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Which Blood Films Best: Real or Unreal?

A response from Joe to yesterday’s entry on the esthetics of corpses raises an interesting question: one which I’ve tackled before but about which I might just have just a little more to say.

What kind of blood works best in horror films?

Joe, for one, knows where he stands on the matter. He reports that he’ll “take Tom Savini Dawn of the Dead blood over Rob Zombie ‘realistic’ blood any day.”

I know how he feels. Dawn of the Dead, while not my favorite horror film, or even my favorite zombie film, nevertheless has a special place in my heart — and a big part of its charm for me definitely lies in that weird-looking blood that it’s drenched in. Like the green makeup that a few too many of the zombies in that film sport as well, this blood doesn’t look anything LIKE real. It’s too bright to begin with, and it’s not quite the right consistency either. It even jets out of the various severed limbs and bite-holes in the film’s characters in a way that has nothing of the meticulously researched arterial realism of the blood that pulses out today’s horror movie characters.

Yet somehow… it works all the same. Why? Because Dawn of the Dead is really less like a realistic horror movie than it is like the best high school play anyone ever put on. The film’s home-grown, let’s-put-on-a-horror-movie feel to it comes in large part from the sheer size of the spectacle George Romero was intent on creating – with or without the proper budget. He knew how badly a certain portion of the population wanted to see zombies set loose in greater Pittsburgh again, and his knowledge of that allowed him to make a true horror epic on a budget that normally wouldn’t have been enough for a car commercial. When I first saw Dawn when it came out, at age 17, I so badly wanted it to be good that I’d have been willing to overlook purple blood spurting out of its characters. Romero, I think, sensed all of this, and the result was that Dawn was filmed with such energy and confidence that none of its technical shortcomings end up mattering at all.

None of which is to say that I don’t like a nice dose of real-looking blood too. (And, as mentioned previously, I think there’s something weirdly effective about the black blood that appears in certain black and white horror movies – especially sixties films like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and of course, the original Psycho. In that case, the blackness has the exact opposite effect of over-red fake blood. It takes on a kind of documentary look that we immediately accept as real precisely because it’s simply not trying to be red at all.)

I guess you could say that the different varieties of cinematic blood are like neckties or handbags. They match with some movies, and clash with others.

Most effective use of real-looking blood in a movie? I’ll get into trouble for this (chiefly because it’s not really a horror movie), but I’d have to give the award to the Cohen Brothers’ little spot that turns into a flood in Barton Fink.

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