Without horror movies, heavy metal would not exist. The sinister darkness, emotional weight, and ugly honesty of horror film helped shape the minds of those twisted individuals who made heavy metal the cultural institution it is (a fucking mental institution). That the first heavy metal band ever got their name from a Boris Karloff film advertised on a nearby theater marquee only validates the important relationship between cinematic terror and sonic extremity. If it bleeds, it leads.
But while horror as a whole has always inspired metal, there are a handful of films that undeniably shaped heavy metal culture. Whether due to their visual style, their tone, or their all-out gore, these movies forever altered the path down which metal music would innocently wander before being stabbed to death. So in honor of Halloween, we decided to list the 20 horror films that most influenced heavy metal music.
Here are the 20 movies that made metalheads the monsters they are today. Get ready for some age-restricted YouTube embeds!
20. The Thing (1982)
You can say this about John Carpenter: he makes silence and stillness feel loud as Hell. The Thing is a quiet horror movie overall, taking place in an Antarctic military base where an alien doppelganger is taking over one crew member after another. But it’s the creature’s unholy body horror that makes it so metal; having picked up pieces of countless alien races throughout its existence, the Thing is a Lovecraftian flesh buffet, sprouting legs, teeth, and tentacles at a moment’s notice. From Aborted to Septicflesh, that meaty hideousness can be found in the works of metal bands for ages since the film’s release. Man is the heaviest place to hide.
19. The Wolf Man (1941)
Though not particularly gruesome — it was made in the ‘40s, after all — The Wolf Man has two things going for it that make it particularly important to metal. The first is that it introduced mainstream audiences to werewolves, the duplicitous beasts which metal fans will always relate to when it comes to their own repressed rage. The second is that it made the pentagram the official symbol of evil in eyes of the world. For those two reasons, it’s metal as fuck; that Lon Chaney Jr. gives such an excellent performance in it is just a bonus. What a little moonlight can do!
18. The Wicker Man (1973)
Without The Wicker Man, there is no folk horror, and there would probably be a lot less folk and stoner metal. The Christopher Lee film showed the world that not every scary story had to be bathed in shadowy black — a legion of insane religious zealots on a gorgeous daylit island could be just as frightening. Especially in recent years, this concept of glorious, overgrown nature being just as brutal as any murder factory or crypt has taken root in metal in an important way. There’s nothing scarier than the gleam in the eyes of someone who’s willing to kill to protect their beautiful way of life.
17. Zombie (1979)
While George Romero will always be the world’s greatest zombie horror director, Lucio Fulci takes a close second. What Zombie lacked in heavy-handed social commentary, it made up for in repulsive gore and truly disgusting reanimated monsters. How many death metal musicians were irrevocably changed upon seeing this movie — the waxy, corroded dead; the gushing throat wounds; that thing with the door blinds and the woman’s eye — we can’t even imagine. At the end of the day, the tagline for this film could be every metalhead’s promise to the world: we are going to fucking eat you.
16. The VVitch (2015)
It’s amazing to see how quickly The VVitch imprinted itself onto pop culture. The image of the shaggy goat and the invitation to live deliciously went from mind-bending moments in a quiet period film to satanic symbols and catchphrases for any rebellious person wearing only black. With his subdued story of blasphemy and temptation, director Robert Eggers reinvigorated the world’s interest in functional, graceful Satanism, driving more and more people to heavy metal with renewed visions of how the genre could exist and look. Six years later, it’s all going to Hell. In a good way.
15. House of 1,000 Corpses (2003)
If you’re a heavy metal musician who makes a horror movie that helps shape the face of heavy metal, you know you’re doing something right. Rob Zombie’s big-screen debut was a game-changer for both rock music and horror cinema across the board, both of which were informed by its ‘70s ultraviolence and psychedelic creepiness. While metal found itself more drawn to grimy, horrific highway rock than ever, horror returned to the grindhouse, remaking some of the previous centuries’ classics while mining them for new stories. An explosion of style, to the benefit of an entire generation of weirdos.
14. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Of all of the Hammer Dracula movies starring Christopher Lee, Dracula A.D. 1972 was most vital to metal’s development due to its vibe and style. The image of Count Dracula being resurrected in a deconsecrated church during a satanic hippie love-in is the stuff of doom metal dreams. The film’s mixture of classic, velvet-lined horror and early ‘70s burnout rebellion inspired the entire aesthetic and approach of bands like Electric Wizard and Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats. The blood is the life, baby.
13. The Omen (1976)
To this day, The Omen is one fucked-up and jarring movie. While its obvious influence on heavy metal lies in its fetishization of the number 666 and its emphasis on the Antichrist as ushering in the end of days, there’s something deeper than that going on. It’s the violent, crimson-hued evil lurking in a little boy, and the way the entire world senses something terribly wrong with him, that metalheads saw as powerful, and even relatable. When you see an album with a devil child on the cover, you have this movie to thank for it. Hey, guess what’s in the grave?
12. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
There’s a lot going on in Wes Craven’s suburban boogeyman masterpiece that altered heavy metal music’s psyche. The movie’s emphasis on small-town scandal and the real horrors of child molestation informed metal’s understanding of our parents’ little secrets being the true tragedies of life. Freddy Krueger also inspired a new wave of metal bands to come up with their own sadistic, uncommon monsters as mascots. But it’s the emphasis on the power of youth — and the perils that come from ignoring young people — that A Nightmare on Elm Street drove the hardest into metal’s booming youth culture during the ’80s. The rest, as they say, is Dokken.
11. Alien (1979)
Two aspects of Alien went on to color heavy metal in important ways. The obvious one is H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph, whose brutal insectoid life cycle and biomechanical physiology made it a stygian new standard for monsters from outer space. But equally crucial is the depiction of the Nostromo’s crew — blue-collar space truckers smoking and bitching their way across the light fantastic — and the terrifying presence of the Company. So many of heavy metal’s depictions of working-class, everyday people living in an apocalyptic wasteland under brutal capitalistic rule owe their existence to Ridley Scott’s unmatched tale of starbound terror.
10. Nosferatu (1922)
Though Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee will always be the most famous actors to play Count Dracula, it’s Max Schreck as Stoker knock-off Count Orlock that shaped heavy metal the hardest. The vampire of Nosferatu isn’t a cape-swishing noblemen, he’s a giant, hideous parasite who carries plague and death with him. Not only has that huge, morbid symbolism appealed to headbangers over the years, but the very depiction of a character we normally consider dashing and charismatic as a vile creepy-crawler touched on metal fans’ love of seeing traditional icons in their hideous true forms. Not the kind of vampire you’d ever invite in.
9. Halloween (1978)
In the grand scheme of things, Halloween’s influence over metal is also that of Jason, Freddy, and Chucky — the film pretty much single-handedly invented the slasher genre as we know it. But on a more intimate level, John Carpenter’s masterpiece was a big statement on the flimsiness of our happy little lives. The residents of Haddonfield might think that Halloween is just a night for pranks and candy, but when their local boogeyman comes back with a vengeance, they’re totally unprepared for it. This would be one of heavy metal’s core tenets for its entire existence: that everything nice and normal can vanish the instant a real horror rears its ugly head.
8. Godzilla (1954)
While 1933’s King Kong formally introduced the world to giant monsters, it was Godzilla that drove home the unthinkable horror of it all. Unlike its many colorful sequels, the 1954 Godzilla is a stark and terrifying film, showing a mutated dinosaur aimlessly killing thousands of innocents. Both in its depiction of unthinkably large creatures laying waste to society and the looming terror of nuclear fallout, the film imprinted upon the minds of hard rock and metal artists, who feared total destruction during the Cold War and Vietnam. What if the bomb could come to you?
7. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
To this day, there are few horror films as unnervingly graphic as Cannibal Holocaust. The low-budget Italian grindhouse masterpiece ushered in a new era of gore with its unflinching depiction of a fictional tribe in the Amazon that still practices cannibalism. While the film is problematic in a lot of ways — its implied racism, the very real animal slayings that happen throughout — it will forever be a huge influence on extreme metal’s obsession with the obscene. The message of both the film and the music are the same: don’t close your eyes, don’t turn away, fucking look at it.
