Military, Modern Day

Horror Movies With a Military Edge

War contains horrors all of its own, so no wonder filmmakers use the military as a backdrop for some terrifying tales. Check out the best – and worst! – of the horror movie bunch…

Check out the best – and worst! – of the bunch…

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

Cult curio Frankenstein’s Army celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Hellboy star Karel Roden took the role of Dr Viktor Frankenstein – not the original mad scientist of course, who appeared in Mary Shelley’s novel, but a descendant applying his deadly knowledge to the Second World War!

Soldiers of the Red Army find themselves up against Nazi “zombots”, or mechanized marauders, who are set to make the war effort even more challenging than expected. 

The idea was born from director Richard Raaphorst’s long-held interest in the Frankenstein story. As he explained to Collider for the movie’s release, the “insane” nature of the concept spurred him on to create the film.

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Creature designs from a previous production of his called Worst Case Scenario – another Nazi horror picture that ultimately went unfinished – were called into service for Frankenstein’s Army. 

With an emphasis on old school practical effects, the end result received mixed reviews from some no doubt baffled critics.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

Bringing together military men and werewolves in the Highlands of Scotland, the splatter-oriented mayhem of Dog Soldiers was the directorial debut of Neil Marshall (The Descent). War games turn bloody, as Sean Pertwee and his team of hard-bitten fighters – hard-bitten as in literally – take on ravening furballs. The stage is set for a creature feature/military action mashup.

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Looking back in a Den of Geek interview in 2021, Marshall spoke about Aliens as an influence on the wolf pack’s behaviour. More on that particular movie later! He also mentioned his interest in an Indiana Jones-style project called Eagle’s Nest. Anyone who knows anything about Nazis would surely be intrigued by that title.

Dog Soldiers
British horror/war film Dog Soldiers. A howling good watch.

Dog Soldiers featured a number of ex-army personnel on the crew. When the script called for the stars to jump out of a helicopter, Marshall had a ready made bunch of troops to take their place!

Like with Frankenstein’s Army, the production used practical effects over CGI. When it came to kitting out the main monsters, stilts were incorporated into the costumes so the performers would be taller. Marshall hired dancers to play the werewolves – if you’re wondering why these howling horrors look so graceful, that’ll be the reason.

The drunken fighting is more true to life than you may think, as mentioned by IMDB. Pertwee was reportedly so inebriated that he didn’t feel it when someone accidentally hit him on the nose.

Shock Waves (1977)

It comes as no surprise that a lot of military horror films have Nazis as the monsters. Shock Waves stars a bona fide legend of the genre in Peter Cushing, with fellow star John Carradine also appearing alongside a cast of unsuspecting tourists, whose vacation takes a dark turn following a shipwreck. Lurking in the waters are Reich zombies, left over from World War II. Who would have thought?

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Director Ken Wiederhorn revealed the movie was made in order to please investors. Quoted by The Flashback Files in 2013, he mentioned that he wasn’t that interested in horror to begin with. Also, he was inspired by an unexpected source. As featured on IMDB, an extra with the extraordinary name of Max Trumpton needed surgery for glaucoma. His protective goggles must have looked sinister to Wiederhorn, who promptly gave a pair to all the undead Nazis!

House (1986)

Another cult offering is haunted abode comedy House. The story focuses on horror author Roger Cobb, played by William Katt. He’s retreated to the old pile of his late aunt, in order to write his latest book. Only his aunt took her own life. And the new novel is all about his harrowing experiences during the Vietnam War.

Of course not all the war based Horror films are classics. House (1986)

While House is a fright fest of many parts, the most memorable is surely Big Ben, Cobb’s comrade over in the jungle who met a nasty end. Behind the grisly make up of this corpse-like figure was Richard Moll, star of sitcom Night Court. Another comedy legend, Cheers’ George Wendt, played a supporting role.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

This rather strange and high profile offering also featured the war in Vietnam as a key element. Tim Robbins starred as Jacob Singer, who is haunted in the present by ghosts from the past. The surreal and nightmarish imagery was brought to the screen by director Adrian Lyne, best known for the likes of 9½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction. No sexy antics here! Jacob’s Ladder blends Biblical themes with the horrors of war to powerful effect, though the film wasn’t for everyone.

Jacobs Ladder
The 1990 horror classic Jacobs Ladder was based around the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Singer’s army discharge certificate was 100% genuine. IMDB notes that prop master Thomas Wright previously served in the forces, and decided to add his own certificate in the picture. Wright can be identified by his service number.

Interestingly, this was another movie where the special effects were handled in an unconventional way. No post production was involved. In an age before extensive CGI, Lyne opted to capture everything live on camera. 

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It wasn’t a box office hit, but Jacob’s Ladder was influential enough to warrant a remake in 2019, starring Michael Ealy. To say this came and went is probably an understatement! Robbins stated in 2015 that the original movie’s release during the run up to the Gulf War may have made its story of wartime hell less appealing. It also dealt with the issue of hallucinogenic drugs in combat, another controversial topic.

