In honor of Earth Day, the Morbidly Beautiful writers share their twenty favorite ecological horror films of yesterday and today.
Humans have always had a complicated relationship with the natural world — both nurturing and exploiting it, revering it and fearing it. From the birth of the environmental movement at the turn of the twentieth century through the annual Earth Day celebrations, we are rightfully spellbound by the world around us, even as it often serves as the source of our darkest nightmares and deepest anxieties.
We’ve long dreaded the retaliation of a vengeful Mother Nature, for good reason, and this pervasive fear has infused our greatest horror stories for decades. As we contemplate an uncertain future and wonder how close we are to the point of no return, we need these stories now more than ever.
Here are 20 of our favorite ecological horror stories, from the ’50s to the powerful and poignant films of the last decade. While there’s much entertainment to found here, there’s also an important and increasingly urgent message. If we want to keep our horror on the screen and out of our reality, the time to act is now. (- Stephanie Malone)
1. C.H.U.D. (1984)
(Recommended by Danni Winn)
During the 1980s, New York City was viewed by many as a cesspool of crime, corruption, filth, and excess. At the time, the city’s murder rate was one of the highest in the country — along with serious issues concerning poverty, drug use, and homelessness. Urban Legends of alligators and abnormally large rodents found in the sewers ran rampant.
Manhattan and its surrounding four boroughs served as a backdrop for countless 80’s genre entries. But one flick, in particular, perfectly encapsulated the grime and greed in NYC. That film is Douglas Cheeks’ C.H.U.D.
With some serious acting chops on display, C.H.U.D. has become the diamond in the rough over the years.
Featuring Daniel Stern, John Heard, Christopher Curry, and John Goodman, this B-rated horror movie definitely delivers the goods within this department while presenting horrors that were very relevant for its time — toxic waste and corporate corruption.
Unfortunately, four decades later, we fear much of the same.
Despite the fact the C.H.U.D.s didn’t get the full monster FX they deserved, the mere concept of subhuman entities recklessly created underground and chomping away at city residents was unsettling enough, and has seemingly entertained countless across the globe for nearly four decades.
2. The Host (2006)
(Recommended by Laura A. Sloan)
Bong Joon-Ho as a director is much like a musical conductor. He knows how to invoke all the notes of innocence, connection, and the unknown within the waters of the 2006 South Korean film, The Host (Gwoemul).
This riveting horror monster drama also adds a prominent layer of social and political commentary about Mother Earth in the hands of international relationships.
At the Yongson American Military base, against all regulations, hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde are poured down the drains that flow into Seoul’s Han River. With this unthinkable moment, we’re introduced to Bong’s satirical view of the United States military occupation and influence on South Korea.
A few years later, two fishermen discover a small, mutated fish with multiple tails that escapes. The broadening of toxic waste evolving within the water generates the unimaginable. Park Gang-Doo (Kang-ho Song), a father and food kiosk co-owner, joins spectators with his family at the edge of the river as something under the bridge is cocooning like Alien.
The “little shop of rivers” is large and predator-like, very slimy with an eel slither showcasing pure CGI realism. The monster swings and grabs any human in its path for later consumption.
Gang-Doo loses his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Asung) in the crowd’s chaos to escape the monster running rampant on the banks. In acrobatic movements, it takes Hyun-seo across and under the river.
Both the U.S. and South Korean militaries test and quarantine all who survive the monster’s wrath or display side effects of a new virus transmitted by the creature. It’s unclear what the virus is, but I think of it more as the contagion of denial.
3. Crawl (2019)
(Recommended by Peter Hayward-Bailey)
On the surface, Crawl (2019) could be seen as just another creature feature. And indeed, it hits some great creature feature tropes like unlikely vindictive beasts, very poor human decision-making, and buckets and buckets of the red stuff.
But scratch just under the surface, and the film that Alexandre Aja has presented us with is actually very timely with the rise of adverse weather conditions in the days of the global warming crisis.
