The Best 80s Zombie Movies
The creation of the cinematic blockbuster (thank you, Spielberg!) and the rise of the home video market resulted in an unprecedented eruption of the horror genre.
The young audiences wanted to be scared and shocked. The movie theater was always gonna be there, but the possibility of taking the scares to the couch, next to a pizza and a Coke, demanded way more zombies and blood.
Horror was incredibly profitable for the first time ever. That's why the eighties stands as the decade with the biggest amount of horror movies released.
Here, we present the 12 best 80s zombie movies. The criterion used is a mixture of its importance in history, its cinematic quality and its ability to better encapsulate the decade.
12) Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
In any real '80s pop culture collage, we are bound to find Freddy Krueger, E.T. and He-Man, next to the larger-than-life Jason Voorhees. That's just a fact.
And in 1986, fearing that the franchise was gonna become stale, Jason was revived with a lightning strike to become the machete-wielding super zombie we remember today.
Appropriately enough, the franchise was also revived. With a new Jason and a decidedly brand new dark humor tone, Friday the 13th reigned again in the movie theater and in the movie rentals. Jason was again a force of nature, full of creative ideas for killing.
11) Pet Sematary (1989)
The norm is that novel writers aren't good at scriptwriting. However, Stephen King could be one of the exceptions.
With Pet Sematary, King was responsible for the on-screen adaptation. And thanks to the vision and intelligence of director Mary Lambert, the result is one of the landmark horror films of the '80s. Not a bad job, King.
From the great performance of Fred Gwynne to the presence of characters like Church, Gage, and Zelda, this film is just full of iconic moments.
A great reason for this success was King's treatment: The zombies in Pet Sematary are not mere mindless killers, but the actual embodiment of loss, suffering, and death. They have some horrible and dark wisdom around them. That makes them unpredictable. And memorable.
10) Dead Heat (1988)
Parodying two film genres is not an easy task. If the chemistry or the jokes are off, the "trying-too-hard" aura is immediately perceived.
Years later, the cult around Dead Heat has made it clear that the work of Mark Goldblatt did manage to craft a great buddy cop horror comedy.
Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo stars as two detectives fighting an L.A. gang that thanks to the criminal support of a pharmaceutical company, manage to revive their members, making them almost invincible.
Dead Heat includes scenes as insane as a battle in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant against an entire army of revived animal ingredients (you haven't really lived until you see a raw headless chicken attacking a human). Oh! and Vincent Price plays the mad scientist.
9) Day Of The Dead (1985)
In spectacular '80s fashion, the third installment of the Romero's Dead saga focuses much more on style than substance. Few films of the genre have approached the level of quality of the practical effects and makeup displayed in this movie.
It couldn't be otherwise. This was a legendary makeup team that included household names like Tom Savini and a young Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead), among others. From Bub the zombie to the horrible death of Captain Rhodes, the third act of Day Of The Dead will be forever in the historical references of the genre.
Even with its obvious focus on the visceral side, this is not a shallow movie. Through all the characters, Day Of The Dead makes clear its manifesto about the corruption of power and its negative impact on human communications.
8) Dead & Buried (1981)
With Dead & Buried, Gary Sherman practically made the perfect rated R episode of The Twilight Zone.
This film is unique since combines a B-movie plot with an atmosphere of professional horror of the highest quality. The plot takes place in a small fishing village in New England, where tourists begin to be systematically killed. The town sheriff (James Farentino) begins an investigation that will take him into a mindboggling conflict with doppelgängers, undead and a lot of mad science.
And in addition, this has the seal of quality of the legendary Stan Winston in the special effects.
7) Burial Ground (1981)
Of all the films that were released around the world as Zombi 3, hoping to take advantage of the success of Fulci and Romero, it's this film by Italian director Andrea Bianchi the one that has best aged over time.
Burial Ground goes straight to the point. The plot takes place in an old Tuscan mansion, where three socialite couples arrive to spend the weekend per the "professor" invite. The catch? The professor has unwittingly unleashed a curse in a nearby Etruscan crypt, reviving the corpses of the place.
Burial Ground is pretty disturbing from any point. It has one of the best makeup jobs ever made in a zombie movie (Seriously, there's no "generic zombie" here, each one is scarier than the next) and also has a bizarre incestuous sub-plot, led by Peter Bark, one of the strangest and most unforgettable actors of modern horror.
