The 1980s were a magnificent time for horror movies. Slasher films, inspired by the success of John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween, thrived. In fact, they were all the rage for a while. That led to some very popular works, like the Friday the 13th series, My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, and Slumber Party Massacre. The problem with slasher flicks, though, was that a lot of them started to feel more or less the same after a while. There was such a strict formula that it grew difficult to find one with an original angle.
In spite of that — or possibly because of it — the ’80s also had an abundance of wild, outrageous horror movies. Just think of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Hellraiser, Videodrome, and Blood Beach (in which an unseen creature sucks beach bunnies down into the sand), to name just a few. Believe it or not, those aren’t even the most extreme examples. This list will look at the most joyfully over-the-top fright films from that era. These are the movies that provide entertainment value simply through their sheer insanity. You literally don’t know what bizarre thing you’re going to see from one minute to the next, and that’s what makes them so much fun to watch. If you’re a true horror buff, these are movies you absolutely can’t afford to miss.
Here are 15 Awesomely Crazy ’80s Horror Movies Every Horror Buff Needs To See.
15. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn
Sam Raimi’s 1981 movie The Evil Dead put him on the map in the film industry. The low-budget picture was efficient and scary, showing how a little creativity can go a long, long way. The film was so successful that Raimi was able to secure financing for a slightly higher-budgeted sequel, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Star Bruce Campbell returns as Ash, and after a brief recap of the original, we find him continuing to fight an unstoppable demon in a proverbial cabin in the woods.
Whereas the first Evil Dead was straight-up horror, the sequel mixed blood and gore with Three Stooges-inspired slapstick. In one of the most famous scenes, Ash’s hand becomes possessed, breaking plates over his head, bashing him into a kitchen sink, and tossing him around the room in comical fashion. To halt this problem, he does the most common sense thing imaginable: he cuts the hand off with a chainsaw. The relentlessly-paced mixture of extreme gore and dark comedy was shockingly different than anything audiences had ever seen before. Evil Dead 2 went out unrated because the MPAA thought it was too intense for an R. It still holds a powerful impact today, eliciting laughs and gasps in equal measure thanks to Campbell’s deliriously wacky performance and Raimi’s inventive camerawork.
14. Sleepaway Camp
Sleepaway Camp couldn’t get made today. The 1983 shocker is so politically incorrect that no one would have anything to do with it in the current social climate. For starters, it’s about someone killing children and preteens at a summer camp. They die in some really gruesome ways, too. One character is sexually molested with a hot curling iron, while another gets trapped in a bathroom with a hive full of angry bees that sting him to death. There’s also a scene where the camp cook tries to have his way with a young girl. Like we said, it’s kind of astonishing that somebody actually made this movie.
What gives Sleepaway Camp its biggest, craziest kick, though, is the ending. (Let’s go ahead and issue a big old Spoiler Alert right here.) In the final scene, it is revealed that the young female heroine, Angela, is not only the killer, but also a boy who has been raised to live as a girl. We discover her true gender via a nude scene. This was a jaw-dropper of an ending at the time, and it’s even more of one today. Some viewers feel that the story sends a dangerous message suggesting that transgender people might be mentally unstable or dangerous. But some in the trans community have embraced Angela as a groundbreaking character. Regardless, this is such an insane movie that you’ll want to weigh in for yourself.
13. Killer Klowns From Outer Space
Let’s be honest: clowns are creepy. That’s why they keep popping up in horror fare. (And hey, there’s a new version of IT coming to theaters this year, so their ability to generate screams won’t be going away anytime soon.) Perhaps no movie has really captured the disturbing qualities of these makeup-laden circus performers quite like Killer Klowns from Outer Space. This horror-comedy understands that, for many, it’s the aggressive humor that makes them more than a little frightening.
In this case, the villains are aliens who come to Earth and take the form of clowns (or klowns). They employ the standard tools of the trade to kill human beings. That includes, but is very much not limited to, wrapping their victims up in cotton candy and staging deadly puppet shows. The juxtaposition of using benign circus-related items for nefarious purposes is enough to get under the skin of any clown-phobic viewer. We’re not saying this is a “good” movie, but its unnerving costume design and intentionally zany streak of mayhem make it hard to look away from.
