The 40 Greatest Horror Movies Of The 1980s

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Because no decade was more awesome or scary than the ’80s, we’re taking a trip back in time to celebrate the decade’s 40 best gore-fests.


40. Rats: Night Of Terror

Released in 1984, Rats: Night Of Terror was directed by schlock master Bruno Mattei. A century after a nuclear war, society has been reborn into two factions: An underground civilization and the scavengers in the above-ground wastelands.

“A group of scavengers on bikes come across a town infested with flesh-eating rats, and soon the gore is spilling everywhere.”

The film includes hilarious dubbing, full-frontal male nudity, a girl who becomes a rat-snack when her sleeping bag gets stuck, and loads more. SPOILER: This clip reveals the ending, but Rats: Night Of Terror isn’t exactly Citizen Kane.

39. Visiting Hours

 

 
If you ask people what they remember about 1982’s Visiting Hours, odds are it’s the TV ad, which may be the most effective horror movie promo ever.

The actual film doesn’t hold up as well—despite the presence of Lee Grant as an anti-violence crusader and Lenore Zann (Rogue in the ’90s X-Men cartoon) and William Shatner at his most unctuous.

38. The Boogens


The Boogens are, well, they’re kind of turtle-like tentacled creatures from beneath the Earth, who are unleashed when an abandoned silver mine is reopened.

I love horror movies that take place in claustrophobic subterranean quarters, and The Boogens is a fun, low-budget keeper.

37. Blood Beach

B-movie icon John Saxon stars as a cop investigating mysterious disappearances and severed limbs, all caused by a giant mutant… sea cucumber?

All these years later, I still get antsy when the sand seeps between my toes.

36. New Year’s Evil

A serial killer threatens to murder one person in every time zone during New Year’s Eve. Why? To gain the attention of DJ Roz Kelly, far removed from Pinky Tuscadero. Some highlights: Hardbodies hunk Grant Cramer, the acting debut of We Got It Made star Teri Copley, and a killer played by Kip Niven, who was married to Linda Lavin for a turbulent decade.

Plus, what other movie contains the immortal line, “There’s a big party at Erik Estrada’s place.”

35. The Beast Within

While most teens try to cope with the occasional zit, Michael has a different kind of outbreak. The Beast Within is famous for its transformation scenes (which are still fun 30 years later) and made the most out of its low-budget but imaginative special effects.

34. Dolls


The late ’80s saw a boon in killer-puppet films: Child’s Play, Puppet Master and this entry from 1987.

Stuart Gordon followed up Reanimator with this forgotten gem that contains some truly great moments—including what would be the creepiest giant teddy bear until Bjork ran through the forest in “Hyperballad.”

33. I, Madman

Director Tibor Takacs followed up his surprise hit The Gate with this sadly overlooked, well-crafted slasher, written by David Chaskin (A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddie’s Revenge).

Unlike that classic, there’s no gay subtext here—but it does have Jenny Wright as the plucky heroine and ’80s favorite Clayton Rohner as her boyfriend. The couple must face a mad killer who’s sprung to life from the pages of a pulp novel.

32. Curtains

This 1983 Canadian (so you know it’s awesome) slasher stars the fab Samantha Eggar and Linda Thorson (so you know it’s awesome) as part of a bevy of nubile starlets who converge on a remote mansion to audition for a director.

In the clip above, watch one of the film’s many WTF moments.

31. Night Warning


Susan Tyrell is raising her nephew (Jimmy McNichol) after his parents die in hilariously gory fashion (his dad never saw that log coming), but she becomes unhinged when he decides to leave for college.

There’s a lot more to Night Warning than the typical ’80s slasher flick—including a homophobic cop, a gay gym coach, a young Bill Paxton, and a topless Julia Duffy. Towering above it all is Susan’s go-for-broke performance.

Enjoy the trailer, above, which totally misrepresents the movie!

30. Christmas Evil

The first of two “Killer Santa” films on the list features Brandon Maggart (Fiona Apple’s dad) as a man who was traumatized as a kid when he witnessed Santa getting frisky under the mistletoe and eventually starts hacking up the town.

It’s a serviceable slasher pic, but it probably wouldn’t have made the list if it weren’t the final scene, which is so wonderfully wrong and batshit cray, it elevates the entire film.

29. Scanners

Another Canadian classic, Scanners was David Cronenberg’s follow-up to 1979’s equally classic The Brood. Thirty years later, and that iconic shot is still awesome. You know the one.

