The Terminator: the Horror Movie That Isn’t a Horror Movie

In 1982, James Cameron had a nightmare. In 1984, he brought his nightmare to life. Does The Terminator deserves a place in the horror canon?

That Terminator is out there. It can’t be reasoned with, it can’t be bargained with… it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear.. and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.

Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), The Terminator

In 1982, James Cameron was having a bad time; he’d been working on Piranha II: The Spawning as a special effects artist when the director of the movie, Miller Drake, had been fired by Ovido G. Assonitis, the executive producer. Cameron inherited the director’s chair, which meant that this shitty movie about flying mutant piranhas was going to be his directorial debut. Funding for the movie came from Italian B-movie financier Ovidio G. Assonitis (The Visitor), who insisted on having an Italian crew on set to save money. The crew didn’t speak much English and Cameron didn’t speak any Italian, resulting in a production that was about as smooth as a ride across a post-apocalyptic hellscape littered with human skulls. To make matters worse, Cameron was locked out of the editing process, meaning there was no way that he could try to salvage something of value out of the cheap Jaws rip-off (which was itself a sequel to an existing Jaws rip-off) that was going to have his name written all over it. While Piranha II was in postproduction, Cameron was a broken and desperate man, feeding off of stolen leftover scraps in a hotel room in Rome. The poached meal gave him food poisoning and a fever dream that would forever alter the trajectory of his career. “I had a dream about this metal death figure coming out of a fire”, Cameron would later explain to Entertainment Weekly “And the implication was that it had been stripped of its skin by the fire and exposed for what it really was.” Cameron wasted no time and quickly sketched the metallic monster from his dreams.

James Cameron's first sketch of the Terminator, a pencil sketch of a skeletal robot on white paper.
James Cameron’s first sketch of the Terminator

It’s fascinating that Cameron got the idea for 1984’s The Terminator from a nightmare because the action/sci-fi film contains many elements straight out of a horror film. The Terminator usually isn’t regarded as a horror film itself, even if the occasional article may disagree with this stance. It’s got the final girl defeating the monster after it undergoes multiple fake-out deaths, police who are completely dismissive of a threat beyond their comprehension, young people seemingly being slaughtered for their lust, and even the occasional jumpscare. Cameron’s earliest illustrations of the Terminator even sometimes featured it wielding a knife, like Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise.

While the T-800 in the final film favored guns over knives, it still feels a lot like one of the horror icons that dominated the Eighties; the Terminator is presented as a force of nature, defined by how difficult it is to kill and how easily it slaughters people. Like slashers, the way it slaughters its victims is meant to both terrify audiences and, in a perverse way, entertain them. “I was building my career, being a leading man and not being a villain”, Arnold Schwarzenegger would later recall. “But Cameron said that he’d shoot it in such a way that all the evil stuff that I do will be totally excused by audiences because I’m a cool machine. And so cool that some of the people will cheer.”

One scene, in particular, feels as though it was pulled from a slasher film: the deaths of Ginger, Sarah Conner’s roommate and Matt, Ginger’s boyfriend. Every scene with the couple has some sort of horror element to it. We’re first introduced to Matt when Sarah picks up the phone and he graphically describes the sexual acts he wants to perform on Ginger (unaware that his girlfriend isn’t the one on the on the line). However, the audience isn’t immediately given the context that he’s Ginger’s boyfriend, and for a few seconds, we’re led to believe that he’s some kind of creepy, perverted stranger. When Sarah leaves her apartment, there’s a quick jumpscare when she runs into Matt, who’s waiting right outside of the door to greet Ginger. At this point, Sarah doesn’t know that a killer cyborg is after her but she did see on the news that a different “Sarah Connor” was murdered, and she’s a bit on edge because of it.

The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), face rotting away to reveal the robotic skeleton underneath his synthetic skin, one red eye glowing.
The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) | Orion Pictures

While Sarah is out, Ginger and Matt experience a very different definition of the words “come with me if you want to live”. Ginger gets up to grab a post-coital snack while blasting her walkman and gets spooked when Sarah’s pet iguana, Pugsley, knocks some food off of the top of the fridge (no matter how many times I watch this movie, I always forget that it has a lizard jumpscare). The T-800 then breaks into the bedroom, waking Matt up before it can kill him in his sleep. Matt tries his best to fight the killing machine, but his efforts are in vain. In a moment that possesses the dark humor of a slasher kill, Ginger is completely oblivious to her boyfriend being beaten to death in the next room over: she can’t hear the commotion over her headphones. She doesn’t know that her apartment has been invaded until Matt’s bloody body crashes through the bedroom door and the Terminator emerges. The music slows to an eerie groan as Ginger screams and tries to flee, but she’s shot in the back by the Terminator. As she attempts to crawl away, the T-800 slowly walks up to her, looks down with an expressionless face, and fires at her five more times, killing her.

This scene plays right into the horror trope that horny young people are essentially marked for death- that only the innocent (chaste) survive the massacre. However… the rest of the movie doesn’t follow this logic. The brief romance between Sarah and her protector from the future, Kyle Reese, leads to them having sex in a motel room. The dialogue heavily implies that this is Kyle’s first time, but while he’s the one losing a more metaphorical sense of innocence, he’s also been helping Sarah learn how to defend herself from killer machines and adjust to life on the run. It’s a sort of exchange where Sarah teaches Kyle to be softer and more human, while Kyle teaches Sarah to toughen herself (and by extension, her son that’s just been conceived) up for the harsh future ahead. Despite having sex, Sarah survives the entire movie. Perhaps it’s because what she and Kyle had was presented as being “something deeper” than a pursuit of pleasure, though the more likely explanation is that The Terminator simply isn’t wholly a horror movie. Like a robotic endoskeleton covered in living tissue, it’s a sort of hybrid. It doesn’t firmly fit into a singular genre and doesn’t have to follow its rules with any sort of consistency.

