Horror movies can boast of many sub-genres, such as Slashers, Vampires, Haunted Houses, Cannibals, and Revenge Horror. Some of the more esoteric include Women Behind Bars, Nunsploitation, Killer Santas, Possessed Machinery, Strippers to the Rescue, and a phrase I could never tire of, Nazi Zombies.
Each has its merits and its die-hard devotees. One of the rarest of these sub-genres is the Civil War era horror movie. Considering the dearth of these movies, they include a surprising number of very enjoyable films starring some recognizable names. Abraham Lincoln himself makes not one but two appearances battling the undead: once against zombies, once versus vampires. Busy guy! You’d think he would have had his hands full just preserving the Union and freeing the slaves.
1. Dead Birds
A group of defected Confederate soldiers rob a bank of a small fortune in gold. They head for the Mexican border on horseback. One of them leads the group to a large abandoned farmhouse to spend the night. As they make their way through the tall cornstalks, they shoot at something and kill it. It’s a grotesque grey, hairless, manlike creature with razor-sharp teeth.
The band enters the house and they soon begin to hear noises and see glimpses of strange, unnatural things. Between the mistrust among them over the gold and the creepy house, the bandits are at each other’s throats. They refuse to leave the gold and run, though, even if their lives are at stake. The supernatural occurrences escalate until they discover why the spirits in residence are not at rest.
The end of this movie is perfect. I’ve watched this movie several times and I’m sure I’ll watch it again. Its plot is unique, which is a rare thing to be able to say these days. I don’t know about you, but I’ll give a movie extra consideration for that alone.
2. Exit Humanity (2011)
At the end of the Civil War, weary Confederate soldier Edward Young goes home, only to find that his wife is turning into a zombie. Edward’s first act upon returning to the bosom of his family is to kill her. His son flees, and Edward begins a long search for him. He thinks he knows where his son went, but the zombie plague has spread and the journey is every bit as dangerous as the war.
Edward doesn’t seem as shocked by the reanimation of the dead as one might expect. Perhaps the terrible things he has seen and done in the war have desensitized him to things that might have otherwise been unimaginable.
Exit Humanity features horror icon Bill Moseley (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween) as General Williams and Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo, Halloween) as Eve.
3. Ravenous (1999)
Capt. Boyd (Guy Pearce), having disgraced himself in the Mexican-American War, is assigned to Fort Spencer, a snowy, isolated post in the Sierra Nevadas. There are only a few others at the fort. A stranger arrives and says that his party of pioneers traveling west is stranded in a cave, and their guide is eating them to survive. The soldiers prepare to go to the cave to look for survivors. George, a Native American, warns them that since the stranger has eaten human flesh, he has become a Wendigo and is not to be trusted. Which brings us to one of the tried-and-true rules of horror movie survival: Never dismiss warnings from the indigenous people.
Ravenous touches upon themes explored in one of the better Fear Itself episodes, Skin and Bones, starring Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy).
4. The Burrowers (2007)
The Burrowers opens with an attack upon an isolated family of pioneers. A posse is formed to rescue them from the local Native Americans. The members of the posse, like the Western settlers themselves, are a mixed bag: two Indian fighters, a former slave looking to make a life for himself, a very young man, and an immigrant from Ireland. The U.S. Cavalry arrives; but the brutality of the soldiers, hardened by their experiences in the Civil War and on the frontier, makes their contribution questionable. The rescuers soon come to realize that they have more than one enemy, and there’s something alive beneath the very ground they travel on.
The Burrowers uses a horror format to explore topics of ecology, racism, and Manifest Destiny without beating us over the head with it. At its core, it’s simply a very good Western with elements of horror evident in its bloody brutality and supernatural elements. The Burrowers is yet another example of a horror movie that deserves a wider audience.
5. The Supernaturals (1986)
A small town in the South has been captured by Union soldiers. The Confederate soldiers are allowed to leave only if they can cross through a mine field. The only survivors are Jeremy, a young soldier, and his mother, Melanie. Which is surprising, because Melanie actually stepped on a mine, somehow escaping death.
The movie shifts to the modern day when some soldiers, led by Army Sergeant Nichelle Nichols, are training in the same area. These soldiers are the descendants of the Union soldiers who forced the Confederates to walk across the mines. One of them sees a mysterious woman in the woods, the very same Melanie. They set up camp in a strange clearing, and one of them is found shot in the head. The radio won’t work and the soldiers are 20 miles from the nearest town. Isolated from the outside world, the soldiers become prey to the Confederate dead who have waited 100 years for their revenge.
This movie would be worth mentioning if only because it’s a Civil War zombie film that stars not one but two actors from the Star Trek franchise, Nichelle Nichols and LeVar Burton. Strangely enough, this is the only time they worked together. The Supernaturals is available on DVD, though it’s out of print.
Believe it or not we couldn’t find a photo to go with this movie!
6. The Shadow of Chikara (1977)
aka The Curse of Demon Mountain; Chikara; Demon Mountain; Diamond Mountain; Shadow Mountain; The Ballad of Virgil Cane; The Curse of Demon Mountain; Thunder Mountain; and Wishbone Cutter. This film has more titles than an Italian cannibal movie.
At the end of the Civil War, a dying Confederate soldier tells his fellow soldiers that he has hidden some valuable gems in a cave. Joe Don Baker and two companions set out on a journey to find the fortune. Along the way they come across the remains of a massacre with a single survivor—a young woman (Sondra Locke) who describes an attack from men wearing silver paint and strange symbols. They decide to bring her along on their quest. Someone or something is following them, though, and is trying to keep them from reaching the cave.