Technology changed rapidly in the ’80s, which led to a series of films that exploited the fear of what was possible with new moviemaking equipment, particularly computers. As intriguing as this advanced tech was, it also clearly harnessed a power that most people couldn’t fully wrap their heads around. Evilspeak combined that uneasiness with the good old-fashioned fear of Satan. The result was a film so effective that it got banned in Britain, had to be cut down to secure an R rating in the United States, and reportedly earned the admiration of Anton LeVey, the founder of the Church of Satan.
Clint Howard plays Stanley Coopersmith, a military school cadet who uses his computer to translate the entries in a Satanic priest’s ancient diary. The priest, it turns out, has somehow inhabited the computer, and he uses his dark powers to influence Stanley. Before long, the cadet is exacting bloody revenge against the school bullies. Evilspeak starts off a little slow, but once it hits Crazytown, it puts the pedal to the floor with some startlingly grisly killings. Everything builds to a no-holds-barred climax involving severed limbs, levitation, and Satanic pigs. How many horror movies can make that claim?
One of the greatest movie monsters of all time came out of the 1980s, although not everyone knows it. That’s because Pumpkinhead wasn’t exactly a box-office blockbuster. (In fairness, it did well enough on home video to spawn several sequels.) Directed by legendary special-effects whiz Stan Winston, the movie stars Lance Henriksen as a single father whose young son gets run over by a bunch of hooligans goofing around on motorcycles. He begs a local witch to help him exact revenge. She does by unleashing a gigantic demon known as Pumpkinhead. Things do not end well for those biking enthusiasts.
Given Winston’s involvement, it comes as no surprise that the best thing about Pumpkinhead is the creature itself. While the movie may be low-budget, it’s clear that no expense was spared in making this thing look as convincing and horrifying as possible. The monster is strong, too. In one scene, he picks up a dirtbike and its rider, then throws them both against a tree. Perhaps what makes him scariest, though, is that he represents pure, grief-fueled rage. Pumpkinhead brings a ton of mind-blowing gore scenes to the table, but it’s the human element running underneath it all that makes this so much more than your average monster movie.
10. Without Warning
Without Warning (also known as It Came Without Warning) was a cable staple back in the day. Then it kind of fell off the map, failing to procure a DVD/Blu-ray release until just recently. It’s now thankfully available on both formats thanks to Scream Factory. The movie starts with a group of teens, including a young David Caruso, heading to the lake for some fun and sun. A creepy gas station owner (Jack Palance) warns them to stay away. Of course, they don’t listen, leading to catastrophic results.
Pretty standard stuff, right? Not entirely. The menace at the lake isn’t some masked psycho. Instead, it’s an alien creature who throws man-eating discs at them. Imagine Frisbees with sharp teeth and you’ll start to get the idea. The disgusting little suckers lay their claws into people and slurp the blood right out. Parts of Without Warning are admittedly a bit cheesy, but not these sections. Director Greydon Clark makes sure to get tight closeups of their teeth sinking into flesh, complete with colored ooze dripping out as they do. Couple that with an awesomely gonzo performance from Jack Palance in full cranky-old-man mode, and you’ve got yourself an insanely good time. This is old-school ickiness at its finest.
9. Phantasm II
Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies are all impressively out-there. The original was a super low-budget effort that managed to do some decent business thanks to its trippy visuals and an undeniably creepy performance from Angus Scrimm as a sinister mortician known as the Tall Man. Because of that success, a major studio — Universal Pictures — distributed the first sequel, Phantasm II. Their marketing department came up with one of the most well-known advertising taglines in horror history: “This summer, the ball is back!”
The ball refers to the Tall Man’s special orbs that come equipped with drills, spikes, little bone saws, and other things designed to cut, impale, or slice their victims. He hurls them at anyone who comes snooping around his mausoleum. An old man throwing silver balls at people? Horror concepts don’t come much crazier than that. One poor guy gets nailed in the mouth with a ball, which then proceeds to do to the inside of his body what a garbage disposal does to food. There is an intentionally disjointed, nightmare-like quality to Phantasm II that helps make the strangeness of its premise even more palpable. The Tall Man and his weapons are really original, guaranteeing that you will never know what’s coming around the corner.
