Horror movies of the 1980’s exist at the glorious, opportune nexus when special effects finally caught up with the gory, fantastical imaginations of moviemakers and genre fans. Technical advances in the field of animatronics, along with liquid and foam latex, meant that the human frame could be distorted in an entirely new dimension onscreen. These steps forward ended up coinciding with the materialistic ethos of the decade, known as the Age of Excess. Having it all was important–but to be appear to be having it all was paramount. Tangible tokens of material success equated to a verification of one’s value in society. The more bigger, shinier, faster things you had, the more important you were.
In the same way, horror movies of the 1980’s were all about getting up close and personal and showing off with splashy, in-your-face special effects that previous practitioners of the art could only dream about. What had once lurked in the shadows of the horror movies of yesteryear was now dragged out into the garish light of day. Once exposed to that light, the monsters of the day proved be as familiar as ever: ghosts and supernatural entities, slimy things, and werecreatures of all shapes and sizes. Additionally, what once was quaint now became bastardized. For instance, the cuddly aliens seen in Star Wars (1977) and E.T. (1982) were counterbalanced by the grotesque extraterrestrials of Aliens (1986) and The Thing (1982). Werewolves also made a strong showing with The Howling (1981) and An American Werewolf in London (1981) leading the way and the latter becoming the impetus for the creation of a new Academy Awards category–Best Makeup. This time around, the wolves appeared to represent a fear of being stalked, hunted, and watched under the aegis of the intelligence-heavy and seemingly never-ending Cold War.
Zombie films made their comeback as well, bridging the gap between the slick satire on shopping malls in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the gory chaos fest of Brain Dead (1990). Horror was the box office’s best friend in the 80’s, in part because there were a number of big-budget family-oriented pictures that purposefully restrained themselves to earn a PG or PG-13 rating. Poltergeist (1982) began the trend, but it really kicked into high gear with Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and Ghostbusters (1984), which were massive hits that fared well with kids, parents, and childless genre fans alike. As in the 1950’s, horror saw itself tilted towards a 15-24 audience, primarily male. The increasing grossness and gore factor of 80’s horror movies made seeing the latest fright flick a sort of rite of passage for teens wanting to prove their toughness as much as they wanted to gawk at youthful, nubile bodies. Sex and nudity were casual in 80’s horror, and since almost all horror films at the time were directed by men for a male audience, the male gaze is both palpable and obvious, a source of much critique and parody in the years since. But it wasn’t all about the body in lustful life; 80’s horror was equally obsessed with the body in death, and often, the body in transition between life and death, whether it be stabbed, splattered, hacked, chopped, or somehow misshapen, deformed, or warped in whatever Cronenbergian nightmare was showing.
The other major noticeable change in horror during the 80’s was that it was noticeably dumber than the preceding decade. This is not to say that the intelligent, innovative creators weren’t making smart films, but that audiences were changing, and the genre was forced to change with it. For instance, most horror moviegoers of 1985 preferred Dan O’Bannon’s aggressive, comical, relatively one note Return of the Living Dead to George Romero’s more thoughtful and disturbing Day of the Dead. The shift was evident in the popular success of the decade’s first mega horror hit, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Cunningham, who produced Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and received Craven’s editing assistance on Friday, modeled his film on Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), mixing in campfire tales of murdered counselors and body-count plotting popularized by Alien (1979) for good measure. Another ingredient of the film’s success was certainly the gory effects work of one Tom Savini, who arrived at Crystal Lake fresh from the Monroeville Mall where he had worked on Dawn of the Dead (1978). If anyone became a star off of Friday the 13th, it was Savini. Horror-themed publications furthered the trend by dedicating pages and pages to special effects make-up, focusing less on writing and direction. By the end of the decade, the genre would be bled dry of meaningful content but overflowing with effects.
