10 Unsettling Body Horror Films
Scary movie gore has the power to both shock audiences and make them laugh. The ’80s and early ’90s were an especially ripe time for body horror films that did just that. With blood and guts effects often made by hand instead of computers, the best body horror films dish out equal measures of chills, cringes, and chuckles. Supernatural themes can be spine-tingling, and slasher flicks can make you jump out of your seat, but body horror—with its focus on degeneration, mutation, or mutilation of flesh—affects the viewer on a gut level. Whether stomach-churning or side-splitting, the best body horror makes it difficult to look away, as badly as you may want to.
Warning: This article contains multiple spoilers, and the videos contain extremely graphic scenes of gore.
Psychics are usually on the other end of the spectrum from body horror. Of course, all bets are off when mind-reading “scanners” are capable of exploding heads. Director David Cronenberg gives us not only mind readers but a select few born with the ability to connect to another person’s nervous system. This yields horrifying results as mouths froth, veins bulge and erupt, and organs burst.
Cameron Vale is a scanner with powers greater than most others of his kind. He crumbles under the intrusion from the constant stream of strangers’ thoughts and retreats from the weapons and security system corporation, ConSec, which specializes in using the power of scanners. He’s forced back into it by the emergence of rogue scanner, Darryl Revok, who is the man responsible for the iconic exploding head scene.
By the end, it’s revealed that the two are actually brothers. They are the mutated offspring of a scientist who used a new drug as a morning sickness cure for their mother. Like many of Cronenberg’s films, this can be seen as a parallel to a real-life medication called thalidomide that caused horrific birth defects.
Though the exploding head is its most famous scene, the climactic psychic battle between the two brothers is where things get really bodily horrific. Huge veins rise up on Revok’s skull, and Vale compulsively tears away skin from his face. Ultimately, Vale spontaneously combusts as he leaves his body and enters Revok’s mind.
Body horror is best served over-the-top and slathered in gore, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a little imagination. A more recent entry into the genre, Teeth, gave literal bite to the fabled condition of vagina dentata. That folktale was primarily used to discourage promiscuity and protect against rape, and this movie has the same effect.
Virginal young Dawn just so happens to live near a nuclear power plant that has left her with a horrifying mutation. She doesn’t find out until a rapist gets what was coming to him when she inadvertently clamps down on him with her extra set of chompers. Confused by her newfound anomaly of anatomy, Dawn enlists the help of a perverted gynecologist, and four severed fingers later, it’s pretty clear what kind of mutation she’s got going on.
While many body horror flicks simply focus on the physical display of the mortification of flesh, Teeth forces your imagination to do the dirty work. The film is especially notable for sending up so many horror tropes and, for once, empowering a female protagonist. But with fanged genitalia in the mix, you really can’t get through this movie without cringing.
Sci-fi mixed with horror often results in plenty of goo, and Slither gets gross by paying homage to B-movies in both genres. When alien slug parasites invade Earth, they hugely deform their hosts in this campy horror-comedy. The actor who was subjected to the stink palm in Mallrats plays first victim, Grant. His mind is hijacked and his body is monstrously disfigured when he stumbles upon a meteorite that contains an alien slug. His wife, Starla, begins to suspect that something may be amiss when grotesque sores disfigure him, which the slug-controlled Grant claims are the result of a bee sting. That story falls apart when he converts the basement into a slaughterhouse and starts offing neighborhood pets.
From there, he infects a lonely woman named Brenda, who begins eating livestock as she incubates a growing bellyful of the squirming bugs. The local authorities stumble across the scene to find her swollen up as big as a barn and hungrier than ever. When she explodes, baby slugs invade the whole town. Those infected join a hive mind with Grant and physically begin merging together. A select few, including Grant’s wife, have to stick together to avoid getting literally stuck together.
Sometimes, regeneration can be just as horrific as decay. Sadomasochist Frank unlocks a puzzle box that drags him to an underworld where pain is pleasure. Luckily, it only takes some spilled blood to bring him back, but Frank needs help to gradually regenerate. His former lover, Julia, helps him obtain the blood he needs. Meanwhile, the creepy creatures called Cenobites who control the underworld want Frank back. When Frank is fully regenerated—in the form of Julia’s cuckold husband, no less—the Cenobites exact horrific revenge as they tear him apart with hooks.
Horror writer Clive Barker’s feature-length directorial debut may take itself too seriously at times, but it doesn’t scrimp on the body horror. The horrific scene of Frank’s goop-covered skeleton reforming and rising up from the floorboards is only beaten by the iconic end scene involving chains and hooks. The famous line “Jesus wept” may not make much sense here, but it’s certainly creepy.
When mad scientist Herbert West manages to reanimate a roommate’s dead cat, he ultimately sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to him fighting off disembodied intestines intent upon strangling him. The source of those evil intestines is Dr. Hill, who stands in West’s way from the start. When West moves on from testing his serum on cats to corpses, a suspicious dean gets himself killed and reanimated in the process. West kills Hill, decapitating him with a shovel, but before long, the reanimated doctor is carrying around his own head in his hands and lobotomizing a growing legion of reanimated zombies so they will do his bidding.
Re-Animator incorporates plenty of campy humor into all the gross-out scenes, especially as Dr. Hill’s head gets amorous. There’s no real social commentary here. This mad scientist zombie film is simply meant to make blood and guts wildly entertaining.
