A Decade of Horrifying Hits
While the 1970s produced horror classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), and Alien (1979), the 1980s completely redefined what the genre could be. It gave rise to timeless horror icons, splattered silver screens with multi-colored gore, and orchestrated spine-chilling scares that hold up to this day. This list looks across the many subgenres of ’80s horror and ranks the decade’s scariest films.
10. Friday the 13th (1980)
The original Friday the 13th might seem quaint compared to later entries in the series (cough, cough, Jason X) but it’s nonetheless an impressive movie considering its estimated $550,000 budget. The plot follows a group of carefree counselors who have signed on to work at the infamous Camp Crystal Lake. Just before the camp is set to open, a faceless killer stalks and slays the summer hires. Protagonist Alice Hardy stumbles upon both the corpses of her coworkers as well as the tragic history held within the campground.
Friday the 13th harvested elements from ’70s slashers like A Bay of Blood (1971) and Halloween (1978), stitched them together, and gave rise to the upgraded ’80s slasher. While its writing might not be the most complex, its scares do the heavy lifting. A striking score, jolting kills, and an unforgettable ending all work together to make Friday the 13th a truly suspenseful piece.
9. Poltergeist (1982)
Who could have guessed that a PG-rated film written by Steven Spielberg would end up being one of the scariest films of the 1980s? Poltergeist takes supernatural horror to an unassuming Californian suburb. At the house of the Freeling family, a young girl named Carol Ann begins to receive ghostly messages through the family’s television set. Despite seeming jovial at first, the mysterious spirit on the other end takes a malicious turn and abducts Carol Ann. The rest of the household is then besieged by apparitions, and Carol Ann’s parents, Steve and Diane, have no choice but to call in an exorcist for help.
Due to its rating, Poltergeist could make for a good entry point into horror. That being said, viewers beware, as it still has some incredibly tense moments. Terrifying scenes involving clown dolls, trees, and razors provide the film’s audience with commonly occurring objects to truly fear after Poltergeist’s runtime is up.
8. The Beyond (1981)
Directed by Lucio Fulci (City of the Living Dead, The House by the Cemetery), The Beyond is a Grindhouse flick that ventures into the weirder side of Italian horror. The film revolves around a New Yorker named Liza Merril who inherits a dilapidated hotel in New Orleans. Liza moves to the area to oversee renovations in hopes of reopening the business, but her arrival is met with a series of bizarre — and fatal — events. After a hired plumber is found murdered in the hotel’s basement, Liza soon discovers that the real estate she inherited also functions as a portal to Hell.
As is typical with Fulci’s horror films, The Beyond swings for the fences with its concept. Sometimes, it misses the mark due to a handful of nonsensical decisions, but for the most part, it hits hard. Its eerie imagery and disgusting gore make it a film that audience members won’t soon forget.
7. Day of the Dead (1985)
After shocking the world with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), George A. Romero brought his iconic depiction of zombies back to the big screen with Day of the Dead. Months after the initial zombie outbreak, society has completely collapsed. A small survivor group made up of soldiers, scientists, and civilians now take refuge inside of a missile silo. As personalities clash within this last bastion of hope, a seemingly endless mass of the undead collides. Can the survivors work together to save humanity, or will they be claimed by the zombie horde too?
Romero once again proves himself the master of zombie movies. The film elicits some of the best performances out of the director’s original trilogy of films, and special effects artist Tom Savini returns to provide an array of utterly grizzly deaths. Alongside the visual viscera, Day of the Dead hits hard with shocking scares and an overwhelming sense of dread.
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Friday the 13th might have popularized slashers in the ’80s, but A Nightmare on Elm Street added some much-needed creativity into the subgenre. After managing to avoid a prison sentence, the child-killing custodian Freddy Krueger is burned alive by a mob of vengeful parents. Years go by, and all seems safe in Springwood, Ohio. That is, until Freddy Krueger, now sporting a leather glove affixed with razor blades, returns to Springwood by infiltrating the dreams of the town’s youths. Kids begin dying gruesome deaths left and right while they sleep — never to wake again. When members of highschooler Nancy Thompson’s friend group start falling prey to Krueger’s nightmares, Nancy rushes to avoid both sleep and death on her journey to solve the mysteries of Springwood’s dark past.
