We’ve reached the year of 1978, the year I turned six years old, and once again, I have a whole smorgasbord of horror goodies to choose from, necessitating another long list of honorable mentions. So before we get into the entrées, I offer a few hors d’oeuvres in the form of the very decent sequel Damien: Omen II (directed by Don Taylor); the underseen haunted mansion film The Evil (directed by Gus Trikonis); the spooky witchcraft saga The Legacy (directed by Richard Marquand); Joe Dante’s fun, killer-nature flick Piranha; and the bizarre, underrated British psychological horror The Shout (directed by Jerzy Skolimowski). Now that we’ve sampled the delights 1978 has to offer, let’s move on to those delectable main courses (to stretch the food metaphor to its breaking point).
Dawn of the Dead
I feel as though this is one of a couple of “well, duh” entries that are going to appear on this list (and you can probably guess what the other one is going to be), but dammit, this is just a great goddamn movie. It’s the second in George Romero’s long-running Dead series of zombie films, and is also my second favorite out of the whole batch (I’m gonna have to give top honors to the 1968 OG, Night of the Living Dead), and to this day it remains one of the most entertaining zombie films ever put to celluloid, featuring some fantastic gore (by the master, Tom Savini, in his debut as lead special effects guy), fun characters, and a wide streak of dark humor.
Partly financed by Dario Argento (who actually flew George Romero to Rome so they could work on the screenplay together; Dario later cut his own version of the film with a different score for the Italian market), Dawn was famously shot at the Monroeville Mall during the nighttime hours; Romero had got the idea to do the film in the first place after a friend who managed the mall showed him all the hidden areas, and Romero jokingly commented that someone could easily survive a dire emergency just by barricading themselves in the mall. The movie also served as a sly parody of consumer culture, with the zombies shuffling mindlessly through the shopping mall like blissed-out, living shoppers dead set on purchasing their happiness.
The movie takes place sometime after the events of Night of the Living Dead, and we’re led to understand that even though the zombie outbreak seemed to have been contained back in 1968, it has subsequently slipped its bonds and become unmanageable, and civilization is beginning to break down in the face of the onslaught.
In the midst of this chaos, we’re following Philadelphia traffic reporter Stephen and his TV producer girlfriend Fran, who also happens to be pregnant. Once martial law is declared, they decide they’re gonna nope out, steal the TV station’s helicopter, and try to make their own way in this terrifying new reality.
Meanwhile, across town, a SWAT team is exchanging gunfire with the residents of a low-income housing project, who are refusing to turn their dead relatives over to authorities. It all turns into a shitshow when zombies also enter the picture, and finally, two of the officers, Peter and Roger, decide to cut bait and join up with Stephen and Fran. Soon after, the gang come across a shopping mall and are able to fight their way inside, and understandably, they decide to hole up there for the time being, since everything they could ever need is within its relatively secure walls.
Later on, though, the place gets besieged by both zombies and a biker gang intent on taking the place over, and an all-out battle ensues, one that features many, many delightfully splattery Tom Savini effects, though he would later lament that the blood used in the film was far too brightly colored for his liking, as this was before he figured out his winning formula that also included a green tinge to make the blood appear darker.
Funny, gross, and endlessly entertaining, Dawn of the Dead should be on any horror fans’ “must watch” list, and the 2004 Zack Snyder remake ain’t bad either, though it took a decidedly more serious tone.
The other one of the crushingly obvious picks for 1978, John Carpenter’s iconic masterpiece spawned a far-reaching franchise that’s still going strong to this day, and it’ sometimes easy to forget that it all stemmed from a single, simple, low budget flick about a group of neighborhood babysitters stalked by a dude in a William Shatner mask.
Though Halloween wasn’t the first “slasher” film per se—in terms of establishing the familiar tropes of the subgenre, I’d give that crown to Mario Bava’s 1971 A Bay of Blood, or possibly to Bob Clark’s 1974 Black Christmas—it was definitely the movie that blew the doors off, finding such incredible mainstream success that it almost singlehandedly gave rise to the unbelievably fruitful slasher boom of the 1980s (and was directly responsible for the entirety of the subsequent Friday the 13th series). Like all of Carpenter’s best films, its assured direction, compelling visuals, and atmospheric score really lend the stripped-down story an air of menace and spookiness that’s difficult to match.
Everyone and their mother’s pet parakeet probably knows the plot of Halloween by now, but just in case we have people who just crawled out from under rocks and/or recently arrived from outer space in the house, the movie is set on Halloween night, and centers on a group of high school girls who are babysitting at various houses in their neighborhood in Haddonfield, Illinois (though the film was actually shot in California).
Unbeknownst to them, a mental patient named Michael Myers has escaped from custody and is heading back to his hometown, where as a child he murdered his sister in cold blood. Clad in a boiler suit and an eerie, blank, white mask, Michael stalks the streets of the pleasant suburb, slaying all and sundry, while his frantic physician, Dr. Loomis, attempts to warn the townspeople of the threat he poses and tries to stop Michael before it’s too late.
