5 Famous Movies That Used Horrifying Substances for Effects
Not everything Hollywood shows you is a lie. Sometimes the only way to get that perfect shot of a jet-ski ramping into a pile of human feces is to pay a guy to ramp a jet-ski into a pile of human feces. It happens more often than you think, and not just to stunt doubles and interns, either. For example:
The Android Blood in Aliens Was Rancid Milk
Aliens was chock full of acid-bleeding penis monsters, grotesque face-hugging vagina creatures, exploding stomachs, and androids who bled white stuff. That last one seems pretty tame by comparison, right?
That's only because you weren't on set ...
The Terrible Reality
In the original Alien, the android blood effects were achieved with simple food coloring, but James Cameron's Aliens took it to the next level by swapping that out for gallons of milk and yogurt. With that in mind, here's Lance Henriksen:
What that screencap isn't showing you is Henriksen's character, Bishop, dramatically coughing that stuff up everywhere in the first place. Yep, he had to chug rotten dairy products and regurgitate them back onto himself like a pornographic Exorcist.
Of course, it didn't start off spoiled. The problem was that the special effects team didn't remember to put the milk and yogurt smoothie back in the fridge after they whipped it up. They just left it out overnight -- and it also sat under those hot lights between the long, long takes ...
If Henriksen's performance seems genuinely pained in his final scenes, it's not just acting: after the scene wrapped, Henriksen says, he was "sick as a dog" and spent the next four days puking. And it wasn't just because of that disturbing alien queen egg-chute scene ...
Elysium Filmed in a Real Garbage Dump Full of Poop
Neill Blomkamp makes entertaining sci-fi commentaries on social issues, and they're not exactly subtle. In Elysium, the big-budget follow-up to District 9, he presents a dystopian future where the 99 percent scrape together an impoverished existence in the giant slum that is the entire Earth, while the rich orbit the planet in a tastefully appointed space station. But obviously those settings are the result of elaborate sets and CGI -- they didn't really send Jodie Foster into space, and obviously they wouldn't have sent Matt Damon running around a real garbage dump.
The Terrible Reality
Sometimes being Matt Damon means wading through a sea of garbage, and we're not just talking about The Adjustment Bureau. Blomkamp filmed large parts of Elysium in Mexico City's Bordo Poniente, the world's second-largest dump. The landfill covers 975 acres and holds 76 million tons of trash.
The fear of illness was very real: Damon had to discard his clothes at the end of every shooting day. Here's one location that the cast and crew affectionately nicknamed "Poo River."
So, if you're watching Damon and Sharlto Copley battle it out in that apocalyptic wasteland, remember that the dust blowing around their faces and probably into their lungs is "mostly fecal matter." The crew was lucky enough to be given masks, but obviously the actors had to go without and risk a case of the ol' poop lung.
The Zombies in Night of the Living Dead Were Eating Ham, Animal Organs, and Chocolate Syrup ... Together
Night of the Living Dead, the movie that kicked off a love affair with zombies so long-lasting that we grew resentful and distant from one another, initially shocked audiences with its realistic depiction of cannibalism. Even though it was shot in black and white and mostly in the dark, so George Romero probably could've skated by with chocolate syrup for blood, ham for flesh, and a bunch of animal organs that the butcher shop threw away.
The Terrible Reality
Actually, that's exactly what he did. The cannibal effects were mostly achieved by having the actors eat butcher shop leavings and ham off of fake human body parts. It's not like it was rancid ham or rotten beef hearts or anything. The blood effects were achieved with chocolate syrup. That's not too bad either. But they had to eat those things together:
And this isn't "gourmet chocolate bar with caramelized bacon" or "liver with a cocoa powder reduction." This was cheap, room temperature roast ham, pig intestines, and Bosco.
Using pork as a replacement for human flesh is a trick that zombie filmmakers use to this day, notably in The Walking Dead, but the cast of that show are given the more palatable option of barbecued pork covered with food coloring instead of chocolate. Though some particularly hardcore actors will tear apart raw chicken with their teeth for added realism. No matter what Shane may have said about Rick, at least the guy playing him seems like he has the balls to survive the zombie apocalypse.
