10 of Horror’s Greatest Corpses

Whether animated or stationary, a good corpse can be iconic

Corpses are a major motif of the horror genre, and practical effects artists are often called on to create distinctive, disgusting bodies that will match the overall style and atmosphere of a movie.  So, let’s take a look at some of the stand-out examples of corpses lovingly crafted for the screen.

I’m counting both the living dead and the just-plain-dead here.  My only rules are that the body has to be human, has to be practical as opposed to CG, and cannot be an actor in make-up.

These are a few of my favorites.  Use the comments section to tell me about some of yours.

 

Mrs. Bates, Psycho (1960)

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When Lila Crane (Vera Miles) approaches that figure in a rocking chair, she’s expecting to see a tragic, worn-down old woman.  She is unprepared – as is the audience – for the dried-up, hollow-eyed, grinning nightmare that is revealed as Mrs. Bates.  As the story reaches its grotesque climax, Mrs. Bates seems to take it all in, as calm – and as haunting – as one of the stuffed birds that populate the motel.

 

The Medium, Black Sabbath (1963)

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The most chilling segment of Mario Bava’s beloved horror anthology is “The Drop of Water,” in which nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) steals a ring of the finger of a dead medium, then finds herself haunted by the body.  The corpse was the work of Mario’s father, sculptor and cinematic pioneer Eugenio Bava, with an eye not on verisimilitude, but on the uncanny.  The staring eyes, the lips peeled back into something between a grin and a sneer, this is repulsion itself in physical form.

 

The Corpse at the Top of the Stairs, Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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In a movie full of the walking dead, we get a glimpse of one body too utterly destroyed to rise.  We get only a quick look at it, but, even in a movie full of menacing hordes of the undead chewing up human flesh, that corpse stands out as one of the most grotesque images.  Much of the skin has been torn away, so the skull peeks through, and what remains of the epidermis and fascia is bloodied and delightfully chunky.

 

Scarecrow Corpse, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

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Tobe Hooper establishes the atmosphere of unapologetic grotesquerie right out the gate by opening his masterpiece of the abject with a close-up of this swollen, goopy mess of a human body decomposing in the sweltering heat.  Its pose among the tombstones and the almost monochromatic old-paper shading of the image make this idol of ugliness seem consistent with the landscape, telling the viewer that this horror is not unique in its environment; it is representative of its environment.

 

Carlo’s Father, Deep Red (1975)

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After decades hidden behind a wall – alongside a Christmas tree, for a kind of grim comic effect – this embodiment of a shameful pas still seems to wear an expression of sad desperation.  Maybe this one particularly stands out for me because it graced the DVD cover of the first edition of Deep Red I ever watched, or maybe it was this oddly appealing corpse that compelled me to watch the movie.

 

Jack, An American Werewolf in London (1981)

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Over the course of the movie, we see the spirit of Jack (Griffin Dunne) slowly decaying through a progression of make-up stages.  At the end, though, when he appears to his friend David (David Naughton) in a movie theater, he’s rotted away to the point that he can no longer be played by Dunne.  Instead, Rick Baker’s masterful effects team constructed this puppet, which manages to be fully expressive, convincingly convey Dunne’s features, and look really, really gross.

 

Desiccated Sailor, Godzilla 1985 (1984)

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This guy, a victim of a giant sea louse (mutated by feeding on Godzilla’s blood), gets a reveal similar to that of Mrs. Bates, only reporter Goro (Ken Tanaka) finds him and spins his chair around for our benefit not at the end of the movie, but at the beginning.  Going into a giant monster movie, audiences don’t expect something like this any more than Goro does, and it sends a clear message: this isn’t Godzilla for kiddies, this is a return to the monsters roots in serious, nightmarish horror.

 

Half-Zombie, The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

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As this long-dead, recently-undead lady takes a bite into the skull of Scuz (Brian Peck), she is chopped off at the spine.  Her top half is then bound and held for questioning.  The puppet manages to convey an astonishing range of emotions, creating not only some of the funniest images in the movie, but also some of the saddest.

 

The Crypt Keeper, Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)

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Although the character originated in EC comics titles in the 1950s, and was first portrayed by the venerable Sir Ralph Richardson in Freddie Francis’s 1972 Tales from the Crypt, it is his presentation on the HBO television series as a reanimated corpse (voiced by John Kassir and operated by Van Snowden) that has taken root in the public consciousness.  He’s a kind of hideously cute, endearing character, perfectly suited to the show’s darkly comic tone.

 

Sadako Yamamura, Ring (1998)

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This one’s really about the dressing and presentation.  By the time Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) pulls the remains of Sadako out of that well, she’s pretty much just a skeleton.  But the way that the full head of hair splits and falls away from that skull, and then slime oozes out of the eye sockets like tears, is both tragic and gorgeous.

 

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6 Comments on this post.

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  • Alison
    12 December 2014 at 11:28 am - Reply

    I would submit an honorable mention of Barbara & Adam from Beetlejuice – such a memorable scene, when they are being transformed into decayed corpses during the seance.

  • Josh Millican
    12 December 2014 at 11:46 am - Reply

    Evan, how could you have excluded the grinning corpse in Mr. Sardonicus (1961)? Scared me speechless as a kid!

    • Evan A. Baker
      12 December 2014 at 12:49 pm - Reply

      To my great shame, I must admit that I’ve only sampled a small portion of William Castle’s output, and that has not included Mr. Sardonicus.

      I know, I know. I’m Mr. “All About the Classics,” and the 60s is my favorite era in the history of film, and yet…

      I hang my head.

      • Josh Millican
        12 December 2014 at 1:21 pm - Reply

        Wow, a horror movie from the 60’s that Josh knows more about than Evan! This could be a sign of the Apocalypse!

  • D. Nathan Hilliard
    15 December 2014 at 7:30 pm - Reply

    For honorable mention I would like to nominate the corpse in the coffin from Vincent Price’s The Pit and the Pendulum. That gave me nightmares as a kid

    • Evan A. Baker
      15 December 2014 at 7:37 pm - Reply

      I haven’t watched that movie in a loooong time. I’ll definitely take it into consideration if I do a round 2. 🙂

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