War films are horror films, aren’t they? Both genres explore inevitable death intertwined with moral quandaries and are full of suspense. Come and See is often hailed as one of the scariest films and Son of Saul almost plays like a found footage in Auschwitz.
There is a thin line between the two, but military horror goes further by blending the literal and figurative. This hybrid subgenre repeatedly uses the zombie as the antagonist of choice, a reason identified by Scholar Kevin Wetmore in Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema: “Zombies cannot be reasoned with, cannot be negotiated with, they seek only to replicate themselves, which also makes them an excellent metaphor for terrorists.”
That said, in recognition of Memorial Day here are 14 military horrors to choose from that aren’t all just about the undead. The POVs range from civilians trapped in military culture, teen cadets, facing barriers as a female pilot and the post-Vietnam grief endured by veterans and their families. Or, of course, if you just want to see giant alien bugs or werewolves blown to bits, that’s here too. Pour one out, sit back and enjoy.
Director: Bob Clark
The Monkey’s Paw tale gets a Vietnam war setting in Deathdream AKA Dead of Night. After Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is killed in action, a “death notification” is delivered to his parents and sister, portrayed by John Marley, Lynn Carlin and Anya Ormsby. The film shows the early work of Tom Savini (a Vietnam veteran himself), alongside Alan Ormsby, who also penned the script. The way it expresses the domestic challenges veterans and their families face upon homecoming is quite touching. Themes of grief, post traumatic stress disorder, addiction and an inability to meet the expectations of society and loved ones are told through the bloodthirsty ghoul. The final line cements the horrors of war and loss: “Andy’s home. Some boys never come home.” In 2010, it was announced to be remade under the title Zero Dark Thirty with director Paul Solet (Clean) revising a script by Stephen Susco (The Grudge), but there has been no updates on its status since. Deathdream streams on Tubi and ARROW.
Director: Joe Dante
Aired as a part of Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror anthology, Homecoming is a pivot from the typical military zombie film where we root for the humans to survive. It’s an anti-war film and tribute to fallen service members. Without giving anything away, it shows zombies who want more than brains… an idea inspired by a film on this list, J’accuse (1919). Set during the war in Iraq, the story is told through the eyes of presidential speech writer David Murch (Jon Tenney). During a TV appearance, he tells a grieving mother, “If I had one wish… I would wish for your son to come back.” This statement accidentally summons the dead out of their American flag-covered caskets. It sounds heavy with its political stance, but the comedic and heartfelt elements make this a wholly unique and entertaining ride. Homecoming streams on Screambox, Tubi, CONtv, Fandor and Freevee.
Child’s Play 3 (1991)
Director: Jack Bender
When one thinks of military horror, teen cadets are hardly the first to come to mind, but they absolutely count. The third installment of Child’s Play introduces us to Andy Barclay (Justin Whalin), now sixteen-years-old, attending Kent Military School while his mother is in psychiatric care. He’s seemingly safe from his least favorite doll of all time, Chucky (Brad Dourif), until he finds out Andy’s location. Chucky manipulates a young cadet named Tyler (Jeremy Sylvers) who rejects any warnings of danger. As anticipated, hell unleashes at the school. The film has been cited as the least favorite of Don Mancini, and generally by fans, but I argue that it’s undeserved. It’s an environment we rarely see and mirrors many of the mind games of boot camp on a smaller scale. Additionally, it’s the only film of the franchise that centers around teens, making it a nice precursor to the Chucky TV series that would come thirty years later. Child’s Play 3 streams on VOD.
Shadow in the Cloud (2020)
Director: Roseanne Liang
Shadow in the Cloud surrounds World War II pilot Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) on a classified mission to deliver a package from New Zealand to Samoa. When she hitches a ride on a bomber plane, she faces discrimination and sexism from the male crew on board, who refuse to see her as an equal despite her accolades. The opening sets up what’s to come with a vintage cartoon of a gremlin, a folkloric creature said to be the source of malfunctioning aircrafts during the war. It also doubles as a figure of speech, when an unexplained problem or fault occurs. There’s an interesting chunk of the story that takes place in the Sperry Ball turret, a section of the plane where gunners operate machine guns, temporarily giving it the claustrophobic feeling of a one-location film. Shadow in the Cloud streams on Hulu.
