50 Best Horror Movies Of The 1980s

10. The Return Of The Living Dead (1985)

Director: Dan O’Bannon
Stars: Thom Mathews, Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Beverly Randolph, Miguel A. Nunez, Jr., John Philbin, Brian Peck, Jewel Shepherd

After decades of zombie movies getting released to the masses, along with numerous video games, comic books, novels and hit TV shows, we’ve certainly had an ample sampling of what is good (and not so good) in the genre. After seemingly claiming the crown as king of zombies, there is a strong case to be made that George Romero absolutely did not make the best zombie movie(s) ever with his filmography but rather it was Dan O’Bannon’s The Return Of The Living Dead. Quick… think of the first word that enters your mind when you think of zombies. If that word is “Brains!” then you’re beginning to see the bigger picture.

In the film, when two bumbling employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally release a deadly gas into the air, the vapors cause the dead to rise again. Going all out with the film’s inside joke, O’Bannon posited The Return Of The Living Dead as “based on true events,” and had his characters directly reference 1968’s Night Of The Living Dead only to have them subsequently abandon all of Romero’s ideals. The film is severely re-watchable and is as funny as it is frightening. It delivers buckets of blood, tons of zombie carnage and it has one of our favorite scream queens ever stripping naked in a cemetery. What more could you ask for?

9. Videodrome (1983)

Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky

With Videodrome – a tale that follows the CEO of a small television station who discovers a broadcast signal (Videodrome) featuring extreme violence and torture – David Cronenberg displayed that he was way ahead of the curve in suggesting how integral technology was becoming a part of the culture by literally physicalizing the concept on screen. The film also touched upon the theory of media images supposedly having a detrimental psychological effect on the spectators, by again, physicalizing the concept. I.e. – Nicki Brand stubbing a cigarette out on her chest, or any one of Max’s grotesque transformations brought on by watching Videodrome the show.

Today, thanks largely to the rise of the internet, as people get desensitized to sexual and violent imagery, mass media constantly pushes the envelope to bring new, distorted and twisted ways to capture their viewer’s attention. As Max says in the movie: “They need something rough”. How long will it take until all-out snuff movies become acceptable for mass consumption? Some say that we are already being introduced to the twisted underground world as a lot of snuff is actually already in mass media and we don’t even realize it. Long Live the New Flesh, indeed.

8. The Fly (1986)

Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

Directed by Kurt Neumann, and based on author George Langelaan’s 1957 short story, the original version of The Fly was a great drive-in-movie, a product of its humble time that features some dated yet still effective creature makeup and an overall lightness – it’s fun, not frightening.

David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake, however, is unquestionably the latter. Cronenberg took the driving force behind Langelaan’s tale – the nightmare of a man slowly turning into an insect – and squeezed gore out of every possible orifice, all before turning our antagonist, Seth Brundle, into an extremely hideous specimen of practical makeup effects. More importantly, though, Cronenberg’s The Fly skillfully invests time and emotion into its characters; as Brundle, the ill-fated scientist, gets closer to his tragic fate, it’s impossible not to sympathize. Believe it or not, you’ll want to hug a man-sized, slimy, grotesque bug by the film’s end.

7. Gremlins (1984)

Director: Joe Dante
Stars: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lee McCain

Gremlins, the classic fright comedy about morphing little menace-monsters wreaking merry mayhem all over small town America during the holidays, actually opened in theaters on June 8, 1984. The movie became an immediate summer blockbuster, but given its very specific yuletide setting — e.g., Gizmo himself, the original gremlin, enters the film as a Christmas gift — Gremlins has endured as a beloved December viewing tradition. In fact, enough with Ralphie, that Red Ryder BB gun, and the joyful yet overplayed A Christmas Story already. From here on out, we’re starting a new holiday tradition: a 24-hour marathon of Gremlins. It’s fun for the whole family, especially if your parents and siblings are the types who find the sights of hideous little creatures joyriding in snowmobiles and terrorizing sporting goods stores to be hilarious, like we do.

So what if Gremlins is never actually all that scary for anyone older than the age of nine? At its core, director Joe Dante’s energetic romp is a monster picture, one in which the villains, in the tradition of Freddy Krueger, are the coolest mofos in the room.

6. Poltergeist (1982)

Director: Tobe Hooper
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein

Poltergeist is to the haunted house sub-genre as Halloween is to the slasher movie: It wasn’t the first of its kind, but it elevated things to a whole new level of style, excess, and intelligence. Coming largely from the mind of co-writer/co-producer Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper, established several tropes that have since been copied to death: the little kid who becomes the evil spirits’ conduit; the freaky apparitions that haunt a youngster in his bedroom, at night, while mommy and daddy are snoozing; the medium and her sidekicks who move into the house to exorcise the demons.

The difference being, of course, that, in Poltergeist, all of those story components work, resulting in an alarming show that blasts viewers with one ghoulish set-piece after another (try to sleep in a room with a clown doll ever again) before a showstopping and crowd-pleasing bit involving a terrified mother, an in-ground pool, and tons of wet, rotting cadavers.

5. Possession (1981)

Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Stars: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent

“If you had only seen what I saw!” This line is screamed by a distraught and bewildered character about ninety minutes into Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, and after the movie ends it’s pretty much all you’ll want to run down the sidewalk shouting at strangers. In the film, a woman starts exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior after asking her husband for a divorce. Suspicions of infidelity soon give way to something much more sinister.

