31 fright flicks from the Reagan Years guaranteed to make your Halloween the most tubular ever.
By and large, genre purists consider the 1980s the single best decade for horror movies ever. Considering the high volume of not just good, not just great but all-time classic offerings churned out between 1980 and 1989, it’s certainly a difficult proposition to argue against. But more than that, the variety of movies released in the decade was just incredible. Slasher flicks, supernatural thrillers, fusion-sci-fi opuses, haunted house yarns, good old fashioned creature features and self-aware horror comedies were produced en masse, including some of the absolute greatest genre films of all-time.
Looking to turn this October into the most bodaciously spooky one ever? Below, you’ll find my hand-picked selections for 31 horror flicks from the 1980s you absolutely have to see this Halloween season – because, they’re like totally rad and stuff. Break out the Aquanet, fasten on your leggings and eject that Jane Fonda workout VHS from the VCR … isn’t it about time you binged and purged on the gnarliest genre offerings of the Day-Glo era?
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
We hit the ground running with one of the most controversial films ever made. This Italian shocker was one of the first “found footage” type films, featuring countless displays of simulated – and painfully authentic – brutality against animals. It’s kind of a morality play about a bunch of unscrupulous documentarians that go down to the jungles of South America, only to get eaten by the natives after raping them and beating the crap out of them (uh, that may or may not be an allegory for colonization or something.) Just how realistic does the film get? So real that an Italian court actually arrested the director because they thought he actually killed the actors in the movie.
2. The Changeling (1980)
Now here’s a movie that doesn’t get anywhere near enough praise. The film stars George C. Scott – the manliest actor of all-time, next to Charles Bronson – as a grieving widower who moves to the bucolic Pacific Northwest countryside after his wife and daughter die in an automobile accident. Before long, he starts to notice some very unusual things going on in his new abode, which ultimately leads him to uncover a long-buried secret about a senator’s deceased child … who, as it turns out, may not be all that dead after all.
3. Christmas Evil (1980)
There sure are a lot of Santa-themed slasher movies (indeed, there are two on this list alone) out there. Alternately known as You Better Watch Out and Terror In Toyland, this movie is definitely one of the better ho-ho-horror movies from the decade, as it focuses on a mentally disturbed factory worker with a Saint Nick complex who slowly succumbs to some Yuletide insanity. It also has the benefit of having one of the greatest – or stupidest, depending on your tolerance for cheese – twist endings in the history of the motion picture.
4. Maniac (1980)
This movie is just pure degenerate cinema gopher guts slop bucket slasher cheese, through and through. Joe Spinell – arguably the greatest character actor of all-time, having played stereotypical Italian sleazeballs in The Godfather, Rocky and Taxi Driver, among many others – portrays a lunatic whose apartment is littered with mannequins. And at night? He prowls around New York, looking for nubile young women to scalp. As an added bonus, it also features quite possibly the single greatest exploding head special effect in cinema history.
5. The Beyond (1981)
The undisputed magnum opus by Italian zombie movie maestro Lucio Fulci, The Beyond manages to merge about three or four different subgenres into a no-budget, mini horror masterpiece. It’s an astonishingly well-made supernatural murder mystery, slasher flick, apocalyptic thriller and living dead potboiler rolled into a single narrative, with some truly inventive scares. Among the highlights include people being eaten alive by tarantulas, a victim’s face being dissolved by acid and a zombified middle schooler getting her face blown off at point blank range.
6. The Burning (1981)
This movie rules. Kind of lost amidst heavy hitters like Halloween and Friday the 13th, this movie is definitely one of the better first wave slasher flicks. Sure, the plot – a pervy landscaper at a summer camp is accidentally disfigured in a prank gone awry and gets revenge on the latest crop of counselors – is hardly anything new, but when it comes to awesome kills, this movie does not disappoint. Think you’ve seen brutal slasher slayings before? Buddy, just wait until you see the killer in this one annihilate a raft full of obnoxious teens with a pair of gardening shears – it truly is a sight to behold.
7. Evilspeak (1981)
Another VHS era mini-classic that deserves way more love from genre fanatics. Essentially, this movie is pretty much a gender-reversed Carrie, only instead of being set in a high school, it takes place at a junior military academy. There, the students torment, taunt and torture our primary protagonist (cult hero Clint Howard), but what do you know, he just so happens to find a computer possessed by Satan in the basement! Yeah, it’s pretty easy to figure out what happens next, but the execution (and I mean that in more ways than one) is oh-so-satisfying.
8. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
You really can’t have a countdown of 1980s horror movies without including at least one Jason Voorhees movie, and for my money, numero dos is clearly the highpoint of the series. While later entries slid into self-parody (Jason vs. a psychic! Jason goes to New York!), this film focuses on the meat and potatoes of the Friday formula, with precocious teens getting drunk, doing drugs and having premarital sex – and then, meeting their demises at the hands of a lumbering, water-logged psychopath with a burlap sack over his head. Yeah, Fellini this ain’t, but as far as early ‘80s slasher hokum goes, it’s nonetheless a (begrudgingly) entertaining little flick.
9. Halloween II (1981)
This has to be one of the best slasher sequels ever made. You know how most horror follow-ups take place, like, five years after the first movie, and everything revolves around the second cousin of the sole survivor from part uno? Well, Halloween II eschews all of that, instead picking up five seconds after the 1978 classic ended, with the infamous “Shape” stalking Laurie Strode all over a hospital. You’ve got Donald Pleasance, you’ve got Jamie Lee Curtis, you’ve got Michael Myers and you’ve got a really, really spooky synth score from John Carpenter – really, what more could you ask for?
10. My Bloody Valentine (1981)
This Canadian slasher is definitely one of the more atypical fright flicks from the early ‘80s. For one thing, there are no teenagers anywhere – instead, our cannon fodder are a bunch of middle-aged mineworkers out in Vancouver somewhere. Secondly, there’s a lot more emphasis on the build-up than in its genre contemporaries, thus leading to some truly suspenseful sequences. My favorite? The part where two people are making out in a warehouse, with a hundred coal-stained uniforms hanging overhead on meathooks. But wait a minute, it looks like one of them sure is moving around a lot …
11. Basket Case (1982)
There are creative horror movie ideas, and then there’s the plot for Basket Case. Back in the late ‘60s (or maybe the early ‘70s), a wealthy family gave birth to conjoined twins. Well, after the globby chicken nugget looking deformed one was removed, the “normal” looking brother decided to keep him in a picnic basket and take him around everywhere. The thing is, the little bugger has a really nasty attitude, and an unusual penchant for the taste of human flesh. Without giving away too much of the story, let’s just say there is a lot of bright red blood getting splashed around in this one. I mean, a ton.
12. The New York Ripper (1982)
Hey, it’s another movie from Lucio Fulci. This time around, he’s giving us a fairly straightforward slasher/murder mystery, which – somehow – manages to work as both a super-violent, super-gory splatter showcase and a legitimate psychological thriller. Also, if I am not mistaken, it’s the first movie in the annals of cinema history to ever feature a serial killer whose trademark is sounding like Donald Duck, which really, is reason alone to watch this movie.
13. Tenebrae (1982)
From the man who brought you Suspiria, this is a downright terrific whodunit with great atmosphere, tremendous pacing and some really clever kill scenes. Of course, it being a film helmed by Dario Argento, you know it’s going to have a really great synth score, too, and Tenebrae may very well have the best soundtrack of any 1980s horror movie. You’ll probably figure out who the killer is by the halfway point of the movie, but it doesn’t really matter – even once the suspense dissipates, you’ve still got some downright phenomenal – if not preposterously fantastical – onscreen murders to wade through.
14. The Evil Dead (1983)
Not only is Sam Raimi’s no-budget splatter opus my favorite horror film of the 1980s, it’s my favorite horror movie ever. What starts off as your standard slasher movie plot soon transforms into an eerie supernatural puke-fest, as the forces of evil start turning Michigan State coeds on vacation in the woods into grey-skinned, dead-eyed, tapioca-barfing zombies who can only be killed via total body dismemberment. Sure, it’s corny, but it’s just so much fun to trudge through – I mean, how can anyone hate a movie that includes people being stabbed with number two pencils and a grand finale where kids turn into Claymation monsters who age 10,000 years over the course of two minutes?
15. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
And here’s the other Santa-themed slasher from the eighties you definitely need to check out. This is one of the more character-driven “dead teenager” flicks of the decade, with half of the movie serving as a psychological portrait of how a youth slowly slips into insanity. Of course, you know it’s only a matter of time before the main character finally goes cuckoo bananas, and when he does, it is absolutely spectacular. I mean, who would ever think of impaling somebody on a set of reindeer antlers, or choking a would-be rapist to death with a set of Christmas lights, anyway?
