The decade of the 80s was one of the best periods of time for horror movies. The growing popularity of independent horror films in the 1970s led to an increased mainstream interest in the 1980s. Fueled by more eyes watching (and more money being spent), studios put out an extremely wide variety of scary movies throughout the 80s. For that reason, the biggest themes encompassing horror cinema from 1980 to 1989 are experimentation and innovation.
With that in mind, this list counts down the greatest horror movies of the 80s with a bit of a twist. With the sheer volume of horror released in the 1980s, this list could easily grow even longer than our “60 Best Horror Movies of the 90s” list. So instead, this list will rank 19 of the best 80s horror movies that best represent a particular subgenre or category.
Best Movie Featuring Inanimate Objects as Killers
Sure, the movie is campy and cheesy, but that’s why it’s so wonderful. Maximum Overdrive takes place in a world where various machines come to murderous life when Earth passes through the tail of a passing comet. Some of the objects attempting to kill people include a vending machine, an electric carving knife, a lawn mower, and an automated teller machine that calls writer/director Stephen King an “asshole.” The main villain in the movie is a big rig truck with a Green Goblin mask on its grill, and the truck gets his truck friends to harass a group of survivors in a truck stop led by “Brat Pack” megastar Emilio Estevez.
Other great inanimate object killer movies from the 80s:
- The Stuff (1985) – A movie about a killer dessert.
- Christine (1983) – A killer car movie based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
Best Holiday Slasher
The success of movies like Halloween (1978) and Black Christmas (1974) meant one of the sub-subgenres of horror that would never go away is the holiday themed slasher film. While many movies of this type can feel gimmicky, My Bloody Valentine is a straightforward stalk-and-slash movie in the classical sense. You have a masked killer, an urban legend, and a bunch of young adults who want to party despite repeated warnings from adults. You also have a bunch of fantastically gory low-budget kills. There’s certainly a lot to love in this Valentine’s Day slasher.
Other great holiday slasher films from the 80s:
- Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) – A classic of Christmas horror.
- Halloween II (1981) – Jamie Lee Curtis returns for one of the best horror sequels of all time.
17. Cujo (1983)
Best Killer Animal Movie
The number of killer animal movies dramatically increased towards the end of the 1970s which led to quite a few animal attack films in the following decade. Cujo is the best of the 1980s crop. Cujo is a tense film about a mother and son (Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro) who become trapped in a broken-down car while a St. Bernard with rabies waits to attack. The movie is frightening in a way that feels like it could really happen, and it’s sad in that you feel for the people as well as the dog who can’t control what he’s doing.
Other great killer animal movies from the 80s:
- Of Unknown Origin (1983) – Peter Weller (Robocop) fights a giant rat in his home.
- Monkey Shines (1988) – A paralyzed man’s service monkey becomes a killer.
Best Vampire Movie
Featuring the two Coreys and Kiefer Sutherland in probably his most iconic role, The Lost Boys is a gem of 1980s horror. In the film, a gang of young and attractive vampires target Michael (Jason Patric) after he becomes interested in Star (Jami Gertz), a member of the gang. Michael is pulled into the dark world of vampirism, and it’s up to his younger brother (Corey Haim) and his brother’s new friends (including Corey Feldman) to save him.
Other great vampire movies from the 80s:
- Near Dark (1987) – Director Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic take on a group of nomadic vampires.
- Fright Night (1985) – A young man discovers his neighbor is a vampire.
Best Demonic Movie
While the original The Evil Dead from 1980 is a great film itself, its sequel, Evil Dead II, refined the ideas from the first movie and solidified the personality of one of horror’s most enduring characters, Ash (Bruce Campbell). Evil Dead II also adds a very heavy layer of comedy to the proceedings which was very subdued in the first film. Ash has to spend another night in a cabin in the woods battling demonically possessed people and his own possessed hand.
Other great demonic movies from the 80s:
- The Evil Dead (1980) – Whether this or Evil Dead II is better is very debatable.
- Demons (1985) – Demonically possessed people rampage in a movie theater.
Best Killer Doll Movie
In the movie that spawned a franchise which has lasted over multiple decades, a young boy comes into possession of a talking doll inhabited by the spirit of a serial killer. The tones of the Child’s Play/Chucky movies vary wildly from film to film, but one constant is Brad Dourif’s fantastic performances as the always-intense Chucky. Another constant is series creator Don Mancini’s clear love for his creation and the fearless way he repeatedly reinvents the franchise. This first film, Child’s Play (1988) from director Tom Holland, is one of the scarier of the series, with Chucky coming across as more creepy than in most other incarnations.
