This shit just got real.
In 1980, the horror genre exploded. For makers of Top 10 lists (a noble endeavor to be sure), there are three times as many films to choose from compared to years prior. However, there are also fewer consensus classics. Your list might look nothing like mine.
To some, Prom Night and Motel Hell are the bees’ knees, whereas I’d take Without Warning or Nightmare City over those two any day.
We can all agree on one thing: mainstream critics hated this stuff.
My Top 10 horror films of 1980
- The Shining
The most quoted, homaged, and parodied horror movie ever made, The Shining is famously hated by Stephen King, yet I feel it’s by far the best movie based on one of his books. Honestly, I’m in it for Stanley Kubrick. The film is mesmerizing; the novel leaves me colder than snow falling at the Overlook Hotel on a Wednesday.
- Friday the 13th
When I discuss a movie’s “scares,” I’m often talking about effective genre filmmaking, not actual fear. I’m not literally scared watching The Exorcist. The sensation is more akin to pleasure at how successfully it delivers the thrills.
Friday the 13th, on the other hand, is scary to me for real. Like, “sprint up the stairs from my man cave after watching it, hoping to outrace the hand that is sure to grab me any second” scary. I’ve had multiple nightmares about this film.
Viewed out of context, it’s a cheap-looking, unstylish slasher flick, so I’m not sure what makes it so effective and influential. The isolation of the characters? The fact that you never see the killer but you see the kills? The location shooting? The score? Whatever it was, director/producer Sean S. Cunningham captured lightning in a bottle. Critics be damned, this film is among my all-time favs.
- City of the Living Dead
Does anyone know what this movie is about? Coherence was never a strength of Lucio Fulci’s horror oeuvre, but this entry is especially dreamlike and disjointed. My plot summary: something séance, something buried alive, something table drill, puking entrails, here come the zombies.
City of the Living Dead AKA The Gates of Hell may be little more than a 90-minute string of horror set-pieces, but they are wonderfully shot, gruesome, eerie, and atmospheric set-pieces. Phantasm, Fulci style?
- Zombie Holocaust
Back in the early days of VHS, we rented every single new horror flick that hit the shelves in the hopes of finding that rare grindhouse jewel: A flick that delivered everything you wanted and more. If you ever wanted “Zombie meets Last Cannibal World meets Island of Lost Souls,” this was that one time it happened.
- Cannibal Holocaust
Cannibal Holocaust is such a vile film, I contemplated bumping it from the list. But to do so would be a violation of the sacred oath taken by list-makers: Thou shalt be as honest as possible (even if thine moods are known to change like the shifting wind).
Appalling qualities aside, this grindhouse epic is well-directed, intense, and influential. It’s certainly more significant than the goofy gore-fest with the similar title that I slotted right above it. I never promised you I have good taste.
- The Fog
Auteurs sometimes trip up after creating their first masterpiece, such as when Tobe Hooper followed Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Eaten Alive or when George A Romero somehow thought There’s Always Vanilla to be the right vehicle after Night of the Living Dead.
Not John Carpenter. Perhaps The Fog isn’t quite on par with Halloween, but Carpenter still delivered an effective and eerie ghost story that serves as a fine example of how to wring maximum horror from a minimal budget. I think it misses a few opportunities, which is why it isn’t higher on this list. Nevertheless, it’s one of the top films in a busy year for the genre.
This is a grim fucking movie. Audiences hoping for shriek-then-laugh jump scares and scenes of good-looking teenagers getting picked off one by one instead got a grimy character study about a serial killer. And they had to look at Joe Spinell’s sweaty, crying mug for 90 minutes.
The character-study approach to horror in the early 80s was surely an artistic rather than commercial choice. It tended to limit the crowd-pleasing aspects of a film and might even have suppressed word-of-mouth. How many casual moviegoers viewed Maniac and then told their friends, “I just watched this sickening and depressing flick about a fat, greasy killer with mommy issues. You gotta see it!”?
Then again, the film does boast brutally realistic gore FX by Tom Savini. I doubt we’d be talking about it if it didn’t.
- Humanoids from the Deep
It’s well known to horror fans that the director of this film, Barbara Peeters, attempted to deliver a PG-rated eco-horror movie, but the producers sabotaged her vision by inserting new footage laden with gratuitous gore and nudity.
I can’t say I’m sympathetic. They took what would have been a dull and anachronistic monster movie and turned it into a grindhouse classic. Sit back and enjoy the royalty checks, Ms. Peeters!
- Hell of the Living Dead
That’s right. Of all the options I had available to me for this list, I went with a Bruno-fucking-Mattei flick so famously dumb it should come with its own wisecracking shadow robots.
“Borrowing” liberally from Dawn of the Dead and Zombie, and making use of egregiously inappropriate stock footage, Hell of the Living Dead is funnier than most comedies and more entertaining (to me) than the last ten Best Picture winners put together.
- Terror Train
1980 had plenty to offer slasher movie fans. Terror Train, a stylishly shot and well-paced film, was one of the best. Sure, the characters are dimwitted even for a slasher film, but the above-average cinematography and the claustrophobic setting make up for its flaws.
Alien Contamination – Alien gave you one chestburster. Alien Contamination gives you 12! That means it’s better. It also stars Ian McCulloch of Zombie and Zombie Holocaust fame.
Wait a minute. Why the hell isn’t this film on my Top 10 list?
Alligator – Animatronic gators. What more do you need in life?
Altered States – A story ideally suited to Ken Russell’s psychedelic-kitsch aesthetic.
Anthropophagus – Joe D’Amato’s famously dopey cannibal horror film has its charms.
Invasion of the Flesh Hunters – John Saxon + Giovanni Lombardo Radice + cannibalism = a movie both actors seem embarrassed about.
Don’t Go in the House – Gloomy, gruesome character-study-slasher overshadowed by the similar but better Maniac.
Dressed to Kill – Brian de Palma does a giallo and it turns out pretty well.
Fade to Black – Fan-favorite slasher features a sympathetic killer a lot of viewers can relate to. It’s not the least bit scary, though.
House on the Edge of the Park – Any similarity to Last House on the Left, including the casting of the same lead actor, is purely intentional.
Inferno – I love Dario Argento movies, but this one falls a bit short for me. That underwater room scene, though! If I ever obtain an HD version, I may be forced to revise my opinion.
Motel Hell – I dig the black-comic horror elements, but this film is way too long for the flimsy plot. It should be 80 minutes, not 103.
Mother’s Day – Now here’s a black-comic horror I love. It’s brutally violent, though, which can be off putting to some.
Nightmare City –Did Umberto Lenzi just invent the “fast” zombie?
Prom Night – Hot take: this film is a slashiallo (a giallo-slasher hybrid).
The Boogie Man – The most terrifying film ever made about a little piece of broken glass that sticks to a lady’s face.
The Changeling – A subtle, psychological ghost story lost in a sea of splatter.
The Exterminator – I’m not sure it’s a horror movie, but genre fans have embraced it as one.
Without Warning – That time two Oscar winners and an Emmy winner starred in a $5 piece of trash about an alien that kills people with fleshy hamburger buns.