We have all watched as the world faces more extreme weather with more frequency because of climate change. And the state of Florida (the setting for this film) has certainly seen a dramatic increase in deadly storms. In fact, some scientists believe that south Florida could disappear underwater within 80 years.
CRAWL couples that poignant backdrop with a good handful of vicious alligators that get a taste for human blood, which makes for a rip-roaring good time.
4. The Stuff (1985)
(Recommended by Laura A. Sloan)
You may consider it ice cream or yogurt, but for most, “The Stuff” is just one killer dessert wreaking havoc on the people who consume it and their environments.
Written and directed by Larry Cohen, the 1985 science fiction horror film The Stuff is a brilliant satire on American consumerism during the Reagan era and examines an agricultural climate easily controlled at the hands of big business.
When miners discover a bubbling unidentified substance blending into the snow, tasting it was their biggest mistake. The Stuff attacks the brain and body, moving through it like a parasitic vanilla shake in its own science.
With The Stuff making its way into every household, a young boy, a former FBI agent, and a Marketing Director must team up to try to stop the production of the tasty and mutating evil crème before the public can ingest another spoonful of its demise.
Besides being an essential horror-comedy from the genre’s Golden Age, THE STUFF offers witty and potentent social commentary tackling everything from mass marketing to corporate greed to nutrition, as well as taking down the ways we exploit the land — not for survival, but for comfort and profit.
5. The Happening (2008)
(Recommended by Conor McShane)
The Happening is not a good movie.
So why am I recommending it for an article about the best of eco-horror? There are a couple of reasons. One, it’s one of the most prominent examples of mainstream eco-horror from this century, and two, it transcends mere badness to become something uncannily delightful.
For a certain type of horror fan, a movie like The Happening can be as enjoyable, if not more so, as a more conventionally “good” film.
While his reputation has improved somewhat in recent years, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan was considered a joke among film fans throughout the 2000s. After the one-two punch of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable earning him “next Spielberg” comparisons, Shyamalan’s career steadily declined, with each release more maligned by critics and audiences than the last.
The Happening might not be the nadir of this period (that would be 2010’s The Last Airbender), but it certainly came close.
It’s a shame, too, because parts of THE HAPPENING are genuinely chilling, particularly in a world where the idea of an invisible, deadly threat carried on the wind feels a whole lot less ridiculous.
6. The Feast (2021)
(Recommended by Jamie Alvey)
The Feast is an unabashedly Welsh film. It’s filmed in the Welsh language, filmed in Wales, and stars Welsh actors. Naturally, it’s steeped in the mythology of the land and it revels in the nature there.
The Feast is a veritable feast for the senses, hauntingly gorgeous with one of the most biting condemnations on capitalism and how it destroys nature.
Greed is the true villain here, and nature is coming back for revenge.
Blood is spilled in many inventive and disgusting ways, there’s cannibalism, and even some karma at play for those who were not directly involved in the deal.
The creeping tone of this film is like vines, reclaiming the landscape, sucking everyone and everything in. It’s utterly delicious.
7. The Crazies (1973/2010)
(Recommended by Vicki Woods)
The perfect fodder for any horror film, the atrocities that we humans put our planet through and Mother Nature’s revenge, is a story as old as time.
The Crazies, both the 1973 George Romero version and the more recent adaptation in 2010, illustrate the U.S. Government’s inability to handle an apocalyptic event caused by their own wrongdoing.
Contaminated water is the culprit in this story, turning most of the population of a small town into zombie-like killers. In both films, we examine the reaction of the government to contain a problem that they themselves created when the water becomes contaminated.
When the citizens turn into bloodthirsty creatures, the military quarantines everyone that hasn’t turned into a monster into a cage-like containment area, while the scientists ponder the future and try to find a cure.
8. Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)
(Recommended by Patrick Krause)
As early as the 1950s, sci-fi and horror movies have explored the effects of man-made pollution on the world. In the era of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation, the focus was mainly on the dangers of nuclear fallout from weapons testing.
As the world population increases and technology evolves, there are even more eco-horror stories to tell. And no movie wields the anti-pollution hammer quite like Toho’s 1971 film, Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs The Smog Monster in the U.S.).
Hedorah is a creature hailing from outer space, which is believed to have originated on a planet of sludge. Attracted by the increasing pollution on Earth, it sees Earth evolving into a planet much like the one it hails from. Hedorah arrives on Earth and begins to feed on the trash, sewage, and nuclear waste of Japan.
Godzilla stumbles upon Hedorah after rising from the ocean and peering with disgust at the trash in the sea along the Japanese coast. Godzilla begins to use his atomic breath to burn away the trash in the ocean when he encounters Hedorah, and the fight is on.
There’s zero subtlety in the movie’s message, but it’s dripping in so much surrealism and fun that the bluntness of the message never feels like sermonizing.
9. Mimic (1997)
(Recommended by Jamie Marino)
Mimic was beloved auteur Guillermo del Toro’s first English-language film after he gained notice on the arthouse circuit for his debut feature, Cronos (1993). While fresh on the scene, del Toro delivered a monster cockroach epic that failed commercially and critically but introduced his signature visual style and thematic obsessions that would later evolve into more mature and lauded works.
Released by Dimension in 1997, del Toro expressed disappointment with the final product and especially with how it was edited. In 2011, he was finally able to release an extended director’s cut which adds six minutes to the original theatrical release. Though it’s still not the exact vision del Toro had for the film, he ended up being happy with the new cut and went on record saying, “It healed a lot of wounds.”
Despite the criticisms people had with the film, it was impossible not to praise its style and photography.
In Mimic, an unprecedented epidemic known as Strickler’s disease is wiping out the children of New York City. The deputy director of the CDC (Jeremy Northam) and a brilliant etymologist (Mira Sorvino) don their lab coats and get their John Hammond on when they genetically engineer a new species of roach, the Judas breed. This leads to the end of the epidemic, and the etymologist is credited with saving an entire generation of New Yorkers.
Believing the all-female Judas roaches to be benign, the scientists release them into the wild. They soon grow larger than people and breed anyway. Because, you know, life finds a way.
The movie title comes from the fact that if a Judas stands and wraps itself in its wings it looks like a person, even giving the illusion of a face with its folded claws.
MIMIC marks an important evolution in eco-horror. Following a trend in the 70s and 80s for more realistic, scientifically-anchored threats — and more life-sized monsters — the 90s began to give us man-sized monsters. In other words, the biggest dangers we faced walked among us. They were us.
10. Silent Night (2021)
(Recommended by Stephanie Malone)
If you prefer your bleak and nihilistic, “oops, we f’cked up the world, now we are all doomed” horror with a heaping dollop of wry British humor and peppy Christmas energy, you’ll find a lot to love in 2021’s Silent Night.
I was fortunate to catch the US premiere of writer/director Camille Griffin’s feature filmmaking debut at Fantastic Fest, and I loved every minute of this ambitious apocalyptic film that delivers a strange but endearing mix of “home for the holidays” rom-com and end-times horror/drama.
It begins by giving off Love Actually vibes and even stars one of that film’s key players in Keira Knightly. But the tonal shift about mid-way into some very dark territory is jarring and unexpected.
It’s Christmas Eve, and a group of upper-middle-class friends and loved ones gather at the opulent English estate owned by the family of Knightley’s Nell. It all seems innocent enough until, slowly, the massive elephant in the room begins to be revealed.
Resulting from human neglect and abuse, a massive toxic cloud is sweeping across the planet, with no hope of stopping its destructive path. Now, everyone must decide whether to take government-issued “Exit” pills to end it all quickly without suffering, or to face the inevitable and risk a catastrophic demise.
