George Romero’s classic 1978 horror film Dawn of the Dead begins in a state of high panic. A sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s 1968 film that introduced the zombie as we now know it, Dawn’s first scenes find the zombie apocalypse already in progress. After opening on a Philadelphia TV station that’s descended into chaos—and where a public health expert repeats, in vain, the safety protocols that might have prevented the zombie pandemic—the film shifts to a housing project that’s moments away from being raided. Now a hotbed of undead infection, the building’s mostly Black and Latinx residents, understandably distrustful of authorities, have refused to give up their dead.
What follows establishes just how graphic the violence in the film will be, first with an exchange of gunfire then with a showstopping moment from makeup-and-effects wizard Tom Savini: a zombie’s head exploding after ending up on the receiving end of a shotgun blast. It’s horrific but, like the gunplay that precedes it, just a glimpse of the resulting gore. Then the camera lingers, however, and when a woman rushes to embrace her undead husband and he takes bites from her flesh, her blood flows in abundance. Only … the bright fluid that gushes from her doesn’t look much like blood.
Whatever it is will look familiar to anyone who’s watched even a handful of classic ’70s horror movies, however. Many of the decade’s horror films are filled with fake blood that bears little resemblance to anything that’s ever coursed through a human body, so much so that the exceptions stand out. When Edwin Neal cuts open his hand in the opening moments of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it pools and thickens with sickening believability. But watch films as diverse as Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Bill Gunn’s dreamlike Ganja & Hess, and Wes Craven’s grimy The Hills Have Eyes and you’ll encounter the same eye-searing shade of red.
Why? There’s a short answer and a long one. The short one: It’s not easy to make fake blood, and each new era of filmmaking places new demands on special-effects and makeup artists. But the longer answer involves a tug-of-war between an effects genius willing to give away his secrets to kids and the chemical innovations of a Midwestern corporation hired by the film industry to save time and money on stains.
Effects artists working in the black-and-white era had it easier than their successors, on the rare occasions they needed to make fake blood at all. Unconcerned with matching the color of real blood, Alfred Hitchcock used chocolate syrup—Bosco, reportedly—for the shower scene in Psycho. In the 1950s, England’s Hammer Films helped stir new interest in classic monsters via blood-soaked revivals of Frankenstein and Dracula. The studio used a concoction created by retired pharmacist John Tinegate that came to be known as “Kensington Gore.” Its vivid tone proved a good match for the Technicolor film used in the company’s golden age. But what worked for Hammer didn’t always work for others, particularly as Technicolor gave way to other, more naturalistic varieties of color stock.
Hollywood had other sources for fake blood, as aspiring effects artist Mark Shostrom discovered when he first developed an interest in what would become his life’s work. Shostrom’s résumé contains some of horror’s greatest hits—films like Evil Dead II, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and From Beyond—but in the late ’60s he was just a kid who liked monster movies. Inspired by a book on stage makeup, Shostrom sent away for a catalog from one of Hollywood’s fake blood go-tos: the makeup specialists at Max Factor.
“I wish to God I still had it,” Shostrom says of his first source for fake blood, which, despite coming from a company that had been involved with movie makeup from the start, looked unrealistic to his eyes. He continued his experiments with some help from what would serve as the bible for many budding makeup artists: Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook, a how-to guide, first published as a special issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1965, that contains detailed directions for making Martians, mummies, and other strange creatures. It also features a recipe for blood not far removed from what Smith used professionally. “That had a basic Karo Syrup blood formula,” Shostrom recalls. “I think it’s just corn syrup and food color. And I think he advised putting a lot of cornstarch in there to make it not so clear. That was much more realistic than the Max Factor blood, but it did bead up on the skin because there’s no wetting agent. It was safe for kids.”
This easy-to-imitate corn-syrup-based blood ended up being featured in films like Midnight Cowboy and The Godfather. Brian De Palma used a variation on the Smith formula to douse Sissy Spacek in Carrie. For Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese desaturated the color of Smith’s blood in postproduction to appease censors. Shostrom still uses variations on Smith’s formula to this day, sometimes employing a recipe that uses cheap vodka. “I found that Karo Syrup and food colors from the supermarket made a cheap, harmless blood that was realistic, non-staining and could even be used in the mouth,” Smith wrote in the introduction to a later edition of his guide.
