Tenebre, Italy 1982. (Photo by Mary Evans/SIGMA CINEMATOGRAFICA ROMA/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

The Twisting History of Blood on Film

Blood has been a part of filmmaking since before the talkies—but its meaning and composition keep changing.
Tenebre, Italy 1982. (Photo by Mary Evans/SIGMA CINEMATOGRAFICA ROMA/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)
Suspiria, 1977. (Courtesy 20th Century Fox Film Corp/Everett Collection)

What color is blood?

This is a deceptively complicated question. On one hand, we’ve all bled, and seen what came out of our bodies. On the other, many of us have heard the explanation for why our veins appear blue: that it’s because blood is actually blue when inside the body, and that it doesn’t turn red until it is exposed to oxygen. The fact that this isn’t actually true is less important than what it says about us, namely that we aren’t really sure what color our blood is, even if we know what color blood is. And that might be because most of the blood we see in our lives isn’t really even blood—it’s fake blood created for film and television.

The fake blood we see in films is usually red, but the color of that red varies, from the bright syrup of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 nouvelle vague masterpiece Pierrot le fou—“not blood, red,” Godard called it—to the almost brown whale-gore of John Huston’s 1956 epic Moby Dick to the diverse spectrum of Dario Argento, one of the most plasma-heavy filmmakers we’ve ever had. (“The blood has changed a bit over the years, from the bright comic-book red of his early thrillers like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, in which the vital substance is roughly the color of maraschino cherries, to the dark, almost black stuff that gushes so freely in his latest film, Mother of Tears,” wrote Terrence Rafferty in 2008. “It’s never quite the color of real blood, though.”) According to Peter Biskind’s 1999 book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Martin Scorsese was forced to desaturate the color of the blood in Taxi Driver’s climactic shootout to appease the MPAA, even though Scorsese thought it made the scene, in which Travis Bickle shoots his way through a brothel, “even more shocking.”

Isabelle Adjani and Klaus Kinski on set of Werner Herzog’s movie Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1978 in France. (Photo by GAMMA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

It took a long time in the relatively short history of cinema to reach a point where blood was shown at all. During the advent of filmmaking in the early twentieth century, blood rarely accompanied on-screen violence. The few examples that feature notable scenes of bloodshed, including Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), were often shocking political or radical works, subject to government censorship. Buñuel and Dali’s approach to the famous eye-slicing scene of Un Chien Andalou, in which the film suddenly cuts to an eyeball being sliced open with a knife, reflects the nature of the time: Buñuel opted to use a real calf’s eye, cutting it himself after applying mascara. Filmmakers would opt for oil-based blood on the rare occasions that it proved necessary. Stephen Prince, a critic and professor at Virginia Tech who has written on violence in cinema, says that, for the most part, blood was so taboo in film that even vampire movies like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) kept its presence to a minimum. “There was a period during the silent cinema where you could show things that you couldn’t later on—there’s a decapitation in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), though it happens very fast and it’s clearly a dummy—but by the time of sound film, and even before that in the ’20s, the Hollywood industry was trying to deal with the proliferation of censors all around the country,” Prince says. Censorship operations were run on both the city and state level, and they were protected by a 1915 ruling of the Supreme Court that said movies were commerce, not art, and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. The confusion they caused—forcing studios to tailor films based on the whims of local boards—eventually led to the 1930 Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s Production Code, aka the Hays Code, which forbid, among other things—including adultery, nudity, and criminal methods—the depiction of violence in detail. Here’s its clause on “Murder”:

  A. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation. B. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail. C. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.

  After the Code’s strict implementation in 1934, the little amount of blood that had existed in American cinema more or less disappeared from movie screens. Of course, filmmakers found ways around the requirements of the Code—Alfred Hitchock got around sexual rules with the famous, endless on-and-off kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in his Notorious (1946). But because violence wasn’t particularly bloody to begin with, that aspect of the restrictions wouldn’t be seriously challenged for another decade.