The cast boasts a number of Hollywood veterans, including Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall), Sondra Locke (any number of Clint Eastwood film from the 70s and 80s), and Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar, Django Unchained). Even Slim Pickens makes an appearance as Virgil Cane, from the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” by The Band. According to one source, this was a made-for-TV movie and is only available as a VHS to DVD transfer, so the quality isn’t great.
Believe it or not we couldn’t find a photo to go with this movie!
7. The Killing Box (1993)
aka Ghost Brigade; The Grey Knight; The Grey Night (Director’s Cut) –This is the second of only three full-length Civil War zombie movies I know of. If you can think of others, please let me know.
Slave traders from Africa return with more cargo than they realize—an evil African entity. (But then again, aren’t all entities evil?) Because of their defense of slavery, a curse falls upon some Confederate soldiers and turns them into zombies. The zombies attack at night, crucifying Union soldiers. Strayn (Corbin Bernsen), the leader of the Confederate soldiers, had been captured and imprisoned before his men were turned. The Union army colonel frees Strayn from prison to help him to locate the zombies. They’re aided in their search by a psychic former slave, Rebecca (played by Billy Bob’s wife at the time), who shares a mental link with the zombies. The Union and Confederate soldiers must band together to fight the evil.
According to billybobthornton.net, “Hickenlooper’s version of the film is titled GREY NIGHT and was edited by Monte Hellman. . . Producer Brad Krevoy recut the film and replaced Bill Boll’s Civil War period-appropriate score with a generic horror soundtrack, releasing what he considered a more commercial version under the title of THE KILLING BOX. Hickenlooper’s version, which includes a different ending . . . is available only on LaserDisc. Both versions have been released as GHOST BRIGADE. The Krevoy version is the one available on VHS.”
Like Shadow of Chikara, this obscure film has a well-known cast: Corbin Bernsen (LA Law, Major League), Adrian Pasdar (Near Dark), Ray Wise (Twin Peaks, Near Dark, Dead End), Billy Bob Thornton (Chopper Chicks in Zombietown), Martin Sheen, David Arquette (Scream, The Tripper, Riding the Bullet), A.J. Langer (Alice in The People Under the Stairs), Alexis Arquette (Bride of Chucky, Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror, Sometimes They Come Back. . .Again), and Matt LeBlanc. Director George Hickenlooper, who also directed Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade, makes a cameo as an artist.
8. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
Young Abe Lincoln lives with his parents who work for a cruel plantation owner, Barts. Abe stops the overseer from beating a slave, and Abe’s father is fired in return. That same night, the plantation owner breaks into his house and assaults his mother, killing her.
Years later, Lincoln sees Barts and attacks him, but Barts is much stronger. A man named Sturges rescues Lincoln and tells him that Barts is a vampire.
Sturges trains Lincoln in the art of vampire hunting. After a decade, Lincoln travels to Springfield, Illinois, to study law and hunt the local vampires. He tracks down Barts, who tells Lincoln a dark secret about his mentor, Sturges. Disillusioned, Lincoln turns his attention to politics.
After becoming president, Lincoln is determined to free the slaves—not only from working for the wealthy Southern landowners, but from being their captive food source. Seems that some of the plantation owners are vampires, and feeding on their slaves keeps them from harming the rest of the citizenry.
It’s possible that the real Abraham Lincoln was familiar with vampire folklore, as there were three widely popular vampire novels published before the Civil War began in 1861. The first of these, The Vampyre, was written by John Polidori in 1819 for the same friendly ghost story competition that also produced the novel Frankenstein.
9. Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012)
As a boy, Abraham Lincoln’s mother succumbs to a strange illness that turned her into a raving cannibal. His father commits suicide in despair, leaving poor little 10-year-old Abe to behead her. He then joins the others in his town in the fight against the remaining zombies.
After Lincoln becomes president, he hears the report of a battle in which corpses returned to life. Lincoln selects a group of men to accompany him to investigate the fort where the battle took place, and they’re attacked by the undead.
Lincoln asks Stonewall Jackson to help him fight the zombie outbreak. Jackson, believing the zombies to be humans still (cf. Survival of the Dead and the Barn Walkers in The Walking Dead), refuses to help. Later, Stonewall Jackson reconsiders and helps Lincoln blow up the fort containing the zombies.
After 150 long years of waiting, we have two Abraham Lincoln horror movies released in the same year! Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies didn’t have a theatrical release but went straight to video.
10. From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) aka The Offspring
In this horror anthology, the uncle (Vincent Price) of an executed murderer narrates four stories of his evil town, Oldfield, to a reporter. In the fourth segment, Civil War soldiers are captured by a town of orphans who have their own plans for them.
The movie was originally titled From a Whisper to a Scream, but it was changed to The Offspring for its American release. The DVD was released under the original title. This was director Jeff Burr’s second movie after Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Trivia: Watch the credits all the way through. Towards the end, it says “When in Tennessee, Visit Oldfield.” Oldfield doesn’t actually exist.
Considering that the Civil War was the most horrific time in the history of the United States, it’s not surprising that it would lend itself as a suitable backdrop for horror movies. More Americans died in the Civil War than in all other wars combined. The protagonists in these movies aren’t hapless college students or sheltered suburbanites; these are people who have seen and done terrible things in the course of survival. The way they react to the dire situations in these movies is light years away from how we would behave if caught in similar circumstances.
This gives an interesting layer to the characters in horror movies that take place in other periods, but especially during times of war. Whether soldier or civilian, they have known hardship and atrocity that hitherto would have seemed unthinkable to them. They are survivors; and their experiences enable to accept and react to the reality of the supernatural horrors that beset them without hesitation.