The 18 Greatest Horror Movies of the '80s

80s horror films
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Historically speaking, the 1980s weren't exactly Hollywood's finest years -- remember Mac & Me? -- but as a scholar dedicated to covering the entire decade (via my nerdy podcast '80s All Over), I can tell you it's a lot more impressive than we remember, especially when it comes to horror flicks. Oh sure the '80s were knee-deep in the wonderful new "high-concept" and "mega-blockbuster" tentpole releases, but there were also tons of great horror movies out there for young buffs like me who couldn't get enough of the scary stuff. So here are my picks for the decade's finest fright films (and we'll update with more soon, so reserve your outrage for another time).

friday the 13th
Paramount Pictures

18. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Director: Steve Miner
Cast: Amy Steel, John Furey, Stu Charno
The story: Camp Crystal Lake has been shut down following a horrific massacre. But guess what? There's another psycho afoot.
Why it's great: The Friday the 13th movies were simplistic from the beginning, but for my money Part 2 is easily the scariest of the whole splattery series. Not only does it feature some of the best acting performances of the whole franchise, which doesn't hurt, but it also boasts some of the most shocking dispatches. Plus if you've ever spent a summer at an east coast overnight camp, you respond to the accuracy the atmosphere of these early installments. Or at least the first few ones.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Starz; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

day of the dead
Arrow Films

17. Day of the Dead (1985)

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Terry Alexander, Lori Cardille, Howard Sherman
The story: The zombies from Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead have more or less devoured the entire planet -- except for a desperate group of soldiers hiding in an underground bunker.
Why it's great: Although arguably the "weakest" link in Mr. Romero's legendary zombie trilogy, the man still found a way to be socially relevant, poke fun at humanity's baser instincts, and deliver one hell of a creative zombie massacre in this second Dead sequel. Day of has one thing its predecessors don't: the semi-intelligent zombie known as "Bub." He's extremely creepy.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Shudder; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

dead and buried
Blue Underground

16. Dead & Buried (1981)

Director: Gary Sherman
Cast: James Farentino, Melody Anderson, Jack Albertson
The story: A rash of homicides takes place in a sleepy seaside town. But the victims won't stay dead.
Why it's great:Dead & Buried starts out like a slasher flick and quickly transforms into a zombie/mad scientist/crazy town combination platter. Bolstered by a snarky sense of humor that doesn't get in the way of the scares, this is one of the best horror films of the decade that you probably haven't seen yet.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Amazon Prime; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

henry portrait serial killer
Dark Sky Films

15. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Director: John McNaughton
Cast: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold
The story: An aimless drifter kills people. That's it.
Why it's great: Loosely based on the horrible exploits of an actual serial killer, this brutal and unflinching indie still stands out as one of the most chilling cinematic renditions of homicidal madness. This is in no way a "fun" horror film, but it does get you as close to an actual serial killer as you'd ever want to be, and the lead performance by Michael Rooker (now of Guardians of the Galaxy fame) is nothing short of haunting.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Shudder; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

20th Century Fox

14. Predator (1987)

Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carillo, Kevin Peter Hall
The story: A team of high-powered mercenaries stumble across an enemy they can't destroy: a freaky alien with crazy weapons and invisibility powers.
Why it's great: Just throwing this in here because, while we all know this is a great action flick with a dash of sci-fi thrown in, it also works pretty well if you approach it as a creature feature. It's just that in most horror movies the victims don't all have machine guns.
Where to watch it: Streaming on HBO; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU.

Warner Bros. Pictures

13. Creepshow (1982)

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Leslie Nielsen, Ed Harris, Ted Danson
The story: Five freaky horror tales in one handy package.
Why it's great:  Anthologies are a big (and awesome) part of horror history, and this big fat meal of a horror anthology could only come from a collaboration between George Romero and Stephen King. Plainly inspired by the old horror comics of yore, this colorful compendium of craziness is a must-see for any self-respecting horror fan. My favorite story is "The Crate," a segment about a monster... in the crate. Although "Something to Tide You Over," the chapter starring Nielsen as a psychopathic husband whose murdered wife and lover come back to haunt him, iis pretty great too. Ooh, and one of the stories has thousands of cockroaches! Fair warning.
Where to watch it: Rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

Image Entertainment

12. Hellraiser (1987)

Director: Clive Barker
Cast: Andrew Robinson, Ashley Laurence, Clare Higgins
The story: An act of adulterous betrayal unleashes a horrific demon.
Why it's great: Clive Barker had already established himself as a unique and fascinating horror writer, but then he went and directed a horror flick so fascinating and influential that other people are still churning out worthless sequels. (Also Part 2 is quite good.)
Where to watch it: Streaming on Shudder and Netflix; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

Image Entertainment

11. Re-Animator (1985)

Director: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott
The story: A medical student comes to realize that his roommate has been experimenting with a serum that can re-animate dead animals... sorta.
Why it's great: Few filmmakers have been able to bring H.P. Lovecraft to the screen much success, but Stuart Gordon sure has. (Also check out From Beyond.) Using Lovecraft's work as a mere jumping-off point, Gordon added a welcome sense of weird humor, and a heaping helping of over-the-top carnage. The result is one of the most entertaining indie horror films of the decade.
Where to watch it: Rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

near fark

10. Near Dark (1987)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Bill Paxton
The story: A good-natured young man is adopted (OK, kidnapped) by an unlikely family of vampires and causes all sorts of trouble for the ruthless bloodsuckers.
Why it's great: There are all sorts of vampires, of course, from feral monsters to classy aristocrats, but Near Dark nails precisely what makes them so enticing: their lifestyle is dark, dangerous, sometimes sexy, and even sort of... cool? Definitely. Near Dark works as a horror flick, an adventure story, a fractured romance, and a surprisingly effective morality tale.
Where to watch it: Buy on DVD

