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
This seminal 1988 shocker from director Tom Holland (not to be confused with his namesake, the young Spider-Man actor) introduced Brad Dourif as the voice of Chucky, the cute rubber doll who promises to be a “friend to the end” to young Andy (Alex Vincent). However, the doll is in fact possessed with the soul of a serial killer, who wants to take the boy’s body as his own.
Child’s Play proved to be the last great horror franchise to come out of the 1980s, spawning six sequels, a 2019 remake, and TV spin-off series Chucky. Dourif returned to voice Chucky in all of these, aside from the remake in which Mark Hamill took the role.
Written by Stephen King and directed by George A Romero (two names we just might be seeing again in this list), 1982’s Creepshow is an anthology horror paying homage to the bold, colourful, long-controversial horror comics of the 1950s. With its deliberately garish visual style and histrionic performances, the film arguably does a better job of capturing the spirit of a comic book than any other movie would until the modern Marvel era.
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. Creepshow spawned two sequels, and more recently a spin-off TV series on horror network Shudder.
No discussion of 80s horror could be complete without mentioning director Dario Argento, pioneer of Italy’s unique horror subgenre, the giallo. 1982’s Tenebrae is one of Argento’s definitive shockers, centred on a murder-mystery novelist who unwittingly stumbles into the case of a real-life serial killer. Premise aside, no one’s ever going to mistake this for an episode of Murder, She Wrote.
Notorious for its heavily stylised murder scenes, the violence in Tenebrae proved too much for the British Board of Film Classification. It wound up becoming one of the many films banned in Britain during the ‘video nasty’ panic of 1984. It was ultimately re-released uncut in 1999 and enjoys an enthusiastic cult following today.
17. The Return of the Living Dead
Zombies 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 Return of the Living Dead wound up metamorphosing into a very different horror movie, and a landmark in its own right.
When a deadly chemical is unwittingly spilled in the basement of a medical warehouse, young punks in the nearby graveyard find themselves under attack. Balancing classic zombie horror with a cartoonish sense of humour, The Return of the Living Dead is best remembered for establishing that zombies have a particular taste for (altogether now) “BRAINS!”
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.
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? Though it flopped on release, The Monster Squad’s reputation has rightly grown with time, and 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 which may 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. As well as making Combs a horror icon, Re-Animator also launched the career of esteemed horror actress Barbara Crampton.
14. Fright Night
Three years before Child’s Play, director Tom Holland broke through with one of the best vampire movies of the decade. 1985’s Fright Night casts William Ragsdale as high schooler Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) – who makes the alarming discovery that his new next-door neighbour (Chris Sarandon) is a blood-sucking fiend. The problem is, the anxious teen can’t get anyone to believe him.
Balancing lurid 80s aesthetics with nostalgia for vintage Gothic chillers, Fright Night is tremendous entertainment for horror fans both young and old. Roddy McDowall provides great support as actor-turned-TV horror host Peter Vincent, but the film is stolen by Stephen Geoffreys as ‘Evil’ Ed – who utters the film’s most-quoted line, “You’re so cool, Brewster!”
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.
Day of the Dead takes a slow-burn approach, and some have complained that the bulk of the film is a bit too uneventful and dialogue-heavy. However, once the inevitable zombie-filled climax comes, the astonishingly grisly make-up FX from make-up maestro Tom Savini more than makes up for any prior pacing issues.
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 scary the film gets at times.
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. Still, the film worried parents and censors enough to help usher in the introduction of the PG-13 rating.
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 indubitably 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.’
Building on the world (or rather, universe) presented in the earlier film, Aliens 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. Despite several more sequels, the Alien series has never hit such heights again.
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.
Proving hugely popular, Friday the 13th spawned seven sequels before the 80s ended, and four more since. It’s also one of the most commonly misremembered horror movies ever: many viewers forget 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.
Novelist-turned-filmmaker Clive Barker made a huge impact with his 1987 adaptation of his own novella The Hellbound Heart. Barker cast his old school friend Doug Bradley as Pinhead, leader of the mysterious 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. However, Pinhead only makes a few brief appearances in the original Hellraiser, in which the real focal points are murderous adulteress Julia (Claire Higgins) and her undead lover Frank (Andrew Robinson).
8. The Fly
Director David Cronenberg has created some of the most unique and unsettling horror ever, but none of his films ever 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.
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 gives The Fly its beating heart.
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. A seemingly idyllic, newly-built family house suddenly becomes a hotbed of bizarre supernatural phenomena, which takes a chilling turn when the house’s youngest inhabitant (Heather O’Rourke) suddenly vanishes.
Poltergeist has long been surrounded by rumours and urban legends, including allegations that Spielberg himself directed the film instead of Hooper, and claims of a genuine curse surrounding the film, due to the subsequent deaths of several cast members including O’Rourke. However, the film itself still stands proud as one of the most exhilarating chillers ever made.
6. The Lost Boys
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 conceived as a kids’ movie about pre-pubescent vamps – but when Joel Schumacher signed on to direct he insisted on gearing it towards teens. A lot of those 80s fashions look very dated now (who can forget oily pony-tailed saxophone guy?) but that’s all part of the fun.
5. The Thing
John Carpenter gave us more than his share of great genre movies in the 80s (The Fog, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China among them) – but The Thing (another of the decade’s best horror remakes) just might be his masterpiece. This new take on the 1951 sci-fi shocker centres on an Arctic research base which comes under attack from an alien monster.
The practical FX used for the shape-shifting alien creature are still jaw-dropping to behold all these years later. 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
One of the finest crossovers of horror and comedy ever made, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London casts David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as two hapless American backpackers whose journey across England goes straight to hell. After an animal attack, Naughton awakes in London to find himself undergoing some rather unexpected changes…
Thanks to its iconic transformation sequence, An American Werewolf in London has the distinction of winning the very first Best Makeup Oscar for special make-up wizard Rick Baker. Still, the real power of An American Werewolf in London lies in how expertly director John Landis balances the intense scares with gut-busting humour.
3. Evil Dead II
1980’s original The Evil Dead was one of the most popular and notorious films of the ‘video nasty’ era, which continues to inspire imitators to this day. 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, Evil Dead II (really 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.
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.
Freddy became the most iconic movie monster of the decade, and Englund would reprise the sadistic, wise-cracking ghoul in a succession of sequels. Freddy became more comedic and significantly less threatening in the later films, but in the original he’s truly the stuff of nightmares. Meanwhile Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy is one of the greatest, toughest ‘final girls’ of the slasher era.
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; yet there’s no disputing The Shining’s overwhelmingly sinister atmosphere, whilst Nicholson and Shelley Duvall deliver two of the most intense performances you’re ever likely to see on film.