6. The Evil Dead (1981)
To be gory is human, but to be cartoonishly, repulsively gory is divine. The Evil Dead not only gave hardcore horror fans all the blood, slime, and complete bodily dismemberment they could ever ask for, it also threw an arcane black magic element into the mix, which was an aspect of horror that had yet to be fought with a chainsaw by 1981. That mixture of ultraviolence and ancient evil might feel ponderous if approached too seriously, but the movie’s madcap Tex Avery attitude instead made it an instant classic. Every time a metal album depicts some scythe-handed thrasher cutting off the heads of demonic posers, someone should give Sam Raimi a dollar.
5. Jaws (1975)
An important aspect of metal music is a reverence for, and fear of, nature. Though complex and beautiful, Mother Nature is a terrifying death-goddess, and she has no greater graveyard than the ocean. Jaws reminded moviegoers that there were still monsters out there in the wild, and that they lived in a place so deep and inhospitable to human life that we’ll never fully understand it. If that wasn’t scary enough, it also solidified the razor-toothed image of the bloodthirsty shark in our collective psyche. Thrash bands the world over owe this movie a tribute, while much of the rest of metal should at least send a beer its way for how it highlighted nature’s vicious ways.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
There will never be another movie as chaotic as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Static, stark, and engulfed in sheer panicked madness, the movie showed countless sick individuals just how horrible it felt to know you were going to die in the worst way possible (a very real fear for boys being shipped to ‘Nam). But besides that, and the widespread introduction of backwoods cannibal redneck families to the mainstream, what The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gave metal was that hard but invisible line between polite society and the true underground. The message is one metalheads have courted ever since: play around in places you don’t fully understand and you might be horrified by what you find.
3. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
It’s real simple: the zombie apocalypse. At the end of the day(s), though George Romero introduced that concept with 1968’s haunting Night of the Living Dead, it was with Dawn of the Dead that the end of the world by flesh-eating corpses was truly branded onto the pop-culture subconscious. But it wasn’t just the endless zombie horde that set Dawn apart, it was its setting, with the Monroeville Mall acting as a fortress of pure capitalism for the film’s ragtag crew. This portrayal of mindless consumerism and its eventual downfall at the hands of the downtrodden would heavily inform metal’s nihilistic yet proactive approach. They’re us, that’s all. We’re them and they’re us.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
Before The Exorcist, movies about Satan and possession were usually overstylized and at times bloodless. They often got their heads lost up the asses of old books, too, trying to reference ancient rites and demons from the Keys of Solomon. But William Friedkin’s tale of a young girl possessed by the Devil Himself changed everything in a gush of vomit. When Satan arrives in The Exorcist, it’s in the form of a sickly, lacerated child who calls you a cocksucker, speaks in your dead mother’s voice, and mutilates her crotch with a crucifix. There are too many scenes which heavy metal owes too much to list them all here, but the film’s central conceit will forever be shared by extreme music: there is evil out there in this world, and it’s fucking disgusting.
1. Hellraiser (1987)
The beauty of heavy metal’s relationship with Hellraiser is that it’s symbiotic. On the one hand, Clive Barker’s fetish-horror masterpiece was released during heavy metal’s initial peak in the late ‘80s, and therefore had to be informed by the scene’s fashion and satanic obsession. On the other, Barker’s vision of unholy pain-obsessed demon-monks with a love of sex, agony, and the mortification of the flesh was hugely influential to death and black metal bands later on. Not only did the film’s aesthetics make a huge impact — how many extreme metal frontmen have done the palms-out-in-a-latex-robe pose? — but the Cenobites’ role as demons to some and angels to others has been huge inspirations to metal’s sardonic worldview and understanding of dark, violent concepts as being inherently beautiful. As Slayer once wrote, there is no heaven without a Hell; this movie wondered if maybe they were the same thing.
Words by Chris Krovatin