The threat of impending doom undercuts moments of surface joy and a futile attempt to fiddle while the world burns.
11. Prophecy (1979)
(Recommended by Kara Grimoire)
While the practical effects, visible microphone wires, and stiff line delivery in conjunction with cheesy acting have made this ecologically aware film somewhat of a laughing stock, I implore you to reconsider the film’s strong points and the socially conscious message behind this feature.
Prophecy challenges and draws inspiration from the well-loved man vs. nature genre heavily associated with early American writer Jack London. Our film centers on an environmentalist couple investigating a paper mill disposing of waste in the Ossipee River (a body of water that runs from eastern New Hampshire to western Maine and lets out via the Saco River and into the Atlantic Ocean).
The contamination of the local water supply results in a frantic mutated bear — the inspiration for the most terrifying creature in another modern-day eco-horror film, Annihilation — attacking loggers that have entered its territory.
The unfortunate creature embodies the vengeful Forrest spirit Katahdin, a deity the natives feel is angered. The bear acts as an agent of the Earth as if to say, “I am nature, hear me roar.”
Much like Godzilla (Gojira, 1954), Prophecy was also inspired by a real-life tragedy that befell Japanese citizens. In 1956, it was discovered people living in Kumamoto Prefecture were experiencing symptoms related to methyl-mercury poisoning. Evidence showed high levels of mercury were being leaked into the water supply, via Minamata Bay, by the Chisso Chemical Plant, causing Minamata disease — leading to heartbreaking effects that are mercifully never depicted in Prophecy.
The word ‘prophecy’ is never mentioned in the film, but we can assume it’s meant as a forewarning of an inevitable disaster that could be seen on the horizon more than 40 years ago — a reckoning for the damage we have done to our earth. Sadly, that message now seems more prophetic than ever.
12. Piranha (1978)
(Recommended by Kelly Mintzer)
Piranha has evolved into a film franchise, and most of the films are not good. The first film, however, the movie that launched a tidal wave of sequels, is surprisingly great.
Piranha is directed by genre icon Joe Dante, an immediate mark in its favor. It’s pretty clear that Piranha is the Friday the 13th to Jaws‘ Halloween.
Despite the obvious attempt to cash in on a familiar premise — aquatic man-eater wreaks havoc — Piranha throws an interesting wrench into the formula by having the vengeful, titular piranha be the result of chemical warfare.
Piranha supposes a world where scientists genetically engineered a highly chompy strain of piranha to infiltrate the Viet Cong camps during the Vietnam War. The conflict resolved, a rogue scientist preserves his research in a local reservoir. Following a series of truly awful decisions by various ding-dongs (I assure you, that is the best and most accurate term for these characters), the piranha are released from the reservoir and into open waters.
While the movie is fundamentally silly and leans heavily into Dante’s love of the absurd, it does tap into some very genuine ecological fears. Like JAWS before it, it explores the tense negotiation between human economics and the enduring legacy of our natural world.
13. The Grapes of Death (1978)
(Recommended by Jamie Marino)
Most geographical regions and time periods have different and unmistakable differences, and Euro-horror is no exception. It’s both a haze and mania. It has Moog Organ sensuality, and a blanket of spider webs keeps it warm.
Into this unsuccessful attempt at a description, I bring Poseidon’s trident of Euro-horror: Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and Joe D’Amato (although I prefer using his actual Italian name, Aristide Massaccesi).
Giallos, exploitation, and lesbian vampires were among the preferred topics of their films. They did get experimental, however. And at the time, zombies were becoming the new unexplored horror puddle to dip their toes into.
I can think of at least three Euro horrors, including Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death (aka Les Raisins de la Mort), that incorporated environmental concerns into their groovy, psychedelic narratives.
In The Grapes of Death, a young woman discovers that the pesticide being sprayed on vineyards is turning people into murderous lunatics.
