Mullets, Synthesizers, and Day-Glo Swatches. Also, Dungeons & Dragons, Heavy Metal, and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. It should come as no surprise that with all of that going for it, the 1980s were a kind of Renaissance for horror movies; the genre was popular on every medium from comic books to TV, in theaters and of course, the VHS straight-to-video market that sprang up to meet the seemingly insatiable need for more tapes.
I was part of this, however briefly. My family ran a video rental store in my small town and I worked there from 1985 to 1988. It was the best of times, to be sure, and I got to see (by purchasing tapes for the store, specifically in the horror and sci-fi sections) lots of stuff that wasn’t making it to theaters in Waco, Texas, for some reason or another. Because I just liked this stuff, I was somewhat indiscriminate, which made our horror section the best, most eclectic selection in the area. As a consequence of this, many of my initial viewings of classic 1980s horror were on good old VHS magnetic tape.
The decade was one of weird contradictions; the surface, TV family sitcom normalcy was a cover for the AIDS epidemic, a complete erosion of the public trust in government (that started in the 1970s), drugs and crime in record numbers, and the dawn of Big Media in the form of cable television. MTV told us everything was going to be all right, but if that was true, then what was U2 always singing about? Eh, who cares, the Bangles are up next. There was a lot to push back on, and horror was a battering ram.
5. The Monster Club (1981)
The Monster Club was first introduced to American audiences through Thriller Video, a fly-by-night distributor of British and Italian horror, and hosted by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark herself—and that alone makes it the most 1980s-est movie on this list. This little anthology can barely contain itself; 80’s kinda new wave/sorta punk rock, an urban fantasy premise that has since been used to death, and then there’s Vincent Price and John Carradine!
The segments themselves are based loosely on the short stories of noted horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes (who was himself fictionalized into the framing sequence and played by John Carradine), and run the gamut between ghoulish fun and pretty scary in a Night Gallery kind of way, and two out of the three manage to be effectively creepy with some great atmosphere and good use of the setting. Of course, when you’re filming in England, everything is creepy over there, even their 7-11 stores. Veteran Hammer director Roy Ward Baker manages to squeeze every erg-fraction of mood, atmosphere, and suspense out of the set pieces and also the actors.
Look for bonus artwork by comic book artist John Bolton in a flashback sequence; he also drew the movie as a comic series (along with David Lloyd) for the Hammer Halls of Horror magazine. I won’t say it’s the best thing about the movie, but Bolton’s art is what makes that particular segment so creepy. It’s a shame that the current version has been stripped (ahem!) of Elvira’s introduction, but hey, you can’t have everything.
4. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
A group of 25-year old teenagers from Central Casting (with names like Scuz and Trash) break into a cemetery with their rad clothes, their Boom Box, and their totally bitchin’ music and start partying by dancing on the graves. What could possibly go wrong? How about the two working stiffs at a medical supply warehouse who are in charge of the chemical effluvia that set the zombies in motion lo these many years ago? You think they are going to unwittingly release those chemicals into the air, which rains back down on the graveyard (and the kids), a la acid rain, and brings the dead back to life? Probably.
Return of the Living Dead is one of the best-known horror movies of the decade; this was the zombie movie that, among other things, ushered in the idea that zombies eat brains. Return of the Living Dead floats the premise that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as if that really happened, and the eponymous living dead in this movie are the remnants of that first black and white nightmare. This is kind of a big deal, because a horror movie referencing a horror movie as if it really happened—making it a movie about a movie—is a tenet of post-Modernism, which was practically omnipresent at this time. Other movies, like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) played with this idea, as well, but the check wouldn’t come due until the 1990s with Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).
Writer/director Dan O’Bannon keeps this movie rolling, and the zombies running toward their next meal. Return of the Living Dead is entertaining in the way that only a big, dumb, black comedy set to a heavy metal soundtrack can be. It’s a farce, really, by proclaiming that the Night of the Living Dead movie was a cover-up for the actual covert military operation, and then showing the woeful ineptitude of the military-industrial complex which leads to brain-eating zombies and darkly comic zombie kills. For horror fans of any stripe, this is required viewing.
