As summer approaches with promises of nocturnal nights and day-drunk days, for some of us a dark cloud looms. A final gauntlet of blistering tension and sleepless nights. A darkness before the dawn. I’m talking, of course, about final exams. The mere mention of which can send anxiety-rich blood rushing to our temples. In the spirit of nail-biting mental pressure followed by a sudden cathartic release, we’re taking an academic look at our favorite horror movie head explosions. For those studious readers here seeking relief from the pre-exam dread-spiral, don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit. Welcome to Horror Home Ec!
In the early days of the splatter feature, special effects artists were like mad scientist outlaws. They pushed the boundaries of censors while finding creative new ways to leave us retching into our popcorn. The crowning achievement of these madcap rebels was the always awe-inspiring head explosion. Like a shooting star illuminating the night sky, leaving behind a streak of blood stained skull fragments and chunks of mangled brain, the head explosion is a rare and beautiful sight. Our eyes light up as that sudden, unexpected moment of carnage leaps from the screen to slap the popcorn out of our hands.
We all have our favorites; the laser blast head obliteration in 1986’s Chopping Mall, the vibrant hues of brain splatter in 1981’s The Prowler, or Weird Al Yankovic’s brain bursting final note in the opening theme song for the 1996 comedy Spy Hard. All great choices, but did you ever wonder what all that grisly viscera exploding across the screen actually was? Well, clear your desks and roll up your sleeves as we take a closer look at a few of our favorite classic and cult head explosions.
Scanners (1981): The Head Burst Heard Around the World
When talking explosive migraines, there’s no better place to start than David Cronenberg’s 1981 film, Scanners.
scan·ner (skanər). Noun. – a person with telepathic and telekinetic powers
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The film follows a down-on-his-luck scanner named Vale as he attempts to bring down the head of an underground network of renegade scanners. In the infamous scene we’ve all come to know and love, the ConSec corporation are conducting a lecture on scanning and need a volunteer. An unfortunate choice of volunteers is made as the lecturer attempts to read the mind of the head of the evil scanner underground, with explosive consequences.
Behind the Brains
- Latex scraps
- Leftover hamburgers
- Karo Syrup
Simulating an explosion resulting from mental pressure proved to be more challenging than expected for the film’s special effects team. Squibs or other explosives would produce an unwanted spark and the effect resulting from compressed air was apparently laughable. It was on a cold night at a warehouse in Montreal when, having exhausted all other options, Special Effects Supervisor Gary Zeller was fed up. He instructed the crew to roll all cameras and then take cover inside their trucks. He then lay on the floor behind the mold of actor Louis Del Grande and pointed a shotgun upward, into the back of the gelatin abomination’s head. A few loud and messy seconds later and history was made. Zeller’s end-of-his-rope efforts paid off and audiences were treated to a brain splatter that has yet to be topped.
Dawn of The Dead (1978): Wooley’s Gone Apeshit, Man!
While Scanners is the most well-known of the head splatters, the gold pentacle goes to the king of splatter himself, Tom Savini. We first became acquainted with his brand of brain-busting in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. George Romero’s follow up to his horror classic Night of the Living Dead needs little introduction, survivors of the zombie apocalypse seek refuge in a shopping mall and the gore bar is raised considerably. The film opens as a SWAT team are clearing out an infected apartment complex. Wooley, a SWAT team member who lives just long enough to have a name, loses his cool and blows a guys head off with a shotgun.
- Fake blood
- Shrimp dip
- Apple cores
- Anything else you might be able to steal from the craft services table
After filling condoms with fake blood and raiding the craft services table for organic shrapnel, special effects wizard Tom Savini had the “brains” needed to test his exploding head. Word spread around set and a crowd gathered as Savini trained his shotgun on the table scrap filled rubber head. The performance went off without a hitch. Cast and crew applauded as their leftovers rained down like at a ticker-tape parade.
Savini had another chance to try his head splatter recipe in the 1980 slasher film, Maniac. This time he added a little extra zest of danger. The scene, which had Savini shooting a shotgun through a car windshield at a mold of his own head, was shot guerrilla style in New York City. Due to the Sullivan Act, making it illegal to fire a gun in New York, a quick getaway was necessary. After their escape, the blood-soaked car was stashed in a garage for a few weeks before retrieving it to shoot the remainder of the scene. However, during that time the catering scraps had turned the car so rank that the crew decided they had to get rid of it. They did what any normal person would do and drown it in the Hudson River, with Savini’s dummy and blown apart rubber head still inside.
Deadly Friend: Buffy the Old Lady Slayer
Our final brain-buster has become more of a viral sensation than it is a cult classic. Despite being directed by the Master of Horror, Wes Craven, few know 1986’s Deadly Friend by name. It’s the film’s brain splatter scene alone that resonates in our deviant minds. Deadly Friend tells the story of a boy named Paul and his robot, BB…his robot whose microchip brain he then implants into his dead girlfriend, Samantha. In the classic “heads-up” basketball scene, Samantha takes revenge against the cantankerous old neighbor who destroyed BB, and boy has she got an arm! She throws a basketball at the old lady so hard that her head explodes, leaving the headless corpse clumsily flailing around the living room.
- Cow brains
- Fake blood
You can’t fault this kind of logical thinking; what looks like brains? Brains! If you want to achieve the effect of a woman’s head being smashed by a basketball, just fill a plaster head with cow brains and smash it with a basketball. Simple. As mesmerizingly outlandish as it is, this wonderfully silly bit of gore almost didn’t happen. Wes Craven was attempting to step outside the horror genre and prove he wasn’t just a one-trick pony but with a name like his comes certain expectations. Studio execs and test audiences were not pleased to see a family friendly film from the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The execs demanded gore! And Craven delivered.
The recipes discussed today can be costly and VERY DANGEROUS. For your own home-cooked head explosion, we recommend the Troma method; put a wig on a watermelon and back over it with your car. However you choose to do it, always remember those pioneers of putrid who came before you. It was these gunslinging, special effects outlaws who paved the way for future generations of horror and nothing exemplifies their achievement better than the iconic head explosion. Like a horrific car wreck bathed in the radiance of a picturesque sunset, the feelings a sudden burst of gore can conjure in us are sometimes complicated. It’s somewhere in that complication that we feel compelled to watch it again. And again.
That concludes today’s lesson in Horror Home Economics. I hope it wasn’t too much of a strain on any of your studious minds. If your head DID explode while reading this, please let us know what YOUR brains are made of. Comment here, or on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!