5Naked Lunch (1991)
They said William S. Burroughs’s novel was un-filmable, so naturally, David Cronenberg was tapped to make it happen. The drug-fueled mayhem in this wild film serves up plenty of effective surrealist body horror. Much like the book, it’s difficult to make heads or tails of anything that happens, but the movie revolves around an exterminator/writer also named William whose insecticide is also a powerful hallucinogen. Due to his exposure to the substance, he begins to see a giant bug who instructs him to kill his wife for reasons that are never made fully clear.
William accidentally kills his wife while playing a William Tell drinking game, an event that actually happened to Burroughs in real life. Paranoia runs rampant after that. His own typewriter turns into a giant insect, he’s convinced giant centipede guts are also drugs, and he connects with a doppelganger of his dead wife. That’s not even mentioning the grotesque mugwump creatures and their various oozings. The sex scene where the typewriter monster joins in with the lovemaking like a horny prehistoric crustacean is a nice touch.
4Dead Alive (1992)
New Zealand’s Braindead, more commonly known as Dead Alive in North America, is the most intentionally funny gore-fest on this list. It’s a surprising credit of director Peter Jackson, who is most famous for sprawling fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings.
Dead Alive revolves around the unfortunate Norman Bates–like character of Lionel Cosgrave. When Lionel’s domineering mother, Vera, is bitten at the zoo by a hilarious-looking creature called a “Sumatran Rat-Monkey,” she’s transformed into a grotesque zombie. Lionel is then stuck hiding her secret even as she infects others, whom he also must detain and care for in their basement.
Things spiral out of control as Lionel ultimately attempts to poison the zombies with what turns out to be animal stimulant. One hilariously gory bloodbath and a battle against a living pile of intestines later, things continue to get even stranger. Shockingly, Lionel’s girlfriend sticks with him through the entire quite literal mess.
3Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
There’s not much sense but plenty of mayhem in this twisted body horror film. Billed as something akin to a mash-up of the Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, Tetsuo: The Iron Man gets pretty warped. A man known only as the “Metal Fetishist” opens the movie by opening a gash in his leg and shoving a steel rod inside of it. A few maggots later, he’s running out into the street where he’s hit by a car. The driver, who covers up the accident, soon notices metal in his own flesh, and it’s growing!
As his body is gradually taken over by metal, the Iron Man eventually even impales his girlfriend on his manhood, which has morphed into an enormous power drill. Before all is said and done, the Metal Fetishist and Iron Man do battle but only end up merged together into a perfect storm of a metal monster. With two becoming horrifically one, the bizarrely melded pair blast through the streets in the closing sequence, vowing to reduce to entire world to rust.
2The Thing (1982)
You would think that the vast, frigid wasteland of Antarctica wouldn’t be a natural setting for body horror, but if so, you would also probably be the first one to fall victim to this film’s alien shape-shifter. In this John Carpenter classic, Kurt Russell and several other researchers stationed at an icy outpost uncover the remnants of horror unleashed. An extraterrestrial capable of taking the form of whomever it consumes, the eponymous Thing presents some of the most over-the-top gore you’ll ever experience.
Beyond the utterly gruesome body horror, what makes the film so terrifying is the tension caused by the justifiable paranoia of not knowing who may actually be the creature in disguise. In the defibrillator scene, a chest cavity opens and gobbles up a man’s arms. The Thing is only getting started, though, as the “patient’s” head rips itself from the body, grows legs, and scuttles around the floor.
1The Fly (1986)
The Fly is body horror master David Cronenberg’s most commercially successful, and most horrific, film. Brilliant oddball scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) has developed teleportation “pods” that he can’t quite get to work on living organisms. Our first indication that things are about to take a sharp turn for the disgusting is when a teleported orangutan is turned inside out during the process.
Later on, Brundle brings Veronica, a journalist he meets at a dinner party, to his home and impresses her with his invention while offering her the exclusive scoop. He succeeds in transporting her into his bed, and after their first romp, he manages to reprogram his pods and apparently fix the problem. One night, while drunk and angry, Brundle makes the unwise decision to teleport himself. It goes all wrong when a housefly enters the chamber with him, their DNA gets mixed up together, and the scientist slowly and horrifically begins a degenerative transformation into a Brundlefly.
At first, everything’s great for him, as he experiences increased strength and stamina, even shattering a man’s arm in a barroom arm-wrestling match. But eventually, his fingernails begin falling off, and he’s growing strange bristles from his skin. Before long, he’s vomiting acid onto his food before consuming it and clinging to the walls and ceiling. Poor Veronica witnesses his increasingly disturbing degeneration and receives the horrific news that she’s pregnant by him, which leads to one of the more disturbing maggot-birthing dream sequences you’re likely to see. The final horrifying sequence, in which the Brundlefly tries to merge Veronica and her fetus with himself, needs to be seen to be believed. Just don’t watch the above clip while having lunch, unless you, too, need to vomit on your food before you eat.
Josh Goller is a pacifist with a black belt and a sushi-gobbling flexitarian. When not covering music and literature for Spectrum Culture, he edits the offbeat flash-fiction ‘zine The Molotov Cocktail. He hangs his hat in Portland, where he enjoys driving through fog and hipster-watching.