American actors Warren Oates and Ben Johnson on the set of The Wild Bunch, directed by Sam Peckinpah. (Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Real change in the presentation of violence on celluloid coincided with the onslaught of World War II. To represent to the experiences that G.I.s were having during the war, one of the first covered by journalists with moving cameras, the movies had to incorporate a new level and variety of violence. A number of American filmmakers, like John Ford and John Huston, traveled to the front with their cameras making films for the Allies, and that footage came back to the American public, albeit in heavily packaged, propagandistic form. And the fictional works that chronicled battles began to incorporate aspects of the global carnage of war: Prince points to a gunshot in the head in the John Garfield-headlined The Pride of the Marines (1945) and a severed body part that can be seen during the Robert Taylor movie Bataan (1943) as significant examples of this movement toward a more realistic depiction of violence. This didn’t mean anything like the verité represented daily online. “Now, the camera was not dwelling on these things the way it might today,” Prince explains. “It’s still a fairly bloodless kind of thing.” Property could be damaged (Prince references “a gangster firing a machine gun into a pool hall”) but the human body generally remained fairly intact. “I think there was a message about the inviolability of the human being that movies were collectively elaborating.” By the time World War II came to an end, that message had begun to fracture, particularly outside of the patriotically-inclined films still emerging as an essential part of the American war and post-war effort. In Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, which was made in 1945 while Italy was still at war, a resistance leader is graphically tortured to death, his body covered in blood; the New York Times, reviewing the film in 1946, said the material was “likely to prove somewhat shocking to sheltered American audiences.” (It would be banned in West Germany for most of the 1950s.) And during the ending of Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison-revolt film Brute Force, inmates and guards alike are gunned down in a conflict that film historian Eddie Mueller called “the most harrowing violence ever seen in movie theaters.” “Brute Force climaxes with this amazing orgy of violence,” Prince says. “There are all kinds of violations of the [Hayes] Production Code in it: you’re not supposed to have an automatic weapon in the hands of a criminal, and you’re not supposed to show the deaths of law officers. And Burt Lancaster machine-guns a prison guard on camera! So the Code was losing its teeth. Now, you’re not seeing blood spattered across the wall, but you are seeing characters burned alive and machine-gunned, and there’s a torture sequence.” Brute Forcewould elevate Dassin to the ranks of the top filmmakers in Hollywood, demonstrating that the war had begun to weaken the grip of the Code, though American censorship would have its revenge: Dassin was blacklisted in 1948, leaving for Europe, where he eventually made the classic Rififi.

Fittingly, it was Alfred Hitchcock—a British director who delighted in scandalizing prudish Americans—who would deal the Code its most crushing blow. In 1960, Hitchcock released Psycho, which smashed cinematic taboos by showing a man and woman in bed together, taking viewers into a bathroom, and depicting cross-dressing. There was also some serious blood. In the now-canonical shower scene, which required 78 setups, 52 cuts, and a week of filming to pull off, blood is shown swirling down the drain. Part of the reason Hitchcock chose to shoot Psycho not in color but black and white—which was, in 1960, still thought of as the more artistic and realistic medium—was because he didn’t think audiences could handle the bloodshed of the scene in color. Although Hitchcock used chocolate syrup, some audience members reportedly swore that the substance had been red—such was the power and novelty of the filmmaking, and the rarity of seeing blood actually flow on screen.

Bonnie and Clyde, Michael J. Pollard, Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, 1967. (Courtesy Everett Collection)

What the war films and Hitchcock had started, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah perfected. Prince points to Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) as pivotal benchmarks in the realistic and graphic depiction of on-screen violence. No longer did people fall over peacefully when they were shot, unmarred by any damage: they writhed and bled, bullet holes multiplying across their bodies. For the climactic scene of Bonnie and Clyde, in which the two criminals are riddled with machine-gun bullets, Penn explained that the actors "had to be dressed and rigged with all these hits."

“It’s a little metal dish in which they put a little bit of powder and an envelope of blood,” he said, “They run a wire to it and cover each dish with a condom, so when the charge goes off, it blows through the rubber and releases the blood.” During his work on the film, special-effects man Danny Lee pioneered the combined use of squibs and fake-blood capsules, which had been placed on actors individually prior to Bonnie and Clyde. In doing so, as Prince writes in his 1999 book on The Wild Bunch, “Bonnie and Clyde broke the last taboo against violent representation in American film. As Charles Champlin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘Under the old [Production] Code, you would see somebody be shot but you never saw the body being torn apart. You didn’t make the link.’ Now, all at once, violent death could be communicated as a nearly physical sensation in full anatomical detail.” It was in the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s that New Hollywood directors developed and expanded fake-blood technology in Hollywood. For auteurs like Peckinpah, Penn, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, the earlier work of Akira Kurosawa served as a guiding light, and it was the Japanese master who spearheaded many of these techniques in his landmark samurai films like Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). Sanjuro, in particular, features a remarkable “explosion of blood,” as Prince describes it, when one samurai cuts into the heart of another, producing the first arterial spray in the history of mainstream cinema, an effect that Kurosawa achieved by hiding carbonated chocolate syrup in a pressurized container underneath an actor’s kimono.