The Terminator also plays with body horror a little, especially in the scene where the T-800 performs surgery on itself in a grimy flophouse after getting wrecked in a car chase. We watch as it slices its arm open to readjust the bloody hydraulics inside, before cutting out its crushed eyeball to expose the ocular sensor beneath. Time hasn’t been particularly kind to all of the practical effects in this scene, but it still feels visceral and disgusting even if it doesn’t entirely look real. If anything, the uncanny valley effect of the animatronic Schwarzenegger adds a little to the creepiness.

Later, the film plays up the grossness of the Terminator’s injuries by implying that its flesh is rotting. The flophouse owner says it smells like a “dead cat”, and flies are crawling on its waxy face. By this point, the T-800 is essentially a corpse reanimated by the machinery inside of it. Near the end of the film, this becomes even more evident when the Terminator gets hit by a truck. More skin is ripped from its face and its leg is damaged, causing it to limp. For a brief moment, the Terminator looks and moves like a zombie.

Knowing that it has no chance of chasing down its target on foot, the Terminator hijacks a fuel truck and tries to run Sarah over. However, Kyle manages to slip a bomb into the truck’s exhaust pipe, and it explodes with the T-800 still inside of it. Sarah watches the burning Terminator stumble out of the truck and collapse, finally still as the flames consume its body. She and Kyle triumphantly embrace amid the fiery wreckage, unaware that this isn’t the victorious ending of an action film, but the beginning of a horror movie finale. Like in Cameron’s dream, the Terminator rises out of the flames, rebooted and ready to kill. The thick Austrian beef has been completely seared off of its metal endoskeleton: the monster has reached its final form.

The entire climax of the film is pure horror. Kyle and Sarah flee into an automated factory to escape the lumbering machine behind them, but it gains ground on them as they struggle with locked doors. They manage to break into the factory’s main floor and seal the entrance behind them, but the Terminator is only slightly inconvenienced by the metal door before it rips through it. The couple sneaks around the noisy machinery of the factory, but eventually find themselves in a spot where the only way out is a raised walkway. On the walkway, Kyle sacrifices himself by lodging a bomb into the Terminator’s lower torso. The explosion causes Sarah to fall from the stairs and break her leg. The T-800’s legless body suddenly jolts back to life, terrifying Sarah. There’s a sickening tension as both the predator and prey are forced to crawl around on the ground in a slow-motion chase. Just as the T-800 has Sarah cornered and manages to grab at her neck, she hits the controls to a hydraulic press and crushes the cyborg while defiantly declaring “You’re terminated, fucker!” The red light in its eyes goes out, confirming that this is the end at least, for this specific Terminator.

The Terminator's metalic skeletal frame emerges from the flames that fill the background.
The Terminator’s skeletal frame emerges from the flames | Orion Pictures

So if The Terminator is widely considered to be both an action movie and a science fiction movie, why is it that most people can’t recognize it as a horror movie as well? My theory is that the way the original movie is perceived is somewhat skewed by the fact that it’s part of a franchise. Terminator 2: Judgment Day has a few horror-esque moments involving the shapeshifting T-1000, but they seem to be played down in favor of the action and science-fiction elements. After all, the original film was made on a tight budget, and could only do so much in terms of car chases and fleshing out the world of the future. This likely forced Cameron to find cheap, creative ways to provide thrills in between these moments, and the obvious solution seems to be to lean into the horror of it all. The Terminator was a surprise success, and after it did well financially, Cameron had a much bigger budget for the second film. This led to T2 having a more high-tech terminator and more elaborate fights and chases, which meant that there wasn’t as much room for horror anymore.

The four other Terminator sequels that followed T2 (as well as the T2 3-D: Battle Across Time attraction at Universal Studios and the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show) seemed to use the sequel as a point of reference more than the original, making the majority of the franchise horror-free. The Terminator is an entry in this series, so it makes sense that people mostly remember it by the tropes and components that carried on to the later installments.

But while a large part of The Terminator’s questionable status as a horror movie comes from the movies that precede it, at the end of the day it doesn’t possess the consistent tone and structure of a horror movie. While entire scenes have the feel of a horror movie, others simply… don’t. It’s difficult to look at a movie that’s full of loud, exciting moments like shootouts in a police station and car pursuits through the streets of L.A. and definitively say “that’s a horror movie”, especially when you compare it to horror movies of that era. However, that’s not to say horror and action can’t coexist. Cameron’s third film, Aliens, fully broke down whatever barrier existed between the two genres, paving the way for action-horror movies like Predator, Underworld, and Train to Busan. It’s entirely possible that Cameron’s work on The Terminator inspired his unorthodox decision to inject the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien with high-octane thrills. It’s still unclear whether or not The Terminator should definitively be considered a horror movie, but it just may be responsible for the entire subgenre of action horror.

By Quinn Hesters

Quinn is a vat-grown living advertisement created by the LEGO Company to promote their products. When he's not being the flesh-and-blood equivalent of a billboard, he's raving about the X-Men on Twitter.

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