The 1980s were an era filled to the brim with cultural cheese — almost as if the 1950s came back, but entirely made of plastic. It was also the golden age of formulaic American slasher movies, so there was no shortage of cheesy horror from which to choose.
For the purposes of this article, let’s define “cheesy” as something that’s unintentionally low-quality but still enjoyable and “campy” as something that is purposely ridiculous.
The following movies are not known for their cinematic excellence in the same way that a four-cheese pizza you’ve hastily ordered because you have the munchies is not known for its nutritional value.
These are the sort of movies you would rent at Blockbuster on a Friday evening when you were too tired from the work week to go out on the town and simply needed something to stimulate your overworked brain. Combined, these films contain more cheese than the entire state of Wisconsin. Sit back, turn off your brain, and enjoy.
The movie that started the whole 1980s slasher craze as well as the trope that it’s pretty much impossible to go camping without being murdered. Purposely capitalizing on both the gore of Halloween (1978) and the summer-camp setting of Meatballs (1979), the film was sold to investors based on nothing beyond the idea that it would take place on Friday the 13th. It also made back $77 for every dollar that it cost to make and led to a torrent of sequels and copycats. But if you’re looking for Citizen Kane, this isn’t it; according to The Terror Trap: “Horror intellectuals, you might as well stay away. This is pure stalk ‘n slash, reduced to its lowest common denominator.”
The plot in a nutshell: Just as a girl achieves “cool girl” status at her school, all the other cool girls start dying.
If you’re looking for a movie — possibly the only one in world history — that shows footage of actual brain surgery along with someone getting killed with a kebab, look no further than Happy Birthday to Me.According to a blurb on a promotional poster:
John will never eat shish kebab again. Steven will never ride a motorcycle again. Greg will never lift weights again. Who’s killing Crawford High’s snobbish top ten? At the rate they’re going, there will be no one left for Virginia’s birthday party… alive. Happy Birthday to Me. Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see.
There’s also more disco music than a slasher movie should probably have. According to an IMDb reviewer: “Sure, it’s phony, but it’s also fun.”
This exploitation film is as shocking and violent as it is absurd and stupid. narrative is pedestrian as hell, but damn, the execution. Alex McLevy of The A.V. Club explains the campiness of the film quite well: “[Pieces] manages to luck into that ideal combination of over-the-top bloodshed, gratuitous nudity (of both male and female types, though the latter is, as expected, the mainstage show), and unintentional absurdity for which enthusiasts of the genre are perpetually on the hunt.”
A perfect fusion of campy and camping that combines axe murders, a lonely girl’s quest for revenge, and a surprise, gender-bending ending. Someone gets stabbed to death in a shower; someone else is stung to death by a hive of bees. Louisville’s Courier-Journal described it as a “Low-budget slasher in the Friday the 13th mold, with teen-age mayhem at a summer camp.” The Chula Vista Star-News slammed it as a “tasteless picture about mysterious murders at a summer youth camp that obscenely blends beheadings, stabbings, pubescent impulses, homosexuality, and transvestism with a cast of junior high school actors.”
A purposely cheesy—and therefore campy—film from the schlockmeisters at New Jersey’s Troma Films, The Toxic Avenger inspired three film sequels, a stage musical, a video game, and even a short-lived animated children’s show. A nerd named Melvin Ferd falls into a vat of toxic waste and emerges with superhuman strength as he has to fend off villains with names such as Slug, Bozo, and Cigar Face. This film is obviously not meant to be taken seriously and is only meant to be enjoyed. Even the scenes of extreme violence are so overwrought that they manage to be fun.
A young horror-movie fan realizes that his next-door neighbor is a murderous vampire and seeks the aid of a former TV vampire hunter who hosted a show called Fright Night to help stop the bloodshed. Almost perfectly summing up the film’s cheese factor, Roger Ebert wrote, “Fright Nightis not a distinguished movie, but it has a lot of fun being undistinguished.”
Two college freshmen seeking to worm their way into a fraternity hire a stripper to come flaunt her wares for a fraternity party. The stripper (Grace Jones), as well as everyone else at the strip club, turn out to be vampires, though. There is a scuffle with a “psychotic albino street gang” as well as a failed attempt to kill a vampire that was foiled because the stake turned out to be made of Formica rather than wood.
