Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.
Horror distributors have understood the power of a captivating tagline for decades. In fact, I’d argue horror films beat out every other genre when it comes to creating unforgettable ad copy. Seriously, think for a few seconds about the ones you remember. I bet at least 90% of you instantly thought of things along the lines of Alien’s classic “in space, no one can hear you scream” or Last House on the Left’s “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: 'It's only a movie, only a movie, only a movie...'”
Horror films have had some truly unforgettable taglines over the years – presumably because the subject matter’s lurid and low-budget nature often allows for silly wordplay and a certain amount of campiness that would never work for serious movies. The best taglines are a lot like informercials merged with poetry, and crossed with the sideshow at carnivals of days long gone. They promise things, oftentimes impossible things, that we know we need to see despite our better judgment – and they do it in a way that is often surprisingly artistic.
With that in mind, here are some of the best horror-film taglines of all time. Each is sure to evoke memories for those who’ve seen the films they’re promoting, but it’s my sincere hope that they might inspire those who haven’t seen these films to actually go and check them out.
“When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth” – Dawn of the Dead
Taglines come about in a number of different ways. Sometimes they’re crafted from the general theme of the film, sometimes they’re a play on words or a joke, and sometimes they’re pulled right from the film’s screenplay. The latter is the case with the unforgettable line that helped sell George Romero’s zombie magnum opus Dawn of the Dead.
Ken Foree offers up the terrifying observation in the film as a possible explanation for why the dead have risen from their graves and started to chow down on anyone with a pulse. It’s a really great line partially because of the way its written (it has a certain solemnity to it, particularly in the way Foree delivers it in the movie), and partially because it could be plausible. Romero never really explains why his zombies have come back from the grave in any sort of definitive way – and this explanation seems as good as any.
It becomes even more effective because of the biblical implications. If you’re a nonreligious type, you most likely assume there’s some scientific explanation behind this zombie apocalypse – which means if mankind can figure it out, things can get back to normal. If Hell is just backing up like a clogged toilet, though? That’s a whole other ball game.
This tagline sells the film – if you knew nothing at all about Dawn of the Dead and saw that tagline, I’m betting most of you would be all too eager to check it out. I know I would have been.
“Herbert West has a very good head on his shoulders... and another one in a dish on his desk.” – Re-Animator
Where Dawn of the Dead presents an air of seriousness, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator runs in the opposite direction, with equally effective results.
Re-Animator is a hilarious and gory reinterpretation of an H.P. Lovecraft story (which is interesting enough, because Lovecraft has been described as many things, but hilarious is not one of them), and the tagline here really communicates that. We can tell from the blurb that it’s going to be gory (he’s got a head on his desk) and funny (also because he’s got a head on his desk). The line teases the things that make Re-Animator so memorable, yet only scratches the surface of the insanity of it all – because, man, once you see the head on the desk, it’s even crazier than you imagined.
This tagline really works because it’s one of the rare ones that lures you in by inspiring a lot of lurid thoughts about what this movie might be – then actually delivers things that are even crazier than what you imagined before seeing it.
Plus, it gets bonus points for riffing on the classic Robert Bloch quote where the author reveals he really has the heart of a small boy – that he keeps in a jar on his desk. It’s a win-win.
“Who will survive, and what will be left of them?” – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Tobe Hooper’s 1974 tale of terror works overtime to capture your attention. It’s hard to pass up that title, which promises all sorts of horrible things, and then there’s the tagline, which basically confirms all the horrible images that popped into your head when you read the title are exactly what this film is going to give you.
However, what’s funny about TCM is that it’s really a fantastic exercise in marketing and subverting expectations. The title and tagline promise us a brutal chainsaw massacre, and we certainly get some deaths from the titular tool, but as countless critics have pointed out over the years, TCM isn’t nearly as gory as the marketing of it implies.
In fact, for a film about a man wearing a mask made of stitched together human skin hunting down teenagers to chop up with his chainsaw for his cannibal family’s dinner, it’s pretty damn tame.
“If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all…” – A Nightmare on Elm Street
When you couple the tagline with the title, the potential viewer already knows that the “nightmare” aspect of the film is really going to play into dreams somehow. Normally, you read a horror movie title with the word “nightmare” in it and it could have nothing to do with actually sleeping.
It’s interesting that the blurb for Craven’s film doesn’t play up Freddy at all. There’s nary a mention of him, choosing instead to focus on Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy. The poster that accompanies the line gives you a little hint as to what the disfigured killer is all about, the marketing basically keeps Freddy in the shadows – something that was eventually dropped in the sequels, which were progressively less interesting.
