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.
50. Alligator (1980)
No one was better at making copies of popular films without them feeling like rip-offs like John Sayles. He made a sci-fi action film that copied both Star Wars and Seven Samurai, made a werewolf film that chased the popularity of An American Werewolf in London, and somehow made two Jaws clones and yet, none of them feel like cheap cash grabs. He injected every genre film he made with soul and personality, even when they were shamelessly chasing a trend.
Like Alligator for example; a film that is an exact carbon copy of Jaws (down to the Quint like hunter) but does enough different that you don’t even care. For one thing, it has Robert Forster in the lead and if you’re a fan of genre fare, you know how much of an invaluable resource he is. It also has Henry Silva and Sydney Lassick in supporting roles (again, both huge pluses), direction by the underrated Lewis Teague, and an all-time great scene involving a kid’s birthday party. Alligator sure as hell isn’t original but it’s definitely fun and when it comes to monster movies, that’s enough.
49. Society (1989)
Since he knew he was guaranteed the director’s chair on Bride of Re-Animator, Brian Yuzna used that as his safety net to make his dream project: Society. It was a win-win scenario for the director. He could make the craziest, most fucked up movie imaginable and he was guaranteed at least one other movie, so why not do just that? Inspired by Yuzna’s fear and paranoia of the rich who inhabit Beverly Hills, Society is all about how wealth changes someone, how it corrupts them, and how easy it can be to get away with anything, especially something horrible. Money creates power and power grants one the freedom to do basically anything, including whatever the hell it is they do in the third act.
Without giving it away, “The Shunting” is introduced about halfway through the third act and it’s one of those scenes that you know from the second you catch a glimpse of what it is, that this is something you’ll remember forever. Up there with the transformation from An American Werewolf in London and the chestbuster scene in Alien, “The Shunting” is a special effects extravaganza that feeds into the horror. Screaming Mad George is a genius and what he was able to get away with on top of what he was able to pull off, is nothing short of extraordinary. The film is average at best for the first 2/3rds of its runtime but once the protagonist walks into that room and finds out about The Shunting, it immediately becomes one of the best horror films of the decade.
48. Pieces (1982)
Outside of their unforgettable kills, gorgeous cinematography, and insane nightmare logic, a good chunk of an Italian slasher movie entertainment comes from their fundamental misunderstanding of American culture. While not all of them are set in America, the ones that are, get everything wrong. Pieces is what happens when a Spaniard tries to imitate an Italian who’s trying to imitate an American.
It has everything an American slasher has but everything is slightly askew. It has red herrings but they’re so ridiculous, they might as well be Scooby-Doo villains. There’s product placement for shit you’ve never heard of. A celebrity cameo from a famous Bruce Lee impersonator. So much nudity, that even the men in it flash dong and more violence than three Texas Chainsaws combined. It’s wild, it’s out of its mind and gory as all hell. In short, it’s the best slasher you’ve never heard of.
47. The Beyond (1981)
Fulci will forever be referred to as “the poor man’s Argento”, and while that’s not entirely unfair, it does imply that his entire body of work is inferior, which simply isn’t the case. There’s at least one movie in his oeuvre that’s as good or better than most of Argento’s films and that film is The Beyond. Filled with death scenes as memorable as anything found in Suspiria, a tone of dread as pervasive as anyone of his slashers and operating on another form of nightmare logic, The Beyond is the best and worst the genre has to offer.
If you like stylistic kills, it’s got that. If you like weird-ass shit, it’s got that, too. But if you hate films who’s plots make no sense or that move slower than a sloth with a drinking problem, it might not be for you. For better or worse, it’s got everything that makes up a great Giallo and if you’re a fan of the sub-genre and the tropes therein, you will most likely love it all. If not, you’ll probably hate it but even still, there’s no denying it has one of the best endings in any horror film ever.
46. Brain Damage (1988)
Frank Henenlotter’s films make me want to take a shower. He, like Troma, makes films that feel diseased. They feel like you’d catch something if you touched them for too long. Some fans are attracted to that level of sleaze but it ain’t my bag. Which is why I put off watching Brain Damage for so long. I just assumed it would be another one of his grimy ass sleaze fests, so color me surprised when it turned out to be legitimately funny and kinda-sorta smart.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a fair amount of nastiness (it’s still a Henenlotter film after all) but the grossness feels in service to something rather than just being there for shock value. Or maybe it isn’t and I’m just looking past it or accepting it because I loved the creature so much.
