rip away the lower half of his body in a disgustingly-convincing display of practical effects while he screams “Choke on it!” It’s an appropriate end because his character is a huge asshole throughout the story. There’s another noteworthy scene in the first act that involves a zombie tied down to a gurney, but I’ll let you get surprised with that one.
The head explosion in Scanners (1983)
Head explosions never fail to get people excited, and they’re great to put at the beginning of a movie. It worked in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and later in Scanners, cementing the graphic destruction of a human brain as one of the few movie tricks with a 100% success rate. If you disagree, you’re wrong and head explosions are amazing, and it doesn’t matter what type of movie we’re talking about. It could’ve happened in Tulip Fever and people would’ve liked that movie a lot more. They wouldn’t know why, but they’d like it. Anyhow, I already gave my opinion on David Cronenberg, and it still holds true here, but more people have seen the head explosion from the beginning of Scanners than have seen the actual movie. That might be because it’s a boring movie, but the head explosion is really great. Famously, the special effects guy simply hid under a desk and used a 12-guage shotgun to blast the prosthetic head, and the effect was completely insane at the time. It’s still extremely graphic and there’s something that makes it fun to watch again and again. It’s been used in memes and jokes ever since, to the point that it’s made people laugh without them even knowing about the movie it came from. It’s one of the most memorable uses of practical effects of all time because it’s more thoroughly remembered than the story it was used to tell in the first place. Literally one shot, no pun intended, has proliferated through pop culture like herpes. Also like herpes, it’ll never go away and I’ll never stop talking about it.