28. The Howling

The first of two 1981 werewolf films on our list, The Howling stars Dee Wallace as a news anchor who stumbles on a colony of werewolves.

I’m still patiently waiting for the day one of the Fox News blonds stands up and say the words, “Tonight I’m going to show you something.”

27. Pieces

10-year-old Willard is innocently putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a nude woman when his mother catches him and flies off the handle—leading Willard to grab an ax and dismember her. That’s just the opening scene of one of the ’80s most unintentionally hilarious horror films.

Christopher George and Lynda Day George (Wonder Woman villaness Fausta Grables) co-star with Ian Sera, who provides some full frontal nudity in the film—before his testicles are ripped off, that is. Enjoy!

26. Deadly Eyes


Rats: Night Of Terror was at #40 on this list, and here we have the Citizen Kane of ’80s killer-vermin films. When ordinary sewer rats eat grain contaminated with steroids, the grow to grotesque size and threaten the city.

How over the top is Deadly Eyes? The first victim eaten by the rats is a baby in a highchair.

Here’s one of my favorite bits of movie trivia of the decade: The rats in Deadly Eyes were actually dachshunds wearing rat costumes. Woof!

25. Demons

Italian masters Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento brought us this wonderfully overwrought production in which the pus-filled dead invade a movie theater.

It’s got all the hallmarks of a great Italian horror film: Impossible gore, dizzying quick cuts, questionable dubbing and a killer soundtrack. The pus-filled dead invade a movie theater.

24. The Lair Of The White Worm

Ken Russell brought Bram Stoker’s novella to the big screen as only he could. Hugh Grant, Sammi Davis and Peter Capaldi co-star with Amanda Donohoe, who gives one of the most memorable, go-for-broke evil performances of the era.

If your idea of a good time is watching a bound-and-gagged Catherine Oxenberg in a bra and panties dangling over a snake pit—this is your movie!

23. Silent Night, Deadly Night

PUNISH! In the “second Killer Santa” movie on the list, poor little Billy sees his father shot to death and his mother’s throat cut by a psychopathic Santa. Unsurprisingly, this affects his later life—especially after Billy gets a job in a toy store and is asked to dress up as jolly St. Nick.

SNDN stands out for two reasons: Upon its original release in 1984, the reception was so negative that Tristar Pictures pulled it just a few weeks after its release. Large crowds (mostly angry families) formed at theaters and malls around the nation to protest the movie.

Siskel and Ebert condemned it, with Siskel saying any profits made off Silent Night, Deadly Night was blood money. And Leonard Maltin gave the film zero stars and asked, “What’s next, the Easter Bunny as a child molester?”

The second reason is that star Robert Brian Wilson was one of the hottest horror himbos to ever grace the screen.

22. The Burning


I don’t know why this summer camp slasher isn’t better known, but it hits all the right marks. Camp caretaker Cropsy was a victim of a cruel prank that backfired, leaving him horribly disfigured. Naturally, revenge is required, and soon kids are being sheared left and right.

The Burning featured very early roles for Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens—one of whom doesn’t survive the movie’s infamous raft massacre.

21. Motel Hell


“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”

Motel Hell is a lot of fun, alternating between horror satire and gruesome set pieces: Motel owner Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and his sister Ida (Beulah Balbricker herself, Nancy Parsons) have a secret garden where they grow the special ingredients for their famous smoked meats.

This is the third greatest Rory Calhoun film of the ’80s (behind, of course, Angel and its sequel, Avenging Angel)

20. The Thing


There are two John Carpenter films in the Top 20: Up first is one of the great remakes of all time. As I’ve mentioned before, I love claustrophobic quarters, and an isolated arctic outpost is the perfect setting for growing paranoia and fear.

The Thing’s gross-out effects are still bad-ass 30 years later—far more effective than than the CGI used in the toothless “prequel.”

19. An American Werewolf In London


American Werewolf earns a slightly higher ranking than The Howling because it has a few more memorable moments, including David Naughton’s first transformation scene, which is one of the great moments in horror history.

The NSFW scene above was the first time I ever experienced the “dream within a dream” gimmick.

18. Terror Train


Jamie Lee Curtis starred in three horror films in 1980 alone, and you’ll see them all in the Top 20. First off is the tale of sad Kenny, who only wanted to get laid, and instead was the victim of a cruel prank that sent him to the loonie bin.

Is Kenny the one who’s offing everyone on a cross-country train ride?

