The follow-up to his enormously successful HALLOWEEN, 1980's THE FOG remains the closest thing John Carpenter has done to a zombie film. Okay, so maybe the movie's creatures are closer to ghosts, they're still corporeal beings that've returned from the dead--making them fair game for our purposes.
It'd certainly be appropriate to classify them as spirits, since THE FOG is structured very much like a ghost story, even beginning with one as a cameoing John Houseman sets the tone and establishes backstory with his opening monologue (if the prologue feels a little disconnected from the rest of the story, it's because the scene was an afterthought, a means to lengthen the rough cut to a more acceptable length). The premise--a group of pirates returning to exact their revenge on the centennial of their death--and its execution stay true to the campfire-tale elements.
I don't know if Carpenter was specifically trying to avoid the visceral terror of HALLOWEEN (though there are a few gloriously suspenseful moments), but THE FOG is an exercise in atmosphere and mood, achieving more with its early moments of subtle, ambiguous dread than the scenes involving the pirate Blake and his murderous crew. Aided immeasurably by Dean Cundey's cinematography, Carpenter's decision to shoot in anamorphic widescreen gives the film a scope and depth not usually found in a run-of-the-mill horror film. (An ensemble cast that includes Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook doesn't hurt, either.)
Yet I don't think Carpenter had a lot of faith in his material, as he later went back and beefed up many of the scenes to roughen the film's edges and ensure an R rating. But while these additions don't neccesarily detract from the mood--the close-ups of various body parts being impaled during the Sea Grass massacre does give the sequence some extra impact--it doesn't bring much, either. One instance in particular, when Jamie Lee Curtis encounters a sentient corpse in the morgue, is a pointless, payoff-free moment, the type of cheap scare found in lesser movies (and would be trotted out ad nauseum in the years to come).
Not as accomplished as HALLOWEEN or THE THING (but a damn sight better than dross like VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED or GHOSTS OF MARS), THE FOG holds up well today, a reminder of a bygone era when low-budget horror films could be more than throwaway entertainment. (And for a perfect counterpoint for what's wrong with horror flicks today, see the execrable 2005 remake.)