The 80’s also saw the slow coming together of a loosely organized community of horror fans who enjoyed swapping titles, initiating watch parties, and arguing about the way their favorite movies were going. They read the growing library of books that dissected the genre as well as the industry magazines like Fangoria and Cinefantastique. They flocked to horror-film festivals like Shock Around the Clock, Dead by Dawn, and Black Sunday where they traded their merchandise and promoted their own fanzines like Gore Gazette and Sleazoid Express. There was a deep sense of camaraderies at these events and among the community as it was a fandom born of adversity, especially in the United Kingdom where horror movies came under concerted attack. The so-called “video nasties” tabloid scandal in the wake of the introduction of the widespread video player–which itself greatly affected the production and consumption of horror films–led to a massive increase in censorship. Anyone eager to watch The Driller Killer (1979), Cannibal Ferox (1980), or The Evil Dead (1981) would find themselves hard-pressed to get a copy. Some people were even sent to jail for owning or selling horror films, or had their video collections seized by the police. In the grand scheme of things, this was was a minor oppression, certainly, but it was undoubtedly a symptom of the way things were going. Horror comics had suffered similar attacks in the 1950’s, being blamed for real-life violence, and were essentially wiped out by the industry. Horror films carried on through the barrage, but their response was to become more lightweight, not necessarily in toning down the gore or violence but in becoming more disposable, less personal work.
The runaway success of Friday the 13th led to horror becoming packed with psychopaths murdering teenagers. Well over a hundred different slashers were produced by the end of the 80’s, including the inevitable Friday and Halloween sequels, which solidified the conventions of the sub-genre as formulaic. In 1980 alone, you had Bloody Birthday, The Boogeyman, The Burning, Don’t Answer the Phone, Don’t Go in the House, Dressed to Kill, Fade to Black, Happy Birthday to Me, He Knows You’re Alone, Home Sweet Home, Just Before Dawn, Madman, Maniac, Motel Hell, Night School, New Year’s Evil, Phobia, Prom Night, Silent Scream, and Christmas Evil. Even within this one year, the slasher sub-categories were forming: psychos on campus (high school or college), psychos in the woods, holiday-themed psychos, psychos in attics, comedy cannibal psychos, supernatural psychos, psychos with gimmicks, masked but identified psychos, classy psychos, whodunit psychos, and depraved psychos. Despite this range of approaches, the upshot was that at last horror movie production achieved the levels of conveyor-belt, cookie-cutter sameness hitherto achieved only by the B-Westerns of the 1930’s and 40’s. If anything, traces of originality were stamped out as the cycle continued. Any new wrinkles added were likely to be novelty weapons such as the miner’s pick in in My Bloody Valentine (1981) or gimmicks like Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D (1982).
Auteur-driven horror wasn’t completely absent, however. Efforts like John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), George Romero’s Creepshow (1982), Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) stood out among the largely interchangeable slashers. But these filmmakers saw their careers see-saw throughout the decade. All of them would, at some point, “play it safe” with a Stephen King adaptation or two and find themselves torn between independence and major studio work. Often, their important films proved less popular at the box office than the paint-by-numbers competition, which may have led to the periods of creative downturn many of them experienced. Carpenter and Cronenberg directed now-beloved remakes of ’50’s properties, The Thing and The Fly (1986), respectively. Tobe Hooper made one freak psycho movie, The Funhouse (1981), and was the credited director of smash hit Poltergeist, though producer Steven Spielberg was widely seen to be the film’s true auteur. Hooper then fell in with Cannon Films to make the botched, messy Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and a pair of big budget sci-fi flops before sliding back into TV pilots and direct-to-video schlock. Carpenter never fell quite so far, but after dissatisfaction with studio politicking (The Thing was no the success it deserved to be) he chose smaller scale projects that produced modest and likable results for the rest of the decade (Prince of Darkness, 1987, and They Live, 1988). After The Fly, Cronenberg made a niche for himself and delivered Dead Ringers (1989), one of his most disturbing films, then became interested in adaptations of unusual literary source material. Cohen was prolific in the 80’s, being among the first filmmakers to realize the potential of direct-to-video as the realm of the new B-movie. He made both gems (Special Effects, 1986) and stinkers (Wicked Stepmother, 1989) while Romero, criminally, struggled to get anything made.