In addition to the usual slasher goodness, Terror Train also features David Copperfield, the film debut of D.D. Winters (later known as Vanity), and the always smoldering Hart Bochner.

17. Pin


This little-seen but well-done Canadian (yes!) production stars David Hewlett as Leon, who, along with sister Ursula, is raised by their doctor father (Terry O’Quinn).

Did we mention Dad keeps an anatomically correct, life-sized dummy named “Pin” (short for Pinocchio) in his office? Or that Pin is Leon’s only friend?

You can probably guess where this is going, but it’s a lot of fun getting there, as Leon gets more and more creepy and bad things start happening.

16. Hell Night


HBO played this slasher flick on a constant loop in the mid-80’s, and what’s not to love? Linda Blair is joined by Kevin Brophy, Peter Barton and one of the Van Pattens as they try to survive a night in a spooky mansion with a deformed maniac hunting them down.

Linda was nominated for a Razzie for this performance, which is ludicrous: How many other actresses can effectively scream their lungs out while dressed like Little Ho Peep?

15. The Funhouse

Yes, its’ another deformed maniac on the loose, and another ’80s classic HBO showed round-the-clock way back when. Elizabeth Berridge (who I adore, and if you get the chance, catch her as tennis great Rosie Casals in When Billie Beat Bobby) and her friends are hunted through a carnival funhouse.

The Funhouse also stars Sylvia Miles. Sylvia Miles, people! This could easily be in the Top Ten, which shows how tight this list is getting.

Bonus: Co-star Cooper Huckabee was one of the hottest horror himbos of the decade.

14. Fright Night


The 1980s were not great for quality vampire movies, but there were some exceptions: The Lost Boys had slick MTV appeal, Near Dark was an early triumph for director Kathryn Bigelow, and The Hunger was the closest Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon would get to starring in a Red Shoe Diaries.

But the one that had the most impact for me was Tom Holland’s Fright Night. Teen Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) suspects that his weird next-door neighbor is a bloodsucker, and enlists the aid of Creature Feature host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) to find the truth. It had a great cast—McDowell, Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse and and future-porn-star Stephen Geoffreys, who brought us “Evil Ed.”

13. Friday The 13th, Part 2


Now we’re getting into the ’80s big horror franchises. Because there were so many sequels for all of them, I decided to pick the one title I think best represents the franchise. When it comes to Jason Vorhees, that entry would have to be Friday the 13th, Part 2.

There were great moments in all the others, but part deux pulled everything together—and had the best Final Girl in the whole FT13 series, Amy Steel.

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Plus, it also had the greatest “It’s only the dog” moment in screen history.

12. Child’s Play


The sequels were so campy, it’s easy to forget that the original Child’s Play was actually a straightforward serious horror flick, with a fine performance from the underrated Catherine Hicks as a single mom who brings home a doll for her kid that… well, you know the story.

11. A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

Freddy’s Revenge will always have its place in horror history: There’s so much homoeroticism in it, it barely qualifies as subtext. While it’s not the scariest Elm Street, or the most well-made, it will always be the most memorable.

The clip above is one of my favorite scenes, as Jessie (out actor Mark Patton) dances blissfully in his room before he’s discovered.

10. The Children

I hated going to the drive-in when i was a kid: First, we were never allowed to go to the snack bar. Then we had to contend with bees and mosquitoes. But once, when I was 10, we went to the drive-in and saw The Children.

A busload of happy schoolkids accidentally drive through a toxic gas cloud, causing the children to develop black fingernails and a burning desire to kill everyone.

Somehow my sister and I found kids killing their parents incredibly hilarious—and cathartic.

9. Poltergeist

One of the great special-effects extravaganzas of the early ’80s, it stills holds up well.

As much as I love the set pieces—the pool of skeletons, Jobeth William’s ceiling tumble, the clown attack (shudder)—it’s the little moments I remember the best: The maggots on the chicken leg, the crawling steak, the thunderstorm countdown. A true classic.

8. Re-Animator

“Who’s going to believe a talking head?”

Based on a Lovecraft short story, 1985’s Re-Animator sees medical student Herbert West bringing dead things (a cat, his professor) back to life with horrible results.

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The film was one of the greatest cult hits of the decade—making a genre star of Jeffrey Combs and a bonafide scream queen of Barbra Crampton, who proved to be a great sport.

