A splatter film or gore film is a type of horror film that deliberately focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and graphic violence. These films, through the use of special effects and excessive blood and guts, tend to display an overt interest in the vulnerability of the human body and the theatricality of its mutilation. Due to their willingness to portray images society might consider shocking, splatter films share some ideological grounds with the transgressive art movement. The term "splatter cinema" was coined by George A. Romero to describe his film Dawn of the Dead, though Dawn of the Dead is generally considered by critics to have higher aspirations, such as social commentary, than to be simply exploitative for its own sake.
The combination of graphic violence and sexually suggestive imagery in some films has been labeled "torture porn" or "gorno" (a portmanteau of "gore" and "porno"). By contrast, in films such as Braindead, the gore is sometimes so excessive that it becomes a comedic device.
The first appearance of gore--the realistic mutilation of the human body--in cinema can be traced back to D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), which features numerous Guignol-esque touches, including two onscreen decapitations, and a scene in which a spear is slowly driven through a soldier's naked abdomen as blood wells from the wound. Several of Griffith's subsequent films, and those of his contemporary Cecil B. DeMille, featured similarly realistic carnage.
In the early 1920s, a number of high-profile scandals, including the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, rocked Hollywood, leading to calls for reform of the "indecency" being "promoted" by motion pictures. These resulted in the Production Code, which set standards for behavior depicted in Hollywood films and effectively censored gore out of mainstream cinema for almost fifty years.
Splatter came into its own as a distinct genre of cinema in the early 1960s with the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis in the United States. Lewis had been producing low-budget nudie films for several years but the market for such fare was losing ground to Hollywood, which was beginning to show more and more nudity in its films. Eager to maintain a profitable niche, Lewis turned to the one thing mainstream cinema still shied away from: scenes of visceral, explicit gore. In 1963, he directed Blood Feast, widely considered the first splatter film. In the 15 years following its release, Blood Feast took in an estimated $7 million. It was made for an estimated $24,500. The film has since become a cult favorite and was followed by the exploitation-style film, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002). Lewis' next film, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), was remade as 2001 Maniacs in 2005 (with a follow up 2001 Maniacs: Beverly Hellbillys in 2008). Both updated versions stuck true to their predecessors in terms of theme and content.
As influential and profitable as it was, for many years Blood Feast remained little seen outside drive-in theaters in the Southern United States. Graphically violent imagery was starting to experience some mainstream acceptance in films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Taxi Driver (1976) but largely remained taboo in Hollywood.
The first splatter film to truly popularize the genre was George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), the director's attempt to replicate the atmosphere and gore of EC Horror Comics on film. Initially derided by the American press as "appalling," it quickly became a national sensation, playing not just in drive-ins but at midnight showings in indoor theaters across the country. Foreign critics were more kind to the film; venerable British film magazine Sight & Sound put it on its list of "Ten Best Films of 1968."
Its sequel, Dawn of the Dead, became one of the most successful splatter films, both critically and commercially. It was released in United States theaters unrated rather than with the X-rating it would have received for its explicit carnage. Critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the best horror films ever made. Romero's film was also important in that it upped the ante in terms of technique, special effects and the quality of writing, characterization, and so on. The film was remade successfully in 2004 by Zack Snyder.
The 1980s saw the rise of the MPAA ratings board which curtailed most splatter films with the notable exception of Friday the 13th and its very graphic depictions of violence. However, Part 2 was not so lucky. Roger Ebert in America and Member of Parliament Graham Bright in the U.K. led the charge to censor splatter films with the film critic going after I Spit On Your Grave while the politician sponsored the Video Recordings Act which is a system of censorship and certification for home video. This resulted in the outright banning of many splatter films in the U.K.
Some splatter directors have gone on to produce blockbusters. Sam Raimi, now known for directing the Spider-Man film series, became famous from creating The Evil Dead (1981), which he followed up with the sequels Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992). Peter Jackson, who is now best known for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, started off his career in New Zealand by directing splatter movies like Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992). These films featured so much gore that it became a comedic device. These comedic gore films have been dubbed "splatstick", defined as physical comedy that involves evisceration. Another example of this sub-genre was Re-Animator (1985), adapted by Stuart Gordon from a story by H.P. Lovecraft.
Splatter films have proved influential in cinema in many ways. For example, the popular 1999 film, The Blair Witch Project is similar to the 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust. The story in Cannibal Holocaust is told through footage from a group of people making a documentary about a portion of the Amazon which is said to be populated by cannibals. This "mockumentary" format was later used in Blair Witch.
In the 2000s, there has been a resurgence of films influenced by the splatter genre that depict nudity, torture, mutilation and sadism, sometimes disparagingly labeled "torture porn" by critics; also referred to as "gorno" (a portmanteau of "gore" and "porno"). The Eli Roth film, Hostel (2005), was the first to be called "torture porn" by critic David Edelstein in January 2006, but the classification has been applied to Saw (2004) and its sequels; The Devil's Rejects (2005), Wolf Creek (2005), and the earlier films Baise-moi (2000), Ichi the Killer (2001) as well. A difference between this group of films and earlier splatter films is that they are often mainstream Hollywood films that receive a wide release and have comparatively high production values..
The so-called "torture porn" sub-genre has proven to be very profitable: Saw, made for $1.2 million, grossed over $100 million worldwide, while Hostel, which cost less than $5 million to produce, grossed over $80 million. Lionsgate, the studio behind the films, has also made considerable gains in its stock price from the box office showing. The financial success has led the way for the release of similar films: Turistas in 2006, Hostel: Part II, Borderland, and Captivity, starring Elisha Cuthbert and Pruitt Taylor Vince, in 2007. The double feature Grindhouse (2007), produced and directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, has also been considered part of the trend, as has the Lindsay Lohan thriller I Know Who Killed Me (2007).
In 2008, other entries into the sub-genre include: Untraceable, starring Diane Lane and Billy Burke, the British WΔZ, starring Stellan Skarsgård and Selma Blair and the French Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier. A remake of The Last House on the Left (1972), and The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2009), are also set to continue the trend.
The New French Extremity is also linked to splatter film.
The term “splatter film” is often confused with “slasher film.” While there is often overlap, many slasher movies, like Halloween (1978), are not considered splatter films because they don’t have enough on-screen gore. Other films, like Maniac (1980), The Prowler (1981), The Burning Moon (1992) and Haute Tension (2003) can fall into the splatter subgenre.
Scenes of splatter also appear in other genres. Some examples are El Topo (1970), a western, and Kill Bill (2003), a revenge-thriller. Many chambara films, a subgenre of samurai movies, contain elements of splatter, where excessive amounts of blood spray from arteries. Examples include Shogun Assassin (1980) and Lady Snowblood.