While A Nightmare on Elm Street still racks up kills using brutal methods, it’s a far more thoughtful slasher than other films of the period. Freddy isn’t just a silent killer with a big knife; he’s a sadistic, intangible psychopath who toys with his victims. Combine that with the film’s surreal sequences, and A Nightmare on Elm Street becomes something truly special — and truly terrifying.
5. The Evil Dead (1981)
An indie horror flick that even Stephen King found unsettling, The Evil Dead revolves around Ash Williams and four of his college friends as they vacation in rural Tennessee. Their rental cabin might look like a fixer upper on the outside, but the inside is even worse. Waiting within the cabin’s cellar is the Naturom Demonto, a.k.a “The Book of the Dead.” When one of the students unknowingly plays a taped recording of an incantation from the book, it awakens a series of demonic spirits that make life a living hell — literally — for the five vacationers.
Sam Raimi’s following entries in this franchise were far more comedic in tone. The Evil Dead, however, is played completely straight despite its modest budget. This supernatural story makes for a dark and demented film; the possession scares and subsequent body horror ensures that the cast of characters is tortured up until the film’s final frame.
4. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
1981 was apparently a very strong year for horror. John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London is a horror-comedy that follows David and Jack, two American college students backpacking across England. While traversing the wilderness, the duo is attacked by a monstrous wolf. Jack is mauled to death, but David manages to escape with a serious bite wound. David’s recovery from the injury is far from easy. While his memories of previous nights become incoherent and his body goes through painful changes, David begins to have nightmares about Jack. The deceased friend warns David these strange symptoms are all a part of his transformation into a werewolf.
An American Werewolf in London is one of, if not the, best werewolf movies ever made. It’s grim and grisly but still strangely comedic. It was also the first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Makeup thanks to artist Rick Baker.
3. Hellraiser (1987)
This 1987 horror flick from visionary Clive Barker brings pain and pleasure — indivisible. When a hedonist named Frank solves a mysterious puzzle box, the device summons a group of demonic beings called Cenobites. The creatures tear Frank’s corporeal form asunder, leaving little more than a husk behind in the attic where the torture took place. Frank’s remains are eventually found by Julie, Frank’s sister-in-law and ex-lover; she discovers that the only way to restore her former flame to his former glory is to feed him the blood of others. Julie begins to lure men into the attic for Frank’s use, but these heinous murders won’t go unnoticed by the Cenobites.
Hellraiser almost feels like a soap opera at times, but when the terror hits, it hits hard. It’s a legitimately disturbing film that ventures to some truly imaginative places. In the world of ’80s horror movies, few narratives think this far out of the box — pun intended.
2. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter had already cemented his place in horror history with 1978’s Halloween, but the director decided to push the genre’s boundaries once again in 1982 with the sci-fi monster film The Thing. Remaking and expanding upon the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, The Thing follows a group of American researchers stationed in Antarctica. When a lone sled dog arrives at their isolated base, the group takes the seemingly innocent animal in. All hell breaks loose when the researchers discover that the canine is actually host to a shapeshifting alien that can instantly assimilate any life form it touches. With nowhere to go and nobody to trust, pilot R.J. MacReady has two options: weed out the imposter hiding among his crew or die trying.
The Thing certainly wasn’t a success upon release, but it is now recognized as one of the best sci-fi and horror films ever made. The film’s mysterious atmosphere and intense violence keep the audience’s heart pounding, even past its climax. The Thing continues to stand the test of time due to Carpenter’s masterful direction and mind-melting creature effects from Rob Bottin.
1. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King might have a high level of disdain for this adaptation of his 1977 novel, but Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is consider one of the greatest, most intricately crafted horror movies ever made. Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic, starts this story by agreeing to work as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel during its off-season. Jack brings his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny, along to the isolated hotel, but Danny’s hidden connection to the supernatural world places him in mortal danger. The spirits associated with the Overlook’s dark past come out of the woodwork to hunt the young boy down. Will the evil entities claim the souls of Danny and his parents, or will an ally forged through Danny’s psychic abilities be enough to save the day?
The Shining might feel slow-paced compared to the other entries on this list, but its methodical approach to building tension is unlike anything else out there. Haunting images, frequent child endangerment, and fervent performances from Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall make this film a harrowing experience that viewers will never forget. The Shining is not only an amazing horror film, but it is still revered as one of the greatest movies ever made.
Official Warner Bros. Trailer of The Shining