It’s almost Halloween, and you know what that means: It’s now socially acceptable to watch horror movies again! You really should be watching them any time of year, but the holiday’s a good excuse to gorge on that most unfairly maligned of genres while putting together a homemade costume on the cheap.
Still, which flavor of horror do you want? If it’s ’80s horror, you get to travel back to an era of more than just questionable fashion and hair stylings. In the 1980s, a genre wrestled with the death of the ’70s, with the rise of Reagan and Bush I, with the AIDS crisis, pollution and the widening class gap. Or you can just ignore all that and cackle as bodies get hacked up real good.
Note: This list sticks to one film per filmmaker, otherwise a large chunk of it would be devoted to John Carpenter.
25. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
In 1983, the beloved magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland folded after a quarter century. The classic creature feature was dead. One year later, the world got Freddy Krueger. The rag had missed out on the decade’s reigning monster. And he was, it should be pointed out, actually a monster. Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers simply wouldn’t stay dead; Freddy had bona fide supernatural powers. And he talked! The third film is the one where Robert Englund’s Freddy evolved from yet another slasher franchise ghoul into a Borscht Belt psycho, complete with post-kill quips that would make Roger Moore’s James Bond wince. For some Elm Street purists, this is where Freddy jumped the shark. We think it hits the sweet spot between scary and camp before the series started fumbling the mix. All that, and an inexplicably wasted Laurence Fishburne too.
24. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Freddy Krueger is our favorite ’80s villain, so why are we placing a Halloween entry above an Elm Street? For one thing, the series’ third is the one that infamously doesn’t boast Michael Myers. In fact, the baddie is an old man. Oscar-nominee Dan O’Herlihy plays the sinister head of a Halloween novelty company out to wipe out kids by selling them killer masks. John Carpenter’s original idea for the franchise that made his name was to have each round feature a different Halloween-themed menace. After the so-so box office of Halloween III (helmed by Tommy Lee Wallace but still sporting a killer Carpenter score), the series ran back into Myers’ kitchen knife-wielding arms. Too bad: Season of the Witch is a truly creepy episode that favors slow-burn chills over quick scares. And it features the franchise’s most disturbing set piece — a scene that traumatized a generation of ’80s monster-loving kids — in which a boy tries out his death-mask, with beyond freaky results.
23. Society (1989)
Full disclosure: This low-budget satire from Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna doesn’t get great until its third act. If the whole thing was as strong as the ending, Society might have topped this list. Instead, it’s a slow build-up to a hilariously scathing punchline. A rich kid (Billy Warlock, kind of a cut-rate Emilio Estevez) wonders what his Beverly Hills family has to do with a recent spate of murders. The answer is that they, and all the other L.A. richies, aren’t only of a different class but of a different species. They get together to feast upon anyone below their social strata, their bodies Stretch Armstronging into gooey blobs as they absorb their “lesser” victims till nothing’s left. Only John Carpenter’s They Live is a better ’80s takedown, though even that has nothing on the finale here, which is something like the orgy from Eyes Wide Shut of horror.
22. The New York Ripper (1981)
Another full disclosure: We can’t always remember which gorefest by Italy’s legendary Lucio Fulci is which. What’s the one with the murderous bats? (House by the Cemetery.) Which has a poorly translated English-language sign that reads “Do Not Entry”? (The Beyond.) Which has the ending that makes no sense because Fulci apparently forgot to include a key plot point? (City of the Living Dead.) Point is, they’re all wonderfully unpleasant, sick with gruesome deaths and Eurotrash airs. But we always remember which one is The New York Ripper. Fulci’s roided-up version of a giallo (roughly Italy’s answer to the slasher), it’s a deep, deep wallow in depravity that’s icky even when someone isn’t been gutted. And it somehow makes Ed Koch’s NYC look worse than it does in The Warriors, Cruising and Escape from New York combined.
21. Opera (1987)
It’s the last great Dario Argento film. If it had actually been his retirement film, he’d have gone out with a bang. Instead, he soldiered on, even churning out a Phantom of the Opera adaptation (from 1998) made thoroughly redundant by his other movie with a killer skulking about an opera house. As baroque as its title, it’s an excuse for Argento’s camera to stalk and soar around a tony setting to the strains of everyone from Vivaldi to Brian Eno to The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman. Even its best kill is a work of gorgeous simplicity: You’ve seen some poor schmo shot in the eye through a door viewer in a million other movies, but never like this.
