In cinematic terms, “survival horror movies” can be a vague category. After all, any movie where the characters are trying to not get killed contains an element of survival. The “survival horror” label is further complicated by the fact that it’s more popularly associated with video games. This article describes exactly what a survival horror movie is, while listing a few of the very best examples of the survival horror genre.
The term “survival horror” is most often used in pop culture to describe a style of video game. Resident Evil (1996), the first game to formally have the survival horror label applied to it, deemphasizes direct combat by limiting resources such as ammunition and health items. This forces the player to manage their items carefully, and in many cases forces them to run and hide rather than stand and fight. Resident Evil and other survival horror games like Silent Hill (1999) and Alone in the Dark (1992) were adapted into films, but survival horror, when used to describe movies, is a bit different.
In horror cinema, survival horror is based on the already established genre of “survival.” Movies like Castaway (2000), 127 Hours (2010), and Alive (1993) are perfect examples of a survival movie. People are cut off from civilization because of an accident or some other event, and they are forced to use their will and wits to prolong their life in hopes of rescue. Much like how resources are scarce in survival horror video games, food, water, and other life-giving resources are scarce in survival movies. If the characters don’t do something quickly, the harsh environment will kill them.
For a survival movie to become a survival horror movie, an extra element of horrific danger is added. A monster is in the woods, a serial killer is on the loose, or some other being is actively trying to kill the characters on top of the environmental dangers. Or perhaps the danger is internal, and the character’s mental state collapses to the point of psychological horror. Whatever the case, overt horror elements must be present for “survival” to turn into “survival horror.” Think Castaway, but with Wilson coming to life and trying to kill Chuck (Tom Hanks).
The following list contains the very best examples of this definition of survival horror movies.
The Best Survival Horror Movies
Ravenous lies somewhere on the outskirts of what makes a true “survival horror” movie because of the variations of survival that it presents. Guy Pearce plays John Boyd, a Captain in the US Army stationed at a remote outpost during the 1800s. A man (Carlyle) arrives at Boyd’s fort, telling a story about being the lone survivor of a group trapped in the snow and being forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. As the plot unfolds, Boyd learns that the man actually chose to survive on human flesh, and he is eager to convert others to his methods. While pure survival may be secondary to the horrors of cannibalism in Ravenous, multiple characters must survive journeys in the snow, and the default way of life at the snowbound fort is just barely surviving on meager supplies.
While some people may debate the validity of labeling 28 Day Later as a true zombie movie, there is no debate that it is both a survival film and a horror movie. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma to discover that society has collapsed while he was asleep. A “Rage” virus created an epidemic that turns the infected into crazed murderers focused only on attacking those who are not yet infected. When Jim and his companions Selena (Naomie Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and Hannah (Megan Burns) aren’t running and hiding from the infected, they are searching for food and a safe place to stay so they don’t starve to death.
Open Water is a movie about survival in perhaps the most impossible place to survive: in the middle of the ocean without a boat. Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis play Susan and Daniel, a couple on a vacation meant to allow them to spend time together away from their hectic lives. While scuba diving, their tour boat miscounts the divers, stranding Susan and Daniel in the open water. Though the presence of sharks towards the end of the film often prompts people to categorize it as a shark attack movie, Open Water is really more about the mental and physical toll a hopeless survival scenario takes on people. The sharks are there to add an element of immediate danger and horror.
The Descent is a brilliant blending of survival, monsters, and psychological horror. Written and directed by Neil Marshall, The Descent is about a group of six women on a spelunking trip who become trapped inside an uncharted cave system after a narrow tunnel collapses. They have no choice but to move forward into the unknown to try and find an exit, but deep chasms, unstable rocks, and other environmental hazards magnify their injuries and desperation. As they climb deeper into the caves, they also come across sightless humanoid creatures whose own survival would be boosted by six human-sized meals.
Eden Lake is a harrowing and heartbreaking movie starring Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly as a couple attempting to enjoy a camping trip near a tranquil lake. Steve (Fassbender) and Jenny (Reilly) draw some unwanted attention from local delinquents, and when their issues escalate, Steve and Jenny are attacked. Stranded in the woods near the lake without a working vehicle, Jenny must brave the harsh environment while making a decision to either run and find help, or stay and help Steve after he is taken and tortured by the young killers. Much of the survival in Eden Lake comes from Jenny’s inability to fight all of her attackers head-on, forcing her to use cunning and stealth while doing her best to keep Steve alive.
The Ruins falls into the “natural horror” and “killer plants” subgenres, but starvation and dehydration are also two of the most pressing dangers for the film’s characters. Four American tourists are vacationing in Mexico when they decide to take a trip to a Mayan ruin deep in the jungle and way off the grid. They discover that there is a good reason the ruins aren’t open to the public: because the locals have quarantined the structure to keep its carnivorous vines from spreading. Once the Americans set foot on the ruin’s plants, they too are quarantined with the threat of being shot if they try to escape. Now, they must contend with the scorching sun, almost no food or water, and the ever-present threat of plants that want to grow onto and into their bodies while they sleep.