“The night HE came home.” – Halloween
The tagline for John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick is the perfect companion to the film it’s promoting. It's every bit as minimalistic as the feature, proving yet again that sometimes less is more.
“The night HE came home” is simple and direct – so simple that it could really be for any movie. The emphasis on “HE” coupled with the title of the film certainly give it a lot of additional oomph. That “he” emphasis really ties it all together – you don’t know who “he” is, but no one who reads that tagline thinks this is a good thing. This isn’t your dad coming home from a tour of duty, in other words. This is some bad stuff headed your way, which ties in nicely with Myers personification as a force of nature in the film. That tagline is great because it’s so simple and vague – and even better because the “he” lives up to and exceeds everything implied in the line.
“They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and the cities will be your tombs” – Demons
If Halloween’s tagline is a great example of how simplicity can work in a film’s favor, then this line used to promote Lamberto Bava’s splatterfest Demons is the counter.
To be honest, the Demons tagline really oversells the picture – but I love it anyway. It’s got that cheesy apocalyptic grandeur that gets me every time. Unfortunately, there are no cities turning into graveyards in this film – the whole thing takes place inside a movie theater, where a strange mask starts turning the patrons into savage hell beasts.
Demons is a great film (with a wildly out-of-left-field ending), and that tagline, along with the spooky looking demons on the cover, would get any self-respecting horror fanatic to shell out the cash for this film. Sure, the blurb might make you think you’re in for something more along the lines of Dawn of the Dead, but remember – sometimes taglines sell the sizzle and not the steak. In this case, the line and the film are awesome – just for very different reasons.
“The good news is your date is here. The bad news is he’s dead.” – Night of the Creeps
Like Dawn of the Dead, Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps uses one of its best lines of dialogue as a poster tagline. It works just as well here as it did for Romero.
Night of the Creeps is filled with classic lines, but few are more enduring than this one -- uttered by Tom Atkins as a horde of undead prom dates descend upon a sorority house. Like Re-Animator, this line lets you know that Night of the Creeps is going to be a horror film, but that it’s also aiming for a few laughs along the way.
What’s really interesting about it is that it made me laugh when I saw it on the VHS cover, but it really cracked me up when it actually appears in the movie. That’s proof that a line is really great; when you laugh even more the second time you encounter it, you know it’s good. It’s essentially the perfect line in what might be the perfect B movie.
“Abby doesn’t need a man anymore. The Devil is her lover now!” – Abby
William Girdler’s 1974 demonic-possession flick Abby would have been consigned to the annals of low-budget horror history decades ago if not for the classic tagline above. The story finds a female marriage counselor possessed by some sort of sex demon unleashed by her father-in-law (who performs exorcisms in Africa). It’s completely ludicrous and an obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of The Exorcist.
That being said, the tagline is absolutely classic. It’s got the perfect blend of cheesy menace crossed with sexual taboo. Oooh, Abby hooked up with Satan! It’s unfortunate that Abby isn’t nearly as entertaining as its tagline – it could have been one for the ages.
“Man is the warmest place to hide” – The Thing
John Carpenter makes his second appearance on the list, this time with the tagline for his stunning men-in-peril film The Thing.
This marketing line is really great. It gives us a hint as to what the thing of the title is up to, it creeps us out because being bodily invaded is not something most of us find agreeable, and it even teases the setting (Antarctica) by using the word warmest. Warmest really does double duty there – it hints at the locale while grossing us all out by thinking about something alien being all snuggled up in our soft and hot innards.
It’s unfortunate that even such a great tagline couldn’t help The Thing find an audience at the box office back in 1982. The film was a commercial disappointment (it went up against the much more cuddly alien in E.T.), but don’t fret too much – The Thing has gone on to become a bona fide cult classic. It was just a few years ahead of its time. The movie – and the tagline – are still alive and kicking.
“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” – Jaws 2
The Jaws franchise has had some great taglines. From the original’s “It’s as if God created the Devil, and gave him Jaws” to the corny but fun “One good bite deserves another,” and then straight on through to “This time, it’s personal”, this is a series that has never hurt for entertaining lines on its posters.
However, one of my personal favorites is the line mentioned above, used for Jaws 2. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” Spielberg’s first film was a cultural phenomenon that made people nervous even in swimming pools. Just as that started to pass, here comes Jaws 2 reminding you there’s more than one huge great white out there in the ocean – and that you might want to reconsider swimming in the sea.
Jaws 2 was certainly a lesser film than Spielberg’s earlier entry, but this tagline is excellent.
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