20. The Hidden (1987)
Mysteriously, few Twin Peaks fans this summer made a point of resurrecting this nifty body snatcher cheapie, even though it also features Kyle MacLachlan acting like a blank-faced alien struggling to understand human emotion. In fact, in The Hidden, the young MacLachlan actually plays an alien. Arriving on Earth, he’s out to stop an extraterrestrial who keeps possessing people, one after the other, in order to take over the planet. MacLachlan is every bit as magical here as he was as Dougie Jones, and it’s the too-rare movie where everything’s operating on his sky-high level.
19. Fright Night (1985)
In the ’80s, the classic Universal monster movies — Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, et al. — turned 50. Their anti-heroes were too nice for the era of Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers. But they still got some love. The Monster Squad, written by Shane Black, brought them back for an all-star jamboree. And a few films at least paid homage to a more innocent era of horror (while keeping the rating R, natch). There’s the wink-winky ’50s throwback Night of the Creeps, in which alien slugs invade a college campus. Even more fun is Fright Night. Kind of the Scream of its day, it unearths good ol’ Roddy McDowell to battle a charming vampire (Chris Sarandon), all while delivering an ideal mix of real chills and self-aware jokes for a young audience still hip enough to love Bela Lugosi.
18. Dead & Buried (1981)
A diamond in the rough that still hasn’t gotten its proper due, this slow-burning creepfest is the best Stephen King movie not based on a work of Stephen King. Set in a coastal New England town, it follows a kindly sheriff (James Farentino) as a he slowly unearths a plot involving reanimated corpses. Never mind the story, because the real pull is the thick air of unease conjured by director Gary Sherman (of Vice Squad, another ’80s trash fave that transcends its genre), which he punctures by sudden, leftfield bursts of weirdo violence.
17. Day of the Dead (1985)
He was the father of both the modern zombie movie and the mainstream gorefest, but George A. Romero could never quite catch a break. Even in the horror-rich ’80s, the maker of Night of the Living Dead was largely ignored by the major studios, who were too busy cannibalizing his creations to return his calls. The poor guy couldn’t even get much cash for his third Dead entry, even after he promised it would be “the Gone with the Wind of zombie movies.” A budget that was already modest wound up slashed in half at the last minute, resulting in a tiny grinder mostly set inside an underground army base. But as ever, Romero made due with what little he had. Hated upon release, Day ages like fine wine, particularly since it makes the real villains not the zombies but the military — a boys club of bros stoked to play fascists in a new world order. Romero saves their dismemberments for the end, and it’s a beaut.
16. Near Dark (1987)
Vampires weren’t the main horror draw in the ’80s, but the ones that materialized were a diverse lot. You had modern vampires (Fright Night), teen vampires (My Best Friend is a Vampire), Brat Pack (or Brat Pack-adjacent) vampires (The Lost Boys). There were space vampires (Lifeforce), a Grace Jones vampire (Vamp), vampires played by Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie (The Hunger). There was even a vampire comedy with Young Jim Carrey (Once Bitten). The finest of the lot was too cool to even use the word “vampire.” Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough is a road trip-cum-Western where the protagonists happen to drive by night, sucking on blood for fun and sport. Bigelow may have borrowed three of her leads from Aliens, made by her future ex-husband James Cameron, but she immediately earned her own unique place in the industry.
15. The Evil Dead (1981)
Sorry, the more popular Evil Dead 2, but we slightly prefer the one that’s not remotely a comedy. Sam Raimi’s feature debut (with some technical assists from the pre-Blood Simple Coen brothers) introduced us to both the square-jawed Bruce Campbell and his deathless undead fighter, Ash. The effects are crude and Campbell hasn’t yet figured out his shtick. (He’s often said he hates that people can still watch him try to act for the first time.) But it’s a movie that really hurts.
14. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
It’s a better origin story and a better film than Iron Man. Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk whatzit tells of a random Japanese businessman who learns to stop worrying and love biological rebellion. After accidentally killing a mysterious stranger, he finds his body quickly overtaken by metal. Soon he’s more machine than man — and what’s more, he likes it. Tetsuo started a craze of man-machine movies, not the least of them the Tetsuo sequels. But there’s nothing like the original. Shot and edited like an underground avant-garde curio that would have been screened in the Village in the ’60s, it’s all grainy B&W 16mm, and it constantly finds new and inventive ways to rev the audience up for the apocalypse.