As a youngster, my mom would always tell me to wash off any fruit from the grocery store. Pesticides that were sprayed on fruit needed to get cleaned off. That used to freak me out. I would wonder why a grocery store was selling poisoned fruit, or at the very least wasn’t more cautious. It seemed like a recipe for disaster — a recipe served up in spectacular fashion by THE GRAPES OF DEATH.
14. Phase IV (1974)
(Recommended by Conor McShane)
Most movies about killer bugs, from classic 50s schlock like Them or The Beginning of the End, to more modern schlock like Eight Legged Freaks, tend to go big with their creatures, turning tiny and largely unthreatening insects and arachnids into blunt-force instruments of destruction.
One of the things that makes the 1974 film Phase IV so affecting is that it takes the opposite approach, creating a far-fetched but still eerily plausible depiction of what would happen if ants gained a human level of intelligence and if we pissed them off.
Phase IV actually has a surprising pedigree: it’s the only film directed by Saul Bass, the legendary graphic designer who created some of the most iconic title sequences in film history, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo and North By Northwest to Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino.
It seems the studio didn’t give him a whole lot to work with, but Bass brings his unmistakable visual sense to the film in different ways, particularly in the dreamlike opening and the incredible macro photography of the ants, which still looks amazing to this day.
An apocalyptic vision of what happens when we push against the elements and they push back — hard, Bass seems to be making a statement with PHASE IV on the foolishness of man and the consequences of our often selfish behavior.
15. The House (2022)
(Recommended by Stephanie Malone)
In January 2022, Netflix quietly released something quite remarkable and surprisingly original. Consisting of three 30-minute segments all written by Enda Walsh and directed by different filmmakers, The House absolutely blew me away, and I’ve been frustrated by its lackluster reception.
Admittedly, this boutique offering was always intended for a very particular type of audience. A surreal, genre-bending stop-motion anthology for adults, it’s somewhat of an oddity.
But that’s what makes it so captivating.
United by an inspired narrative thread, the film transports viewers across different timelines to tell the history of the titular house — from its eerie, gothic origins to its ultimate destruction. The stories are told through the perspective of the house’s inhabitants, human at first but eventually replaced by other species of animal.
Much like Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, The House is rich in allegory and can be interpreted in many ways. Most notably, it’s a tragic tale of the hand humanity has in constructing its own demise.
While the words climate change are never uttered, it’s not difficult to view the film as a parable for humanity’s turbulent relationship to the home we all share: planet Earth.
16. Spoor/Pokot (2017)
(Recommended by Dax Kurowska)
Based on a book by Noble Prize Winner Olga Tokarczuk and directed by Agnieszka Holland, Spoor is an ecological tale that is unmistakably tied to the Polish identity.
Set in the cold countryside, the film follows Janina, an old woman who spends her time translating William Blake, reading stars, and being a bit of a nuisance as an activist for animal rights in a village where hunters are a-plenty and a fur farm pays well.
When mysterious murders start to plague local hunters Janina forms a hypothesis: that it is the animals who want revenge.
Part folk horror, part eco-thriller, Spoor portrays Polish countryside that anyone raised there recognizes in an instant.
It is a space where everyone fears the mayor, the wealthiest businessman in the village, and the priest, and those three coincidently happen to often be found drinking or hunting with each other. Going against this trinity is not only stupid but blasphemous.
Going against tradition and custom on top of that is enough to become an ostracized outsider.
Trying to change anything about places like this, be it treatment of marginalized people, or even how farmed fur animals are treated, is an exercise in desperation for people like Janina who have little power and status.
17. The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
(Recommended by Jamie Alvey)
The Creature From the Black Lagoon is a classic for its iconic creature, but it’s also a classic example of white people messing with nature when they shouldn’t be.
This is a trope that happens time and time again in horror films, and it’s one that I frankly never tire of because sometimes humanity should leave well enough alone. I’m not saying you deserve to be murdered by a fish-man creature if you encroach upon his habitat purposefully, but I am also not saying that.
