The 50 Best Horror Films From the 1980s
Viewer beware, you're in for a scare.
The ’80s were a phenomenal time for aficionados of the gruesome, the gory, and the ghoulish. Both independent and mainstream cinematic offerings delivered chills that stayed with you long after you’d left the theater and curled up in bed, wondering about what might be lurking in your closet, or just outside your window. In honor of an era that took major risks with the malleable horror genre, we present a ranked rundown of the 50 best horror films of the ’80s.
The Evil Dead
Sam Raimi’s breakthrough indie set the stage for the director’s particularly rambunctious style, as well as established the peerless comedic-hero persona of star Bruce Campbell.
Joe Dante’s contribution to the werewolf genre was this 1981 gem (co-written by John Sayles), which tracks Dee Wallace’s TV news reporter—still traumatized by her run-in with a serial killer—to a remote resort where she finds herself in all sorts of full moon-triggered trouble.
Featuring one of the all-time great taglines (“You Have the Right to Remain Silent…Forever”), William Lustig and Larry Cohen’s Maniac Cop follows a traditional return-of-the-repressed formula via its portrait of a vengeful resurrected cop who comes back from the great beyond in order to punish the corrupt officials who locked him up with those he’d previously put away.
Tom Holland’s franchise-starting 1988 hit tapped into the underlying creepiness of kids’ playthings with its story of a serial killer who transfers his soul into a popular doll, and then attempts to leapfrog back into a young boy’s body—a loopy idea that’s largely sold by the design of Chucky, and by Brad Dourif’s voicework for the villain.
Regardless of whether you believe Poltergeist was helmed by credited director Tobe Hooper or (as rumors have long suggested) producer Steven Spielberg, this TV-phobic haunted-house thriller delivers unforgettable scares and a classic horror-cinema line (“They’re heeeere”), as well as a rather touching portrait of the strength of the American nuclear family.
Fringe auteur Larry Cohen delivers an amusingly horrific satire of American appetites with this underappreciated B-movie about a mysterious yogurt-like diet snack that becomes a national sensation. There’s just one side-effect: The Stuff turns consumers into zombie-like monsters.
One of Amblin Entertainment’s finest productions, this darkly humorous holiday horrorshow (directed by Joe Dante, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, and written by Chris Columbus) revolves around a strange furry pet named Gizmo who, if touched by water or fed after midnight, sprouts hordes of maniacally evil Gremlins.
A satiric take on some of its most famous genre predecessors, this wacko horror-comedy involves a motel-operating couple who sell smoked meats that are really their guests/victims, whom they bury up to their necks in a “secret garden” until they’re ready to be harvested.
David Cronenberg’s big-budget body-horror saga (a loose adaptation of George Langelaan’s story and the ensuing Vincent Price film) details the efforts of a scientist (Jeff Goldblum) to create a teleportation device, and the hideous consequences of his experiment when a fly accidentally gets into his machine.
With all due respect to its equally revolting kindred spirits (Cannibal Ferox in particular), Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust still stands as one of the most morally repulsive—and, admittedly, effective—horror movies of the decade, courtesy of extreme violence that was either thought to be real (involving humans) or was real (involving animals).
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film is an unbelievably moody, stylish vampire-Western hybrid that’s as romantic as it is tense, and features a number of cast members (Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton) from her future husband (er, ex-husband) James Cameron’s Aliens.
Special effects maestro Stan Winston’s directorial debut is a sturdy supernatural revenge saga about an Appalachian mountain man (Lance Henriksen) who, with the aid of a backwoods witch, conjures the legendary (and magnificent-looking) Pumpkinhead demon to kill those who murdered his son—a decision that ultimately comes back to haunt him.
A year after Poltergeist suggested that television was a disruptive force in the American family, David Cronenberg suggested that it was a conduit toward a “new flesh” in Videodrome, a madness-infected film about a Canadian TV station owner (James Woods) who stumbles upon—to his eternal, hellish-hallucinatory dismay—a broadcast of red-room torture.
Further emphasizing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s point that picking up strangers on the side of the road is a very bad idea, Robert Harmon’s 1986 thriller offers up Rutger Hauer as a psycho hitchhiker who makes life a living hell for nice-guy driver C. Thomas Howell.
Dario Argento’s best film is this superlative giallo from 1982, in which an American writer, while in Rome to promote his new book, becomes embroiled in a police case about a serial killer whose methods may be modeled after those found in his novel.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper goes back to the deformed-masked-psycho well with this entertaining 1981 B-movie, in which four teenagers decide to spend the night at a carnival—which already sounds like a bad idea—only to then have their fun ruined by a giant mutant freak with a penchant for violence.
George C. Scott brings a measure or gravitas to this haunted-house tale, about a composer who, still mourning the death of his wife and child, moves across the country to an eerie estate that boasts a ghost who likes to play ball.
Silent Night, Deadly Night
One of the most traumatizing horror movies of the era (especially if you were (un)lucky enough to see it at an early age), this scuzzy slasher film concerns a young boy who witnesses his parents’ brutal murder at the hands of a lunatic in a Santa Claus costume, and then years later turns into a likeminded killer.
Inspired by the macabre tales of E.C. Comics, this Stephen King-George A. Romero collaboration is a phenomenal anthology, highlighted by a short in which Leslie Nielsen gets revenge on Ted Danson by burying him up to his neck in sand right in front of the ocean’s tide line.
April Fool’s Day
Buoyed by one of the all-time great horror-movie posters, this 1986 cult classic hybridizes the slasher film and the manor house murder-mystery, detailing a group of college kids’ weekend getaway that turns bloody when someone begins picking them off.
