Ah, the 1980s. What a time to be alive! It was a magical era, especially for horror fans. The horror genre in the 1980’s experienced a boom and fans were treated to an onslaught of great and (some not so great) films. Navigating the endless horror exports from the ’80s can be a daunting and overwhelming task. But have no fear! Through an unscientific process of spending years perusing the horror section of the local video store, I have compiled a list of 80’s horror gems you may have missed. Next time you are looking for something to watch, grab for one of these lesser known classics and enjoy. If you’ve already seen some of the entires, maybe now is a good time to pay them a repeat visit. The films on this list are in no particular order and do not denote a best to worst list. So without further delay, I present to you eight 1980s horror gems you may have missed.
Maniac Cop (1988)
Maniac Cop tells the story of New York City super cop Matt Cordell. Officer Cordell is set up by politicians in the city due to his uncovering of their corrupt activities. Cordell is then sent to prison with the same street criminals he locked up. While showering he is ruthlessly attacked and assumed dead. With Cordell taken care of, business in the city returns to normal. But, as everyone goes about their daily routines, the killings begin. Cordell returns from the grave to punish those responsible and anybody else in his way, innocent or not. Maniac Cop is an enjoyable slasher that offers an unconventional take on the genre. The nice thing about film is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously which is evident by the movies tagline, “You have the right to remain silent…forever”. The film stars the late Robert Z’Dar as Matt Cordell, Bruce Campbell as Jack Forrester an NYPD officer wrongly accused and out to clear his name, and genre favorite Tom Atkins as Detective Frank McCray who is hellbent on solving the case of the “Maniac Cop”. Also be on the lookout for Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree in a small role. Directed by William Lustig Maniac Cop was followed up with two sequels Maniac Cop 2 in 1990 and Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence in 1993.
Chopping Mall (1986)
What could be better than having a drunken blowout party in a furniture store inside the mall? Well, not getting locked inside with killer security robots, for one. At the Park Plaza Mall the management takes shopper safety and security to a whole new level. Three state of the art security droids roam the property looking for trespassers and law breakers. The robots are monitored and controlled by a computer system that looks like something to rival NASA’s. During an intense storm, lightning strikes the mall which fries the new security system and the robots. Naturally, this sets the robots to kill mode. While clunking through the mall, they stumble upon our teens and their furniture store shenanigans. The adolescents are locked in a classic battle of man versus machine for survival. Will they make it out? Directed by Jim Wynorski, Chopping Mall has everything we love about the 1980s horror flicks: Gratuitous violence, random moments of intended and unintended humor, and killer technology. Rumors began swirling in 2011 that Chopping Mall was reportedly undergoing a reboot but details are scarce and it appears to be stuck in development hell.
The Prowler (1981)
In the 21st century, Dear John letters have evolved and become digital. Whether recieving one via text, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram I think we can all agree that it sucks. In 1945 Rosemary Chatham’s boyfriend was away valiantly fighting the Axis powers during World War 2. When she finds a new suitor by the name of Roy, she sends off a Dear John letter telling her ex-lover their relationship is over. During a graduation dance Rosemary and Roy decide to sneak away for a bit of necking when they are ambushed and brutally murdered by an unknown assailant wearing a military uniform. Fast forward to 1980 in the town of Avalon Bay. It is a quiet, nondescript city with quirky residents. After the murders of Rosemary and Roy, Avalon Bay had ceased all graduation dances. For the first time in 35 years, the town decides to host one. Soon after that fateful decision, area residents begin to meet an untimely fate at the hands of a killer dressed in a World War 2 era military uniform. Is the perpetrator the long lost boyfriend of Rosemary, or could it be someone else with an axe to grind? Directed by Joseph Zito of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter fame, The Prowler does not break any new ground in the horror genre but it is earns its place on this list of ’80s horror gems you may have missed. Special effects master Tom Savini also lends his special brand of slasher goodness which elevates some of The Prowlers kills to epic.
Silver Bullet (1985)
I was under the impression that most horror fans had seen this awesome werewolf film, but to my dismay I have found a large populace have not. If you have seen it, you likely know how great it is. Based on the Stephen King story Cycle of the Werewolf, Silver Bullet stars the late, great Corey Haim as Marty Coslaw. Marty is bound to a wheelchair and lives with his family and sister Jane in the sleepy town of Tarker’s Mill, Maine. A series of grisly murders (one of which claimed the life of one of Marty’s friends) puts the whole town on edge. Enter Uncle Red, the loud mouth drunk, played by Gary Busey in a standout performance. When Uncle Red comes to visit Marty, he gifts him a new custom motorized wheelchair that he has dubbed the “Silver Bullet”. Also, as a show of great decision making he leaves young Marty with a bag of fireworks. Marty decides to sneak out in the middle of the night in his new wheelchair to set off the fireworks. As he is enjoying the show, he is attacked by a werewolf. Marty is able to fend it off with a bottle rocket and narrowly escapes. Marty tells Uncle Red and his sister Jane about his encounter, Uncle Red doesn’t believe Marty but Jane secretly does. While Jane is out collecting bottles, she begins looking for evidence of a townsperson with an eye injury from Marty and the bottle rocket. When she is about to give up her search, she stops by the local church and is shocked to discover Reverend Lowe wearing an eyepatch. Marty and Jane have now uncovered the killer in their midst. They convince Uncle Red to join their quest and the trio begins preparing for the final showdown with Reverend Lowe on the next full moon. Will they be able to stop the werewolf and his murderous rampage through Tarker’s Mill, or will they just end up his next victims? Directed by Dan Attias, Silver Bullet is one of my favorite 1980s horror gems.
