When promoting Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg claimed that every war movie is an anti-war movie. I think this is doubly true when it comes to genre cinema. After all, what better way to immerse audiences in the horrors of war than by telling a story specifically designed to scare them?
Hell, sometimes the war itself doesn’t even need to happen onscreen, like in the case of 1954’s Godzilla – one of the all-time best commentaries on nuclear warfare. And with Takashi Yamazaki returning the radioactive dinosaur to his post-war roots in Godzilla Minus One, we’ve decided to come up with a list recommending six more war-time horror movies for fans of historical terror.
While not all of the films on this list take place during a war, they all incorporate warfare and its consequences into their stories. That being said, don’t forget to comment below with your own favorite wartime horror yarns if you think we missed a particularly chilling one.
Now, onto the list…
6. Dead Birds (2004)
Brother against brother, freedom fighter against slave-master, it seems like a no-brainer to use the tragedy of the American Civil War as the backdrop for a scary story. Sadly, there aren’t that many civil war horror flicks out there – though one exception is Alex Turner’s deeply underrated Dead Birds, a great example of why 2000s genre cinema wasn’t as creatively bankrupt as some claim.
An unlikely fusion of western and horror, Dead Birds tells the story of a group of Confederate deserters who become violent criminals in order to survive. After a messy bank robbery, the group finds shelter in an abandoned plantation only to discover that it’s inhabited by demonic creatures and the ghosts of its previous owners.
The deliberately slow pacing and familiar haunted house tropes mean that this strange little flick isn’t for everyone, but I’d recommend it to fans of atmospheric millennial horror. And did I mention that it also features a young Michael Shannon?
5. The Jacket (2005)
While it’s heavily influenced by a certain other movie on this list, I’d argue that John Maybury’s The Jacket is much better than its middling reviews would have you believe. Inspired by a novel from 1915, the film uses science fiction to propel a deeply disturbing psychological thriller about time travel and PTSD.
Starring Adrien Brody as Jack Starks, a Gulf War veteran recovering from a shot to the head who finds himself convicted of murder, the film sees Jack being subjected to an experimental treatment that somehow propels him forward in time. Naturally, this leads to a mind-bending thriller that explores the horrors of war and the inhuman treatment of mentally ill patients.
4. Overlord (2018)
Nazi zombies may not be the most original idea in the world, but you’ve got to hand it to Julius Avery for telling such an entertaining version of a familiar story. Taking place in the midst of World War II’s D-Day, Overlord follows a group of paratroopers who accidentally uncover mysterious Nazi experiments meant to create immortal super soldiers. What follows is an action-horror hybrid that perfectly mixes gory B-movie tropes with blockbuster action.
In fact, I’d argue that this is one of the best modern-day equivalents to a vintage EC horror comic, with the creators being more interested in telling a historical “what if?” yarn than a serious World War II flick.
3. Deathwatch (2002)
We’ve already featured M.J. Bassett’s mind-bending WWI nightmare on our list of period-piece monster movies, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t also include it among its wartime horror brethren. Telling the story of a group of British soldiers who find themselves trapped in a mysterious trench, this is one of the freakiest films on this list despite its relatively small scale.
From living barbed wire to a never-ending maze of seemingly supernatural trenches, there’s enough nightmare fuel here to make even the most dedicated horror-hound shudder once the lights are out. And if you like this one, I’d also recommend checking out Bassett’s underrated adaptation of Solomon Kane.
2. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
It may seem strange that the scariest film about the Vietnam war actually takes place in New York City, but leave it to Adrian Lyne to make the post-war experience just as traumatizing as combat itself. Following a disturbed veteran who begins to hallucinate monsters as he endures a literal double-life, there’s a reason why this is often cited as one of the most influential horror films ever made.
From the iconic hospital sequence to some genuinely disturbing monster effects that are still replicated today, images from the film linger on in the mind much like the fictional drug that inspired its title. Just don’t read too much into the finale’s conspiracy angle, as the filmmakers have since claimed that these elements were more of a means to an end when telling a deeply spiritual story.
1. The Keep (1983)
Michael Mann is usually remembered for his iconic crime thrillers, but the director is also responsible for a paradoxically underrated and yet extremely influential supernatural horror flick named The Keep. Based on the homonymous novel by F. Paul Wilson, The Keep tells the story of a group of Nazi scientists who unwittingly unleash a malevolent entity in an abandoned castle.
Plagued by a grueling shoot and post-production issues once the visual effects supervisor passed away (not to mention the studio recutting the picture without Mann’s involvement), The Keep isn’t exactly the experience that the filmmakers set out to make, but it’s still one hell of an entertaining ride and is even said to have inspired the Wolfenstein games.
That being said, I’m still holding out hope for that long-rumored director’s cut…
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