8. They Live
John Carpenter has made many amazing horror/thriller movies over the decades: Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, and The Thing to name a few. By far, though, his wildest and most ambitious idea was the one at the center of 1988’s They Live. Former professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays a drifter who stumbles upon a special set of sunglasses. When he puts them on, he is able to see hidden messages such as “OBEY” and “CONFORM” in billboards and other printed material. Even more distressing is that he can see aliens disguised as people. Through investigation, he discovers that they are conducting a large-scale mind control experiment.
The story works as a dark satire of mass media, pop culture, and politics. The concept of subliminal messages being embedded into everyday life in order to control the citizenry is biting. That said, perhaps the biggest stroke of genius in They Live is the design. When Piper dons those glasses, he sees people with normal bodies but strange faces that look like skeleton and muscle. If all that isn’t enough, the movie also contains an extended professional wrestling-inspired street fight between Piper and co-star Keith David that’ll knock your socks off.
7. Halloween III: Season of the Witch
After Halloween and Halloween II, a decision was made to keep the franchise going in a different way. The theory was that there could be a whole series of movies that took place on the central holiday, without necessarily requiring the presence of Michael Myers. As you can no doubt imagine, this confused audiences, who intrinsically associated the franchise with its masked killer antagonist. That’s why it took a while for the Myers-less sequel Halloween III: Season of the Witch to catch on. Still, many horror buffs now recognize it as a film unlike any other.
The Silver Shamrock company manufactures Halloween masks. However, they aren’t typical masks. Inside each of them is a chip designed to activate when a television commercial featuring the strobing image of a jack-o-lantern airs. Those chips are fueled by a mysterious power coming from one of the Stonehenge rocks that the company’s owner has stolen. And it’s all intended as a way to sacrifice children in an act of witchcraft. Writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace’s story is so fundamentally weird that you can’t avert your eyes from it. Love it or hate it, Halloween III: Season of the Witch continually takes you by surprise with its loony plot.
Tobe Hooper had a great track record in horror, having directed classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist. In 1985, he released what may have been his most high-reaching film, Lifeforce. It bombed, earning back less than half its budget with just $11 million at the box office. Some of that might have been because his preferred cut was compromised by the studio, and some by the fact that the movie was seriously bizarre. It’s a combination of sci-fi thriller, vampire movie, and softcore erotica. It’s also daffy in the best possible way.
Space shuttle commander Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) discovers a bat-like creature and a beautiful nude woman (Mathilda May) on a spacecraft inside Halley’s Comet. Once back on Earth, the woman awakens from her slumber and starts sucking the life out of anyone she encounters. It turns out that she is a “space vampire” who feeds on pure human energy. There are a lot of scenes of people getting drained of their life force, leaving them looking like empty husks. There’s also a fair amount of sex, as Carlsen finds himself helplessly drawn to the alien, who often appears naked because she knows this gives her power over men. Lifeforce is on Blu-ray in both the theatrical cut and the approved director’s cut. Whichever version you see, prepare for a genuinely wild and strangely sexy ride.
5. Motel Hell
If you’ve never seen Motel Hell, you’d better sit down for this entry. Set at the rural Motel Hello (the second “o” on the neon sign is burned out), the movie follows its seemingly benevolent owner, Farmer Vincent (played by Rory Calhoun). He and his sister Ida have a very unusual sense of hospitality. They take guests and bury them up to their necks in a “secret garden” out back. Then, after death, they dig the corpses up and turn them into smoked meat, which is then sold to unsuspecting consumers. You know, a piece of chocolate on the pillow or a nice continental breakfast would have been sufficient.
Although the subject of cannibalism is certainly uncomfortable, Motel Hell approaches horror in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Seeing people buried in a garden like carrots is perversely funny, but that’s just the start. The movie also earns dark laughs for the lead character’s ad slogan, “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!” The film gets crazier as it goes along, building to a finale of next-level weirdness that involves Farmer Vincent wearing a pig’s head and wielding a chainsaw. You have to see it to believe it — and even then, you may not actually believe it.