Everything about Halloween is perfect, and it’s very easy to see why audiences in 1978 immediately responded to it, and why horror fans have made it one of the most ubiquitous and beloved franchises in the genre. The film is concise, beautifully shot, and has likeable, relatable characters, particularly and famously the final girl, Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, in the role that cemented her enduring status as a scream queen. The story is uncomplicated, specific to a time and place but also universal, and taps into the same primal anxieties explored in urban legends, lending the largely realistic movie a slight air of the supernatural, of mystery.
And Michael Myers, it must be said, is a particularly frightening antagonist, relentless and shark-like, with seemingly no motive other than destruction, and no sense at all that he could possibly be reasoned with. The shots of him simply standing there in the neighbor’s yard, unhurriedly watching the house from afar, or just stepping out from behind a hedge, are unsettling in the extreme. The original Halloween wisely keeps almost everything about the killer unknown, making him much more chilling, in my opinion; later sequels and remakes that attempted to give him a backstory, a motivation, or a personality drastically undercut what was so scary about him in the first film, that perception of him only as The Shape.
At the time of its release, Halloween was simply lightning in a bottle; everything about the film came together flawlessly in one spooky, satisfying package.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers has been directly adapted into film four times, including versions made in 1956, 1993, and 2007, but in my view, the 1978 adaptation, helmed by Philip Kaufman, is the best by far. The great thing about Jack Finney’s original story is that it’s so adaptable; depending on the time period the film was made in, it could explore everything from McCarthyism and the Red Menace (as the 1956 one did); the inherent conformity of military systems and/or a metaphor for the spread of AIDS (as in the 1993 version); or a bunch of muddled bullshit that seemed to be trying to say something incomprehensible about the war in Iraq (the 2007 adaptation).
The 1978 Invasion, though, takes aim at consumerism and the lost ideals of the countercultural 1960s. The film is set in San Francisco, amid a group of people who are either ex-hippies now working for “the man,” or people who have retained their distrust of the government and their beliefs in various new age ideas. And Leonard Nimoy’s character, Dr. Kibner, is a particularly interesting foil; he’s a guru-type psychiatrist with a passionate following due to his series of bestselling self-help books, and once he’s assimilated by the pod people, makes a fairly reasonable-sounding argument to the remaining holdouts that they should succumb to the invasion, as it will take away all their fear and anxiety and make life much easier; it’s a siren song to conformity that these dubious individualists have very little patience for.
The other characters include a scientist named Elizabeth Driscoll, who notices a strange flower growing in her neighborhood one day and brings it home, only to have her boyfriend start acting really strangely. There’s also her friend and colleague, Matthew Bennell, a health inspector who at first advises Elizabeth to see the aforementioned Dr. Kibner about her supposed fantasies that her boyfriend is no longer her boyfriend, even though he looks exactly the same as he always has.
Meanwhile, other friends Jack and Nancy Bellicec make a disturbing find in the mud spa they run: a seemingly dead body that looks almost exactly like Jack. As everyone gets together to compare notes, and as more mysterious bodies resembling all of them turn up in the darnedest of places, the group begins to figure out that the flower Elizabeth found at the beginning was just the harbinger of a full-blown alien invasion, in which the intergalactic intruders are using plant pods to make perfect duplicates of the humans, which will be similar in every detail, save for a complete lack of emotion and a compulsion to work for the betterment of the alien life forms.
Chock full of 70s-era paranoia and perhaps subtly lampooning the “I’m okay, you’re okay” atmosphere of the era, the 1978 Invasion has a stellar cast, outstanding effects work, and one of the bleakest and most unnerving ending scenes in all of horror.
Not quite a straight horror film, but more a psychological horror-adjacent drama, the Richard Attenborough-directed Magic boasted one of the creepiest TV ad campaigns in living memory. It helps that anything with a ventriloquist’s dummy is always going to have a leg up in the spooky department, because vent figures are, without exception, terrifying abominations against all that is good and true.
The film was adapted to the screen by the wonderful William Goldman, who also wrote the original novel, and it features an incredible performance by a young Anthony Hopkins, as well as entertaining turns from Burgess Meredith and Ann-Margret.
The structure of Magic is slightly odd, being told in two distinct parts, but both sections deal with the tragic character of ventriloquist Corky Withers and his crumbling mental state, as evidenced by his increasingly disquieting interactions with his creepy-as-fuck dummy, Fats.
Corky starts out as a terrible stage magician, his lack of confidence sabotaging him at every turn, and audiences heckling him mercilessly. After his mentor tells him to find some kind of angle or gimmick, Corky hits upon the idea of incorporating a dummy named Fats into his act that will berate and insult him before the audience gets a chance to. This novel approach works like gangbusters, leaving spectators laughing uproariously at Fats’s cruel and witty invective, and making them sympathize with the hapless and browbeaten Corky.
