20 Horror Movies That Defined The 1980s
The 80s were a terrific time for horror movies. A new generation of remarkably imaginative filmmakers came into the limelight with no shortage of thrilling and chilling ideas, and thanks to advances in special effects, their fear-filled fantasies could be brought to life more vividly than ever before.
Many of the most enduring horror hits of all time were produced in the decade – and arguably the biggest impact of all was made by the 20 terrifying movies listed ahead.
20. Child’s Play
As creepy as dolls can be at the best of times, they’re never the same after you’ve seen the havoc caused by the little, innocent-looking Good Guy doll called Chucky, in this seminal 1988 shocker from director Tom Holland (not to be confused with his namesake, the young Spider-Man actor).
Voiced by Brad Dourif, who returned for the six sequels (but sat out the recent remake), the possessed plastic terror quickly ascended to the big boy’s table of horror icons.
Promising to be a “friend to the end” to young Andy (Alex Vincent), all that Chucky – or rather, the serial killer whose soul is trapped in the doll – really wants is to to take the boy’s body as his own.
As the sequels got progressively weirder and funnier, it’s easy to forget that the original Child’s Play is a fairly straight-faced and intimate affair told primarily from the perspective of Andy’s mother, played by Catherine Hicks (also known for her role in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).
Child’s Play co-stars The Princess Bride’s Chris Sarandon, who had worked with director Holland on an earlier film we’ll be coming back to later…
Incidentally, Star Wars legend Mark Hamill would end up voicing Chucky in the Child’s Play remake; who knows if it’ll spawn a rebooted franchise?
There’s no ignoring a collaboration between one of the great horror filmmakers, and the undisputed heavyweight champion of horror fiction – and this is just what we get in the form of 1982’s Creepshow.
Written by Stephen King and directed by George A Romero (two names we just might be seeing again in this list), this agreeably unpleasant anthology horror is an homage to the bold, colourful, long-controversial EC horror comics of the 1950s, such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.
With its deliberately garish visual style and histrionic performances, Creepshow arguably does a better job of capturing the spirit of a comic book than any other movie would until the modern Marvel era.
It’s also one of the best American horror movies made in the anthology format, the style which had been explored more thoroughly in earlier years by the British (e.g. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, The House That Dripped Blood) and the Italians (Black Sabbath).
The noteworthy cast includes Leslie Nielsen, Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook and EG Marshall.
But perhaps surprisingly, the show is largely stolen by Stephen King himself, appearing as a hapless yokel who encounters a deadly meteorite from outer space.
When discussing horror movies that had a far-reaching cultural impact, we really can’t overlook the filmography of Italy’s Dario Argento, master of that country’s unique horror subgenre, the giallo.
Argento has never quite achieved mainstream acceptance in the US or UK (aside from his 1977 film Suspiria, which was recently remade).
However, he’s revered as an auteur in his home country, and in horror circles – and 1982’s Tenebrae demonstrates plenty of the reasons why.
Anthony Franciosa stars as an American murder-mystery novelist who unwittingly stumbles into the case of a real-life serial killer – yet, premise aside, no one’s ever going to mistake this for an episode of Murder, She Wrote.
In common with much of Argento’s work, Tenebrae brings us a succession of beautiful women who come under attack from an initially unseen, black glove-clad homicidal maniac – and many highly stylised, gruesome death scenes ensue.
The violence proved too much for the British Board of Film Classification, and Tenebrae was one among the many films banned in the ‘video nasty’ panic of 1984 – but, decades later, it’s widely regarded one of Argento’s best.
17. The Return of the Living Dead
Zombies, as we will see, were pretty prominent in 80s horror – and this knockabout romp from director and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gives us a vision of zombies that’s distinctly reflective of its era.
Originally conceived as a straight sequel to George A Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, the project spent several years in development hell – during which time Romero made a sequel of his own in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead (and another not long thereafter), which forced a significant rethink.
