Body Horror: 5 Scary Movies That Feature Real Human Corpses
“Can a movie go TOO far?” … It’s a question that’s been asked since silent-era shock classics such as Nosferatu (1922) and Un Chien Andalou (1929) smack up to horrifying 2017 head-spinners on the order of The Untamed and Hounds of Love.
When it comes to (literally) cutting-edge fright fare, upsettingly realistic visual effects often top a film’s freak-out factors. In some cases, in fact, bones and limbs and blood and guts that appear so terrifyingly real do so because they are real!
Using legitimate dead bodies as film props is a morally controversial prospect (to say the least) and it can certainly raise legal questions. So did the following five films break the laws of humanity and/or the state? Read on and you be the judge.
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Zelda Rubinstein
Poltergeist’s climactic backyard splashdown is a masterwork of horror intensity. Actress JoBeth Williams, fleeing from a house overrun by demons, tumbles through a rainstorm into a hole dug for an impending pool. As Williams wails and flails, skeletons continually pop up from the mud all around her in a nonstop onslaught of terror.
By any circumstances, that’s scary. Now consider that the skeletons had actually once been inside of living human beings. According to JoBeth Williams herself:
“In my naivete, I assumed these were not real skeletons, I assumed that they were prop skeletons, you know, made out of plastic or rubber or something. But the skeletons were not synthetic. I found out from the crew that they were using real skeletons, because it’s far too expensive to make skeletons out of rubber and stuff. And I think everybody got very creeped out by the idea of that.”
Bruce Kasson, who worked as Assistant Prop Master on Poltergeist, confirms the claim, stating:
“Yes, the skeletons were real. They came from Carolina Biological. Replica skeletons did not exist, as far as I remember, at that time They’re now common and relatively cheap. And the rush to the bottom line for cost will dictate.” [Blumhouse]
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
Director: George Romero
Cast: David Emgee, Ken Foree, Galen Ross
Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s landmark zombie apocalypse epic, showcases makeup and special effects by Tom Savini that elevate the art form to new heights of gross-out greatness.
On one of the props, though, Savini had some help from Mother Nature. He unwittingly worked with a bona fide skeleton that appears early on, sitting up in the hall of an apartment complex, wrapped in a sort of hooded sheet.
Savini had borrowed the skeleton from a prop collector named Larry Winterstellar, who wasn’t sure where it came from. Afterward, Winterstellar sold the bones to Marilyn Wick, owner of a shop called Costume World. Once there, the skeleton sat in the front window as a decoration.
While dropping by Costume World one day, a police officer noticed the skeleton and thought it looked too convincing. He turned out to be right. A coroner determined the skeleton belonged to an unidentified 35-year-old woman, and she had died about 100 years prior to her movie debut.
In 1982, a judge ordered the remains to be properly buried in a cemetery. The woman was laid to rest in an unmarked grave until 2014, when fans of the film raised money to buy her a proper headstone. Costume World proprietor Wick donated the bulk of the money.
Today, the mystery woman is properly laid to rest under a marker with a name given to her by DOTD devotees: Dawn Doe. [Dread Central]
MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988)
Director: Tung Fei Mous
Cast: Jianxin Chen, Shu Gou, Linjie Hao
Inspired by the all-too-horribly-true World War II atrocities committed by Japan’s General Shirō Ishii, Men Behind the Sun is a largely unwatchable cavalcade of human cruelty.
Chinese writer-director Tung Fei Mous has said he created the film to bring awareness to the crimes committed against his imprisoned countrymen (and women and children) as part of the sick and horrific biological warfare experiments undertaken and overseen by Ishii in the notorious “Unit 731.”
Boasting convincing visual effects too heartbreaking and stomach-emptying to even describe, Men Behind the Sun goes beyond fake blood and rubber guts. For a scene where a young boy is anesthetized and has his organs removed while alive, Mou uses footage of an actual child’s autopsy. Yes, you read that right. [Birth. Movies. Death]
BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979)
Director: Joe D’Amato
Cast: Kieran Canter, Cinza Monreale, Franca Stoppi
Over the course of an almost impossibly prolific exploitation flick career, Italian splatter-horror guru Joe D’Amato churned out some of the most insane, explicit, and gloriously over-the-top outrages to ever stain movie screens blood-red.
Beyond the Darkness (BTD) is brutal and berserk even by standards befitting the filmmaker who also brought us Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (1980), and Porno Holocaust (1981).
BTD, which played in America as Buried Alive, chronicles a mad taxidermist who digs up his fiancée’s corpse and attempts to resurrect her via home surgery. It doesn’t work, but we do witness him torturing, dismembering, and cannibalizing other victims in the process.
As noted, Beyond the Darkness immediately stood out upon arrival and then became legendary once rumors swirled that D’Amato illegally obtained human corpses and used them for the movie’s rambunctiously repulsive gore segments. A new extras-packed BTD Blu-ray explores the film’s frantic history in full. Don’t miss it — if you dare. [Severin Films]
Director: Jason Todd Ipson
Cast: Corri English, Scot Davis, Joshua Alba
Unrest is an unsettling horror thriller centered on a dead body in a hospital morgue that seems to curse anyone with whom it comes in contact.
The movie’s atmosphere feels uncannily true-to-life (and death) and, in terms of jolts, autopsy imagery abounds. The former might be chalked up to writer-director Jason Todd Ipson being an actual medical doctor and a formerly practicing surgeon. The latter proves especially effective because Ipson incorporates film footage of legitimate post-mortem medical examinations.
When asked about the use of real human remains, Ipson said:
“I absolutely will not deny that, but I absolutely cannot verify it … Prosthetics are make-believe. I want people to really understand human anatomy and what death means … What we did was very respectful of the dead and their spirits.”