But Smith’s formula had competition in the 1970s, in particular from an alternative sold by the gallon that even received a special citation by the Academy Awards. Developed by 3M, Nextel Simulated Blood made its debut in the 1971 film What’s the Matter With Helen?, a thriller starring Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds. The creation of Phil Palmquist (who had earned an Oscar for creating some of the technology that made the effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Len Olson, Nextel used colored microspheres—the same technology that makes scratch-and-sniff possible—in a thickening agent. Its biggest selling point was the promise that, unlike its fake-blood predecessors, it would not leave stains on clothes, flesh, props, or sets—a big deal for film crews needing to do more than one take involving bloodletting.
Nextel quickly took off, both in the film industry and elsewhere. “The blood, produced in lots of 150-200 gallons, is sold to makeup houses on the West Coast,” a UPI item noted in 1978, “and to police in fire departments for use in first aid training where people can get used to seeing blood.” Nextel also had another famous customer: Kiss, who used it on stage. Gene Simmons even liked it enough to pose for a photo pretending to chug it.
“You could pour it on a white wedding dress, and it would rinse right off with water,” Shostrom says. “I read about this and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is great.’ In 1970, I’m like, ‘I’ve gotta get this. Where do I get this?’” But Shostrom also says that the fake blood looked more like orange house paint. Tom Savini was a bit more diplomatic about Nextel’s limitations in his 1983 book Bizarro: A Learn-by-Example Guide to the Art & Technique of Special Make-up Effects. “At the time there wasn’t a really great blood formula floating around. The blood I used in Dawn was 3M Brand Stage Blood which sometimes photographed terrifically—really deep, red blood—and other times looked like a tempera paint; I don’t recommend it for use in the movies because of the way the film stock picks up on that particular shade of red.”
The distance between Nextel’s blood and the real stuff didn’t go unnoticed. Reviewing Argento’s Deep Red for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called the film “an English-dubbed Italian-made bucket of ax-murder-movie clichés thoroughly soaked in red paint that seems intended to represent fake blood. I don’t think that Dario Argento, the director, meant to distance us from the action in this way. He’s simply a director of incomparable incompetence.” History has largely sided with Argento over Canby, at least when it comes to the overall quality of the director’s classic films. Argento’s blood, however, is another matter. “I was watching clips of Deep Red last night,” Shostrom says, “and it was the same thing. … Even as a kid, I’m thinking, ‘God, didn’t these people ever cut themselves and try to make something that matched?’” If you’re wondering whether Shostrom is joking, he’s not—Smith’s guide actually advises doing this very thing.
But does realism seriously matter enough to exact bodily harm on oneself? “Whenever I’m doing a blood makeup or effect, I always start with realism,” says Ashley Thomas, a 10-year veteran of makeup effects whose credits include Stake Land and the Safdies’ Good Time. “I’ve studied medical references extensively on how blood reacts in different environments.” But realism can have different meanings in different settings. “The cool thing about making movies,” she continues, “is that you can tweak certain things and bend reality to create a stunning image and still stay within the realm of believability.”
“For older films, or highly stylized ones where everything is just adjacent of reality, I think really fake-looking blood can enhance the experience,” says Deirdre Crimmins, a film critic who’s written extensively about horror for Rue Morgue and other publications. Medical accuracy isn’t necessarily always the goal—curating an experience one can’t find in the real world often is. “I love it,” Crimmins says of Dawn of the Dead’s near-neon aesthetics. “The zombies are green and all of them are dressed like it’s a costume party. It never tries to feel real.”
Yet in the years since Romero’s zombies terrorized a shopping mall, film blood has gravitated toward Smith’s principles and away from 3M’s innovations. The company no longer manufactures Nextel and last year declined a Twitter request to produce a batch for old time’s sake. The change more or less coincided with the shift from the ’70s to the ’80s. The Savini-created blood in the first Friday the 13th, released in 1980, looks like, well, blood.
So does most movie blood these days, whether created by mixing together corn syrup and food coloring or turning to CGI, as many productions have in recent years. Maybe that’s progress, and maybe it’s just sentimental to feel fondness for a moment in horror history created by a technological advance that now looks more awkward than innovative. But movies don’t have to play by the rules of the real world and it’s hard not to feel that something’s been lost with the virtual abandonment of a kind of fake blood that looks less like the real thing than some sort of nightmarish fantasy. Or maybe there’s still room for both. “If it is something like Suspiria or Eaten Alive, where the film itself takes an intentional step away from reality, then I think that red blood adds to the cinematic illusion,” Crimmins says. “But if something gritty like Last House on the Left or Deathdream had the Technicolor blood, it wouldn’t work as well. Horror has never been a monolith.”
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.