The film follows a group of scientists on an expedition to find the rest of a skeleton of a creature that may provide a length between aquatic animals and land animals. They never expect that any of these creatures could possibly still exist. Regardless, they barge right on down to the Amazon Rainforest like they own the place in search of an exciting scientific discovery that will bring them fame and fortune.
The story is a timeless example of man’s folly and fear of the other. Nature is harmed in the end and, sadly, it’s humanity that is triumphant without seeing the error in their ways.
18. The Food of the Gods (1976)
(Recommended by Kara Grimoire)
Based on the writings of H.G. Wells, The Food of the Gods is an excellent entry into the science fiction genre, which serves as a relevant warning of what happens when man meddles in things best left to the natural order.
The environmental message is not subtle. In fact, protagonist Morgan (Marjoe Gortner) delivers it via an opening narration.
A professional football player, he explains that he and his teammates have been given a brief hiatus before a big game. He decides to take his respite enjoying the wilderness of a remote island. During the long ferry ride to get there, he recalls the words of his dad, who constantly warned him that nature would one day strike back.
Finally, that day has arrived, as the island has become ground zero for oversized, mutated rodents and wildlife thanks to a mysterious liquid. The film maintains considerable tension and believability as these gigantic vermin excel at their best instinctual attribute.
A product of the 70s — where fear of our apocalyptic future ran rampant thanks to political scandals, the war in Vietnam, and a nuclear standoff with Russia — the idea that nature would eventually revolt against us was a popular one.
THE FOOD OF THE GODS feeds into that paranoia with vicious bite, delivering nihilism and a bleak conclusion that suggests nature won’t be denied.
19. The Birds (1963)
(Recommended by Kara Grimoire)
Based on a story penned by Daphne du Maurier of the same name, Alfred Hitchock’s seminal horror classic The Birds takes its own artistic license with the story. In fact, the spontaneous avian attacks are really the only connective tissue between the novella and film.
The film also borrows from an actual event occurring on the seashores of North Monterey Bay along the central coast of California.
Sooty shearwaters flew in a disorientated state, crashing into objects and appearing to be launching an attack. The actual cause was not discovered until thirty years later, when the anomaly repeated due to toxic algae.
The Birds hit theaters less than a year after Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book “Silent Spring” debuted. In that book, Carson metaphorically addresses the rise of the chemical industry and the destructive effects of pesticides on animals and the environment. She speaks of a strange blight that sweeps over an idealized American town and destroys the delicate balance between man and nature.
In particular, she writes, the birds disappeared. “It was a spring without voices.”
“Silent Spring” played a key role in ushering in the environmental movement. Coincidentally, Hitchcock’s film provided an ominous answer to Carlson’s question: “The birds… where had they gone?”
20. Gaia (2021)
(Recommended by Stephanie Malone)
Gaia is a hallucinogenic, visually intoxicating mind trip that surprises at every turn.
It’s one of the most compelling, hauntingly beautiful, and utterly terrifying modern ecological horror films you may have missed. Expect equal parts del Toro-inspired monster movie, Cronenbergian body horror, and religious-fervor folk horror evocative of Robert Eggers’ The Witch.
Somewhere deep in the Tsitsikamma forest in South Africa, a deadly fungus proliferates at night, with the horrifying ability to rapidly consume its human hosts and spread with the ferocity and velocity of a population-ending plague.
Directed by Jaco Bower, it’s a film that never hides its cards — an impassioned rallying cry against humanity’s destruction of the environment and the tragic “tipping point” from which there may be no escape.
But despite its unmistakable message, the film remains a truly engaging and bone-chilling horror film. And the subject matter is navigated with skillful ingenuity and captivating creativity.
Bonus: 10 More Essential Eco-Horror Films
While these excellent eco-horror films just missed making our list, they are all well worth your time — on Earth day and every day.