If the 1980s in America was a decade about anything, it was one of excess: a supercharged economy afforded artistic enterprises to be produced that normally would have been ignored, if not outright abandoned, were it not for the gigantic amount of capital flowing and available at the time in the arts. As such, many avenues of creative expression were funded–so long as they promised to turn a profit.
Of all genres, horror films were seemingly sure bets: in a bloodthirsty market whose youth audience flocked to theaters for the latest slasher flick or else rent any horror movie that had gruesome enough cover art at the video store, a low-budget horror film would all but guarantee a healthy return on any backer’s investment in that decade.
This atmosphere allowed filmmakers the largesse to push their craft further and produce original and extreme horror films in a commercial market that was seemingly thirsty for more thrills, chills, and kills than ever before.
With the hundreds, and maybe thousands, of horror films produced in this over-abundant decade, listed below are ten totally awesome horror flicks that you may have missed. Aficionados of the genre and decade’s output especially will enjoy the varied gruesome content listed below.
1. Dead & Buried (1981)
Welcome to Potter’s Bluff: a picturesque small town with the slogan “A New Way Of Life”–and they mean it, since its residents will murder you. Sheriff Gillis is perplexed by the amount of murders occurring in his small town and who could be committing them and asks the coroner to help him solve this mystery.
Around the time the town reaches a murder a day, Gillis hits a man with his car, and despite losing his arm in the accident, the victim doesn’t seem phased and instead picks up his arm and disappears into the woods. Bringing a sample of the man’s tissue to the coroner, Gillis is informed that it’s from a person who had been deceased for four months. Unable to make any sense of this, the sheriff begins to investigate the coroner’s background and makes a horrifying discovery about the town–and himself.
A blend of creeping suspense and visceral horror, Dead & Buried was a horror film put out during the slasher boom of the early 1980s and–not being a slasher film–wasn’t a success upon release. However, it eventually gained a cult following and is today praised for its original premise, foreboding atmosphere, and twist ending. As a spooky retro horror flick, Dead & Buried is an underseen classic.
2. Bloody Birthday (1981)
What’s creepier than evil children? It’s a premise that’s unnerving on an instinctual level since by and large children are innocent creatures; it’s the bad experiences one has in life that can eventually turn them rotten. But in Bloody Birthday, because three children were born during an eclipse, this makes them preternaturally evil…for some reason. It doesn’t matter.
Anyway, ten years later, these three children–two boys and a girl–have become close friends that assist each other on a murder spree in their town, taking out adults, family members, and children through vicious premeditated attacks.
It’s a completely insane premise for a horror film, much less one in the slasher genre. Produced in 1981 but not given a theatrical release until 1986, after which it entered the video market, Bloody Birthday is the kind of horror film that makes horror fans wonder whether a film can go too far in its premise.
In this case, the murderous children are all-around amoral monsters, with one running a healthy side business charging neighborhood kids for the opportunity to peep on her sister undressing. It’s a slasher flick starring murderous children in all its low-budget glory. Both campy and disturbing, 80s horror fans should seek out this film as an example of just how much leeway was afforded to filmmakers at the time.
3. The Deadly Spawn (1983)
An alien crashes onto earth and hides in a family’s basement. From this location, it feeds on the family one by one until the adults have been consumed as it grows with each meal. It spawns more monsters as it grows larger that look like razor-toothed leeches. Only a scientific older brother, his horror movie-obsessed younger one, and some classmates that came over to study are left to fight them off as these monsters make their way up from the basement and into the house.
Featuring gallons of blood, disgusting practical effects, and enough bad acting for ten low-budget horror films, this is a horror movie that will satisfy fans of 80s schlock and horror fans that appreciate truly gross special effects.
The story (which plods along at an alarmingly slow rate at times) isn’t really the point in this movie but to serve as a vehicle to get to the graphic gore and sharp-toothed monsters that tear the characters on screen apart. A fun horror movie featuring a genuinely nightmarish creature, The Deadly Spawn is a must-see for 80s horror fans.
4. The Hunger (1983)
Vampires that live in New York City should live (or rather, be undead) in style, and that’s what they do in 1983’s The Hunger. Posing as a wealthy couple, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie) lure their victims into their posh townhouse, where they feast upon them and dispose of their bodies in an incinerator.
Having been turned by Miriam 200 years earlier, John begins to rapidly age one day and seeks out gerontologist Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) to find a possible cure for this unexpected transformation. After John feeds on Miriam’s next intended consort, she boxes him up in the attic with all of her other former lovers who have also aged rapidly but remain undead. Then Miriam sets her sights on Dr. Roberts to join her for the next few hundred years…
Released in 1983 to mixed reviews, The Hunger has since developed a cult following, becoming particularly well-regarded among acolytes of the goth subculture.
Featuring the always-interesting acting of David Bowie, this film also displays a stylish decadence in its aesthetic with erotic content that makes the subtext of the vampire mythos explicit. It’s a unique take on the vampire story and one that hasn’t been told before or since. For the inner goth in you or fans of the vampire genre, The Hunger is a contemporary take on centuries-old folklore.
5. Neon Maniacs (1986)
A group of atomic mutants live under the Golden Gate Bridge and murder by night. But wait, there’s more! After they slaughter an entire group of friends as they party in the park, beheading and hanging the whole lot, the mutants continue going after Natalie, the sole survivor.
Finding that the police don’t believe her story–or simply refuse to want to believe it despite all the evidence–Natalie and her would-be paramour Steven, along with nosey younger classmate Paula (who as a horror fanatic really does the heavy lifting in figuring out how to fight the monsters in this movie) defend themselves against the neon maniacs.