Long before he was stranded on Lost, Terry O’Quinn was a nutcase weaseling his way into new families as a stepfather—and then going off the bloody deep end like a cross between Jack Torrance and Norman Bates when things don’t conform to his Reagan-era values.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
The only Halloween film to not feature Michael Myers—it was intended to turn the franchise into more of an anthology-style series—Season of the Witch (about a conspiracy involving Halloween masks) remains a uniquely unsettling stand-alone film in an E.C. Comics-by-way-of-John-Carpenter tradition.
Famed Italian horror director Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond is a gruesome head-trip about a Louisiana hotel that contains the doorway to Hell, and the new owner who unwittingly opens it, thus instigating all sorts of nasty, hallucinatory Satanic madness that concludes with one of the great shots in all of ’80s horror cinema.
The big-screen debut of Stephen Dorff (at the age of 14), Tibor Takács film is a superior midnight movie about some kids who, left home alone for the weekend by their parents, discover that the construction worker-created hole in their backyard is actually a portal to Hell—and furthermore, that clues to how it works can be found in a heavy metal album’s lyrics.
George A. Romero may not have directed this sequel to his anthology hit, but he and Stephen King nonetheless had a guiding hand in its production—and in making it better than its predecessor, thanks to the strikingly sinister tale, “The Raft.”
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
The film that launched the career of Michael Rooker, John McNaughton’s seminal 1986 serial-killer film takes a gritty, no-frills docudrama approach to its story (based on real-life convict Henry Lee Lucas) about a psycho and his partner-in-crime acting on their murderous impulses.
Prince of Darkness
More than a little bit bonkers—and better off for it—John Carpenter’s severely undervalued Prince of Darkness stars the director’s Halloween lead Donald Pleasance as a priest who believes that a cylinder of green goo is actually Satan.
My Bloody Valentine
George Mihalka’s 1981 slasher film isn’t particularly inventive, but it makes up for its rote premise (about kids being stalked by a vengeful fiend on Valentine’s Day) with decent plotting, a memorable villain in a mining mask, and a level of violence that was deemed so extreme by the MPAA, the uncut version has still never been released.
Clive Barker paved the way for S&M-style horror with this adaptation of his novella The Hellbound Heart, about a mysterious puzzle box that functions as the portal to a sadomasochistic dimension ruled by a race of nasty “Cenobite” creatures led by the porcupine-y Pinhead.
It may not quite live up to its Stephen King source material, but Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation nonetheless captures the overarching don’t-make-deals-with-the-devil mood of its story—about a man who uses a mystical pet cemetery to bring his toddler son back from the grave—while also climaxing with a depiction of childlike evil that three decades later remains downright disturbing.
Friday the 13th
The one that truly started it all, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th may not feature Jason Voorhees as its actual villain (he wouldn’t even don his trademark hockey mask until 1982’s Friday the 13th Part 3), but it remains the template upon which a legion of subsequent slasher films were based.
Children of the Corn
Based on Stephen King’s short story, this adolescent nightmare charts the ordeal of a couple that winds up in a Nebraska town where the kids—highlighted by the unforgettably sinister Malachai (Courtney Gains)—have decided that ritualistically killing adults is the best way to guarantee a good corn harvest.
The first of two William Lustig features to make this list, 1980’s Maniac is a deranged and decidedly unsettling exploitation saga about a crazed loner with a fondness for decorating department store mannequins with the scalps of his many innocent victims.
Tom Holland’s stellar horror-comedy pits a young suburban teenager (William Ragsdale) and his midnight-movie TV host idol (Roddy McDowall) against a new next-door neighbor (Chris Sarandon) who, it turns out, is actually a bloodsucking creature of the night.
Stuart Gordon’s loose H.P. Lovecraft adaptation is a delirious Frankensteinian riff about a demented medical student (Jeffrey Combs, in a role that rightly turned him into a B-movie icon) who discovers the means of bringing things back from the dead—albeit with a few unexpected, unpleasant side effects.
An American Werewolf in London
John Landis’ seminal 1981 horror-comedy strikes just the right balance between the terrifying and the absurd through its story of two American backpackers in England who are attacked by a werewolf, leaving one dead and the other to await his lycanthropic fate. Frequently amusing, it also boasts groundbreaking monster-transformation effects by Rick Baker.
Happy Birthday to Me
A wackadoo genre work marked by its bizarre methods of murder and its even more bizarre narrative twists and turns, Happy Birthday to Me is the rare slasher film that constantly keeps one on its toes—up to its surprising final revelations.
Day of the Dead
The third installment in George A. Romero’s pioneering zombie series is a scary and smart story about a group of post-apocalyptic survivors in an underground bunker who find themselves increasingly at each other’s throats, all while a team of scientists attempt to find a cure for the plague through research that includes domesticating a brain-muncher known as Bub.
The Slumber Party Massacre
Rife with all sorts of psychosexual imagery—none better than the poster-ready sight of cowering women spied through the legs of a man wielding a phallic power drill—this slasher-film anomaly ultimately proves a distinctly feminist (and fight-the-male-power) take on the genre.
Peter Jackson’s splatter-ific calling card, this gonzo 1987 effort is nominally concerned with a small New Zealand town under siege from aliens, but it’s really about the insanely gory, over-the-top B-movie special effects that Jackson created on his own.
An obvious descendant of Friday the 13th, Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp is an above-average suspense story about kids being slaughtered at an overnight camp by a mysterious assailant—until, that is, its superbly shocking finale, which stands as the decade’s biggest (and best) horror blindside.
No one stages murder quite like Dario Argento, who continued to cement his reputation as the master of the giallo (a particular strain of lurid Italian thriller) with this saga of an opera understudy who becomes the lead in a new production of Macbeth, only to then be terrorized by one of Argento’s trademark, never-seen-except-his-gloved-hands fiends.