7. The Evil Dead

I had to decide which of Sam Raimi’s ’80s horror films to include and I went with the original: It provides a more visceral horror experience, and was really the template for low-budget horror filmmaking in the 80’s.

Evil Dead 2 offers slapstick gore and an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, but the original was fresh for it’s time. I still enjoy it, though some of the effects are wince-worthy. (And I can really do without the tree rape scene).

6. Happy Birthday To Me

Melissa Sue Anderson was really trying to shake off the specter of Mary Ingalls when she made this Canadian (yay again!) slasher pic, about a high school clique getting offed one by one.

Besides Anderson, the movie is best known for the ending, which producers admit they pretty much made up on the spot, but is so cuckoo it works.
 

 
I have to give a special shout-out to the closing theme song, which is performed by Syreeta (of Billy Preston and Syreeta “With You I’m Born Again” fame). It’s the third greatest ’80s horror-movie closing song. (Keep reading for Number One and Two)

5. The Fog

My favorite John Carpenter film ever, and one of his most underrated. Halloween was such a pop culture milestone that, when Carpenter presented this followup, it was met with scorn and disappointment.

The opening narration from John Houseman, which leads into the fog-enshrouded coastline and the credits, is one of Carpenter’s greatest moments. And everything, from the wonderful score, to the cast of Carpenter regulars, works splendidly.

And let me tell you how much I love Adrienne Barbeau: Her character’s name is Stevie, she had a fabulous beach house and she had my all-time dream job: Lighthouse DJ!

4. Day of The Dead

Like The Fog, Day Of The Dead is another follow-up to a classic film that received nothing but scorn upon its release.

George Romero hit the jackpot with Night Of The Living Dead, and its sequel Dawn Of The Dead is, in my opinion, the greatest horror film ever made. But this 1985 continuation was not well-regarded—to put it mildly. But, like I said, give me a good claustrophobic horror movie, and I’m happy. And Day takes place mostly underground, which is the last place you want to be when the zombie onslaught begins.

3. Prom Night

Disco Death! Five young schoolkids taunt a classmate to death (that falling pane of glass was just overkill, literally)> Years later at the prom, someone exacts revenge!

Jamie Lee Curtis has said this was her least favorite slasher film, but it’s one of my favorites. I can’t quite figure out why—the photography is shockingly muddy, and the characters are either forgettable or unlikable. (I found myself rooting for Classic Bitch Wendy to get away, just because she was the most interesting character in the film).

But there’s something compelling about watching these snotty kids get their comeuppance, and the ending is undeniably sad (if inevitable).
 

 
Then there’s the fabulous soundtrack, which does contain The Greatest Closing Song In An ’80s Horror Movie Ever. It’s called “Fade To Black,” was performed by Gordene Simpson, and reveals the entire plot of the movie in a classic power ballad. It’s been been on my iPod playlist for years.

2. Night Of The Creeps/Night Of The Comet

It’s difficult to do horror satire successfully, but the films tied at #2 not only achieve that goal, but they also work as straight horror films, and in the case of the latter film, as romantic fluff.

Night Of The Creeps isn’t very well known, but it should be: Alien slugs crash to Earth and turn frat kids into zombies. Two pledges discover the grisly truth, and try to fight the invasion. (Did I mention they’re at Corman University? If that means something to you, then you’ll probably enjoy this underrated gem.)

Part horror, part sci-fi, part romance, Night Of The Comet stars Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney as Valley girls who survive when a comet kills all the grownups and heralds the zombie apocalypse.

Mary Woronov, Voyager’s Chakotay and an awesome ’80s synth soundtrack make for a lot of fun, with some actual scares along the way.

1. My Bloody Valentine

Did I mention I love claustrophobic horror films? And Canadian movies? So is it any wonder my favorite slasher film ever made is both Canadian and claustrophobic.

Unlike the anonymous chum fed to Jason and the rest of the slasher gods, the kids in My Bloody Valentine are actually likable, and when they venture into the bowels of the Earth it becomes a crapshoot as to who will survive.

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Check out the special edition if you can—it restores almost ten minutes of footage that was deemed too extreme for the theatrical release. (It’s worth it just for the laundromat scene.)
 

 
And who can forgot “The Ballad Of Harry Warden,” which explains the plot in a creepy “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” way. It’s the second greatest 80s horror movie closing theme song (between Prom Night and Happy Birthday To Me).

What are your favorite horror films from that bygone era?

80's Pop Culture Expert, Shooting At The Walls Of Heartache.
@therealsnicks