A group of young mall employees hangs around after hours for a late-night party at one of the mall’s stores. The mall’s security system switches on before they can leave, though; it also misfires and activates the mall’s security robots to go on a killing spree. Is there anything more quintessentially 1980s than a group of fun-loving teens getting killed at a mall? The only thing that could possibly be more 80s was if the mall was located at a summer camp out in the woods. The movie was originally released as Killbots, which makes more sense, because although it contains killer robots, there is no actual chopping that takes place at the mall. According to Bloody Disgusting, “It’s such a wonderful B-movie and an absolute blast as a party movie. Throw this one on with some friends over and bask in the absurdity.”
Blame Halloween for inaugurating the trend of 1980s horror movies revolving around a holiday. In this one, a group of college students stay at a friend’s island mansion but start disappearing over the April Fool’s Day weekend. The party hostess, Muffy St. John, likes to pull silly pranks on the partygoers such as dribble glasses and exploding cigars. Or wait—is “Muffy” actually her evil twin sister “Buffy”? And was it all actually just a dress rehearsal? Keep an eye out for the cheesy jack-in-the-box character that suddenly springs to life.
Made by the same people who produced 1981’s The Evil Dead, this is an intentional parody of the first film that critics praised for its sense of the absurd. Yes, there’s a couple in a remote cabin in the woods. And yes, they find a tape containing incantations from an ancient demonic text. And, of course, listening to the tape unleashes those demons. And naturally, the lead character winds up being teleported to the 1300s along with his Oldsmobile, where he is treated like a hero.
A blob-like creature crashes from spaces and begins gobbling up everything in sight; is there anything more cheesy than a simple blob being the monster? This IMBD reviewer has it exactly right: “This is not the type of film you think about. It’s the type you watch by accident. But the good news is, it’s a happy accident. The Blob is the very essence of a B-movie, and that’s meant as a compliment. Equal parts ham and cheese, this flick aspires only to deliver schlocky fun. And boy does it succeed.”
A chic LA health club becomes the epicenter of a string of gruesome murders. It turns out that the spirit of the owner’s wife, who committed suicide, has taken control of the club’s computer systems and is using all the workout equipment to murder the vain and narcissistic clients who outlived her. According to an IMDb reviewer, “Between the body obsessed people, the slasher elements, the nudity and the blood, this kind of says it all about your typical 1980s horror film.”
Other Good Cheesy Horror Movies
- Alligator (1980) a giant gator emerges from the Chicago sewers and tears the city apart.
- Humanoids from the Deep (1980) a mutant race of fish-men attack a village of regular humans.
- Galaxy of Terror (1981) the crew of a space ship lets their imagination run wild—to the point where their imagination takes them along for the ride.
- Mystics in Bali (1981) a woman seeks to learn black magic in Bali, only to be turned into a flying vampire bat.
- Madman (1981) your typical psycho-stalks-a-summer-camp movie from the 1980s, if one of the first.
- The Burning (1981) yet another vengeful-lunatic-terrorizes-a-summer-camp film.
- Nightbeast (1982) a mutant space alien makes life very uncomfortable for small-town folk.
- Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) an installment of the quintessential 1980s horror franchise, this time revolving around Silver Shamrock masks.
- Basket Case (1982) a former conjoined twin, bitter at the world for separating him from his brother, carries his brother around in a basket.
- Xtro (1982) the victim of an alien abduction returns to his family, who find him to be permanently changed.
- The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) everything was going fine at the slumber party until the escaped mental patient with a power drill showed up.
- Q (1982) a massive bird terrorizes New York, and it has something to do with Aztec ritual murder.
- The Deadly Spawn (1983) four small-town boys square off against aliens who’ve invaded their neck of the woods.
- Night of the Demon (1983) Cryptozoology students who attempt to find Bigfoot realize to their dismay that there’s something far worse than Bigfoot out there.
- Night of the Comet (1984) a pair of Valley Girls are the only people left to save humanity against a devastating comet and a cabal of evil scientists.