As a result, 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead became a more tongue-in-cheek affair that plays a lot faster and looser with the rules established in Romero’s earlier film: these zombies can run and talk, and shooting them in head doesn’t finish them off.
Beyond this, there’s a satirical edge and bleak nihilism to the film which reflects the anxieties of the Reagan years, and evokes the spirit of the American hardcore punk scene.
It helps that several key characters in the film are punks – most notably 80s scream queen Linnea Quigley.
Quigley’s performance as the morbid Trash is made all the more memorable by the fact that she spends the bulk of her screen time naked.
16. The Monster Squad
When America’s film ratings board the MPAA introduced the PG-13 certificate in 1984, it opened up a whole new realm of possibility for finding middle ground between family-friendly fun and adults-only horror.
Of all the films to explore this territory, few did it with such success as 1987’s The Monster Squad, from writer-director Fred Dekker and co-writer Shane Black (who recently collaborated again on 2018’s The Predator).
It’s the stuff that every monster-mad kid’s dreams are made of: what if Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon suddenly showed up in your neighbourhood, with plans to take over the world?
That’s just the situation young horror fanatic Sean (Andre Gower) and his friends are faced with – and so, they set about doing battle with the iconic monsters, with powerful help in the Frankenstein monster.
We might be cheating a little classing The Monster Squad as a definitive 80s horror, as it flopped terribly on release.
Even so, its reputation has rightly grown with time, to the point that it’s widely acknowledged as a cult classic today.
Theatre director Stuart Gordon broke through into film in a most striking fashion with this 1985 grand guignol, loosely adapted from a series of stories by legendary horror writer HP Lovecraft.
Jeffrey Combs was another instant 80s horror icon off the back of his scene-stealing turn as Herbert West, an obsessive medical student who has hit upon the secret of bringing life to the dead via a luminous green serum.
This being the 80s, re-animating the dead inevitably means all manner of hideous and bizarre special effects, with enough extravagant gore to challenge the strength of any viewer’s stomach – although the thick streak of black humour running through it all may make things a little more palatable.
Nor is the bloodshed the only thing in Re-Animator that pushes the boundaries of taste and decency.
There’s also a notorious (and for many years heavily censored) sequence involving Barbara Crampton’s Meg and the severed head of David Gale’s Dr Hill.
Two sequels followed, and Gordon, Combs and Crampton all went on to long and fruitful careers in horror, fantasy and SF – but to this day, Re-Animator remains the film they’re all best known for, and with good reason.
14. Fright Night
As we mentioned earlier, actor Chris Sarandon and director Tom Holland had worked together once before 1988’s Child’s Play – and the collaboration in question wound up one of the best vampire movies of the decade.
1985’s Fright Night casts Sarandon as the innocuously-named Jerry Dandridge, new neighbour of high schooler Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) – who makes the alarming discovery that the man next door is a blood-sucking fiend.
Balancing the 80s taste for lurid aesthetics and make-up FX with a wistful nostalgia for the Gothic chillers of yesteryear, Fright Night is tremendous entertainment for horror fans both young and old.
Sarandon and Ragsdale head up a great cast with Amanda Bearse as Charlie’s girlfriend Amy, and Stephen Geoffreys as his pal ‘Evil’ Ed – who utters the oft-quoted line, “You’re so cool, Brewster!”
The real star of the show, though, has to be veteran actor Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, old-time actor turned TV horror host who becomes an unlikely ally to Charlie.
The 2011 Fright Night remake boasted an impressive ensemble including Colin Farrell, David Tenant and the late Anton Yelchin, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the original.
13. Day of the Dead
Following on from 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, writer-director George A Romero brought his (first) zombie trilogy to an exceedingly gruesome climax with 1985’s Day of the Dead.
The none-more-bleak premise sees humanity all but wiped out by the spread of the zombie virus, with the action centred on a small, isolated group of scientists and soldiers who – for all they know – might very well be the last human beings left alive.
