The 80s were a golden age for cinema, especially for the horror genre, which saw an incredible boom that was a decade in the making. But just as there were huge hits that everyone knows about, there were other films that went under the radar of most, even though they are quite beloved today.
This is the case with 80s cult horror movie, a term that is often misunderstood. While box office classics are called that way, for something to truly be considered a cult classic it must have had a mostly low-key release or even a flop, both critically and with audiences.
However, these films have been gaining fans over time who see them as great horror gems, even though they are not as popular as Friday The 13th, The Shining, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and several other gems that have been ingrained in popular culture for years.
So don’t expect them on this list, because here you’ll find a selection of (sometimes cheesy) cult horror films from the 1980s that, while they should already be familiar to fans of the genre, will be a great discovery for those who are just beginning to swim in the rewarding lakes of classic 80s cinema. These are the
Best Cult Horror Films from the 80s
The Deadly Spawn (1983)
Dir: Douglas McKeown
We start with a film that you may not know anything about, but today it has gained a fan base that sees it as a cult horror film.
The plot features two campers who were having a pretty fun day outdoors, but everything changes when a meteorite falls near them, starting the reign of terror of a monstrous alien life form that only seeks to keep growing and eat anyone who dares to get in its way.
And as was customary in 1980s horror, the only ones who can stop this situation and save the future of humanity are a group of inexperienced teenagers.
In narrative terms, The Deadly Spawn (from Amazon) does not present anything too new to the genre, but what was revolutionary were the practical effects with which the creatures were made, giving them not only a slimy texture but also a row of teeth as sharp as knives.
In The Deadly Spawn, there are many signs of an amateurish type of filmmaking and a low budget, but that’s where its charm and a classic B-movie vibe lies. Add to that a creepy yet terrifying creature design and you have a more than entertaining film.
Dir: Douglas Cheek
When the full name of the film “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers”, you know something strong is coming down the road.
The story is set in New York beset by a spate of sudden disappearances that seem to be sewer-related. So a police officer and a homeless shelter manager join forces to venture into the underworld, where they encounter grotesquely deformed, flesh-loving vagrants.
With great height, glowing yellow eyes, sharp teeth, and slimy skin, the Chuds’ animatronics look spectacular, and the fact that most of their scenes take place in the dark gives them a plus in their favor.
It is true that in its premiere, this film was one of the most criticized by critics and viewers, as it was labeled as a kind of failed propaganda about industrial pollution and government lies, although for others, it is a film that they keep secretly as a guilty pleasure.
But if you ask me, C.H.U.D.S. (also from Amazon), despite its narrative flaws, has an element of originality that is missing today, as it is not only a horror film but one that shows a dirty side of society and its most unfortunate citizens.
Basket Case (1982)
Dir: Frank Henenlotter
You may know the song “Basket Case” by Green Day, but this film has nothing to do with that band. This Basket Case is an ’80s horror classic, a sort of reimagining of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale that has inspired numerous subsequent films and even an episode of “The Simpsons.”
Duane Bradley is a charming young man who decides to venture into New York carrying a mysterious basket that he always keeps locked. Inside hides his Siamese brother Belial, a deformed creature.
Both were surgically separated when they were small and Belial was abandoned in a garbage can since he was supposed to be dead. However, Duane manages to recover him and help him in his crusade of revenge against the 3 doctors who separated them, although a woman stands in the way of the brothers…
At the time, Henenlotter didn’t think his story would turn out to be a hit, but boy, has it carved out a place for itself in popular culture from the 80s. Much of that is due to his main monster, Belial, who has a most peculiar and at first glance funny design, as he only looks like a mass of flesh with minimal arms.
But don’t underestimate him, for this little fellow possesses enormous strength and a terrible temperament that makes him a chillingly compelling character.
Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1989)No products found.
Dir: Shinya Tsukamoto
The name may remind you of Marvel’s Iron Man, but trust me, this version is much more horrifying.
From Japan, came this black and white film centered on a young man with a metal fetish, so he places some metal in a wound. To no one’s surprise, his wound only gets worse, and when he panics to get help, he is hit by a car.
After the incident, the driver begins to transform into a distorted amalgam of flesh and metal, gradually turning him into the Metal Man.
With this work, horror proved that it could do very well in unexplored terrain such as cyberpunk, and what better resource than body horror in the style of directors like David Lynch and David Cronenberg?
Just by mentioning those two you can get an idea of the uncomfortable experience of watching No products found., but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. Plus, the soundtrack by Chu Ishikawa, who also plays the Metal Fetishist, has become popular on its own thanks to its “metallic” touches.
All in all, a sickly gem with surrealistic overtones not suitable for all audiences, especially Marvel fans.
No products found.
Dir: Stan Winston
There is nothing worse for a parent than to lose a child. It’s a pain so immense there’s no way to describe it, but if these parents have a chance to get their beloved children back, they’ll do anything, literally anything.
That was the idea behind Winston’s creation in this terrifying cult classic, Pumpkinhead, in which Ed (Lance Henriksen), a widowed father, loses his son to a practical joke by irresponsible teenagers.
To take revenge, Ed goes into the woods in search of the witch who lives there to kill the young men responsible for his son’s death but ends up summoning the Pumpkinhead, a demon out of hell with such a thirst for blood that Ed himself begins to regret his decision.
As an Oscar winner for his special effects in Aliens (1986), Winston showed in this film why he was one of the best in that category, with a creature design inspired by the xenomorph but with a more supernatural point of view.