- Ghoulies (1984) a young couple moves into an old mansion, which any fan of horror movies should realize is always a mistake.
- C.H.U.D. (1984) Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers threaten life on Earth as we know it.
- Combat Shock (1984) a PTSD-addled Vietnam attempts to adjust to urban life, with unpromising results.
- Gremlins (1984) when a small boy refuses to follow the rules regarding his strange new pet, he unleashes a pestilence on his town.
- Re-Animator (1985) a medical student and his girlfriend share a morbide fetish for the reanimation of dead tissue.
- The Return of the Living Dead (1985) an accidental spill of toxic gas awakens the zombies from their slumber once more.
- Lifeforce (1985) London proves to be no match for the space vampires that invade it and set it on a downward spiral.
- Demons (1985) people receive invitations to a movie screening, then realize they’re locked in a theater with demons who’ve jumped out of the screen.
- The Stuff (1985) a strange, sweet-tasting gel that suddenly starts oozing from the Earth, causing odd behavior in those who become addicted to it.
- Transylvania 6-5000 (1985) a pair of reporters are sent to Transylvania to find Dracula, only to find more monsters than they expected.
- Evils of the Night (1985) a group of teens are kidnapped one-by-one and shuttled off to a hospital where their blood is a prized commodity.
- House (1985) a writer inherits a house—a haunted house—from his aunt.
- Silver Bullet (1985) a small-town family wages war with the werewolf who has disrupted everyday life there.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) the notorious Texas cannibal family is stalking a radio host this time around.
- Spookies( 1986) a wizard attempts to drain his house guests of their life essence so he can keep his wife alive.
- Night of the Creeps (1986) a group of brave teens fights zombies who are infected by alien brain parasites.
- From Beyond (1986) a scientific device allows people to see things beyond the normal realm of comprehension—and what they see is far from pretty.
- Critters (1986) cute, furry, man-eating aliens attack a small farm town.
- Monster in the Closet (1986) a group of investigators is trying to figure out why so many people—and a dog—were found dead in closets.
- Nightmare Weekend (1986) a woman scientist turns a trio of college girls into killer zombies.
- Maximum Overdrive (1986) machines gain consciousness and turn on humans.
- Invaders From Mars (1986) one brave little boy tries to save his town from an alien invasion.
- The Gate (1987) a group of kids playing in their backyard set vicious demons loose from a hole in the ground.
- Dolls (1987) people who find themselves stranded at a mansion during a storm—a very common horror trope—meet a pair of toy makers as well as all their haunted dolls.
- Bad Taste (1987) cannibal aliens wipe out the entire population of a small town and must turn elsewhere for food.
- Street Trash (1987) a liquor store sells alcoholic beverages to homeless people that contain something far more sinister than alcohol.
- They Live (1988) a pair of sunglasses alerts a troubled man to the fact that aliens surround and rule us.
- Night of the Demons (1988) a group of teenagers realizes that maybe it’s not such a great idea to throw a party in a funeral home on Halloween night.
- Waxwork (1988) the owner of a wax museum sets his creations loose on a world that has rejected him.
- Brain Damage (1988) a man wakes up to find that a parasite has attached itself to his brain. It brings him great pleasure, but it also commands him to kill.
- The Brain (1988) an evil broadcaster teams up with a malevolent alien to brainwash people through TV.
- Maniac Cop (1988) a police impersonator beings slaying people wantonly on the streets of New York.
- Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988) a foxy horror-movie hostess inherits an old mansion and finds herself pitted against the local townsfolk.
- Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) pretty much exactly what the title says, except for the part where they terrorize a small town on planet Earth.
- Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988) is a sci-fi comedy where mutant frogs attack and a beloved creature features.
- Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) as if seven sequels weren’t already enough, they decided to have Jason attack revelers on a Manhattan-bound party boat this time around.
- Society (1989) a boy who has always felt different from his family members realizes why—they belong to a violent sex cult for the very rich.
- Puppet Master (1989) a psychic who killed himself after running across a group of killer puppets seeks revenge against the former associates who mocked him.
- Intruder (1989) the late-night workers at a supermarket suddenly have to deal with a murderous lunatic who’s hiding in the store.