Okay, did you watch it? Pretty cool, huh? It’s the most famous exploding head in horror movie history, and rightly so. “The exploding head scene was accomplished by filling a latex head with dog food and rabbit livers, and shooting it from behind with a 12-gauge shotgun,” as the movie’s IMDb trivia page helpfully explains. Sounds dangerous, disgusting and politically incorrect, but there’s no denying the visceral thrill of the final result. In my opinion, the impact derives from the tactile quality of the explosion. This is something we can almost touch—wet, immediate and final. Physical effects, when done with skill and attention to detail, have a palpability that CGI can’t even begin to replicate. That’s why the vaporized noggin in Scanners, a movie that’s 29 years old this year, has yet to be matched in the digital age.
To further illustrate the point, here are two more exploding heads. The image above is from Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s zombie masterpiece from 1978. And although Tom Savini’s work isn’t up to par with what Dick Smith did three years later on Scanners, it still possesses the essential directness, the sheer bodily bravado, that brings a good effect to gory life. Contrast that potency with the image below, which is taken from Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Another excellent movie, but by 2004 filmmakers had begun to augment live-action effects with digital trickery. Blood spatter from a hard drive? Carnage care of mouse clicks? Something intangible is lost when bloodshed becomes pixilated. Since horror often deals with destruction or a warping of the body, perhaps it needs the physicality of traditional makeup effects to be convincing. Yep, that might just be the meat of the matter.