Cinema’s Spookiest Dinosaur Scenes

Dinosaurs have been movie monsters for a century. Here’s a short countdown of some of their scariest moments in film.

carnivorous dinosaurs
For the past century, carnivorous dinosaurs like Allosaurus—seen here at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County—have been made-to-order movie monsters. Photo by the author

If we had not discovered dinosaurs, I don’t know whether we could have dreamed them up. So many of the prehistoric creatures were so unlike anything alive today, and dinosaurs seem to keep getting weirder with almost every new discovery. But dinosaurs aren’t just animals. During the past century they have frequently served as made-to-order movie monsters, from some of the earliest silent shorts to modern special-effects extravaganzas. Tyrannosaurus alone has been a celebrated and ever-hungry villain from the original 1933 King Kong to the 2005 remake of the same film. In celebration of Halloween, here’s a short list of some of my favorite spooky moments in the long history of dinosaur cinema. (If you can handle even more horror after this, see Food & Think’s ten scariest food-related moments in film.)

5. Dinosaur SMASH!

By modern standards this pick isn’t scary at all, but what is slot #5 for if not a sentimental favorite?

The direct-to-TV, B-movie The Last Dinosaur was one of the first dinosaur flicks I ever saw. It also has to be one of the silliest. Big-game hunter Maston Thrust—one of the most unfortunately named characters in cinema—is on the trail of a Tyrannosaurus in an isolated lost world. The dinosaurs are all portrayed by people in rubber suits, but before we all got spoiled by the top-notch effects in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs were just about as good as anything I had seen. But it wasn’t the jaws of the Tyrannosaurus that scared me. In one scene, the tyrant stomps through camp and steps right on the expedition’s scientist without a second thought. That was what scared me—to seem so small and insignificant that a dinosaur might trod right on me without even noticing.

4. Nobody here but us maniraptorans

By any measure, Carnosaur is a crummy dinosaur flick. Roger Corman’s very loose adaptation of the novel by the same name is low-rent dinosaur schlock in its purest form. Still, dinosaurs films are usually more in the “adventure” vein than the “horror” one, and our introduction to the film’s puppet Deinonychus had me looking over my shoulder to make sure there weren’t any poorly designed dinosaur puppets hiding behind me. A farmer driving a truckload of chickens hears something amiss with his cargo. From the brief shots of the chicken cages, the birds would seem to be exploding. When our hapless minor character goes back to see what’s up, he is quickly dispatched by one of the closest, non-avian relatives of the dinosaur descendants he was shipping.

3. Brontosaurus attack!

Everyone knows that the huge, long-necked sauropod dinosaurs were herbivores. That’s why the carnivorous turn a “Brontosaurus” took in 1933′s King Kong creeped me out as a kid.

Early in their adventure across Skull Island’s prehistoric paradise, the film’s human protagonists start crossing a misty lake. Too bad for them a very angry sauropod lives there. The dinosaur goes on a rampage, capsizing boats and tossing crew members around, and the worst part of an amphibious dinosaur is that it can follow you as you try to escape to dry land. Being run down by a sharp-toothed predator is bad enough, but even worse is to be inefficiently torn apart by a primarily plant-eating dinosaur looking for some extra protein!

2. Triple Tyrant Trouble

Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong didn’t match the iconic status of the original—how could it, really?—but the team of special effects masters who worked on the film brought the deadly fauna of Skull Island to life in wonderful detail. No scene better demonstrates just how perilous life on the island could be than Ann Darrow’s attempted escape through the jungle. Darrow, played by Naomi Watts, encounters enormous terrestrial crocodiles and gargantuan centipedes in quick succession before meeting the living descendants of Tyrannosaurus itself (given the name Vastatosaurus in the beautifully illustrated companion guide to the film). While the ensuing battle scene between King Kong and the three dinosaurs is an over-the-top brawl, the initial chase is frightening—especially when a well-camouflaged dinosaur almost gets the drop on Ann. Always mind your surroundings in dinosaur country.

1. Heeeeeeere’s Rexie!

Jurassic Park is full of scary moments. In fact, the original film probably lays claim to all the scariest dinosaur moments in film history. Out of all the film’s scenes, though, the debut of the Tyrannosaurus was what had me gripping my theater armrest in 1993. What should have been one of the happiest moments in the life of a dinosaur fan—seeing the quintessential dinosaur in the living flesh!—turns into a muddy, blood-spattered nightmare of twisted metal. It didn’t matter that Steven Spielberg was obviously going to keep all the principal characters alive through the encounter. Seeing what was arguably one of the scariest apex predators of all time brought back to life—even virtually—was scary enough. Our fascination with dinosaurs has always been safe because the objects of our fascination have been dead for more than 65 million years, but in this short scene the ornery Tyrannosaurus ably demonstrates why some childhood dreams about meeting living dinosaurs may be best left unfulfilled.

From everyone here at Dinosaur Tracking, have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!

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