Director: Antonia Bird
During the Mexican-American war, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is sent to an isolated US. Army outpost after surviving enemy attack by playing dead. When a half-alive frostbitten man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) straggles into the area, he retells a story of his horrific escape from a Colonel-turned-cannibal in the mountains. The soldiers gear up and initiate a rescue mission with a memorable ensemble in Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), Private Reich (Neal McDonough), Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) and a Native American scout, George (Joseph Runningfox). When they arrive, the truth unfolds in a satisfying sequence that delivers gore, thrills and suspense. The film references the folklore of the Wendigo, who hungers for human flesh and possesses the strength of anyone they devour. It carries all the ingredients of a great Western horror flick and isn’t one to miss. Ravenous streams on VOD.
Body Snatchers (1993)
Director: Abel Ferrara
As the fourth adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers (with 2007’s Invasion to follow), the film places us at a Southern Army base. EPA chemist Steve Malone (Terry Kinney) is summoned to study toxic waste levels and brings along his daughter Marti (Gabrielle Anwar), son Andy (Reilly Murphy) and their stepmother, Carol (Meg Tilly). Other appearances include R. Lee Ermey (a Vietnam veteran before he became an actor) who acts as the base commander General Platt and Forest Whitaker as Dr. Collins. Soon enough, the soldiers’ peculiar behavior spread to other base inhabitants and tap into fears of whether or not people who they say they are. It’s the classic story we know and love, but this locale gives a peek into the daily norms of what it’s like to live within a military institution. Stuart Gordon, who co-wrote the script, was originally poised to direct before being replaced by Abel Ferrera. Body Snatchers streams on VOD.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Director: Adrian Lyne
Neither a success nor failure upon release, Jacob’s Ladder became one of the most influential military horror films to date, its legacy shown in the Silent Hill video games, American Horror Story: Asylum, The Sixth Sense and more. With Flashdance and Fatal Attraction recently under his belt at the time, Lyne pursued the film as a passion project. Jacob (Tim Robbins) is a Vietnam veteran suffering from dissociation, nightmarish visions, divorce, grief and a traumatizing experience in the war. Instead of being an exploitative commentary on a veteran’s psyche, it unfolds as a Francis Bacon painting turned fever dream. Mystery builds as the plot deepens, ultimately leading us towards a poetic ending. A remake helmed by David M. Rosenthal (How It Ends) was released in 2019, but received an underwhelming response. The original Jacob’s Ladder streams on Paramount+.
Director: Abel Gance
While George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead set up the zombie archetype, it’s been said that J’accuse, a French silent film about the injustices of World War I, may have been the first to show the undead on screen. We meet Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé) when his life is interrupted by war and witness his psychological transformation through the years. It is praised as one of the most technically advanced films of its time and one of the rare pacifist narratives. One of the cards read, “War kills as much the mothers as the sons.” Gance was drafted into the Army in 1917 and actually incorporated real battlefield footage into the film. It’s a bleak three hour journey split into two parts, examining the horrors of war with a fascinating sequence in the cemetery and visions of dancing skeletons. In 1938, Gance remade the film right before World War II. J’accuse streams on Kanopy.
The Ninth Configuration (1980)
Director: William Peter Blatty
“I don’t think evil grows out of madness. I think madness grows out of evil.” From the author of The Exorcist comes a sophisticated directorial debut, who even planned this as a sequel. An adaptation of his novel Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane, it features a heavyweight cast of character actors within a Gothic military mental asylum, including Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Tom Atkins, Robert Loggia, Ed Flanders and more. Another post-Vietnam film, we are met with Colonel Kane (Stacey Keach), a Marine sent to the asylum to observe the patients and verify if they are faking mental illness. It’s a psychological slow-burn with a twist that may leave many to wonder where the horror lies, but those patient will encounter a satisfying rise in tension that culminates into a haunting finale. The Ninth Configuration streams on Shudder and AMC+.