Other great killer doll movies from the 80s:
- Dolls (1987) – A group of people seek shelter from a storm in a house inhabited by murderous dolls.
- Puppet Master (1989) – Living puppets stalk a group of psychics.
To try to describe the plot of Possession would be a huge disservice to anyone who hasn’t seen it. The basic story involves a man (Sam Neill) and a woman (Isabelle Adjani) whose marriage falls apart in increasingly disturbing ways. Possession is a mentally brutal experience that languished for a long time after its release due to objections about its content. The movie still isn’t terribly easy to find and watch (at a decent price), but it’s definitely worth seeking out for any fan of psychological horror.
Other great psychological horror movies from the 80s:
- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) – Takes place from the point of view of a serial killer based in part on Henry Lee Lucas.
- Maniac (1980) – A killer narrates his own depraved murder spree.
Best Japanese Horror
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is the movie that thrust rebellious Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto into a worldwide spotlight. The movie is an unforgettable body horror experience where flesh and metal blend together in a barrage of sex, violence, and madness. The plot involves a businessman (a “salaryman” to use the Japanese term) who begins to have disturbing visions. At the same time, metal starts growing out of the man’s body. Things progress from there in a senses-pummeling scenario of sights and sounds. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is required viewing for anyone looking to really get into Japanese horror.
Other great Japanese horror movies from the 80s:
- Evil Dead Trap (1988) – A film crew falls victim to a murderer and his traps in an old warehouse in this Japanese take on a slasher movie.
- Entrails of a Virgin (1986) – A “pink film” (a Japanese movie with lots of nudity) featuring a bizarre monster killing a group of people stranded in a remote house.
Best Campground Slasher
Killers and summer camps go together like chocolate and marshmallow inside a delicious campfire s’more. The original Friday the 13th is the movie that popularized the connection between murder and camp, and it is still one of the best examples of the campground slasher category. In fact, it is probably the best example of the deluge of slasher flicks that came out in the 1980s. Friday the 13th launched countless imitations because the original works so incredibly well. And, of course, it launched a whole franchise that would catapult Jason Voorhees into pop culture stardom.
Other great campground slashers from the 80s:
- Sleepaway Camp (1983) – A memorable slasher that really puts the “camp” in summer camp.
- The Burning (1981) – Similar to Friday the 13th, but with lots more gratuitous violence.
10. Creepshow (1982)
Best Anthology Horror
The anthology film (a feature-length collection of shorts) is a popular format for horror since it is a perfect way to deliver a bunch of fun scares. Possibly the greatest anthology horror flick of all time is Creepshow, a collaboration between writer Stephen King and director George A. Romero. It’s a creepy and campy film featuring stories about revenge from beyond the grave, alien plants, a monster in a crate, and a disgusting bug infestation.
Other great horror anthologies from the 80s:
- Cat’s Eye (1985) – Also written by Stephen King, featuring a very young Drew Barrymore.
- Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) – Based on Rod Serling’s original TV series, produced by Steven Spielberg and John Landis.
Best Italian Horror
Italy’s worldwide influence on horror might have been stronger in the 60s and 70s, but Italian horror films released in the 80s were still some of the greatest fright films of the decade. Topping the list is Tenebrae (also spelled Tenebre), a bloody giallo about an author whose violent novels are used as a source of inspiration for a mysterious killer. Directed by Dario Argento and with a soundtrack provided by former members of the progressive rock band Goblin, Tenebrae is a masterful work in the Italian tradition.
Other great Italian horror movies from the 80s:
- Opera (1987) – Another giallo from Argento, about a series of murders in an opera house.
- StageFright (1987) – A killer in an owl mask stalks a theater troupe locked in their rehearsal space.
Best Zombie Movie
Zombie movies were a popular subgenre of horror in the 1980s, and the living dead took many different forms throughout the decade. Its best form was brought to the screen by director Dan O’Bannon in Return of the Living Dead. The movie is a zombie comedy that intentionally tries to differentiate itself from George A. Romero’s zombies. These zombies can run, they can talk, and they want brains! The film follows the bumbling staff of a medical supply company and a group of young punks as they try to survive the night in this fun, funny, and gory flick.
Other great zombie movies from the 80s:
- Day of the Dead (1985) – George A. Romero’s third Dead film, set in an underground bunker.
- Re-Animator (1985) – Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton star in this film inspired by H.P. Lovecraft about a mad scientist who brings the dead back to life.
Best Action Horror
Action and horror movies were both doing big business in the 80s, so it’s no surprise that the two genres would collide with great success throughout the decade. At the top of the action horror list is Aliens, James Cameron’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley, and Ripley returns to the site of her first contact with the alien menace to help a group of Marines wipe out the threat. The film is very different from its predecessor, allowing it to make its own indelible mark in horror history.
