Our Power of Special Effects course is fast approaching which made us think about the best SFX horror shots that were done on a low-to-no budget. We’re aware that these aren’t the best effects ever done in the history of horror (think The Fly, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing) but they are some of the best for how little money each production had to spare.
Here’s 5 of our favourite SFX scenes on a budget (apologies beforehand for the strong 80’s gore vibe….but who doesn’t love the 80’s?).
1. Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979): The eye splinter scene
Lucio Fulci’ Zombie Flesh Eaters is best known for its underwater battle between a zombie and a shark. But it also has one of the best “splinter-into-the-eye” death sequences ever filmed. Olga Kerlatos is hiding behind a door to avoid an undead, marauding flesh-eating zombie from attacking. When her bedroom door is broken down, he grabs her by the hair and slowly drags her right eyeball into a splintered shard of wood sticking out. She screams, as the shard penetrates into her skull. There’s something about Gianetto De Rossi’s effects that is timelessly unnerving. The zombies are putrid and rotting and covered in (real) worms and maggots.
With its high gore content, relentless violence, and a beautifully haunting score, Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters is without a doubt one of the best “video nasties”.
2. Slime City (1988): The crawling brain scene
Okay, so Greg Lamberson’s Slime City may not be the best film you’ve ever seen. It may not even be anywhere slightly in the region of “good”. The acting is hammy and the cinematography is shockingly bad. But, in spite of this, it is incredibly entertaining and has some great SFX for a film that was shot for PENNIES.
The make-up effects on student-turned-deformed monster Alex (Robert Sabin) are well-beyond the standard set forth by the rest of the movie. The final scene in which his brain crawls across the kitchen floor while his head continues to talk is a clever little one. To enable the “crawling brain” to work and for Robert’s decapitated head to continue speaking, SFX team Scott Caulter and Tom Lauten built a fake kitchen floor which was elevated two feet above the real floor. A hole was cut through the stage floor and Robert sat beneath it, his head protruding through, while Tom operated the rod puppet of the brain from a similar position.
3. Maniac (1980): Shotgun headshot scene
If Tom Savini (Romero favourite, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead), the king of gore, is not on a list of SFX best/favourite, then it’s a travesty! There are very few who can top the sheer ingenuity of Savini’s gore effects, and certainly none who can deny the influence he’s had on an entire generation of young make-up effects artists.
One of his most memorable, and notorious, gags remains the “headshot” in Maniac. Another banned exploitation film, William Lustig’s underrated slasher had a miniscule budget with many of the scenes shot guerrilla style. Savini, ironically playing the character, gets a 12 gauge shotgun blast to the face, and treats us with a gory, slo-mo aftermath, lit entirely by the headlights of the car. Extremely graphic, extremely realistic, and extremely cheap.
4. Suspiria (1977): Stabbing bleeding heart opening scene
Dario Argento’s most famous film, arguably containing Germano Natali’s best work, proves that a low-budget indie production can still be aesthetically accomplished. Visually, Suspiria is beautiful – with a surreal use of colours and camera angles that accompany the murders. Natali creatively uses SFX to create memorable scenes of violence. The first-act double murder includes a close-up of a knife penetrating a beating human heart while a woman’s face is split in two by plate glass. It is this over-the-top audacity that made him and Argento such great partners in crime, in that it was not only the visual effectiveness of the kills but the boldness with which they were conceived.
5. Braindead or Dead Alive (1992): Undead baby splitting face
Back in 1992, before he was helming multi-million dollar epics like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Peter Jackson made low-budget horror-comedy Braindead (or Dead Alive in the US). To pick one great shot/scene from Jackson’s gore-fest is challenging, because the entirety of the film basically consists of grotesque and visually repulsive moments. Braindead has possibly the goriest climax in cinema history. Legs, arms, and torsos, blood, brains, puss, chainsaws and food processors…the list can go on. But the best scene, SFX wise, has to go to the horrible little undead baby ripping his way through a woman’s head (see 8:06 above).
Peter Jackson’s ultra low-budget horror mode, in which he had limitless freedom, is sorely missed.