Dog Soldiers (2002)
Director: Neil Marshall
Dog Soldiers follows British soldiers conducting a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands. This finds success in utilizing one of the more underrepresented creatures in the subgenre: the werewolf. The cast includes Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd and Liam Cunningham, as they battle against the tall, dark and fearsome lycanthropes. It nicely fits within the ranks of other action heavies like Aliens and Predator. Around the time of release, there were plans to have a sequel titled Dog Soldiers: Fresh Meat with everyone from Andy Armstrong, Rob Green and M.J. Bassett in talks to direct, but the project was ultimately scrapped. However, in 2020, Marshall said that there’s still a chance of revival. In the meantime, the film celebrates its 20th Anniversary this November and had a behind-the-scenes book that was released on May 13. Dog Soldiers streams on VOD.
Director: Kong Su-chang
Described as Apocalypse Now meets Ringu, the film (re-released in 2011 under the title Ghosts of War) follows a South Korean squad in 1972 sent to Vietnam to find missing soldiers. If they can accomplish the mission in ten days, they’ll be rewarded with leave. With Lieutenant Choi (Woo-seong Kam) as their leader, the group encounter a mansion that miraculously appears in the night. The area begins to toy with their minds, eventually pitting them against each other and forcing them to question their own sanity. Interesting fact: the structure they shot in was a casino during the French colonization period. R-Point is a dark ghost story, but surprisingly has many moments of humor that carry you through the journey. R-Point streams on Kanopy.
Director: Julius Avery
Initially rumored to be the fourth film in the Cloverfield series, producer J.J. Abrams shut those down but promised that Overlord was “batshit crazy.” It takes place on the eve of D-Day as a group of American paratroopers crash land onto Nazi-occupied territory when their plane is attacked. The four who survive (Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, John Magaro and Iain De Caestecker), continue the mission to seek and destroy their enemy’s radio tower. It soon becomes apparent that truly inhumane experimentation is happening, and out come the Nazi super soldiers. A high octane and bloody alt-history film with gnarly special effects, this will satisfy cravings for a good time. The fantastic opening scene alone will be enough to grab your attention. Overlord streams on Paramount+ and FXNOW.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
This bananas satire on the gung-ho institution of the military was critically panned upon release, but has since become a cult classic. Based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein, Verhoeven only read a few chapters, specifying it made him “bored and depressed.” It takes place in a future society, during an interstellar war against massive alien bugs. After graduating high school, a group of teens enlist in the Federation, portrayed by Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer and Neil Patrick Harris. They are forced to grow up fast and thrown into the fire of the Arachnids, who are described as a “perfect species.” It’s the military coming of age story we never got from John Hughes, touching on all the teen frustrations of romance, family, and friendship. Starship Troopers streams on HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix and Tubi.
Director: M.J. Bassett
It’s 1917 and a group of British soldiers are fatigued, hungry and wet through the perils of World War I. Upon finding an abandoned German trench, they set up camp and find that there’s an evil much worse than anything they’d come to expect. The cast includes Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Matthew Rhys, Laurence Fox and Kris Marshall, who deliver solid performances as soldiers facing mistrust and the area’s cruelty. For a low budget film and it being Bassett’s directorial debut, it boasts impressive production design, mood building and memorable scenes of horror that include barbed wire, rats and buckets of mud. Much of the nightmare imagery was inspired by author Cliff Graham’s Covenant of War. It almost feels like a period companion to the Silent Hill visual motif, which Bassett would fittingly go on to direct (Silent Hill: Revelation). Deathwatch streams on Tubi.