3. Friday the 13th (1980)
Everything is great out at Camp Crystal Lake, except for those persistent rumors about the one kid that died, all those years ago… but don’t let that deter you group of kids, with your partying and carrying on. I’m sure it won’t piss off the person who’d most like to kill a bunch of irresponsible teenagers. The first movie is also noteworthy in that the series character that followed, one Jason Voorhees, isn’t actually the killer. I don’t want to spoil the twist, nor the twist on the twist at the end. If this has somehow not been spoiled for you, and you are interested in watching 25-year-old actors pretend to be teenagers, then you can do much worse.
This low budget slasher quickie really kicked off the Teen Slasher craze. Granted, there were others before Friday the 13th, notably The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978), and even in 1980 there were a few other low budget slasher films, but the success of this movie, compared to what it cost to make, started the avalanche of teen-age slasher flicks, featuring nubile young girls being chased around by hulking brutes with all kinds of gardening equipment and power tools.
Granted, the deaths are gruesome and the movie is certainly informed if not influenced by the earlier and genuinely suspenseful Halloween, but that doesn’t keep it from being an effective if also gory (thanks to special effects wizard Tom Savini) example of this particular brand of horror film that would become a staple of the 1980s. Which is a nice way of saying, this one was probably one of the best—for what it was—and the legion of slasher films that followed all vary wildly in quality.
2. The Gate (1987)
A very young and unrecognizable Stephen Dorff is Glen, a middle school latchkey kid with an older sister and a best friend. In the absence of parental supervision over a long weekend, Glen and his friend Terry find a geode in the crater in the back yard (where lightning struck and killed a tree, which was then removed), crack it open, and release demonic forces while big sister Al throws a party and tries to be a mean girl. Glen levitates for a party trick, the dog is killed, and Terry’s dead parents come back to life, and that’s all just a warm-up to what happens when the gate opens up under the house.
One of the most enduring phenomenon of the decade was the so-called “Satanic Panic,” a nation-wide freak out over the idea that the youth of America weren’t attending Bible Study every Wednesday night, but instead were hanging out with their friends, listening to heavy metal music and playing (gasp!) Dungeons & Dragons. There were a number of movies wherein teenagers summoned demons, and a smaller subset dealt directly with the idea of heavy metal being the cause of it all, but much like the movie’s monsters, The Gate manages to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The theme of suburban normalcy hiding dark secrets, and kids being left to fend for themselves, was huge in the 1980s, and The Gate is mired in those conceits—which actually saves the film and gives it more emotional weight than, say, the 1986 metal-fest Trick or Treat. When the monsters show up, they are unlike other demons from the same time period, more phantasmagorical than frightening. What ultimately makes The Gate work as a horror movie is that they play it straight, and the kids all give good performances without being hammy or caricatures, a real rarity in this decade.
1. Hellraiser (1987)
The premise of Hellraiser is that there are beings known as Cenobites who are the expressions of extreme pleasure by way of sadomasochism and torture. They access our reality whenever humans solve the mystery of a now-iconic brass and clockwork puzzle box. When a family moves into the home of a former pleasure-seeker who “died under mysterious circumstances,” he is brought back to this plane of existence by a few drops of blood on the attic floor. What comes next is gross, weird, and strange, but that’s to be expected because Barker wrote and directed the first movie, based on his novella, The Hell-Bound Heart.
Splatterpunk was the literary movement within horror literature, marked by extreme, often excessive gore and embracing subject matter thought to be transgressive, if not outright taboo. It first came to light in the mid-1980s, and its most prominent participant was Clive Barker, with the American publication of his short story collections, Books of Blood, volumes I – III, (1984-85).
As horror films go, Hellraiser jump-started an impressive franchise that led to more movies (ten in all), books, and a series of comics (some of the best horror comics of the decade, at that), all featuring the cenobite known as Pinhead. The movie is not a perfect adaptation, but what’s in there is crazy and gonzo enough for the blood-soaked decade and puts a couple of fresh turns on some old reliable clichés. We can quibble about whether or not any of the other Hellraiser movies lived up to the promise of the premise (spoiler: they don’t), but the inaugural outing of Barker’s Cenobites is a staple of 1980s horror cinema.