13. Cat People (1982)
The original Cat People, from 1942, was the first in a line of beautiful, subtle and resourceful low-budget horror classics from legendary Hollywood producer Val Lewton. Paul Schrader’s remake is not only beautiful. It’s pure batshit on a budget — bombastic, heavy, as thrillingly ’80s as its Giorgio Moroder score. In the original, Simone Simon only feared she could turn into a leopard when sexually aroused; in the redo, Nastassja Kinski literally turns into a leopard, and only after she has hot sex with John Heard. In the Lewton, death always lurked in the shadows; in the Schrader, even poor Ed Begley Jr. gets mauled. But it’s still wonderful — another Schrader study of self-destructive machismo but refracted through a feminist (or feminist-ish) lens. And as far as movies where Malcolm McDowell wants to bang his sister go, it’s better than Caligula.
12. Hellraiser (1987)
Clive Barker once joked, “There are apparently two books in every American household — one of them is the Bible and the other is probably by Stephen King.” Barker never sold as well as the Robert Pollard of horror. His work is too transgressive for the masses — too in thrall to BDSM, to true transgression, to pleasure as pain and pain as pleasure. But Barker did conjure up one true icon of the silver screen: With his first movie, loosely based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, he gifted the world with Pinhead, an “extra-dimensional being” with a thing for eternal torture. Pinhead is only in a fraction of Hellraiser, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s plenty of other sins to go around, not the least of them being one doomed character’s honey of a blasphemous final line.
11. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre defined the ’70s in all its violence. His belated sequel defined the ’80s in all its crassness. When the recently late Hooper caught back up with America’s favorite family of homicidal rednecks, they’d become capitalists, raking in a pretty penny selling human flesh on the market. And the only one who can stop them is counterculture god-turned-Reagan voter Dennis Hopper. Where the first is relentlessly gritty, the sequel is relentlessly obnoxious. We’re not complaining; quite the contrary. It’s a hilariously grueling endurance test that doesn’t even have a second act — just a super-long set-up followed by an endless climax, as if it had no room for narrative pleasantries. There’s no relief, and much like its final girl — played by a seriously game Caroline Williams — you leave the experience changed forever.
10. Pieces (1982)
The mother of all ultraviolent Eurotrash ’80s trash dumps, this Spanish number even has a premise that will make you vomit. There’s a serial killer who’s making a human jigsaw, and he keeps killing people, gruesomely, to get the pieces. It’s a movie that keeps on giving, right up to a nonsensical ending for the ages. But trust us when we say the best part is the out-of-nowhere and never properly explained kung fu interlude.
9. Poltergeist (1982)
We swore we’d keep this list one film per filmmaker, but the upside about the semi-confirmation that producer Steven Spielberg probably ghost-directed most if not all of this most original haunted house spooker is that we can technically include two films by the credited director: the late, great filmmaker Tobe Hooper. (See also #11 for the other.) That said, if Hooper — who’d just made the sadistic, brilliant The Funhouse — didn’t handle that scene where a guy imagines he’s tearing his own head apart, then I’m Steven Spielberg.
8. Re-Animator (1985)
While George A. Romero struggled to get his own zombie movies made in the ’80s, a legion of acolytes were banging out their own low-budget paeans to the master. First up is Stuart Gordon, who updated H.P. Lovecraft for the gorehound era with his tale of a Frankenstein-esque mad scientist (a peerlessly bonkers Jeffrey Combs). Gordon often stages the work of David Mamet, and he has a similar-but-very-different nasty streak. Case in point: our anti-hero’s experiments with waking the dead result in ravenous dogs and a headless zombie who hasn’t lost his taste for cunnilingus.
7. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
The other Romero acolyte is Dan O’Bannon. The co-writer of the original Alien, he honored the Dead films by going right to the source, creating one of history’s only decent acts of fan-fiction. Beginning with an ode to the original Night of the Living Dead, the film proceeds to a full-on comedy about a poorly-stored barrel of mysterious goo that ruins the night for the underpaid staff of a military supply warehouse. The comic tone isn’t Romero, but the mistrust of bureaucracies held together by scotch tape and bubble gum is — right down to a punchline that kind of wasn’t that funny when Reagan had his finger on the button, and really kind of isn’t that funny right now.