As in most zombie narratives, the greatest threat isn’t the walking dead, but the living themselves – and escalating tensions within the group (not helped by the claustrophobia of the underground bunker they call home) are reaching breaking point.
Romero takes a slow-burn approach, and some viewers find the film a bit too uneventful and dialogue-heavy.
However, once the inevitable zombie-filled climax comes, the astonishing gore FX from make-up maestro Tom Savini more than make up for any pacing issues.
Day of the Dead packs in some of the most eye-popping bloodshed in horror history, not least when it comes to the fate of the tyrannical Captain Rhodes, memorably (over-) played by Joe Pilato.
As we mentioned earlier, 1984 saw the introduction of the PG-13 certificate – and one of the films most instrumental in bringing that certificate in (hand in hand with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) was this macabre twist on a family fantasy adventure from director Joe Dante.
Gremlins sees a small town Christmas plunged into chaos with the sudden emergence of a slew of vicious little monsters hellbent on wreaking havoc.
Everyone remembers the unbelievable cuteness of Gizmo, the fluffy little Mogwai who unwittingly spawns the Gremlins – but many viewers tend to forget just how grim and nasty the film gets at times.
We have chainsaw attacks, stabbings, people being eaten, Gremlins getting splattered in the blender and the microwave.
Not exactly your standard kids’ movie fare, even if the film seemed largely geared toward the young. (It was too much for a PG in Britain, where the film was restricted to over 15s only.)
The influence of producer Steven Spielberg, plus Joe Dante’s predilection for goofy, cartoonish humour, keeps things from getting that bit too nasty – but even so, Gremlins is most definitely a horror movie, even if it’s a relatively kid-friendly one.
Like Gremlins, this is another indisputable 80s classic which only doesn’t make our top ten here as we might question whether it totally qualifies as horror.
Where Ridley Scott’s original 1979 Alien was absolutely a horror movie in space, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel goes more into the realm of shoot-’em-up action thriller – as reflected in the film’s tagline, ‘this time it’s war.’
Even so, it’s a movie in which people run screaming from vicious slobbering monsters with nasty sharp teeth and concentrated acid in their veins – and who can say that doesn’t sound like a horror movie?
Building on the world (or rather, universe) built by Scott – with a lot of help from designer HR Giger – Cameron’s film makes everything bigger, louder, faster and more intense.
This mindset is pretty well embodied by the iconic Alien Queen whom Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley faces off against in the truly unforgettable climax.
However, Cameron did not sacrifice drama and emotion for spectacle; Weaver’s excellent performance landed her an Oscar nomination, a rare accolade for a sci-fi horror movie.
10. Friday the 13th
Director Sean Cunningham’s 1980 summer camp slasher certainly isn’t the most inventive film of its time (clearly owing a great deal to 1978’s Halloween), but there’s no disputing its popular impact.
Friday the 13th follows the misadventures of a group of young trainee camp counsellors – among them a young Kevin Bacon – who are picked off one by one by an unseen killer.
Very basic in terms of plot, the film’s main innovation (if we can call it that) was going all-out on the gore, with the help of FX guru Tom Savini, who was pretty much the king of the creative, censor-baiting kill at the time.
This approach caught on like wildfire, and Friday the 13th spawned sequels almost annually for the length of the 80s.
Of course, it’s also one of the most commonly misremembered horror movies ever, many viewers forgetting that series icon Jason Voorhees doesn’t start his killing spree until the sequel, with his mother (Betsy Palmer) doing all the damage first time around.
With 12 entries made to date, Friday the 13th remains a beloved franchise to this day; it doesn’t hurt that it’s spawned the popular video game.
Novelist-turned-filmmaker Clive Barker made a tremendously gory splash with his 1987 adaptation of his own novella The Hellbound Heart.
Barker cast his old school friend Doug Bradley as Pinhead, leader of the sinister, sadomasochistic demons known as the Cenobites.
Summoned by a mysterious puzzle box that promises untold pleasures to the one who solves it, Hellraiser’s antagonists – Bradley’s distinctive leader in particular – quickly joined the ranks of the most iconic movie monsters ever.