The Actors in Les Miserables Were Surrounded by Rotting Fish
Les Miserables is about a bunch of people who suffer horribly for trying to do the right thing (there's a reason it's not called Les Happy Fun Times). And none of the characters suffer as much as Fantine, a young woman trying to support her daughter who loses her job for spurning her boss' advances, sells her hair and teeth, and ultimately goes full prostitute. Then she dies of tuberculosis. Then she probably goes to Hell. Like, the ghetto of Hell. And in the 2012 film, the set designers wanted to make sure the actors had every bit as bad a time as the audience.
The Terrible Reality
According to production designer Eve Stewart, they brought in real seaweed and barrels of decomposing fish to decorate the set, which slowly turned rank under the studio lights. Rotting seafood really helps contribute to that 19th-century seaside prostitute vibe. To make matters worse, this is the same set where Anne Hathaway, who plays Fantine, recorded the four-minute, single-shot take of "I Dreamed a Dream," which took eight hours to film.
And yet the version of the song used in the movie was nailed on the fourth take, which was shot in only 20 minutes. But Hathaway insisted that she could do it even better and went on to try again and again and again for another seven and a half hours, during which time she and the rest of the cast and crew stewed in an aerosolized brine of rotting fish.
For a shot, you'll note, that could've easily been filmed literally anywhere else.
There's suffering for your art, and then there's making sure everybody else suffers for your art. We're guessing the crew made fun of Hathaway's haircut or something, and she's just really, really good at revenge.
The Snow in The Wizard of Oz Was Toxic Asbestos
Before CGI, studios needed to come up with a convincing practical effects method for faking snow, just in case the producer couldn't control the weather with sheer willpower and contempt. The most common trick was to blow wispy little cotton balls around. It worked pretty well, but it was missing a certain je ne sais quoi (that's French for "air poison").
The Terrible Reality
When a firefighter pointed out that cotton is incredibly flammable, the filmmakers behind The Wizard of Oz made a bold decision in the name of health and safety: they swapped out cotton for asbestos. The on-set OHS officers promptly died of irony poisoning.
That scene in which Glinda the Good Witch sends a gentle snowstorm to wake Dorothy from the magic poppy fields? Yeah, she was actually blowing bucketloads of deadly, cancerous asbestos right in Dorothy's face. Maybe her name is supposed to be ironic, like calling a big man tiny.
To be fair, the dangers of asbestos weren't very well known back then; we were just a few decades removed from using heroin and radium as a delicious snack for the kids. Also, white chrysotile asbestos -- the kind they bathed Dorothy in -- is less lethal than other types, though that's a bit like saying it's safer to fight Mike Tyson than a polar bear. Experts consider it extremely unwise to fuck around with either.
Judy Garland and pals frolicked through 27 asbestos blizzards before they got the footage they needed, as the actors who kept screwing up their lines had no idea that each stutter was taking a month off their lives. It wasn't just a fluke for The Wizard of Oz, either. Bing Crosby's Christmas movie Holiday Inn had both stars literally buried in potential cancer.
The golden age of deadly snow ended with World War II, when America's asbestos stash was redirected for military efforts, forcing Hollywood to develop saner alternatives. But years later, people still bought chrysotile snow products to decorate their Christmas trees at home. So if you ever find packets of stuff called "Pure White" or "White Magic" or "Snow Drift" up in grandma's attic, keep in mind that it isn't leftover medicinal cocaine from the good ol' days.
You can follow the disgusting reality of Blair on Twitter. You can talk to Carolyn about movies on Twitter, but she'll block you if you're gross. Jordan Rudow has nothing of his own to promote, but because Matt Damon inhaled feces for our enjoyment, Jordan asks that you repay the favor and donate to Water.org.
For more on movie effects, check out 7 Amazing Movie Special Effects You Won't Believe Aren't CGI. And then check out 17 Awesomely Simple Tricks Behind Movie Special Effects.
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