Alymer (John Zacherle) is a brain-eating creature that attaches himself to the brain stem of a host and pumps them full of hallucinogenic drugs in order to make them more compliant. He’s an ugly little puppet who does terrible things but he oozes so much personality, you can’t help but love him. I wouldn’t call him funny per se, but he is definitely a ham. He, along with Henenlotter working at the top of his game, makes Brain Damage one of the most underrated horror comedies of the decade.
45. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
An absurd throwback to B movies from the 1950s, Killer Klowns from Outer Space does such a great job at satirizing the genre while doing something completely original, it completely obliterates the concept of “so bad, it’s good.” Unjustly given the reputation of a good bad movie by people who can’t get over its ridiculous title, KKFOS succeeds where many other low budget schlock fail due to its sincerity. Unlike Sharknado or Samurai Cop 2, it’s not intentionally trying to be bad to become a meme. Its goal was always to make the best version of its preposterous premise. And it did.
The film utilizes every trick, gag, and item associated with clowns and circuses, and because of this, it has some of the best and most creative kills of any horror movie. There’s a gun that shoots sentient, bloodthirsty popcorn, a scene involving a shadow puppet in the shape of a T-Rex biting a guys head off, a balloon animal they use as a tracker, and a guy who was melted to death from a thousand pies to the face. And that’s just scratching the surface. Bursting at the seams with creativity, the film throws so many new ideas at the viewer, it’s impossible to not have a good time.
44. The Stuff (1985)
Mashing together a cheesy 50s monster movie with an anti-consumerist message, The Stuff is a Reagan era satire only Larry Cohen could make. Taking inspiration from frozen yogurt’s newfound popularity and the omnipresence of cigarette ads, the film skews both the obnoxious marketing of a product that kills and the consumers’ willingness to turn a blind eye to horrible shit just to get what they want.
Taking the shape of what looks like melted marshmallow fluff, the stuff is an edible monster that’s addictive but the more you eat, the more it eats you. Not unlike the blob, its powers are ill-defined, as is its goal but it can definitely attack you like a wave, control you from the inside out and its hunger can’t be satiated. A B movie that elevates the genre while also staying true to its roots, The Stuff will make you think while it entertains the hell out of you.
43. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
“The film that goes all the way.”
“The most controversial movie ever made.”
“Banned in over 50 countries.”
There are not many movies that could live up to such hyperbolic statements but Cannibal Holocaust isn’t your typical movie. The granddaddy of the found footage sub-genre and the film that kicked off the cannibal movie craze, Cannibal Holocaust is a film that lives up to its title and then some. Easy to dismiss since it includes almost every taboo you can think of (that includes real-life animal murder, rape, murder, and of course, cannibalism), the film is actually a very intelligent critique on our obsession with violence. It asks “are the people staging violent acts to expose the violence of the tribe of cannibals, any different than those committing them in the first place?” But you don’t need to get its message to enjoy it, hell, you don’t even have to enjoy it at all. But you do need to see it to call yourself a horror fan. I double-dog dare you to make it all the way through.
42. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Few films have had as big a critical reappraisal as this film has. It’s gone from being hated when it first came out, to become a cult film with a fan base so rabid and vocal, that they themselves made it a bit overrated. They’ve sung the praises for it for so long, that it gained a reputation as an unseen horror classic and while I admire and appreciate that this is the film they all decided to die on, it’s not a classic. While it is still the best Halloween sequel and one of the best Halloween films period, I do think its reputation has been a bit inflated.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think there’s a ton about it that’s fantastic (the silver shamrock theme song, the design of the masks, the death of that kid, the weird-ass plot, Tom fucking Atkins), I just think the die-hard fans of it were a bit overzealous. Having said that, I agree with Carpenter. This shit always should’ve been an anthology. We missed out on some cool ass films. All y’all assholes with hard-ons for Shatner fucked it up. Goddamn it.
41. The Hitcher (1986)
Inspired by The Doors song ‘Riders on the Storm’, The Hitcher might be the only film that could live up to the nightmare imagery invoked by Morrison’s lyrics. The film is a brutal game of cat and mouse between a motorist (C. Thomas Howell) and a deranged hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) who’s hunting him for seemingly no reason. Since Hauer’s character has zero motivation behind his actions, the film never stops feeling suspenseful because you never know when he’ll show back up or what he’ll do next.
Like the song it took inspiration from, he’s as unpredictable and as sudden as a thunderstorm. The protagonist, through no fault of his own, gets caught in the proverbial thunderstorm and has to live long enough for it to pass. But what makes this film a thousand times scarier than any storm or scarier than any other film of its ilk, is that he’s not just an insane pursuer out for blood or a volatile storm just passin’ though, he’s a madman playing a game of life and death and you won’t know the rules or goal till it’s too late.
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!