Directed with a slimy mix of David Cronenberg’s gut-spilling style and Brian De Palma fixation, Possession piles on an atmosphere of anxiety and gruesome horror and adds a decidedly European sensibility to the mix. It is a film that highlights the tragic underpinnings of obsession, exposes sexual panic and stands by its characters, unafraid to show their flaws. The film is not easy to explain. The narrative can get very confusing and sometimes downright nonsensical. Yet is also remains compelling and intriguing. Beginning with what seems like a commonplace break-up of a marriage, the films sets out to answer a simple question: why has the woman left? Well, let’s just say that things get nuts. Soon enough, her inner evil takes on a living form of a wiggling slimy creature. She goes on a killing spree to keep him alive. That is, when they’re not having sexual relations. And, of course, there is the infamous subway passage scene in which our main character miscarries her own faith. She is rolling in milk, blood, urine, mucus and every other bodily liquid you can imagine. It’s insane.

4. The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, T. K. Carter

John Carpenter finally intersected with his longtime idol Howard Hawks when he remade the director’s 1951 classic The Thing From Another World as The Thing, an altogether different beast that hedged closer to the original John W. Campbell short story. The film, of course, followed a crew of researchers trapped inside an Antarctic research station as a shape-shifting creature picks them off one by one.

Here, Carpenter is at the top of his game, combining a colorful band of well-fleshed-out, likable characters with amazingly practical effects and genuine shocks. Here, a man’s chest becomes huge jaws that bite off a doctor’s arms; a head disengages from a torso, sprouts legs and eyes on stalks, and then scurries off; a hairless, slimy dog head explodes from a man’s chest. Throughout The Thing, man and creature merge in horrific, bloody contortions that would give Hieronymus Bosch nightmares, and almost everyone dies horribly. Brilliant.

3. Evil Dead II (1987)

Director: Sam Raimi
Stars: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley DePaiva

The old horror philosophy of “give ’em more insanity in the sequel” must have been daunting for Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead colleagues. The Evil Dead, released independently in 1981, shocked and awed the film community with low-budget ingenuity, going way overboard with geysers of blood, freaky ghouls, and tongue-in-cheek humor. So when it came time to send the anti-heroic Ash back to the demon-infested cabin in the woods, Raimi did the only logical thing: He crapped on good taste and delivered a flick that bashes subtlety with a spiked hammer.

Evil Dead 2 achieved something rather unique; it twisted the genre on its decapitated neck and made it fun to laugh while at the same time, crap your pants. While most horror movies stayed true to the format of kill, kill, and kill some more, Evil Dead 2 went in a different direction while also managing to stay on the same path. Gone were the other cabin-dwellers from the original; a quick back-story showed Ash cutting up his demon-possessed girlfriend with a chainsaw. But for some reason, although macabre, it wasn’t scary. Perhaps because she wouldn’t stop nagging him while he was sawing her up. Indeed, just when things start getting too grisly, Raimi rushes in with a hilarious, sendup joke to remind us that all this blood and guts is meant in spooky Grand Guignol fun. Evil Dead 2 is a grade-A masterpiece of morbid mayhem. Find us a horror geek who doesn’t agree and we’ll take a chainsaw to a body part of your choice.

2. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven
Stars: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Amanda Wyss, Johnny Depp

When writer-director Wes Craven first imagined dream-stalker Freddy Krueger, the ideas bouncing around in his head were equally sick and clever. While sleeping, people are at their most vulnerable, making it nearly impossible to stop Krueger from offing whomever he pleases in gory, imaginative ways. Furthermore, nobody can stay awake forever, so, eventually, whether it’s after a week or two months or longer, you’re going to enter Freddy’s domain. And the outcome won’t be ideal.

We all know the story: Freddy was a child murderer, the parents of his victims burn him alive and about a decade later he comes back and starts killing the remaining children of those parents in their dreams. There are just so many things that make the original Nightmare On Elm Street great, it’s hard to pinpoint just one. The lead, Nancy Thompson, is still the quintessential horror movie heroine. She’s brave, clever and actually turns her back on Freddy and lives to speak about it. All these years later, there are horrific moments of helplessness that still resonate – a geyser of blood shooting out of the bed that sucked up poor Glen Lantz, Freddy’s glove emerging from the still waters of Nancy’s bath, Tina Gray writhing around on the ceiling, Nancy’s feet sucked into the stairs as she tries to run away. They’re all so simple, so primal, but so clever and impeccably executed. From the concept to the imagery to the characters, Craven crafted a horror film that attacked the visceral and the cerebral in equal measure.

1. The Shining (1980)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” – or, rather, a homicidal boy. Yup, Stephen King may have hated it but Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s novel is still essential viewing for anyone who even considers themselves a mild horror fan. The premise remains just as creepy as it did in 1980: Writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance accepts a job as the winter caretaker of a massive hotel in Colorado, and moves his family there just as the cold sets in among the mountains. But the hotel is the source of great evil.

The iconic and freaky moments in the film are endless. Whether we’re talking about the rivers of blood pouring out of the elevator, Jack taking an ax to the door as he does his best Johnny Carson impersonation, the twin ghost girls who want you to come play with them, the naked woman in the bathtub, the list goes on. Frankly, Kubrick’s film is a work of art that will continue to be broken down and explored for decades to come.

What was your favorite horror movie of the decade? Let us know in the comments below.

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