Small wonder, then, that Pinhead would return in a long succession of sequels, with Bradley reprising the role for the first eight of these.
Once seen, Hellraiser’s dark and gruesome imagery is never forgotten – although, like Friday the 13th, it’s often misremembered, as Pinhead only makes a few brief appearances in the film.
Instead, the real focal point are murderous adulteress Julia (Claire Higgins) and her undead lover Frank (Andrew Robinson).
8. The Fly
Director David Cronenberg has given us many of the most alarming and unsettling horror movies ever.
None of his films have captured the popular consciousness quite so powerfully as his 1986 remake of the 1958 creature feature.
Jeff Goldblum stars as an ambitious scientist whose experiments with teleportation go badly wrong, blending his own DNA with that of a common housefly.
Cronenberg has long been noted as the master of ‘body horror,’ and The Fly is no exception, dwelling on biological details to lingering, frequently repellent effect.
Thanks to the exemplary practical effects, Goldblum’s gradual decomposition from leading man hunk to hideous insect monster is still astonishing, not to mention nauseating.
Even so, it’s the stellar performances from Goldblum and Geena Davis as his naturally distraught lover that really make it work.
Director Tobe Hooper (with more than a little help from producer and co-writer Steven Spielberg) brought us one of the most spectacular haunted house movies ever in this chilling 1982 release.
Such was Spielberg’s influence in Hollywood, this intensely scary movie somehow got away with a PG certificate in the US.
There’s long been speculation that Spielberg – whose signature fantasy elements and cutting-edge visuals are present and correct – may have in fact directed much of the film.
However, we cannot overlook Hooper’s knack for capturing raw terror (he’d made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre eight years earlier), which is also very much in evidence.
As scary as it is in its own right, Poltergeist has only been made scarier by urban legends that there was a curse on the film, and its two sequels.
This is largely down to the deaths of a number of cast members including child star Heather O’Rourke, who passed away shortly after filming 1988’s Poltergeist III.
6. The Lost Boys
As we’ve established, the 80s gave us a few really great vampire movies – but none of them had anything like the popular impact of director Joel Schumacher’s leather-clad 1987 teen horror The Lost Boys.
No doubt a lot of that popularity was thanks to the pin-up worthy cast including Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, Jami Gertz and – in their first collaboration – the two Coreys, Feldman and Haim.
As might be ascertained from the title’s nod to Peter Pan, The Lost Boys was originally conceived as a kids movie about pre-pubescent vampires – but this changed when Joel Schumacher signed on to direct.
Schumacher insisted on gearing it towards teenagers, and in so doing provided the background viewing for a great many high school slumber parties in the years ahead.
The Coreys may bring the corny wisecracks, but Sutherland (as teen vampire leader David) and Patric (as conflicted initiate Michael) bring the smouldering intensity, big time, melting hearts and severing jugulars all over the place.
Ultra-hip at the time, a lot of those 80s fashions look very dated indeed now (who can forget oily pony-tailed saxophone guy?), but that’s all part of the fun.
5. The Thing
The 80s were a great time for horror remakes. On top of David Cronenberg’s aforementioned take on The Fly, director John Carpenter gave us this 1982 reinterpretation of the 1951 movie about an Arctic research base which comes under attack from an alien monster.
The 80s are remembered fondly as a golden age for practical special effects, and you can’t find a better film to exemplify this than The Thing, which sports the irresistible hook of an amorphous extra-terrestrial entity able to imitate anything it comes into contact with.
Though it’s a small, comparatively low budget production by today’s standards, the shape-shifting alien creature is still jaw-dropping to behold.
The Thing’s creature work particularly impressive considering it was all done with practical, on-camera FX – as opposed to 2011’s CGI-ridden prequel/semi-remake.
Carpenter and co don’t neglect the human drama, though, and we have a slew of compelling performances from a great cast, headed up by the director’s leading man of choice, Kurt Russell.
