The 10 Best Horror Films Steeped in Social Commentary

Jordan Peele casually sent shockwaves through the internet with the first drop of the trippy, daring trailer for Get Out, a surprisingly dark (but self-aware) turn from a dude we’d known previously for lovably weird laughs on Key & Peele and the deceptively complex Keanu. The film, which envisions a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scenario with an unsavory The Stepford Wives twist that results in horror film with “cutting commentary on racial dynamics”. But while Get Out’s clear social commentary might seem surprisingly bold in the mainstream horror climate that often trades in shocking imagery and supernatural shenanigans, it’s simply another entry in the long-held political tradition of the horror genre.

Peele, for what it’s worth, is well aware of his stylistic predecessors – he’s even curated a related film series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called “The Art of the Social Thriller” – but as we prepare to step into his convoluted and uncomfortably relevant nightmare, let’s revisit other political horror movies steeped in social commentary that helped change the genre forever.

[You can read Matt Goldberg’s full Get Out review here.]

10.) The Crazies

Image via Cambist Films

Made by political allegory expert George Romero, and released at the height of the Vietnam war in 1973, The Crazies is a structurally daring and overtly political biomedical horror film, set in a small Pennsylvania town torn apart by violently psychotic townspeople infected by a new chemical agent in the water supply. It’s a film steeped in the governmental distrust of its time, and rife with stock footage and other combat imagery that provides little hope or solution for the darkness proffered on screen. But Romero’s concern wasn’t just abroad, it was also with Hollywood, who he felt was ignoring the war in its media output, making The Crazies a deeply political and still-resonant film despite some of its cheesier flourishes.

9.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Image via Allied Artists Pictures

Perhaps even more than horror films, the science fiction genre is known best for housing complex meanings within its tech-y futures and alien beings. And Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which straddles the line between the two genres, is no exception. A paranoiac epic that arrived in the middle of the Cold War, Body Snatchers tells the xenophobic (or satiric?) tale of a small coastal California town beset by an extraterrestrial force replacing its white bread American citizens with alien automatons. These “pod people” look just like their hosts, but are devoid of emotion (and, perhaps most blatantly, dedication or love to anyone or anything). So blatantly wrought from Cold War anxieties and almost entirely subsisting on the terrifying implications of its metaphors, Invasion is one of the first clear horror offerings that functions both as a deeply spooky film and an isolationist fable.

8.) Society

Image via Re-Animator Productions

Though it’s perhaps best remembered for its cheesy ‘80s stylings and gonzo body horror, the criminally under-seen Society is still surprising in its controversial approach to class construction and division, imagining the sweater-set wearing country clubbers as actually separate from their more middle-class counterparts on a DNA level, enjoying their upper crust status through the literal consumption of those below them. It’s stomach churning – largely because of the burbling body horror its third act displays with glee – but strip away the faces grafted on butts and Society’s sickly body slurping orgy, and you’ve got a surprisingly astute little social commentary.

7.) The People Under the Stairs

Image via Universal Pictures

A list like this would be incomplete without Wes Craven’s political horror film/black comedy The People Under the Stairs. Clearly steeped in the sharp racial and class divisions of the Reagan era, Craven trades his traditional Boogeymen for good ol’ nonsupernatural mankind (in fact, they’re clear comical stand-ins for Ronald and Nancy Reagan), landlords who are amassing huge fortunes by keeping those around them poor, hoarding their wealth and gentrifying the neighborhood around them. The People Under the Stairs isn’t subtle at any level (their tenants literally fall through the cracks of the house where they live) but for all the film’s revolutionary charge, it makes sense to swing big.

6.) White Dog

Besides giving Cujo an easy run for its money as the scariest killer dog movie ever made, White Dog is also a chilling tale centered on a dog trained to kill black people on sight. Though not technically a horror film (it’s much closer to a straight drama than anything else) the themes and depictions of animal attacks certainly qualifies it as a terrifying film in its own right. Raising intense questions about racism – how much it’s able to be undone via education or whether it’s an ineradicable scourge, and the implications of either of those answers, White Dog is a vital film that might make a striking double feature with Get Out.

5.) The Howling

Perhaps the movie on this list most stylistically tied to Peele’s Get Out is Joe Dante’s clever, chilling and at once deeply terrifying The Howling, which takes the traditional werewolf narrative and transplants it to a cult-like mountain retreat. The catch? It’s populated with self-improvement gurus that drop out, tune in and transform into inner beasts. Smartly interweaving elements of thriller, horror and comedy plus some show-stopping practical effects, Dante carefully pricks at the of-the-time cult anxieties (Robert Picardo’s cult leader is clearly modeled on Charles Manson) and our desire to adhere to social norms.

4.) Candyman

Based on Clive Barker’s England-set short story, Candyman is a brilliant and still disturbing tale of systemic racism and the power of prejudice set in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green housing development. Following a young grad student who discovers a notorious urban legend linked to a racially-motivated slaying centuries ago, Candyman smartly tells its story through two separate halves of Chicago society, both via the residents of the housing project beset by paranoia and fear after a series of grisly killings and the white upper-class tenants determined to look the other way. It’s an urban legend at its core, but like the best of ancient folklore, it’s got some timeless real-world issues at its core. 

3.) Dawn of the Dead

Image via United Film

It’s a testament both to Romero’s filmmaking ability and his political mindedness that he has two entries on this list alone, with his zombie films boasting some of his most highly-charged metaphors. Where Night of the Living Dead was rife with racial commentary during the height of the civil rights movement, Dawn of the Dead reflects Romero’s concern for cultural apathy consumerism. Set largely in a shopping mall, Romero uses his undead cronies to condemn the hypnotic effects of superficial comforts and their eroding effects on human nature and values.

2.) Videodrome

Made in the time of illicit, illegally copied VHS, a cultural obsession with snuff, and, as ever, a preoccupation with pornography, David Cronenberg hit the peak of his tech body-horror wave with Videodrome, a mesmerizing cyborgian fable that centers on an enterprising Program Executive and his discovery of a violent and erotically charged channel with the unmistakable gleam of reality. What follows is an increasingly confusing and disturbing fall into body horror and tech dystopia, but its themes – of all consuming technology and concern over when tech stops and our bodies end – are so sharp that no matter how the medium of VHS might age, Videodrome is bound to feel current in any landscape.

1.) Rosemary's Baby

It’s strange that one of the best horror films about the sexual assault would be one helmed by Polanski, who came under fire in the ’70s for high-profile sexual abuse case that continues to shroud his name to his day. Nonetheless, Rosemary’s Baby is wrought with rape culture and concerns of consent, resulting in a uniquely feminine tale of horror familiar to any viewer accustomed to the struggle of bodily autonomy and the looming threat of strong and unknown forces. Pushing the concept of Guy and Rosemary’s traditionally patriarchal romance into supernaturally horrific territories, Rosemary’s Baby isn’t a rape revenge tale so much as a chilling reminder of the very real threats of assault that women (and men) face every single day.

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