Siskel and Ebert might have hated them, parents groups may have protested them and the British courts might have had them banned but the popularity of ’80s horror movies has never waned. It seems like every nonhorror fan in the world was hellbent on killing the genre dead but like the supernatural killers that inhabit most of the films within said genre, it was impossible to destroy. And that was because of the fans. For the first time ever, they had to fight in order to protect a genre they loved from seemingly everyone. Studios loved making them because they were cheap but they were also not afraid to pull some due to controversy.
The only thing that kept horror alive in the theatres is that the fans demanded more. The gorehounds came out in droves and because they voted with their wallet, their money outweighed the negative reception. I believe that’s partially why people are still nostalgic for that decade, specifically the genre fare, to this day. The passion of the audiences of that time has carried through the last forty years. This list is dedicated to not only the masters of the macabre that helped define the decade with their splatter effects and practical monsters but the fans that loved that shit so much, they kept it from dying.
This is The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of The 1980s.
10. Hellraiser/Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1987/1988)
I feel these two films work better together than separately. Don’t get me wrong 1987’s Hellraiser was a disturbing and one of the most gruesome stories to come out of the horror explosion of the ‘80s. The story hit on taboo subjects like sex and pain that had a nasty tone and gave us one of the most iconic villains in horror history in the torture demon “Pinhead”. Clive Barker’s directing debut was stellar but where I feel it lacked in story is where Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 elevates the original. It does a better job of world-building around these nasty creatures called the Cenobites that we met in the original while being gorier and more violent like all good sequels should. Like most good horror movies, Hellraiser is full of subtext underneath all the incredible practical effects of blood, gore, and the Cenobites themselves. It would be a shot in the arm for horror that began relying too much on the same slashers and stories with Barker’s unique vision.
09. Maniac (1980)
Film critic Gene Siskel was so disgusted by the infamous “shotgun head explosion” scene, that he immediately got up and walked out of the movie theater. Which means he only made it about 15 minutes into the film. If that made him leave, I can’t imagine what the other 80 minutes would have done to him.
There are certain performances that feel like the actor isn’t acting; they are just the character. R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket or Erwin Leder in Angst comes to mind. Joe Spinnell is so good in Maniac, you pray to God he’s just acting. It doesn’t even feel like a performance. It feels like we’re trapped in the theater with a psychopath and we have no idea what he’s going to do next.
08. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Not only is this my favorite zombie movie of all time but it is one of the most influential zombie films as well. We all know about a certain movie that created the zombie subgenre and what it meant to horror movies overall, however, The Return of the Living Dead would be a game-changer for the future of the genre. It would introduce fast movie zombies who could function outside the base animal instincts of just devouring people. ROTLD would also introduce one of the most iconic zombie traits that everyone and their momma have either imitated or at least seen someone act like a zombie and say “braaaaiinnsss!”
Writer/Director David O’Bannon drew a lot of inspiration from Romero’s classic but added in some defining attributes of his own while plugging into the 80’s punk rock style perfectly. We got some tremendous performances, a fantastic soundtrack, gnarly practical effects, and one of the best horror comedies of all time. Combine all that with its influences on the next generation of zombie films and you have one of the best horror movies ever. Oh, and let’s not forget that it also gave us one of the greatest horror characters in Trash.
07. Poltergeist (1982)
Combining the best parts of Spielberg’s trademark Amblin style with Hooper’s shocking sensibilities (Spielberg would never have filmed a scene involving a guy ripping his face off), the end result is the film The Amityville Horror dreamed of being. If the old adage “Three great scenes equal a great film” is true, then this film is a goddamn masterpiece.
There’s the kitchen table scene, the clown scene, “They’re…here”, the aforementioned guy ripping his face-off, the pool full of skeletons, the tree attacking Robbie and the infamous “don’t go into the light Carol Anne” scene. If the measurement of a film’s greatness is by its homages, this film is an undeniable legend. Almost every aspect of this film has been parodied or “homaged” (code for ripped off) by a million different things but none have done it better before or since.
06. Evil Dead II (1987)
Somewhere between a remake and a reboot, Evil Dead II feels less like a sequel (although it definitely is one) and more like Raimi trying to one-up himself. By essentially remaking the first but with a bigger budget, Raimi wanted to show the world that the first one wasn’t just a good low budget movie, it was a good movie period. Trading in spooks for absurdist laughs, the movie reinvents the formula established in the last one by diving headfirst into another genre. Evil Dead II is no longer a straight horror film but an insane comedy that beats you into submission. Once the film starts, it doesn’t stop punching you in the face with gags until the credits start rolling. Upping the ante in every way possible, Evil Dead II feels like walking through a homemade haunted house on Halloween that lasts 5 hours. It’s non-stop entertaining to an almost exhausting degree. Stephen King might’ve called Evil Dead the “future of horror” but Evil Dead II is the future of cinema.
05. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
It’s staggering how many great ideas are present in this film. You have the most iconic villain since Dracula, wielding the most original instrument of death in any horror movie, who also kills you in your sleep. It’s too much. It’s like a buffet made up of nothing but Turkish delight.
Besides the Halloween costume makers wet dream that is Freddy, the reason this film has maintained its stranglehold on audiences for decades is its brilliant use of dream logic. You never know when someone is asleep and the film gets a hell of a lot of mileage out of that conceit.
Honestly, the film has the greatest premise for a horror film ever made: you go to sleep, you die. It’s brilliant in its simplicity because everyone needs to sleep. That alone would make a suspenseful thriller but on top of that, the reason you die is because of a burned up child killer who can manipulate your dreams and can bend the dreams to his will. He can literally be anyone or take the shape of anything.
It’s fucking genius how clever it is. But it doesn’t matter how clever an idea is if it’s poorly executed but this film, like your neighborhood drug dealer, has it all. Every death is unique and memorable, every scene with Freddy is unforgettable and every dream sequence fools the audience into thinking it’s reality. It’s the film I think of when I think of horror.
04. The Evil Dead (1981)
When you’re a fan of horror, you’re never at a loss for recommendations. If you dug this slasher, there are 100 others just like it. Dug that haunted house film? Step right up and take a gander at the copious amounts of evil houses we have. It’s like a used car salesman — always a pitch, always a lot full of cars. Every horror film comes with a whole slew of similar films for you to check out. Except for The Evil Dead.
If you’re a diehard fan of The Evil Dead, there’s no other film that will scratch that itch. Peter Jackson comes close with his early films and the sequel itself almost hits the right notes before it devolves into madcap lunacy. While it’s certainly dated compared to today’s films, there was a time when this was the film you dared other people to watch. There’s a reason why Raimi took the franchise into comedy and eventually action, he himself knew he couldn’t top this film’s scares.
03. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
If I could only watch one werewolf movie for the rest of my life it would be this one. An American Werewolf in London is the definitive werewolf movie mainly due to the stellar makeup effects by Rick Baker (who won an Academy Award for his work on the film) and the fact it is the most entertaining werewolf film in existence. Director John Landis masterfully blended horror, comedy, and tragedy while borrowing elements from previous werewolf films but managed to deliver something original and memorable.
I will forever talk about what impact the transformation sequence had on me as a kid. I had seen many horror movies before An American Werewolf in London and I just always knew it was a guy in a mask and the blood wasn’t real but here was different. This wasn’t some cool transition or cutting and showing the next phase each time. This looked so real that I remember inching closer to the tv to see what was happening. This looked like it hurt, and you could feel David’s pain. The suffering culminates in a brief yet awe-inspiring rampage through the streets of London that harken back to classic monster movies like King Kong.
02. The Shining (1980)
This is simply a two-hour study in claustrophobia and cabin fever that has a hypnotic quality. Stanley Kubrick is the star behind the camera with his incredible shots of desolate hallways, the iconic scene of gallons of blood pouring out of an elevator, and other horrendous sights whose purpose was to send chills up your spine rather than straight-up scare you. Jack Nicholson is the star in front of the camera as he takes center stage in a riveting performance that would go down as one of the best performances of all time in any genre.
Kubrick’s masterpiece would go on to inspire countless imitators, documentaries, and homages with enough iconic imagery and quotes stuffed in one film that most franchises couldn’t handle. Everyone has done an imitation of “Here’s Johnny!” with other quotes and images that are instantly recognizable by even those who haven’t seen the film.
01. The Thing (1982)
Based on the novel Who Goes There? Which was later adapted into The Thing from Another World, John Carpenter’s take on the story is a horse of a different color. Gone are the communist undertones of the original and are now replaced with a smartly written allegory for AIDS, The Thing is the greatest film about paranoia ever devised. Since the alien entity can be anyone or anything, no one is to be trusted. It’s a premise Tom Clancy or John Le Carré get erect just thinking about.
When John Carpenter makes a film, all the credit goes to him. He’s an auteur and that’s just how that shit works but The Thing is the only film in his oeuvre that he can only claim half the credit for its success. As amazing as the camera work is in this film, and as amazing as the score is, the second star of the film is undoubtedly Rob Bottin. His FX work in this film is literally second to none. There are effects in this that not only stand the test of time but are so good, I still have a hard time figuring out how they work. Together with Carpenter’s impeccable direction and use of dread, Bottom’s horrific monster designs make this one of the greatest sci-fi films ever, the greatest alien invasion film ever, and the scariest horror film of all time.
What do you think of the selection so far? What are some of your favorite horror movies of the 1980s? Maybe they will show up further on the list!