6. Aliens (1986)
Speaking of Alien, the first sequel is the last great movie in a franchise that has never topped its first two gos. Roger Ebert’s famous 3 ½ star review argued that the unrelenting tension — essentially recreating the Vietnam War in space — was objectively impressive, but it was so successful at what it did that it left him feeling exhausted, even depressed. Same, and we mean that as high praise too.
5. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
As far as horror goes, John Carpenter basically owned the ’80s. But which do you put up top? His eternally topical Reaganomics salvo They Live? The underrated apocalypto Prince of Darkness? Christine, his stab at a Stephen King movie? (To say nothing of his movies outside the genre, like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China.) We almost went with The Fog, his gorgeous, underrated mood piece. But we’d be fronting if we didn’t give the spot to the one where Wilford Brimley goes nuts and Kurt Russell does his best-ever John Wayne. The Thing gave Carpenter the chance to remake a film made (or ghost-made) by one of his heroes, Howard Hawks. And yet he winds up inverting the Hawksian spirit. Instead of camaraderie in the face of evil, the heroes of Carpenter’s version turn quickly to paranoia and distrust. Carpenter keeps things as grim as they are disgusting, with an ambiguous ending that’s a bummer any way you read it.
4. Possession (1981)
Polish director Andrzej Zulawski was going through a nasty divorce. So he did what any creative type does when suffering heartbreak: He made art about it. What most artists don’t do is channel their anguish into a movie about a West Berlin transplant (Sam Neill) whose soon-to-be-ex (Isabelle Adjani) starts having sex with a tentacle creature. Or throw in a scene where Adjani starts gushing a Guinness amount of blood from you know where. Cinema as primal scream therapy, Possession is white hot madness that could only come from someone at their lowest ebb. Or it could only come from Zulawski, one of film’s great lunatics; seriously, Possession isn’t even his craziest film.
3. Gremlins (1984)
The majority of ’80s horror is rated R (or worse). It was such a ghoulish time, even the only one on this list that scored a PG is partially responsible for birthing the PG-13 rating. It still feels kid-friendly. There’s the cute puppets, of course — not just Gizmo but those Tazmanian Devils he inadvertently produced. There’s also director Joe Dante, who filmed it like a Looney Tunes short. (Naturally he helmed 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which is far better than its rep.) Even a helicopter parent wouldn’t hide this from their child.
2. The Fly (1986)
If you watched David Cronenberg’s very loose redo of the Vincent Price classic in 1986, would it seem like a mere gross-out horror outing? Or would it seem obvious that it spoke devastatingly of the AIDS crisis then decimating swaths of the population? In a clinical filmmaker’s saddest film, you (and Geena Davis) watch as one of the most lovable actors alive — Jeff Goldblum, as his most Goldblumiest — withers away before your eyes, succumbing to a disease no one seems to understand or be able to control. Cronenberg has said AIDS wasn’t at the forefront of his mind when making The Fly, but in 1986, his usual obsession — body horror — wound up taking on a new and terrifying meaning.
1. The Shining (1980)
Here’s an unpopular opinion: Stephen King isn’t very good. He has great ideas that bore into one’s mind, preying on fears both primal and culturally grown. But he needs an editor — or, failing that, he needs others to take his concepts and make them better. Stanley Kubrick wasn’t the first great filmmaker to get his mitts on a Stephen King doorstop; Brian De Palma made his name with Carrie four years prior. But Kubrick’s liberal adaptation of the author’s third novel not only improves upon the source; it transforms it in a way that assumes control, like a parasite engulfing its host. Every change is an improvement. Instead of a geyser of untamed prose, we get the serenely confident creep of endless Steadicam long takes. Instead of a dense and convoluted mythology that’s over-explained, we get an elusive mystery that disturbs because it can never fully be understood. When King himself marshaled a faithful adaptation onto TV screens in 1997, seeking to reprimand the disloyal Mr. Kubrick, the results were an embarrassing failure. He lost. The Shining no longer belonged to Stephen King; it belonged, and belongs, to Stanley Kubrick.