Stuart Gordon’s 1985 Re-Animator, based on an H.P. Lovecraft tale, is a sci-fi horror classic about a scientist named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) who invents a solution that brings the dead back to life. There’s a hitch, though. His serum brings them back in a crazed, violent state. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from persevering with his research. A colleague, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), discovers what West has done and hatches a scheme to take credit for it. West responds by decapitating him, then re-animating both sections of his now separated body. Barbara Crampton (in the movie that made her a beloved horror icon for decades to come) plays Megan Halsey, a colleague’s girlfriend who gets pulled into all this drama.
Gordon is a filmmaker who enjoys going so far over the top that you can no longer see the top. That’s certainly true of Re-Animator, which, in one of its most famous scenes, finds Hill’s decapitated head sexually assaulting Megan as she’s bound to a table. There are some A+ visual/makeup effects on display here, with gore scenes designed to make you giggle over how gross they are. At the same time, Re-Animator is a tightly controlled movie that builds tension and takes the time to develop its characters. It may be outrageous, but it’s definitely not sloppy. The performances are outstanding, too, which helps make the story’s extreme nature even more effective.
3. Night of the Demons
Night of the Demons follows high school student Angela Franklin (played by Amelia Kinkade), who endeavors to throw the mother of all Halloween parties for her friends. For the occasion, she chooses an abandoned mortuary called Hull House. Angela decks the place out, installing a makeshift dance floor and decorating everything in a fun, but macabre fashion. The highlight of the evening is a seance, during which a demon is inadvertently unleashed. And you guessed it — the demon is a real party pooper, possessing Angela and her friend Suzanne (Linnea Quigley).
How nutty is this movie? Well, there’s a scene where Suzanne strips naked, draws all over herself with lipstick, then shoves the tube into her breast. That’s just one example. Perhaps needless to say, there’s a certain off-kilter sense of humor at play, which is also evident in the way Night of the Demons subverts horror movie cliches about which characters will die and when. Kevin Tenney creatively directs the picture, bringing visual style far beyond what you normally get in genre fare. If you’re looking for a well-made fright flick that also satirizes adolescent life, you can’t go wrong with this one.
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Most sequels try to stick as closely to the winning formula of the original as possible. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 does the exact opposite. Knowing full well that he could never replicate the raw horror that made its predecessor so powerful, director Tobe Hooper opted to make a horror/comedy instead. This is the kind of movie where you laugh and then immediately feel guilty for laughing. The plot this time around sees a radio host named “Stretch” (Caroline Williams) being attacked by Leatherface, and she eventually ends up at his family home.
That’s right, Leatherface has a family. And they make the Addams Family look normal in comparison. His father is a chili enthusiast, brother Chop Top (Bill Moseley) is a raving lunatic, and there’s a decrepit old grandfather who’s too feeble to do much killing anymore, not that he doesn’t try. There are so many outrageous touches here, from the family’s bizarro spook-house, to the crush Leatherface has on Stretch, to the winking performance from Dennis Hopper as a former Texas Ranger intent on bringing the clan down. (Imagine a more intense version of Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth.) Basically, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a dysfunctional family comedy that contains a lot of gruesome chainsaw-related violence. It’s absolutely amazing.
1. The Return of the Living Dead
If Night of the Living Dead set the rules for zombie movies, The Return of the Living Dead made a point of breaking them. Writer/director Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien) amped up the graphic nature of undead cinema, while also infusing it with twisted humor. This is, after all, a movie where the zombies talk, saying things like “More brains!” The movie opens with toxic gas accidentally being released from a military canister, causing the dead to rise from the grave. It’s up to a couple of warehouse workers and some teenage punk rockers to fight them.
There are so many off-the-wall moments in The Return of the Living Dead that it would be impossible to list them all, but we’ll leave you with some highlights: a headless cadaver frantically runs around the warehouse before attacking a guy. A half-melted “tar man” terrorizes teenagers. After devouring a group of first responders, one zombie gets on an ambulance radio and politely requests the dispatcher to “Send more paramedics.” By and large, the zombies are smarter than the humans here, which makes for a great contradiction. All of this is set to a soundtrack of hip ’80s punk bands, such as The Cramps and The Damned.
The advertising slogan for the film was “They’re Back From the Grave and Ready to Party.” That’s an apt way to put it. The Return of the Living Dead is a true party movie that gives you all kinds of extreme entertainment.
What’s your favorite awesomely crazy ’80s horror movie? Got any favorites we didn’t mention? Share them in the comments.
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