16. Re-Animator (1985)
Oh, this movie. Loosely (I mean very loosely) based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator focuses on a nebbish medical school student who accidentally creates a cure for death in the form of a bright green Kool-Aid concoction he made during study hall. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time until the resurrected dead are running around all over the place, trying to strangle physician assistants with their own intestines. Of course, the “highlight” of the film has to be a sequence in which the film’s heroine is accosted by her horny headmaster … who, by the way, is just a disembodied head.
17. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
More so than any other movie, this is the one responsible for giving us our contemporary zombie archetype. Before Return of the Living Dead, zombies were slow, lumbering, brainless creatures that, while dangerous in large numbers, were nonetheless easy to evade. Well, this flick completely rewrites the George A. Romero living dead lore, turning the undead into virtually unkillable monsters that can talk, coordinate attacks and run fast as hell. On top of that? This is just a seriously fun horror comedy, whose punky aesthetics and overacting absolutely encapsulate the zeitgeist of cheeseball 1980s pop culture.
18. Aliens (1986)
Is it a horror film, or a sci-fi film or an action film? Depending on your perspective, it can be any of them, but from my stance, Aliens has always been, first and foremost, a supremely scary haunted house ride. Well-acted, tightly-scripted and filled to the brim with jump out of your seat scares, Aliens certainly owes more to Night of the Living Dead than it does The Terminator. Do yourself a favor and check out James Cameron’s extended director’s cut, and for bonus fun, try to count up all of the allusions to the Vietnam War while you’re at it.
19. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
To the best of my knowledge, the first film in movie history to ever got an “X” rating for, and I quote, “disturbing moral tone.” The MPAA absolutely butchered John McNaughton’s fictionalized account of the misadventures of serial killer pals Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, to the point it took the filmmakers four years to find anybody who would distribute it. Indeed, audiences had to wait until 2005 to see the fully uncut version – which, needless to say, is one of the most unsettling movies ever released.
20. Night of the Creeps (1986)
The greatest “bad” horror movie ever made. A loving homage to virtually every genre film made between 1950 and 1980, Night of the Creeps focuses on a trio of college students who find themselves in the midst of an alien parasite invasion, with an all-out zombie outbreak threatening to postpone the spring formal. If absolutely nothing else, you have to see this one for Tom Atkins’ unbelievable performance as Detective Cameron, who at one point, drops the single greatest line in horror movie history: “I’ve got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here. What’s the bad news? They’re dead.”
21. Anguish (1987)
Now here’s one that even hardcore horror fans usually aren’t familiar with. A Spanish production starring Zelda Rubinstein of Poltergeist fame, Anguish is a bizarre psychological thriller that tries something I haven’t seen any horror movie attempt before or since. The film revolves around a bunch of moviegoers in a theater watching a movie about a mama’s boy who starts killing people in another theater with a scalpel. Before long, though, the patrons of the theater watching the movie about the guy killing people in a theater start to go crazy, and a dude pulls out a gun and holds everybody hostage. From there, the movie weaves the two narrative back and forth, creating a very intriguing (and skillfully managed) parallel story. Your mileage may vary, however, once the big “twist” ending is revealed, though.
22. Bad Taste (1987)
Who’d thunk the guy who made this no-budget splatstick comedy would go on to win a “Best Director” Oscar? The film that put Peter Jackson on the map, Bad Taste more than lives up to its name, featuring such hilarious/stomach churning scenes as a vomit drinking ritual, a guy trying to literally put his scalp back together and a dude blowing up a sheep with a rocket launcher, for no discernible reason whatsoever. As for the plot? It’s about alien fast food franchisers who have come to New Zealand for a fresh shipment of human burgers – and yes, a grisly chainsaw death does factor prominently in the film’s grand finale.
23. The Curse (1987)
Another under-the-radar VHS-era mini-classic that deserves way more recognition and appreciation. A low, low-budget remake of a 1950s cheese-fest called Die, Monster, Die, this movie more closely follows the plotline of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, albeit with some noticeable regional kinks. Set in rural Tennessee, it follows the exploits of a super-conservative farm family that slowly transforms into irradiated zombies after a meteor crashes into their apple orchard. It’s even more messed up because the guy who plays the dad is Sheriff Lobo and the kid is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
24. House II: The Second Story (1987)
Another nominee for best bad horror movie ever made. An absolute muddle of a script, the film completely disregards the first House movie and instead focuses on two yuppies who inherit a mansion possessed by the spirit of an old wild west gunslinger. Don’t ask me how, but this ultimately leads to a zombie prospector drunk driving an Alfa Romeo Spider, a caveman getting his head bitten off by a Claymation catfish/beaver hybrid, a virgin sacrifice being rescued by druids by Cliff from Cheers and a cameo appearance by Bill Maher as a sleazy record producer.
25. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)
Not only is this the best Elm Street movie, as far as I am concerned, it’s the only Elm Street movie. No other film in the series does as well a job balancing the inherent horror and humor of Freddy Krueger than this one, and the death scenes – a kid having his veins yanked out of his body and strung up like a puppet! A wannabe sitcom star having her head slammed through a CRT TV! A junkie having her track marks come alive and demand a fatal dose of heroin! – are easily the best in the franchise. Also: it has this bitchin’ song from Dokken on the soundtrack, which automatically guaranteed it a spot on the countdown from the get-go.
26. Night of the Demons (1988)
This movie just embodies everything great about late ‘80s, straight-to-VHS horror. Its script ain’t going to win any points for originality – it revolves around a bunch of dumb kids throwing a kegger in a haunted mortuary on Halloween – but everything about the movie just oozes ephemeral awesomeness. The ridiculous hairdos. The industrial-goth soundtrack. The goofy valleygirl lingo. It’s impossible to watch this one without a big, dopey smile on your face the whole time – and then, just when you think it can’t get any better, it turns around and delivers one of the absolute best, out-of-nowhere twist endings of the decade.
27. Phantasm II (1988)
You don’t really need to have seen Phantasm to understand what’s going on in Phantasm II. If anything, this is more of a high-gloss remake than a sequel, with grislier special effects, bigger explosions and – of course – far more balls than the original. Out in smalltown USA, an evil, otherworldly undertaker is stealing corpses so he can resurrect them as slave labor in the afterworld, and only a dude with a mullet and his bald ponytailed best pal stand in the way of his nefarious scheme. Yeah, it don’t make a whole lot of sense, but like you’d ever complain about a movie that features both a chainsaw duel and a dude having his skull eaten by a sentient Christmas ornament…
28. Sleepaway Camp II (1988)
One of the greatest horror comedies ever made. Whereas the first Sleepaway Camp was a great film in its own right (complete with one of the all-time great shock endings in film history), its first sequel takes on a more tongue-in-cheek tone, following transexual psycho killer Angela Baker (played, if you can believe it, by Bruce Springsteen’s sister) as she systematically kills a good two dozen people at summer camp. We’ve got stoners being burned alive, the resident mean girl being drowned in a nasty latrine and – the kicker – a scene in which two teens dressed as Freddy and Jason get disemboweled by our leading lady, who naturally, shows up to battle while cosplaying as Leatherface.
29. Dead Ringers (1988)
The best David Cronenberg movie of the 1980s, bar none. Jeremy Irons turns in a dual performance as twin gynecologists who end up falling for the same woman – and then, down a slippery slope to hopeless drug addiction. While it lacks the typical hypersexual ickyness of most Cronenberg features, it more than makes up for it with great atmosphere, tremendous acting and an overlying sense of dread that just drips out of your TV and onto your shoes. It’s a definite must-see, especially for fans of suspense movies who just can’t handle the usual guts and gore of the genre.
30. Intruder (1989)
By the time the decade came to an end, the slasher genre – figuratively and literally – had been bled dry. In many way, Intruder represents a noble last hurrah for the subgenre, providing audiences a fantastic, no-budget shlock-fest set inside, of all things, a supermarket. Give the filmmakers some credit, though, because the gimmick lends itself to a whole host of inventive kills. Among other highlights, we’ve got characters being killed by industrial presses, meat saws and even one of those pokey paper weight thingies businessmen back in the ‘80s used to have on their desks. That, and it is way more fun looking at the old school food packaging than it probably ought to be.
31. Warlock (1989)
And lastly, we come to this tremendous supernatural thriller, starring the incomparable Julian Sands as a demonic priest magically transported to late ‘80s L.A. alongside New England’s toughest 17th century witch hunter. So, yeah, it’s basically the same premise as The Terminator, but with a whole lot of gnarly horror tweaks, so we’ve got fortune tellers getting killed with their own chakras, dudes having their faces chewed off and Amish people’s eyeballs melting inside their skulls. Plus, we even learn a few things about witchcraft, like drinking the liquid fat of an unbaptized third grader makes you fly and that the only true way to kill sorcerers is to inject their hearts with salt water. Hey, if a movie allegedly inspired a Canadian teen to eat a 7-year-old, you know it’s something you’ve got to see at least once, right?