Actors Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Rameses II of Egypt in the biblical epic The Ten Commandments, 1956. Here, Moses turns the waters of the River Nile to blood.  (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

It was the ’70s when the blood really began flowing in Hollywood. According to Prince’s book, Peckinpah upped the blood ante by squibbing both sides of his actors in The Wild Bunch to simulate the passage of the bullet through the body—and mixed his synthetic blood with raw meat. Around this time, the makeup artist Dick Smith, a major figure in the history of on-screen blood, made his impact as well. Smith worked on Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), as well as other milestones in makeup and special effects like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). For The Godfather, Smith invented the “mole,” a device that concealed squibs underneath fake layers of skin; he used over 100 of them on James Caan during the ambush of Sonny Corleone at the toll bridge. For Taxi Driver, he employed prosthetics to help depict a hand being shot off. By the this point, now that color was being used in works like Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver, chocolate syrup wasn’t going to cut it. “Most of the [movie] cosmetic companies had a blood,” Smith said in a 1966 interview. “But they all had something like mineral oil or propylene glycol or some other material in it that would not dry, and was loaded with pigment. And they looked terrible, because they were very opaque. They looked like paint, and the colors were wrong—there was everything wrong about them.” Toby Sells, an Atlanta-based makeup artist who started creating his own masks, creatures, and fake blood after seeing a 1974 interview with the great make-up artist John Chambers—also known as the character John Goodman plays in Argo—became acquainted with Smith in the 1980s after sending him some of his own work for his opinion. Smith eventually became a mentor, referring him for jobs. “The big hallmark of fake blood actually came from Dick Smith,” Sells says. “He was looking for something that looked like blood, more so than the oil-and chemical-based blood. He was in a grocery store, and he found clear Karo corn syrup and food coloring, and he went, ‘Let’s see how this works.’ He messed around with the formula, and it became more than just corn syrup and food coloring, because [any amount of] food coloring, whether it’s the liquid stuff you buy in supermarkets or the powdered version, it still has a translucence to it. So Dick experimented with different opacifiers, things that would make the blood a little less translucent, and zinc oxide is what we still use today. Ironically, I think 90 percent of us in the industry still use Dick Smith’s formula. We’ve tweaked it a little to our own liking and to our own needs, but that’s basically the formula.”

Makeup artist Ben Nye painting blood on actor Tyrone Power in the 1940s. He worked on over five hundred Hollywood films from the 1930s to 1960s. (Courtesy Everett Collection)
Make up man putting fake blood on actor Louis Calhern’s toga; he is playing the title role in film Julius Caesar. (Photo by John Swope/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Since the innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, blood has become common in film, from the proverbial buckets that fill horror and action movies to the more authentic efforts of cinema striving for verisimilitude. Often, those two poles are closer than they might appear: Tom Savini, the makeup and special effects artist who worked on Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) served as a combat photographer in Vietnam. In Prince’s mind, the only real benchmark in on-screen violence since Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch is Saving Private Ryan (1998), a movie that took the war genre from action-adventure to a spectacle of almost oppressive carnage. But masterworks of blood abound, constantly upping the ante of gore.

In Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), art director Jack Fisk—also Sissy Spacek’s husband—dumped a bucket of fake blood on the actress’ head from atop a ladder. He did it in just one take; the 2013 remake would later test different sized buckets and different heights from which to drop the blood, and a variety of camera setups. Carrie is also one of the very few mainstream American movies to address menstrual blood, even if its treatment wasn’t exactly positive; more obliquely, the bleeding and mutilated bodies of young women would come to factor prominently in slasher and horror movies, symbolizing, for many critics, castration anxiety and a patriarchal fear of the female. Prince points to Wes Craven, who wanted to reflect the darkness of Vietnam in his debut Last House on the Left (1972), as one of the most prolific practitioners of this new kind of bloody violence: standout moments from his oeuvre include Glen’s death in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), in which Craven and his crew poured 80 gallons of water and red paint onto the set from above. And, naturally, there’s The Shining (1980), in which Stanley Kubrick utilized anywhere from 200 to 300 gallons of a British formulation of syrup, water, and food dye called Kensington Gore (a pun on London street names) to shoot the scene in which blood pours out of the elevator in the Overlook Hotel.

