Die Hard is a classic of action cinema, but it is the film’s intense horror-style suspense that makes it stand out from the crowd.
Die Hard is a titan of action film history. A gigantic and unexpected hit back in 1988, it spawned multiple sequels and imitators, launched Bruce Willis’s career, and is often listed among the best films of the 1980s. But what makes Die Hard stand out from the hundreds of other ’80s action movies of its type? Die Hard endures and stands out as a film because it is paced and written less like a traditional action movie and more like a horror movie, particularly the ’80s slasher films that were its contemporaries.
Die Hard tells the story of John McClane (Willis), an Everyman hero who finds himself accidentally caught up in a terrorist attack on his wife’s office building on Christmas Eve. Led by Alan Rickman as iconic villain Hans Gruber, the terrorists hijack the building, hold prisoners hostage and strand McClane on the top floor, where he stands out as the only inside man who can save the day. McClane is subjected to an intense cat-and-mouse game with the terrorists, one that involves extreme violence, terror, isolation and a deadly unseen enemy.
Die Hard Works Like a Slasher Film
While there is no doubt Die Hard is an action movie, the film is placed and plotted more like a traditional slasher horror film, with McClane as its central “Final Girl.” The tropes are all present. First, McClane is isolated throughout the film, while the potential victims, separate from him, are picked off one-by-one by the film’s central killer. The deaths in the film are extremely gory by action movie standards. McClane must use his survival skills to outwit and outplay the bad guys. While he does, of course, use muscle and police skills to fight back, he is outgunned and outmatched and, unlike most action film heroes, not immune to bullets.
Die Hard often stands out for this particular feature. When McClane steps on glass, he has to take time to pull it out of his bleeding feet. When he’s shot at, he’s terrified, not immune. He is a human hero who can be hurt or killed. This is a staple more of the horror genre than an action film, where the action-swinging fun is often preserved by making even the greenest fighter seemingly invincible to pain or injury. This vulnerability, however, also switches the tone of the film and creates an experience for the viewer more akin to Alice holing up to fight Pamela Voorhees in Friday the 13th than to James Bond and his derring-do.
Why Die Hard Incorporates Horror Elements
Die Hard also features horror elements in the filmmaking, such as the tight shots, claustrophobic feeling, shots of Gruber and his band of thieves, and the score. The tone and plot of the film, involving a survival game against a seemingly inexorable opponent in an isolated location, use all the basic horror tropes. However, these tropes are blended with action movie tropes as well. There is a damsel in distress, heroic sidekicks (the band of cops outside, for all their flaws) and action movie one-liners. The film is not a pure horror movie, but neither is it a pure traditional action film. It blends these two genres uniquely, incorporating the slasher movie craze into the tone and presentation of the main character to create an unforgettable experience.
Die Hard is not the only action-horror mashup of the 1980s. Aliens and Terminator did already venture into that, as they are also action films with slasher elements. But those two films are more universally acknowledged as action-horror mashups, partly because Aliens was a sequel to a purer slasher horror and because Terminator came out at the height of the craze. They also both feature female leads, which falls more in line with the idea that ’80s slashers only had one gender of horror survivor. But Die Hard features as many slasher elements as Aliens and Terminator, if not more. The film stands out from other action, at least in part, for this reason.