The Disillusion of CGI Effects in horror movies

Now before I launch into my tirade, let me make it clear that CGI effects in movies frequently look incredibly impressive and justifiably need to be used because there would be no other way to realistically achieve the look the director desires. Movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and The Lost World (1997), and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) and King Kong (2005) are perfect examples.

What frustrates and, ultimately, disappoints me is the use (and there seems to be more and more of it) of CGI effects being employed in horror movies in place of the “old school” prosthetic, mechanical and animatronic effects. Call me old fashioned but I just don’t buy it. They don’t have nearly the same visceral power or palpable impact as effects which are engineered and executed in front of the camera and filmed!

Take for example the “re-imagining” (Hmph! Re-imagine my arse!) of Day of the Dead (2008). It has some token prosthetic make-up on the zombie faces adding wounds and lacerations, but the camera never lingers long enough to appreciate the effects work (probably because the make-up wasn’t that good in the first place). But virtually all the gore and blood effects have been CGI-ed. It’s abysmal.

You never really feel that horrified, even though zombie heads are being lopped off left right and centre. And the actually colour and consistency of the blood is not realistic enough, it’s this weird hue and looks like kinda gloopy. Okay, okay, so there are dozens of horror movies that don’t get the blood the right colour and consistency and aren’t using CGI. But at least they’re mixing a batch up every day and preparing squibs!
Damn, I could tell you a few things about fake blood. I worked on Peter Jackson's Braindead (1991) and there was more blood being pumped on set than any other horror movie up to that point, possibly still holds a record. The zombie massacre finale (which took around two weeks to film) left the interior house set stinking something chronic; a sickly sweet smell that if you were unlucky to be hungover on set (and crew frequently were) you were in for a rough day at work.

The blood was made up of a special formula that included corn syrup, starch, and red food colouring. It was quite brilliant actually. It looked damn realistic! But it was a nightmare to clean off anything it came into contact with, apart from skin. Sounds like real blood to me.


One day I was hanging around with the special effects boys and they were setting up one of the pressurised gallons of blood in preparation to pump blood on set. Several of us were close by when the technician fiddling with the gauge uttered a very ominous “Uh-oh!” quickly followed by a, “Everybody get back! Now!” Suddenly the top of the vessel burst and a gallon of blood jetted everywhere. Thankfully I avoided being doused in the red sauce, but boy, what a sight to behold that was; a huge geyser of fake blood exploding like a scarlet volcano!

Movies such as Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1982), George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) could not be the brilliantly and viscerally powerful horror movies they are if their special effects make-up work had been digitally generated by a computer. It’s a simple fact. By having the effects work actually there with the actors in three dimensions being caught on film (or on digital video as will be the case more and more) the end result is so much more resonant.

It should be that when an effect is simply too difficult to achieve convincingly through the use of prosthetics or mechanics, that’s when you employ the digital artists, and only then. But of course, it’s a cost cutting measure these days. It’s actually cheaper to have a couple of people sitting in front of a computer punching numbers and letters into a keyboard and fiddling with a mouse than it is to have a crew of technicians armed with an array of hardware and soft and hard materials, stanind by on-set. It’s software vs. hardware. And the soft option wins.

I’ll finish with a fine example of when CGI effects are used intelligently: the dinner dénouement in Hannibal (2001). There was no way Ridley Scott could’ve shown in the same wide shot the real Ray Liotta talking and moving whilst Anthony Hopkins sliced slivers of Ray’s brain from his exposed cranium and popped them into a little sauté pan. Bon appetite!