Warner Bros. Pictures

9. Poltergeist (1982)

Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Zelda Rubenstein
The story: A lovable suburban family discovers that their home has been invaded by malicious spirits. When their little girl disappears, all hell breaks loose.
Why it's great: Sometimes horror films are grim, gruesome, and shocking. Other times they're massively fun, like a two-hour carnival ride. This collaboration -- between the late Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and good ol' Steven Spielberg -- is most definitely the latter. There's an undeniable playfulness to the film, even as its creepiest moments, making it a perfect pick for family horror night.
Where to watch it: Rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

nightmare on elm street
New Line Cinema

8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss
The story: A group of teenagers realize that a deadly madman is stalking them... from inside their own dreams.
Why it's great: Long before Freddy Krueger became sort of like a goofy game show host full of one-liners he was the legitimately terrifying madman in Wes Craven's original Nightmare -- and it's a testament to the late horror master that this film still packs such a powerful punch. In some ways it's a conventional slasher flick full of well-earned scares; but thanks to some intelligent filmmakers, and awe-inspiring special effects -- an geyser of blood bursting from a twin bed will never lose its power -- Elm Street is more under-the-skin terrifying than most slasher flicks.
Where to watch it: rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

Criterion Collection

7. Videodrome (1983)

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky
The story: A sleazy TV producer gets hold of a "pirate" TV broadcast that messes with his mind and warps his reality.
Why it's great: Few storytellers are able to translate our innate fears of technology and biology into accessible horror movies like the great David Cronenberg, but right about here is where he officially became a genius. Given the era in which it was made, Videodrome should probably feel hopelessly dated by now, but instead it stands as a remarkable prescient film that makes more sense today than it did in 1982. And yes it still packs a nasty punch too.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Starz; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

the shining
Warner Bros. Pictures

6. The Shining (1980)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
The story: A troubled man accepts the position of off-season caretaker at the massive overlook hotel, which spells bad news for his nervous wife and weird little boy.
Why it's great: While it may not rank among Stephen King's favorite adaptations, it's safe to say that multiple generations of horror fans have spoken: The Shining is a monumentally creepy classic, and it's required viewing for anyone who enjoys a powerful haunted house story. Only this time the house is a hotel.
Where to watch it: rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

20th Century Fox

5. Aliens (1986)

Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton
The story: The only survivor of an alien massacre finds herself on a distant planet and, once again, knee-deep in ravenous aliens.
Why it's great: Imagine trying to follow up a horror film as effective as 1979's Alien. James Cameron took the smart path by moving the sequel firmly into the action genre, while still retaining all the great stuff that made the creature so damn scary. Throw in a great cast, a rousing score, and a smart screenplay and you've got one of the finest sci-fi / action / horror hybrids ever produced.
Where to watch it: Streaming on HBO; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

American wearwolf
Universal Pictures

4. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis
Cast: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne
The story: A young American man gets bitten by a werewolf while backpacking across England. And you know what happens next.
Why it's great: It takes some real talent to combine horror and comedy into a movie in which both categories shine, but John Landis struck some gold with this endlessly entertaining werewolf classic. Best known for its groundbreaking special effects, the flick still holds up resoundingly well as an intense collection of shocks, laughs, and even a little romance. Bonus: one amazing soundtrack, filled with songs about the moon.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Starz; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

evil dead
Anchor Bay

3. Evil Dead 2 (1987)

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks
The story: A bunch of ill-fated folks discover an evil book in a dank basement beneath a creepy cabin, and all sorts of demonic hell breaks loose.
Why it's great: Look, I love both Evil Dead movies equally. The original is one of the most creative indie horror flicks ever made, but it was clearly made on very limited means. The follow-up gave Sam Raimi a chance to do half a remake and half a sequel, and the result is one of the most energetically insane horror movies you'll ever see. (And Army of Darkness is a fun follow-up!)
Where to watch it: Streaming on Starz; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

the thing
Shout Factory

2. The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Masur
The story: A group of scientists deep in the Antarctic discover that an alien creature may be living among them, only they can't be sure because it can clone people. Like, perfectly.
Why it's great: Most people talk about the glorious gore that's found strewn about this wonderful horror movie, but it's also a tense and suspenseful thriller about paranoia, isolation, and loss of identity. The Thing also one of the most rewatchable horror flicks you'll ever see -- provided you can stomach the nasty stuff.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Starz; rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

the fly
20th Century Fox

1. The Fly (1986)

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
The story: A brilliant but neurotic scientist tests out his teleport pods too early and ends up combined with a common housefly. And boy does it get ugly.
Why it's great: Leave it to Cronenberg to turn a beloved (if goofy) old horror classic into a gut-wrenching romantic tragedy, but man does it work. Goldblum and Davis are fantastic together, the horror story is presented in fast and fascinating fashion, and there's acres of subtext to be harvested for those who care to look. And yes, those Oscar-winning make-up FX will stick in your memory for a long time.
Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU

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Scott Weinberg is a film writer and critic who has written for outlets such as Playboy, FEARnet, and Nerdist. He tweets @scotteweinberg but ignores mean people.