Outpost (2008)

Turning 15 this year is Outpost, in which soldiers are sent on a deadly mission underground only to be confronted by undead Nazis. As you might expect, a top secret experiment is at the heart of the nightmarish scenario. Ray Stevenson (The Punisher: War Zone) starred, with British horror/sci-fi movie regular Michael Smiley among the supporting cast. The movie was directed by Steve Barker.

Outpost sees the heroes battling undead Nazi Zombies. As you would!

It has slight similarities with Dog Soldiers, in that the army-fuelled action happens in Scotland. This time however the location doubled for Eastern Europe. Two sequels followed, expanding the central idea. Outpost tapped into the Reich’s interest in supernatural forces as a weapon of war, a recurring theme in horror films with a military flavour.

The Keep (1983)

A more obscure entry in the military horror genre was Michael Mann’s The Keep. Adapted from the novel by F. Paul Wilson, it had a lot going for it. Not only was Mann a great visual stylist, but the cast featured Scott Glenn (The Hunt for Red October), Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot), Gabriel Byrne (Defence of the Realm) and last, but not least, the legendary Sir Ian McKellen. Unfortunately the end result failed at the box office, and Wilson wasn’t very happy with the adaptation of his source material.

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The story focused on Nazis, though this time they weren’t exactly the villains. When a team of Hitler’s finest arrive at a stone fortress to set up shop during World War II, they get more than they bargained for. There’s something nasty lurking in this old place, and it isn’t out of date sauerkraut.

Mann wanted the Nazis to wear black, even though they would probably have been wearing grey or green. The offbeat creative decision was run past historian, costume designer and consultant Andrew Mollo, who provided the production with factual information. The effects-laden movie also suffered a major setback when Wally Veevers, the visual effects supervisor, passed away. With The Keep in post production, Mann and company didn’t know what Veevers had in mind for key fantastical sequences.    

Critics were generally a bit confused by the goings-on at The Keep, highlighting the unusual tone and even the sound quality – apparently this was because of behind the scenes interference. Despite the drama, the movie developed a cult following. Mann’s original cut was reportedly a lot more coherent, though also substantially longer. The ambitious nature of the project reportedly worried Hollywood bigwigs, and this apparently impacted on what could have been an incredible moviegoing experience.

Predator (1987)

This deadly alien hunter has been part of popular culture for several decades now. Most recently, the Predator battled the Comanche tribe in the 18th century. However it all began for fans back in the late 1980s, with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Vietnam veteran “Dutch” Schaefer leading the fightback. Whilst he and his team carry out a rescue mission in the South American jungle, they are being observed by a different type of threat altogether.

Predator 1987
‘Get to da Chopper’ PREDATOR. Still a movie classic today by any standards.

Helmed by John McTiernan (Die Hard), the sci-fi action horror originally featured Jean-Claude Van Damme as the title foe. He was called upon to perform his butt-kicking moves within the confines of a bug-eyed monster costume, which proved impractical. The design was changed and Van Damme left the production, though footage of him in an alarmingly bright red suit still exists.

IMDB notes that the Mexican location made for a tough shoot. It sounds like Arnie and the gang went through a proper military-style experience, with leeches sucking their blood and snakes slithering around. The star also endured extreme levels of cold during the night, and in one famous sequence had to cover himself in mud as a disguise. The freezing muck, plus general low temperatures, led to one dangerously chilly action hero. 

Aliens (1986)

Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979) was a claustrophobic tale of terror set aboard a spaceship. Essentially a haunted house story with a heavy sci-fi twist, the film showcased the terrifying xenomorph, plus other horrifying creations such as the face hugger. Artist H.R. Giger gave the monster a game-changing look, helping Scott and his team make a major impression on unsuspecting audiences. A sequel was perhaps inevitable, though it took 7 years to arrive. When it did, it wasn’t exactly what people expected.

James Cameron relied on sheer firepower to tackle the alien this time round. Aliens would take Sigourney Weaver’s heroine Ripley back to meet the xenomorphs, this time in the company of space marines. Michael Biehn, who co-starred in Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), provided backup as Hicks. He survived the ordeal of entering a human colony infested with the creatures, unlike most of the other characters. Also lasting to the end, albeit in pieces, was android Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen. Other iconic cast members included Bill Paxton and Paul Reiser.

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The marines travelled in an armoured personnel carrier, that was actually a British Airways tow truck with some modifications. Wanting to reflect the reality of military life, Cameron reportedly filmed the introductory scene for the marines last, as mentioned on IMDB. This meant that the bond between the soldiers felt genuine, because they were used to each other’s company. The cast also found themselves hanging out with the fictional troops from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). The master filmmaker shot his movie close by, so the two very different military units got to rub shoulders.

As is typical in the movie business, certain sets were left standing for potential use by other productions. When Batman needed an interior for a chemical company years later, the team walked onto the Aliens set and discovered a xenomorph nest! The Dark Knight would actually encounter the extra-terrestrial menace himself in a 1997 comic book.

Cameron’s follow up was a big gamble, though he convinced producers to go ahead in a surprisingly simple way. Speaking to Empire in 2022, he confirmed that he wrote the title “Aliens”, and then turned the last letter into a dollar sign!