In The Ritual, four friends take a multi-day hiking trip in a remote area of Sweden in memory of their mutual friend who died about six months prior. When one of the group is injured, they decide to stray from the path and cut through the forest in hopes of finding help quicker. That was a poor decision. The four friends quickly lose their way, and their lack of food and shelter are only the beginning of a nightmare as they become increasingly aware of someone (or something) stalking them through the woods. The Ritual also includes folk horror, as well as a great deal of psychological horror dealing with grief and guilt, making it a horror film that brings terror from many different angles.
47 Meters Down is a shark-attack movie which is greatly enhanced by the film’s unnerving survival scenario. Mandy Moore and Claire Holt star as sisters Lisa and Kate who agree to do a dive in a shark cage while on vacation. The cable attaching the cage to their tour boat breaks, dropping the women to the ocean floor as sharks circle all around them. With the sharks proving to be a deadly obstacle after killing one of the crew of the tour boat, Lisa and Kate run low on options as their scuba tanks run out of air.
Sweetheart takes the familiar “castaway on a deserted island” story and throws in a really interesting monster to make it a horror film. Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) washes up on the beach of a small tropical island after the boat she was on sinks. While going about the business of setting herself up for survival, Jenn finds a deep, dark hole in the water near the shore. Then, at night, she comes across the huge, amphibious creature that lives in the hole. Jenn does her best to hide from the monster, but the arrival of her boyfriend and another female friend in a raft offers both the hope for escape and the danger they bring when they don’t believe her story.
Starring Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, and Jessica Henwick, Underwater feels like a throwback to the underwater monster movies of the 1980s like Leviathan (1989) and DeepStar Six (1989). Crucially though, survival at the bottom of the ocean is even more of a pressing matter in Underwater since the action starts almost immediately and never relents. A research facility deep in the Mariana Trench is decimated by an earthquake in the opening minutes of the movie, forcing the surviving crew to try to find a way out. With most of their dive suits destroyed and the only hope of escape being at the other side of an undersea walk perilously far for their meager oxygen supplies, the survivors may not live very long. To make matters worse, they discover an array of terrifying sea monsters on their journey.
A Quiet Place (2018) showed how the Abbott family survived on their isolated farm after the arrival of deadly alien creatures who hunt by sound. After the events of the first movie, A Quiet Place Part II picks up with Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) and her children being forced to leave the relative safety of their home which is now in shambles. They come across an old friend of the family, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who is living a lonely existence while surviving underground. Regan and Emmett also discover an island colony reminiscent of life before the aliens arrived, but even their form of survival is shattered in this harsh new world.
More Great Survival Horror Movies
This section contains a few more survival horror movies worth putting on your watch-list. Also included are movies that don’t play up their survival aspects as strongly as others listed above, and those that come close to meeting the “survival horror” criteria but may not fully embody them.
- The Last Man on Earth (1964) – Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) survives in a world overrun by zombie-like vampires. Based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.
- Deliverance (1972) – While maybe more of an incredibly disturbing thriller rather than straight horror, this tale of backwoods survival starring Burt Reynolds is an absolute classic.
- Dawn of the Dead (1978) – The dangers of picking a too-perfect and too-obvious survival location during a zombie outbreak are explored in this classic horror flick from George Romero.
- The Thing (1982) – A shape-shifting alien makes surviving in the unforgiving environment of Antarctica even more difficult for MacReady (Kurt Russel) and his crew.
- Predator (1987) – This Arnold Schwarzenegger masterpiece is more of a science fiction action film about surviving battles rather than surviving the environment, but smart use of the environment is crucial to the survival of the main character.
- The Mist (2007) – This excellent horror film based on the novella by Stephen King proves that survival isn’t just about food and shelter, it’s also about navigating the dangers of people who have different ways of thinking and surviving than you.
- The Road (2009) – While it may not quite reach the levels of true horror, The Road is one of the darkest (visually and tonally) post-apocalyptic movies ever.
- Frozen (2010) – More thriller than horror, this engaging movie about three friends stuck indefinitely on a ski lift high above a mountain has a few gory and scary moments.
- Bait (2012) – A tsunami floods a supermarket, allowing hungry sharks to swim the aisles in search of survivors this fun disaster movie.
- Black Rock (2012) – Three friends hunted by men on an island must deal with environmental hazards while doing whatever they can to survive.
- The Shallows (2016) – Blake Lively is stranded in the water near shore by a hungry shark waiting for its opportunity to strike.
- It Comes at Night (2017) – A family surviving in their isolated home during a worldwide pandemic has their lives shaken when a stranger arrives.
- The Lodge (2019) – Grace (Riley Keough) and her fiancé’s children are trapped in a snowbound with no food and no electricity in this psychological horror film.
- Crawl (2019) – Alexandre Aja directs this great natural horror movie about a young woman (Kaya Scodelario) trapped in her father’s flooded house by alligators.
- #Alive (2020) – A man surviving in an apartment during a South Korean zombie apocalypse tries to connect with the only other human he can find.
- Alone (2020) – A woman is forced to survive on the wilderness after escaping being kidnapped.