Although Wes Craven began the decade on somewhat shaky ground with the demonic slasher film Deadly Blessing (1981) and the comic book monster mash Swamp Thing (1982), he lost his footing entirely with The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985). Objectively, Craven fared the best from the crop of horror directors that first emerged in the 70’s, though he was not without his own major low points (looking at you, Deadly Friend  and Cursed ). But when he went high, he truly soared. He twice revived the played-out slasher film formula with franchise-founding, genuine revisionary break-out hits. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), like Scream (1996) would do a decade later, arrived when folks were tired of rote sequels. The film welded an original idea (a ghost psycho stalking his victims in their dreams) with an American small town milieu out of Stephen King (interestingly, alone of his generation, Craven never made a King film) to depict American ills writ large. In contrast to the vapid teenagers of most slashers, the Elm Street kids are smart and catch on early, while their parents and other authority figures are drunken, foolish, arrogant, and dangerous. Sequels to Elm Street were inevitable, and diminishing returns quickly set in, but Robert Englund’s Freddy, a shadowy and perverse specter in the first film, joined the ranks of the new iconic faces of horror alongside Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees–the new Universal monsters of the 80’s.
Those original creatures did manage to stay in the game, however, thanks to a fortuitous collision of interests and aptitudes. Directors like Joe Dante (The Howling, 1980), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, 1981), Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves, 1984), Tom Holland (Fright Night, 1986), and Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, 1987) hooked up with special effects make-up artists Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, Christopher Tucker, Steve Johnson, and Stan Winston. New technologies in makeup could be used for more than just gore, and in the early 80’s the screens were awash with shapeshifters, werewolves, cat people, and other morphing, tentacle-sprouting beasts like the Thing and the mind-mutants from Videodrome. The best of these efforts were more than just effects showcases and made their transformations scary as well as amazing. Vampire variants also continued, keyed to passing trends and mostly stressing Anne Rice’s vision of vampirism as a lifestyle choice rather than a plague or a curse. Pop singers like David Bowie and Grace Jones tended to show up in these sorts of films, resulting in the gloomy New Romantics of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), the teenager party animals of Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1986), and the grungy Western drifters of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987).
Meanwhile, new creatives were popping up in odd corners, often beginning their careers in the indies before becoming fast-tracked to Hollywood for see-saw careers. The main crop of this new class were Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, 1981), Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, 1985), and Clive Barker (Hellraiser, 1987). All of their debuts showed a black sense of humor, a commitment to physical shock, and a tendency to use sexual situations as a trigger for gross-out set-pieces (tree rape, cunnilingus delivered by a living severed head, skinless makeout sessions, etc.). They created dangerous, risky material, yet each one carried it off masterfully, though Raimi has admitted that the tree scene in The Evil Dead works less well than the film’s other assaults.
Barker, the most extreme of these filmmakers, shows the most delicacy, preferring odd physical juxtapositions rather than go-for-gore violence. Barker was matched in this skill perhaps only by Lucio Fulci, who managed to whip gore and gothic into shambling, suspenseful films like City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981). These made for fascinating films, but their day in the sun was short lived. Other filmmakers attempted to replicate this style of transgressive gore-comedy and failed, though Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982) is a valiant attempt. What really killed off this trend, however, were the films of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment, an independent studio that churned out films that didn’t even try to be good on any level. Yet even these have their admirers and defenders, and The Toxic Avenger (1985) and Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) have become cult classics. Troma films burst with a juvenile, misogynist, homophobic smugness that begs the audience to feel only contempt for what they’re watching. But even the “quality” gore films had a limited audience. The Evil Dead, Re-Animator, and Hellraiser thrived at festivals and on video, but they lost big theater dollars to more family friendly films like Witchboard (1985), House (1986), The Gate (1986), and Child’s Play (1988).