Motel Hell (1980)
Most of my cherished life lessons were learned from watching hours of horror films when I was a kid. An important lesson I learned was never to stay in a creepy motel in the middle of nowhere. Motel Hell is that exact nightmare scenario. Vincent and his sister Ida live on a rural farm which houses an attached motel. Vincent is also famous locally for his smoked meats. What the unsuspecting people sampling Vincent’s delicacies do not know, is that the meat in question is actually human flesh. Vincent and Ida keep their meat supply stocked by planting booby traps on the road for unsuspecting motorists. After falling victim to said traps, the victims are then whisked away to Vincent and Ida’s farm. Upon arrival, they are buried in a garden up to their necks and fed until harvest time. After Vincent decides to shoot out the tire of a passing motorcycle he proceeds to bury the male half in the garden but takes the female back to the motel. After convincing the woman her boyfriend died in the wreck, she decides to stay at the motel. Vincent and Ida have another brother Bruce who is oddly a Deputy Sheriff. When he stops and pays his siblings a visit he begins asking questions. Will Bruce be able to stop his maniacal sibling’s abduction and meat empire? Directed by Kevin Connor, Motel Hell is as hilarious as ’80s horror gems come. In fact, Roger Ebert was even quoted in his review as saying: “What Motel Hell brings to this genre is the refreshing sound of laughter.”
The Funhouse (1981)
Directed by the late Tobe Hooper, The Funhouse is one of those films that can easily slip through the cracks. This is especially true when compared with Hooper’s other filmography, which includes the seminal classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Funhouse tells the story of Amy, her boyfriend Buzz, her friend Liz, and Liz’s boyfriend Ritchie. During a date night, Amy and her friends decide to attend the carnival which recently came into town. While there, the teens proceed to smoke marijuana, heckle a fortune teller, and sneak into a nude show. Richie, meanwhile, has the bright idea for the four to spend the night in the carnival’s funhouse. The group decides to exit the ride and wait for the carnival to close. As they wander around the funhouse, they witness one of the ride’s operators in a Frankenstein mask murder a woman. The rest of the film is a fight to escape with their lives while they are pursued relentlessly by a horribly disfigured monster. Will Amy and her friends ever escape the clutches of the funhouse? While certainly not Tobe Hooper’s best, this film is far from his worst. It’s campy, it’s violent and it’s fun.
Related: Back to the ’80s: The Funhouse
In the 1970’s and 1980’s I am not sure who was running Hell as it seems Satan and all of Hell’s demons were on earth tormenting and possessing the living. This seems like a terrible business model to me. 976-Evil stars Stephen Geoffreys (who you may remember as Evil Ed from the classic 1980’s vampire flick Fright Night) as awkward high school teen Hoax. Hoax lives with his cousin Spike and his overtly overbearing religious mother Lucy. Hoax slowly begins to resent his cousin. He is especially spiteful due to the fact he is picked on at school and cannot land a girlfriend . Soon both boys discover the hotline 976-Evil which when called gives eerie horoscopes. Unbeknownst to the teens the hotline is secretly being utilized by Satan to corrupt mortals and to cause havoc and destruction on Earth. While Spike’s interest in the creepy phone number fades, Hoax comes to embrace it and uses the Satanic power to carry out retribution for all his perceived wrongs. Will the Devil succeed in completely turning Hoax into a mindless minion of Hell or can Spike stop them and put an end to the madness? While panned by critics, 976-Evil is one of those underrated horror gems that is sure to appeal to fans of all things campy and macabre. 976-Evil is also the directorial debut of horror icon Robert Englund. Unfortunately Englund took a 20 year hiatus from directing films until 2008 with the released of Killer Pad.
Terror Train (1980)
An unknown masked killer is on a rampage aboard a passenger train slaughtering his way through a whole litany of unsuspecting victims. One of those being terrorized and stalked by the lunatic happens to be Jamie Lee Curtis. Terror Train opens in typical horror movie fashion, as a young college coed tricks fraternity pledge, Kenny, into thinking they are going to have a romantic rendezvous. Instead of the promised sexual encounter, Kenny is horrified to find the corpse of a dead woman stolen from the medical school waiting for him. Kenny is rightfully disturbed by the situation and is sent to a psych hospital. Fast forward 3 years later and the masterminds of the cruel prank decide to have a costumed New Year’s Eve party aboard a train. One of the group is murdered prior to boarding the train and his costume stolen, which lets the killer slip aboard unnoticed. The killer proceeds to take out the group one-by-one undetected. I wish more slasher films were set on a train. It is an interesting and claustrophobic concept waiting to be explored. Terror Train also gets points for starring famed magician David Copperfield.
This is barely scratching the surface of the 80’s treasures that are waiting to be discovered. If we all have a purpose in life, I am a firm believer mine is to unearth as many of these ’80s horror gems as I can. In today’s busy world, sometime’s its refreshing to just sit down, zone out and get lost in the big hair, bad acting and implausible kills.