19 Best Horror Movies from the 80s

These are the best horror movies from the 1980s, arguably the best decade for horror cinema.

Creepshow (1982) was by far the scariest anthology of the decade.

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.

Best 1980s Horror Movie
Stephen King played a huge role in 1980s horror, including one of the decade’s best films, The Shining (1980).

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.

19. Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Best Movie Featuring Inanimate Objects as Killers

Maximum Overdrive (1986).
Maximum Overdrive is inspired by Stephen King’s short story “Trucks,” and it is the only film King has directed.

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:

18. My Bloody Valentine (1981)

Best Holiday Slasher

My Bloody Valentine (1981).
Many scenes in My Bloody Valentine were shot in real mines in Nova Scotia. Precautions has to be taken with the hot lights used in production to prevent methane gas explosions.

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:

17. Cujo (1983)

Best Killer Animal Movie

Cujo (1983).
Real St. Bernards were used to portray Cujo in addition to an animatronic dog head and a stuntman in a dog suit.

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:

16. The Lost Boys (1987)

Best Vampire Movie

Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys (1987).
Richard Donner (director of The Goonies) was originally attached to direct The Lost Boys before Joel Schumacher took over.

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:

15. Evil Dead 2 (1987)

Best Demonic Movie

Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II (1987).
Stephen King helped director Sam Raimi get the funding to make Evil Dead II.

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:

14. Child’s Play (1988)

Best Killer Doll Movie

Child's Play (1988).
Writer/creator Don Mancini’s idea for Child’s Play was partially inspired by rampant consumerism and marketing directed towards children.

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.

13. Possession (1981)

Best Psychological Horror Film

Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981).
Director and co-writer Andrzej Zulawski wrote the script for Possession while suffering from depression after a particularly tough divorce.

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:

12. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Best Japanese Horror

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989).
Tetsuo: The Iron Man received two sequels in the following decades: Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009).

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.

11. Friday the 13th (1980)

Best Campground Slasher

Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th (1980).
Some of the gory special effects may seem dated to modern eyes, but they’re still a lot of fun.

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:

10. Creepshow (1982)

Best Anthology Horror

Adrienne Barbeau in Creepshow (1982).
Adrienne Barbeau rose to prominence in horror cinema thanks to memorable roles in films such as Creepshow.

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:

9. Tenebrae (1982)

Best Italian Horror

Tenebrae (1982).
Tenebrae‘s first release in the United States was a heavily edited version titled Unsane.

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.

8. Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Best Zombie Movie

Return of the Living Dead (1985).
Return of the Living Dead started out as a novel by John Russo (co-writer of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), though the movie bears little resemblance to the book.

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.

7. Aliens (1986)

Best Action Horror

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986).
Plans to create a sequel to Alien (1979) stalled for years with studio executives not convinced it would be profitable.

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.

6. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Best Werewolf Movie

An American Werewolf in London (1981).
Rick Baker won the Academy Award for Best Makeup for An American Werewolf in London, and he would go on to set the record in the category with seven total wins.

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:

5. The Fly (1986)

Best Body Horror

Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (1986).
Musician Frank Zappa composed a score for The Fly on his own, but Zappa’s music remained unreleased since the finished film was scored by Howard Shore.

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.

4. Hellraiser (1987)

Best Extradimensional Horror

Ashley Laurence in Hellraiser (1987).
Hellraiser is based on Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart.

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.

3. The Shining (1980)

Best Ghost Movie

The Shining (1980).
Stephen King wrote the original script for The Shining, but Stanley Kubrick rejected it and wrote his own with co-writer Diane Johnson.

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.

2. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Best Fantasy Horror

Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).
There is beauty in the horrors of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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.

1. The Thing (1982)

Best Alien Invasion Movie

The Thing (1982).
The Thing is the first part of John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” that also includes Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994).

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.

Other great alien invasion movies from the 80s:
  • Night of the Creeps (1986) – A horror comedy about alien slugs that turn people into zombies.
  • The Blob (1988) – Based on the 1958 original, an alien blob grows bigger and bigger as it absorbs everything it encounters.

Meet The Author

Chris has a degree in film studies at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo, Japan. He is a renowned expert on horror cinema.