With a sincerely 80s synth soundtrack, grotesque monsters, and working on the type of horror “logic” that doesn’t waste time explaining trivial topics like where these mutants come from or why they’re killing people, Neon Maniacs is pure grindhouse.
A surprisingly professional production for a low-budget horror flick, Neon Maniacs delivers everything that 80s horror film fans are looking for–from totally radical fashion and music, plucky leads, inexpiable mutants, solid practical effects, and a fair amount of humor–it’s just a retro good time.
6. From Beyond (1986)
Aside from Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft is possibly the most influential horror writer of all time. Unlike King, however, Lovecraft’s work hasn’t had many successful adaptations to screen, most likely because his monsters are literally unfathomable creatures from beyond time and space. But director Stuart Gordon has adapted Lovecraft in many of his films, including the classic horror-comedy Re-Animator.
From Beyond–loosely based on a short story of the same name from Lovecraft–was his follow-up to Re-Animator, in which he casts Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Crawford Tillinghast. After an experiment goes wrong with a machine that acts as a portal to another dimension, from which a creature emerges and decapitates his mentor, Tillinghast is charged with murder and sent to a mental institution.
After a psychiatrist there begins to suspect he’s telling the truth, he’s released into her custody and Tillinghast returns to his work. From this point on, the film ramps up the horror and madness until its explosive finale.
Like in Re-Animator, a mixture of horror and humor is used to great effect by Gordon in this film, although From Beyond leans far more on horror, particularly in its third act. Likewise, Combs is terrific as the mad scientist-turned-monster Tillinghast, and the body horror special effects throughout are also excellent (and highly disturbing). A top-notch horror film that is more inspired by than being a literal Lovecraft adaptation, it nonetheless harnesses the bizarre and inexplicable just like its inspiration had.
7. Opera (1987)
Upon the debut of a young opera star, a murderer sets its sights on tormenting the singer. After forcing her to watch as the hooded killer murders her boyfriend, she is haunted by memories of a similar disquieting figure from her childhood.
As she continues to be stalked by this mysterious figure, the killer forces her to witness more horrifying acts of violence upon the people surrounding her. But the revelation of who the killer is, and their connection to her past, is as personally horrifying to her as any of the graphic acts she’d been forced to witness.
Co-written and directed by legendary giallo maestro Dario Argento, Opera was the last truly great film he produced. A hit in his home country, Opera is still highly regarded among Argento’s fans.
Its detailed murder sequences–always a signature of Argento’s and giallo in general–bring a disturbing realism to the already considerately suspenseful tone of the film. It’s also Argento’s highest-budgeted film and it shows in its lavish production. Perhaps it was the last great work of the Italian horror master, but he concluded an astonishingly successful run in a spectacular fashion.
8. Street Trash (1987)
If you’re looking for unbelievably grimy horror, look no further than 1987’s Street Trash. Set among the homeless population of down-and-dirty 1980s Brooklyn, New York, this body horror film kicks off when an unscrupulous liquor store owner begins to sell bottles of gut rot wine he finds in his basement to the local hobos for a buck apiece.
Unfortunately, the wine has gone way off, in that it melts away its consumer into a gooey, disgusting blob. Mix this in an unrelentingly bleak outlook on the human race as a whole and a detailing of the extremes of the lowest end of city life and the horror of the film begins to resemble a Hubert Selby, Jr. novel with melt effects.
For example: a scene where a homeless man’s penis is cut off, and then tossed around by his fellow homeless compatriots in a junkyard, is played for laughs–complete with “wacky” music playing on the soundtrack despite its disquieting implications.
This surprisingly stylish low-budget horror flick accomplishes a lot with very little, mixing gruesome visuals with dark comedy. It’s a film whose population ranges from the downtrodden to outright gross, that depicts the urban homeless that live on the fringes of society as living monsters and the heartless goons that exploit them alike with equal disgust.
Now a well-established cult film within the “melt” subgenre of horror films that came out during the 1980s, Street Trash is a disturbing (and often disheartening) look at an easily forgotten population of the mentally ill, war vets, and addicts that live on the streets and are treated like trash.
9. Parents (1989)
To kids, their parents always seem weird: they have a secret language that you’re not privy to and their actions are often outside your ken. So if they seem strange, it’s not anything out of the ordinary–that is, until you begin to suspect that there’s something much darker going on.
This is the sort of unnerving nightmare that ten-year-old Michael begins to experience when he begins to realize that his picture-perfect square parents (Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt) may be cannibals.
A rather bizarre mix of horror, satire, and comedy, Parents is a weird domestic horror film that places its poor juvenile protagonist squarely in the center of an upsetting situation. This bizarre debut by actor-director Bob Balaban (who also directed the similarly weird Disney horror film My Boyfriend’s Back) is worth a watch for those that enjoy their horror dripping with satire and offbeat, twisted comedy.
10. Stage Fright (1987)
Actors are universally considered the worst: over-dramatic, self-centered, and disconnected from the real world, actors have gained a bad reputation over the centuries for these negative traits. But that doesn’t mean they should be murdered, much less by one of their own.
In Stage Fright, however, this is exactly what happens: while a group of young actors rehearse a play, an escaped mental patient (who is also an actor) finds his way into their theater and begins to pick them off one by one. This is made all the more strange/amusing because the killer wears a costume owl head throughout.
Well-received upon its release, this slasher flick has gained a cult following since, distinguishing itself through its stylish direction and obvious giallo influence. No wonder: the director of the film had previously worked with Dario Argento as an assistant director. Combine this with a witty script, well-realized characters, and a film that understands its genre, and you have a smarter-than-your-average 80s slasher film in Stage Fright.
This article was originally published on Taste of Cinema on April 12, 2017.