4. An American Werewolf in London
Another film notable for its groundbreaking FX work, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London has the distinction of being the very first recipient of the Best Makeup Oscar.
Special make-up wizard Rick Baker took home the Academy Award for a werewolf transformation sequence which is still eye-popping all these years later.
Still, as remarkable as the creature FX work is, the real power of An American Werewolf in London lies in how expertly director John Landis balances the intense scares with gut-busting humour.
It’s hardly surprising Landis would handle the humour well, given his history in comedy (Animal House. Blues Brothers etc.) – yet the scares are every bit as effective.
For all the monster action and gore, the film wouldn’t have half the impact without the comedic interplay between David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as the hapless American backpackers whose journey across England goes straight to hell.
It’s a blueprint which countless horror-comedies have tried (and usually failed) to duplicate ever since.
3. Evil Dead II
When we’re talking cultural impact, there’s a whole lot to be said for 1980’s original The Evil Dead; one of the most popular, and notorious, films of the ‘video nasty’ era, which continues to inspire imitators to this day (the 2013 remake very much included).
However, it was on 1987’s Evil Dead II (informally subtitled Dead By Dawn) that director Sam Raimi and leading man Bruce Campbell really struck gold, giving us one of the few sequels to truly outdo what went before.
Where the original set out to shock and appal, and with great success, Evil Dead II (which is in many respects more a remake than a sequel) takes a far greater interest in tickling the funny bone – and also proves very successful indeed in doing so.
Similar to An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead II balances horror and humour with a rare panache, proving every bit as hilarious as it is unnerving, and finding some quirky grey area that very few other horror-comedies have come close to.
It’s also one of the only 80s horror movies in which the hero is the real focus rather than the monster, thanks to Campbell’s unforgettable performance as deadite-slaying, chainsaw-wielding dimwit Ash.
It’s in Evil Dead 2 that the Ash fans know and love was born, most notably when for the first time he utters his one-word catchphrase, “Groovy!”
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Writer-director Wes Craven took the slasher format to new heights in 1984 with this incredibly imaginative, genuinely nightmarish big screen scream-fest.
Robert Englund became an instant horror legend as Freddy Krueger, a sadistic serial killer who, years after being burned to death, returns from the grave to stalk new victims in their dreams.
With his scarred skin, striped jumper, dirty fedora and of course his knife-fingered glove, Freddy became the most iconic movie monster of the decade, and Englund would reprise the sadistic, wise-cracking ghoul in a succession of sequels.
As the series went on Freddy became more comedic and significantly less threatening, but in the original he’s truly the stuff of nightmares, bringing us a number of memorably grisly murder scenes.
Of course, as great as Englund is, A Nightmare on Elm Street owes a great deal to Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, one of the greatest, toughest ‘final girls’ of the slasher era (who would later return in the best sequel, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors).
And let’s not forget, it also features Johnny Depp in his film debut as Nancy’s ill-fated boyfriend Glen.
1. The Shining
It may have come right at the very beginning of the decade, but surely no 80s horror movie had anywhere near as great an impact as legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s one foray into the genre.
An intensely psychological take on a haunted house story, The Shining casts Jack Nicholson as a struggling novelist taking on a short-term contract as a caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel, where he is gradually driven insane by malevolent supernatural forces therein.
Adapted from Stephen King’s novel, the author notoriously dislikes the film, not least because of how much of his story it jettisons; fairly light on plot and dialogue, Kubrick prefers to emphasise the human condition through long, drawn-out sequences.
But even if a lot of King’s story didn’t make it to the screen, there’s no disputing the film’s overwhelmingly sinister atmosphere, whilst Nicholson and Shelley Duvall deliver two of the most intense performances you’re ever likely to see (hardly surprising, when you learn the lengths Kubrick made them go to).
We’ve never been able to look at twin girls the same way – and who among us can ever see a hole in a door without roaring, “Here’s Johnny!”