The ventriloquist’s agent, Ben Greene, gets Corky a shot at his own primetime TV show with the promise of wealth and success beyond his wildest dreams, but when Corky discovers he’ll have to take a medical exam for insurance purposes, he loses his shit. Corky, you see, knows he has severe mental health issues which he’s so far been concealing under the guise of his act with Fats; in reality, the dummy is essentially a manifestation of Corky’s id, and as such, Corky seems to perceive him as something of a separate being.
Afraid of what the medical exam might reveal, Corky decides to skip town without telling anyone where he’s going, at which point the film goes in a slightly different direction. Because he has no family or friends, Corky ends up at an old resort in the Catskills, near where he grew up. While there, he reconnects with a woman named Peggy, who he had an unrequited crush on in high school. Peggy is married now, but her husband Duke is a controlling chode who she’s trying to get away from, and since he’s out of town when Corky arrives to rent a cabin, the pair strike up a friendship that blossoms into romance.
At first, everything seems idyllic. Corky is shy, but gentle and compassionate, the exact opposite of the husband Peggy can no longer stand. She even thinks Corky’s dialogues with Fats are charming and not at all strange. But as time goes on, Corky’s mask of sanity begins to slip, and Peggy begins to see how deep his problems really run, though she still loves him and even considers leaving her husband so that she and Corky can run away together.
Of course, though, this pipe dream is not to be; Fats’s hold on Corky becomes ever more pronounced, to a point where Corky seemingly does horrible things—up to and including murder—without realizing that he’s actually doing them, attributing the savagery to Fats.
It’s a devastatingly sad story, but also eerie as hell, and I’d submit that Anthony Hopkins’s performance here goes a long way toward explaining why this is such a compelling watch. He’s such a sympathetic character that you can’t help but feel for him and root for him, even though the whole time, you know that his issues are so acute that it’s all going to end in tears one way or the other.
And it should go without saying, but Fats is a frightening figure throughout the film, his wisecracking demeanor laced with an unquestionable, underlying threat. You almost get the sense, like Corky, that the dummy is its own being; but realizing that the doll is simply an expression of all of Corky’s darkest desires makes the whole thing even more troubling. A masterful and complex examination of complete mental breakdown, Magic is definitely a movie that doesn’t get the praise it deserves.
George Romero’s second appearance on this list is a film that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as his zombie flicks, but should absolutely be seen by everyone with even a passing interest in 70s horror. Ostensibly a vampire movie, but one more concerned with psychological horror and the manner in which legends shape our behaviors, Martin was cited by George Romero himself as his very favorite of all the films he ever made. This was, incidentally, also Romero’s first collaboration with special effects icon Tom Savini, who worked on a few of the movie’s bloody set pieces, including a very realistic sliced wrist sequence.
Although Martin was initially conceived to be about an actual vampire, the final version of the movie takes the more interesting tack of not specifying whether the protagonist is an actual, centuries-old vampire, or simply a delusional killer with an all-encompassing fantasy persona.
John Amplas plays the title character, a young man who is traveling to Pittsburgh to stay with his stern uncle, Tateh Cuda. While on the train to his destination, he drugs a woman and cuts open her wrist to drink blood from her; the ugly, appalling reality of the deed is intercut with Martin’s romanticized perceptions of what’s happening, all sepia toned and consensual.
When he meets Tateh Cuda at the train station, it’s immediately obvious that this codger is old school, and whether Martin is an honest-to-goodness vampire or not, Tateh Cuda wholeheartedly believes that he is. He even thrusts garlic and crosses at Martin, much to the boy’s amusement; though Martin also believes himself to be a vampire, he’s very much of the “all that supernatural stuff from the legends is bullshit” variety.
Tateh Cuda has a granddaughter named Christina who also lives in the house; she’s a bit older than Martin, and takes a shine to the awkward young man. She also has little patience for Tateh Cuda’s old-world shenanigans, and tries to encourage Martin to deal with his problems in a more pragmatic way, by receiving counseling for his purported neuroses.
Over the course of the film, Martin targets more victims, and also becomes something of an anonymous local celebrity by frequently calling in to a popular radio show, calling himself The Count and regaling listeners with the truth about how vampires really operate.
The tragedy of the story, then, arises from a clash of all the characters’ beliefs: Martin legitimately believes he needs blood to survive, which leads him to kill, though he seemingly keeps his fantastical beliefs grounded by insisting that he’s not supernatural. Tateh Cuda also believes Martin is a vampire, but in a more traditional sense, which ultimately leads to him destroying the boy instead of trying to help him. And poor Christina is trapped in the middle, thinking they’re both different flavors of crazy and lamenting the fact that neither of them will admit they’re deranged. In the end, it actually doesn’t matter whether Martin was a “real” vampire or not, because the belief that he was caused the unfortunate outcomes for everyone involved.
If you like vampire movies—or even if you don’t, but are interested to see a different take on the monster that almost goes meta with it—then Martin is another must-see, a low-budget, scuzzy take on the vampire legend, and on the power of belief and myth to shape our perceptions of the world.
That will wrap up 1978, but be sure to keep watching this space for whenever I get around to 1979; until then, keep it creepy, my friends.