Despite having a limited budget, the setting is very well achieved, accompanied by a cast of characters who play their roles well, although Lance Henriksen completely steals the show.
All in all, an entertaining film that makes it very clear why children are the most sacred thing for any parent.
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Dir: Dan O’Bannon
So far, the list has been 100% horror, so it’s time for some “comedy” to lighten the mood, and what better than the spiritual successor to the 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead?
In a more humorous tone, and featuring one of the great scream queens of the era, Linnea Quigley, “Return of the Living Dead” posits that what we saw in “Night of the Living Dead” actually happened. To prove it, Frank (James Karen) shows his apprentice Freddy (Tom Matthews) one of the dead who remains locked in a barrel inside his sanitary warehouse.
But unwittingly, they release the gas that brings the dead back to life and it reaches a nearby cemetery where some party-hungry youths have gone to spend the night.
With this premise was presented one of the most entertaining films of the genre, which beyond its excellent soundtrack characterized by punk rock and a perfect cast, the zombies are the absolute protagonists, getting into a host of absurd, comic, and bloody situations.
Although the film is not only remembered for that, but for the revolution it meant for the zombie genre. If you are looking for the reason why these creatures from beyond the grave love brains so much, you will find the answer in this story.
It wasn’t easy to create something to match the height of George A. Romero’s original film, but Dan O’Bannon, with an innovative and fun take on zombies, succeeded with flying colors, creating a whole new genre of comedy horror.
Dir: William Lustig
Because horror doesn’t always have to come from hell or space, sometimes monsters are much closer than we think, like in the apartment next door.
Maniac presents us with the story of a killer who moves through the streets of New York. He brutally kills women, scalps them, and attaches them to mannequins in his filthy apartment.
It’s his only contact with the outside world until he meets a beautiful photographer. But can a maniac leave his homicidal ways behind for something like friendship?
With this film, the director tinkered with the slasher genre to turn it into a psychological thriller, with a character study of a being as dark, creepy, and real as a serial killer, depicting his attitudes, inner conflicts, and twisted acts. Without a doubt, Joe Spinell gives an excellent performance as the intense Frank Zito, very convincing and intense.
Maniac is a cinematic gem for the prolific manner in which it was filmed, even though it only had the budget of a cheap and sleazy exploitation film.
Lustig went above and beyond, creating a story that is dirty and cruel but one that you never want to stop watching.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
Dir: Stephen Chiodo
I don’t know who came up with the idea that combining aliens with clowns was a good idea, but Chiodo took a chance with this proposal in the late 80s, and the craziest thing is that… it worked.
The movie starts like any other, with two young teenagers living in a small, boring town. However, they are the only ones who see a comet falling to Earth, and instead of being a UFO, it’s a flying circus full of alien clowns coming to spread panic.
If that wasn’t enough, the teenagers try to alert their town, but nobody believes that such an invasion is happening…
If you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you’ll think it’s some kind of parody, and it partly is since it doesn’t take itself seriously, but I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to meet these clowns even in daylight. They are truly grotesque and their personalities are even more so, doing such gruesome kills that only the most dark humor lovers will be able to tolerate.
At the time, Killer Klowns from Outer Space didn’t get the best reviews, and it’s certainly not a cinematic marvel, but its psychedelic editing and Machiavellian villains are more than enough to get a few good laughs, and a scare or two.
The Thing (1982)
Dir: John Carpenter
With this film, I go a little off the topic for this list because it is more than rooted in the collective imagination, although of the great horror gems of the 80s, it was one of the worst received by critics, plus it only had $4 million profit.
Starring Kurt Russell, the film is set in the icy Antarctica, where a team of researchers settles down to do their work, but they come across a terrible discovery: an alien parasite that is not only extremely aggressive but can transform itself into anyone.
Paranoia begins to grow in the group because they don’t know who could be The Thing..
Fortunately, time has put this incredible film in its place, and to tell the truth, its horror scenes and special effects have aged wonderfully. Undoubtedly, one of the best make-up jobs of the decade.
And I’m not forgetting its director, the legendary John Carpenter, who although he is best known for the Halloween series, with The Thing showed a great handling of paranoia, something he transmitted to his viewers, turning it into a science fiction and horror experience that you shouldn’t miss.
Dir: George A. Romero
Honestly, I think that the previous films have arguments to take the top position, although if we are talking about horror, I can’t leave aside the legendary George A. Romero.
Isn’t the King of Horror a title that belongs to Stephen King? Well, on this occasion, the two legends of the genre joined forces.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Creepshow is that it is an anthology, so it is not restricted to a single story, but 5 micro-stories written by Stephen King, full of horror and comedy alike.
In this parade of horror that pays homage to series from the 50s like “Tales of the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror”, big names like Leslie Nielsen, Ted Danson, E.G. Marshall, Viveca Lindfors, and other actors participated, making it clear that they had fun on the set.
Whether you’re a fan of zombies, cartoonish villains, insects (I don’t think anyone is), or fun horror, Creepshow has everything to please everyone, including a superb performance by Stephen King.
Despite a surplus of excellent cult films in the 80s, for me, Creepshow sums up the entire decade, with practical and gross special effects in a good way, a charismatic cast, and creepily funny stories. For an old-school film, it has aged quite well.
Wrapping Up The List Of Cult Classic Horror Films From The 1980s
At this point, don’t you feel like doing an 80s horror movie marathon? What a great decade for the genre, and surprisingly so many of these picks were slammed on their initial release. Fortunately, they were rescued by a community of fans who put them where they belong, in the pantheon of scary movies worth watching.