This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
The desert is a vast, sterile landscape of death. It’s disgustingly hot, offering little to no retreat from the blistering sun. The few creatures capable of living in this mostly inhabitable terrain are predators out to ensure your survival is not possible. On the rare occasion that the big glowing ball of the fire in skies goes down, you are treated to a gorgeous sunset — but that just opens you up to an entirely new set of threats. Don’t you dare think about getting thirsty. Water is virtually nonexistent unless you find a cactus big enough to be storing a decent amount of liquid heaven. And even then it can be illegal to destroy said cactus. All this to say the desert is a terrible place to live, but a great place to set a horror film.
Our 31 Days of Horror Lists continues with a look at the best horror films set in the desert. Read on to see the ten film’s that made the cut, as decided by the Boo Crew — Anna Swanson, Valerie Ettenhofer, Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell, and myself.
10. The Hitcher (1986)
Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986) has been a favorite of mine since its debut — despite those fuckers Siskel & Ebert spoiling the film on The Tonight Show before its opening weekend simply because they hated it — and it holds up beautifully on repeat watches. The film takes brilliant advantage of its desert setting to highlight the isolation and desperation felt by the protagonist, and it also works to elevate Rutger Hauer’s villain into someone/something otherworldly. He’s just a man… or is he something evil brewed up between the hot desert sun and arid winds? He’s terrifying either way. (Rob Hunter)
9. Wolf Creek (2005)
Everything I know about Australia I learned from film and television, which therefore means I’m an expert on the country that is a continent. My main takeaway is that it’s a big ole lot of nothing with a whole lot of something designed to specifically kill humans. There’s the saltwater crocodile, the redback spider, the inland taipan, and every other nightmarish creature you can think of, but the most frightening specimen of all is none other than Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). Our sadistic boy Mick draws inspiration from some of Australia’s most famous serial killers to inflict unspeakable torture on poor, unsuspecting backpackers that dare enter his native land. The moral of the story? Stay indoors. (Chris Coffel)
8. The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Platinum Dunes wasn’t all that bad. Sure it gave us an abysmal Freddy Krueger flick, a glossy but respectable Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a Friday the 13th remake that’d take a decade to get the appreciation it deserves! But the cream of the crop? Alex Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s classic, The Hills Have Eyes. While the original has a verite feel that gives it a sense of dangerous realism, the remake’s large budget is felt in a way that only supports the larger ideas of the film. Rather than letting that overwhelm this arguably small story, Aja uses it to broaden the scope of the original story, while not straying too far away from the film’s roots. These literal hillbillies are now the results of atomic age testing, giving them grotesque mutated bodies as if they just rose from the miles-wide crater of a nuclear bomb. Like blood on sand, the film is hot, sticky, and uncomfortable: everything a desert set horror needs. (Jacob Trussell)
7. Cargo (2017)
What’s scarier, the natural or the unnatural? It’s a fair question, one that directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo wrestles with as Andy (Martin Freeman) traverses the Australian outback with his infant daughter in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The arid landscape is vast and unforgiving, exposing Andy to the elements with little opportunities for protection from zombies. As Andy heads further into the bush and faces the undead, he is also confronted with the reality of the living, Aboriginal communities for whom fighting for survival is nothing new. In Cargo, the outback isn’t just a plight for our protagonist, it’s a land and a home that has long been exploited and the film doesn’t shy away from contending with all that its setting connotes. It does this brilliantly, I might add, making Cargo an original take on a tried and true genre that’s crafted with a keen awareness of how to reckon with heavy themes and how to land one hell of an emotional punch. (Anna Swanson)
6. Razorback (1984)
The Australian outback lends itself to horror. Whether it’s psychotic hunters or maniacal truck drivers punishing the innocent, post-apocalyptic goons causing chaos, or children going missing, the sun-drenched desolate plains harbor all kinds of rotten secrets. One of the most realistic dangers of outback life is encountering deadly animals, such as crocs, alligators and, of course, hogs. The hog in Razorback is much larger than your average piggy, and it might not be realistic in that regard, but as far as animal attack movies go this falls just behind Jaws in the list of greats. (Kieran Fisher)