6) Night Of The Comet (1984)
The quintessential zombie movie of the Halley generation couldn't be left out of this list.
The story revolves around a comet that annihilates the majority of the population of-at least-Los Angeles and that turns a percentage of them into zombies. The survivors are then hunted down by a kind of "zombie corporation", if you will, an organization that basically collects humans and turns them into blood bags, to cover the needs of some infected people. It's a clever twist and reinterpretation of the zombie.
This film by Thom Eberhardt has great characters, led by power sisters Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney), who, although very different, are undoubtedly badasses and fashion icons.
Visually, this is one of the most glorious testaments of the iconography of the mid-'80s.
5) Re-Animator (1985)
Re-Animator exists thanks to the stubborn efforts of Brian Yuzna to modernize H.P. Lovecraft. Paradoxically, the final result wasn't Lovecraftian at all, but that didn't matter: Dr. Herbert West had been unleashed in the horror genre.
Jeffrey Combs is everything. It's the reason why this campy and absurd story full of deadpan humor and body horror works. His version of the deranged Dr. Herbert West is simply perfect. His obsession with inventing the immortality serum and the ethical and moral lengths he is able to reach to get the job done are equally frightening and hilarious.
West is protagonist, antagonist and even an antihero. I can't remember any other character that achieved that within the genre.
4) The Beyond (1981)
The Lucio Fulci masterpiece is practically a violent catharsis thrown at the spectator.
In The Beyond, Fulci set out to show his version of hell. That version is unpredictable, cruel and above all, inevitable. Each scene is more frightening than the previous one: In one, a guide dog murders its innocent blind owner. In another, a man is paralyzed by an inexplicable force and his face is ravaged by a horde of spiders. All shown with glorious details.
Demons, zombies, betrayals and darkness, The Beyond is a real cinematic nightmare. And as in any dream experience, the plot is unstable and only moves for the sake of our emotions. Or in the case of Fulci, to further torture his characters and the audience.
3) The Return Of The Living Dead (1985)
Dan O'Bannon did a few things in his career, but almost all of them were emblematic and/or incredibly influential.
The Return Of The Living Dead is no exception. In a moment where nobody dared to do it, O'Bannon decided to make a zombie comedy. And he did it with great quality and achieving success and cult status.
This is the film that introduced us to the emblematic Tarman and the iconic realization that zombies were only after "braaaaaaains".
Ah! And of course, this film is one of the best exponents of the cartoonish punk sub-culture of the '80s. This is a story that combines boombox culture, leather jackets, and multicolored mohawks with lowkey nazis and dwarf zombies.
What's your favorite 1980s zombie movie?
2) Demons 2 (1986)
With Demons--also highly recommended!--, Lamberto Bava took the corrosive satire to a new "cool as fuck" level. That movie included punks, heavy metal and motorcycle heroes decapitating demonic undead with katanas INSIDE a movie theater.
However, it was the sequel that better covered the sub-genre within the '80s yuppie culture. This time, Bava mocked the demonization of TV by making make it an actual demon-spawning device. All inside a high-rise building full of diverse characters.
The building structure presented the opportunity to tell the tale with different mini-stories (one per apartment), one more hilarious than the other. And on top of that, the movie has Gianlorenzo Battaglia's fantastic cinematography and the acting debut of Asia Argento.
1) Evil Dead 2 (1987)
In more than one way, Evil Dead 2 was the absolute perfect redo of the already marvelous-1981's The Evil Dead. Sorry, I didn' want to put both on this list.
This sequel-reboot-tonal-change from the first violent adventure of the great Ash Williams against the Deadites is a mix of cartoonish slapstick, hardcore violence, and demons.
With Evil Dead 2, Sam Raimi practically invented the splatstick. And it was so far ahead of its time, that it wouldn't be until the '90s and beyond where its legacy and influence was starting to be perceived.
But Evil Dead 2's legacy transcends the boundaries of the genre. This cinematic effort (which deserves its own movie, btw) is an absolute love letter to the craft of making movies. Quite simply, this is one of those projects that turned most of its participants into the next iconic generation of filmmakers.
We hope you enjoyed our list of the best 1980s zombie movies. Don't forget to check out our list of the best zombie films of all time. You'll find enough thrills and laughs there to cover your taste for flesh-eating cinema for a year.
© 2019 Sam Shepards