Other great action horror movies from the 80s:
- Predator (1987) – Arnold Schwarzenegger battles an alien who hunts for sport in a movie that is right on par with Aliens as the best action horror movie of the 80s.
- They Live (1988) – John Carpenter’s fantastically fun movie featuring Roddy Piper fighting back after discovering that aliens live among us.
Best Werewolf Movie
Possibly spurred on by remarkable advances in practical makeup effects during the early part of the decade, the werewolf movie had a huge surge in popularity in the 80s. Werewolf transformations were more realistic than ever, and makeup maestro Rick Baker flexed his special-effects muscles with an Academy Award winning array of visuals in An American Werewolf in London. Directed by John Landis and starring David Naughton, the film is a darkly comedic story which remains one of the best werewolf films ever made.
Other great werewolf movies from the 80s:
- The Howling (1981) – Dee Wallace stars as a woman whose encounter with a serial killer leads her to a secluded resort that may not be any safer for her.
- The Company of Wolves (1984) – A dark take on fairy tales.
Best Body Horror
The Fly is director David Cronenberg’s reimagining of the 1958 sci-fi horror film (and 1957 short story) of the same name. Jeff Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle, a scientist whose body starts to fall apart and reshape itself after he teleports himself with an invention of his own creation. The film features fantastically disgusting (and award winning) special effects as Seth’s body continues to deteriorate over the course of the movie.
Other great body horror movies from the 80s:
- Street Trash (1987) – Vagrants melt into puddles of rainbow-colored goo after drinking dangerously expired booze in this dark comedy.
- Videodrome (1983) – A man loses his mind after coming across a brutally violent television signal.
Best Extradimensional Horror
Hellraiser is beautiful in its depiction of the dark and twisted horrors of Clive Barker’s imagination. The heart of the story involves a young woman fighting for her soul against a group of Cenobites, beings from a hell dimension who have grown beyond the limits of human experience. The movie takes the idea of cosmic horror and conveys it on a human level with body horror and some heavy emotional weight.
Other great extradimensional horror movies from the 80s:
- Prince of Darkness (1987) – Science and religion overlap as a college professor and his students investigate a mysterious artifact underneath a monastery.
- The Beyond (1981) – A gate to Hell may be opening beneath a hotel in this gory Italian classic from Lucio Fulci.
Best Ghost Movie
The Shining is the story of a man (Jack Nicholson) losing his sanity while cooped up in a hotel occupied only by himself, his wife (Shelley Duvall), his son, and the ghosts of the hotel’s disturbing past. It is one of the most unnerving and influential horror films of all time, and it is yet another movie from the 80s based on Stephen King’s writing. King wasn’t too happy about the changes made when adapting his novel, but history shows that Stanley Kubrick’s version of King’s story has continued to resonate with horror fans for decades.
Other great ghost movies from the 80s:
- Poltergeist (1982) – Directed by Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist features many scenes and lines iconic in haunted house film history.
- Beetlejuice (1988) – A recently deceased couple employ the services of a shady poltergeist to haunt away the new owners of their house in this Tim Burton comedy.
Best Fantasy Horror
A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t just a fantastic movie, it’s also one of the most important films of the 1980s. Wes Craven’s movie about a serial killer chasing teens in their dreams was instrumental in revitalizing the slasher subgenre which was starting to grow old in the eyes of mainstream audiences. The film’s haunting visuals make it an effective horror movie decades after it first terrified audiences, and its killer, Freddy Krueger, has gone down in history as a pop culture icon.
Other great fantasy horror movies from the 80s:
- A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) – The third installment gave Freddy wisecracks and gave the kills an over-the-top aesthetic that would define the franchise.
- Dreamscape (1984) – While not actually all that scary, Dreamscape is a fun movie about a psychic who can enter other people’s dreams, only to fight nightmares.
Best Alien Invasion Movie
The very best horror movie of the 1980s is claustrophobic, gory, funny, tense, and full of action. It crosses over into many of the categories already posted in this list, even though at its most basic level it is an alien invasion movie. The best 80s horror movie is John Carpenter’s The Thing.
A group researches at a remote outpost in Antarctica are visited by what they think is a dog, but they quickly learn is a shapeshifting monstrosity that can mimic other living things. Tension rises as the men realize they can’t trust that their friends are who they say they are. Plans are made and hints of what the creature might be are discovered, but plans and investigations fall apart when more and more people die in horribly gruesome ways. The Thing isn’t just the best horror movies of the 1980s, it’s one of the best movies of any decade.