Reservoir Dogs, Tim Roth, 1992. (Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection)

Nowadays, every filmmaker can make his or her own style and formulation of blood with relative ease. “At my shop, I’m a big proponent of ‘blood is not pancake syrup,’” Sells says. “I’ve worked with a lot of directors and producers who want this thick, goopy, slow-dripping blood. To the common horror fan, they’re cool with it, but the fact that I have a semi-medical background in college, I always look at things like, ‘That doesn’t look real.’” Sells uses a derivative of corn syrup called sorbitol that isn’t as sticky as corn syrup and doesn’t attract the same kind of insect interest, a helpful feature when shooting outdoors; the sorbitol blood also runs better, giving it a more authentic quality. There are also mixtures available on the market that serve specific purposes, like drying, and Sells will purchase those when mixing the formula himself wouldn’t be cost-effective. Each job makes different demands on the makeup artist, and they’ll adjust their techniques based on the requests of the director. In general, Sells says that the proliferation of shows like Grey’s Anatomy and CSI have raised the bar in terms of the realism expected, even with horror movies, as has the shift from film to digital. Recently, Sells worked on two indie projects that both required verisimilitude in their approach: Josh and Benny Safdie’s gritty Good Time and Kevin Phillips’ thriller Super Dark Times, both released this fall.

“Both of those films wanted a certain amount of realism, but I think audiences have come to expect certain things when it comes to blood and wounds and gore,” Sells says. “Good Timewas an action film, and there wasn’t a whole lot of blood and stuff in that, so we tried to approach it fairly realistically, whereas Super Dark Times was a thriller-slash-horror movie. There’s a scene where [one of the characters] gets stabbed in the neck with a sword, and of course my first reaction was, ‘Great, they’re going to want Kill Bill kind of stuff.’ But after talking to the director and the producers, they said, no, we don’t want to go over the top, and that made my day. I’d rather just have it oozing out, a little flow.”

David Greathouse, another makeup and special effects artist, recently worked on Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which hits theaters this month, and he says the director had a very clear idea of what he wanted. “I did video tests of the gunshot wounds and sent it to them. They were very specific on the flow, how the blood protruded, was it strong, was it a slow leak. Usually, you think you want a big blast, but I did various takes of pressure, of how much blood is actually coming out of the wound.” He stresses the difficulty of working with blood: it requires costume changes, testing and rehearsals, and full resets after each take, to wipe down the walls and whatever else gets covered. Greathouse says he’ll mix his blood based on the lighting and the environment in which it’s being shot; he estimates that he’s mixed a hundred gallons of blood over the years. Sells does the same, and mentions the resolution and style of color correction among the many factors that have to be taken into account. He’s even used milk to make fake blood for scenes in which it needed to maintain its consistency in water. While all of this can now be done with CGI, Greathouse is adamant that it pales in comparison to the real fake thing. “I really get turned off by CG blood, for the most part,” he says. “I mean, there are some good examples, I don’t want to knock everyone that does that, but a lot of times, it’s just too place, it’s too perfect.” When liquid blood “shoots out where you didn’t expect…there’s still nothing better.”

Pierrot Le Fou, Jean-Paul Belmonda, Anna Karina, 1965. (Courtesy Everett Collection)

The presence of blood and gore is often thought of as one of the most significant signs of gratuitous violence in Hollywood but Prince has a different perspective. Greathouse’s reference to CGI hints at the extreme presence of computer-generated images in modern film, particularly when it comes to the most mainstream, expensive studio movies. But the digital nature of much of the violence in these movies is, ironically, often bloodless and sanitized, harkening back to the Code-era approach of censors. “Blood will push a film into the R rating, and depictions of physical and emotional suffering as the aftermath of violence will push a film into the R rating. Sexual violence will push a film into the R category,” Prince says. “So what you wind up with in the PG-13 category is really fake violence, where nobody really gets hurt or suffers—it doesn’t matter how many people you kill as long as you do it that way. The body count in superhero films can be astronomical, but nobody really gets hurt.” Instead, these bodies fall to the ground or disappear in explosions, giving a sense of action without the cost that characterizes real-life violence. To a major extent, then, it’s fake blood, and the many shades of red in which it comes, that roots and connects film to lived experience. “Blood reminds us of the reality of what’s being represented,” Prince says. “You take that out, you remove it, and you’re in make-believe land.”

Stephen King’s It, 1990. (Warner Bros. Television/courtesy Everett Collection)

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