The 80’s also saw the first wave of films directed specifically to bypass a theatrical release and be distributed solely on video. This was in part a workaround to the “video nasties” brouhaha in the U.K. and the ban on certain “extreme” horror films like Blood Feast (1963), The Last House on the Left (1977), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Now, any old horror film could get a direct-to-video release. In 1985-86, Christopher Lewis, son of 1940’s screen star Loretta Young, directed three films which seem to be the first horror movies intended from the outset of their production to never grace a theater screen. They were The Ripper, with a cameo by Tom Savini as Jack the Ripper, Blood Cult, and Blood Cult 2: Revenge. After that, the deluge continued, and it has continued uninterrupted into the new millennium, as digi-beta, filmlook video, Hi-Def, camcorders, iMovie, and every other smart device in the world have made it possible for anyone to make a movie. Troma, Empire/Full Moon, and Roger Corman’s various production companies pivoted to the DTV market while small groups of people across the Midwest got together in barns, filmed a quickie, then sold their amateur endeavor to real distributors. There have been, and continue to be, important and interesting DTV horror films, but the wealth of dreadful bores and shlock makes it harder for new Herk Harveys and George Romeros to get noticed alongside the slush pile. John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) was one such film that suffered from this trend, not being widely seen until well into the 90’s.
On the other end of the creative spectrum, the 80’s also saw the first true arthouse horror efforts in both America and Europe. These works, now regarded as resonant and memorable, struggled to gain traction at the time of their release. Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986) flopped at the box office and wouldn’t be reconsidered as influential for some years. Pedro Almodovar’s Matador (1986) raised eyebrows when it opened with an obsessive masturbating to Mario Bava and Jesus Franco films. Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) is a mix of Poe and Jacobean revenge tragedy whose undertones were underappreciated at the time. Perhaps the one exception was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), a surreal, terrifying small town film which became an instant, much imitated classic. This didn’t much change the minds of the big studios, however. To them, profitable horror equated almost solely to Stephen King adaptations. Brian De Palma continued to work his own vein with blow Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984), but increasingly moved out of self-penned psycho horror into crime projects scripted by other people.
Still, aboveground horror sometimes put a frog in America’s throat. Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986) is a stripped-down road movie about a teenage driver (C. Thomas Howell) and the inexplicable, mass-murdering psychopath he picks up (Rutger Hauer), a capitalization on the growing consciousness surrounding the violent crimes perpetuated against hitchhikers that seemed rampant in the 70’s and 80’s, twisting the tale to put the motorist in danger instead. Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather (1986), a meditation on “family values” came smack dab in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, with Terry O’Quinn as the decade’s most resonant psycho, a troubled middle class husband and father who snaps when his new families can’t live up to his impossible Norman Rockwell ideal. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988) also flips the script with a reverse ghost story in which nice spooks employ a “bio-exorcist” (Michael Keaton) to drive nasty living folk out of their haunted house.
Other subversive and accessible efforts included Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1988), which suggests that suburbanites are scarier than outright gothic maniacs; Bob Balaban’s Parents (1988), which reveals that 50’s parentals who conform to the Cleaver clan vision of how family life should be are secretly cannibals; Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988), about a murder spree triggered by class divisions in high school; and Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989), which alleges that rich people are not human. The late 80’s also saw a clutch of films about voodoo–most notably Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987) and John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987)–and the Devil–of which the best efforts were The Unholy (1987) and The Seventh Sign (1988)–suggesting that evil was “out there” and that it was “other.” Interestingly, the most commercially successful film with horror elements of the late 80’s was Adrian Lynn’s Fatal Attraction (1987), a conservative social drama with a healthy dose of paranoid misogyny that captured the fraying, desperate mood of society and portended the downward turn horror would take in the early 1990’s as the thriller came to prominence and the genre nearly ate itself alive before its meta-based revival unleashing a new wave of self-referential terror.
In Part 9, we’ll further explore the ups and downs of horror as the millennium came to a close and the genre took a long hard look at itself
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.
Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.
Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.