The 1980s weren’t just the best decade for zombie movies, it was also the bloodiest. This was the decade that saw VHS emerge as the new medium of choice for horror fans looking for gore and guts. Nasty videos were the order of the day, with viewers enjoying the increasingly inventive lineup of films centered around our lingering fascination with the living dead.
A movement started by George A Romero in the 1960s found new energy thanks to emerging filmmakers like Sam Raimi and Stuart Gordon. What these films lacked in budget, they more than made up for in terms of invention and imagination – and that was just the tip of the iceberg.
ten The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – 6.5
A young Bill Pullman has teamed up with horror master Wes Craven for this Haitian Voodoo-led version of the undead formula. Pullman plays Dennis Alan, an anthropologist who arrives in this war-torn country after hearing stories about a drug used in religious practices to turn recently deceased people into zombies.
Teaming up with a local wizard (Brent Jennings) and another researcher (Cathy Tyson), his search for the truth takes him into strange and sinister territory. One of Craven’s most underrated movies, The serpent and the rainbow has a frightening atmosphere, the tension only broken by superb moments of mind-blowing gore.
9 Dead and Buried (1981) – 6.6
Extraterrestrial writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett have followed the sci-fi classic with this unique take on the zombie legend. Play as a macabre episode of The twilight zone, Dead and buried focuses on a local sheriff (James Farentino) and his wife (Melody Anderson) who discover that the city’s coroner (Jack Albertson) is busy building his own private army of deadly zombies.
A slow-burning dreadfest, tinged with gothic, Dead and buried Also benefits from the sublime special effects talents of Stan Winston, who brings the film’s various horrific shocks to life with sickening realism. A fascinating and suitably scary film.
8 Pet Sematary (1989) – 6.6
As dark a zombie movie as you can find it, Pet Sematist is a baffling adaptation of Stephen King’s excellent novel. Dale Midkiff plays Doctor Louis Creed who, after moving with his family to Maine, learns of the existence of a cemetery plot near an old pet cemetery with the power to resuscitate the dead.
Which works well when it comes to bringing the cat back to the family but not so well with her recently deceased son. It is a film that will be remembered, not least thanks to the fantastic turn of Fred Gwynne as the likeable local Jud Crandall.
7 Night of the Creepers (1986) – 6.8
This cult classic horror comedy offers a pleasant riff on 1950s alien invasion films, albeit with a zombie twist. Fred Dekker was the go-to guy when it came to mixing fear and laughter in the 1980s as a person who followed this movie, The monster squad, can attest to this.
The night of the crawlers focuses on a group of students who battle an alien parasite that turns human hosts into killer zombies. Dekker performs the proceedings with aplomb, playing straight to a suspenseful tribute bolstered by the presence of horror favorite Tom Atkins in the main cast.
6 The Fog (1980) – 6.8
John Carpenter dipped his toe into the realm of the living dead for this story of phantom zombie sailors invading a sleepy seaside town. Life seems pretty idyllic for the residents of Antonio Bay, as they prepare for the city’s centennial celebrations when a strange glowing fog descends.
Unbeknownst to the locals, he brought with him the vengeful ghosts of sailors who perished in a shipwreck 100 years ago. With Jamie Lee Curtis alongside Adrienne Barbeau and Hal Holbrook, Fog is a brilliantly macabre affair steeped in Carpenter’s signature sense of terror and boasting a few memorable scares along the way.
5 Day of the Dead (1985) – 7.2
The third installment of George A Romero’s trilogy of the living dead, The day of the Dead might not offer the same tension and terror as its predecessors, but there are still plenty of visceral fears to be enjoyed alongside the series’ signature social commentary.
It presents a pessimistic vision of the future where the world has been invaded by zombies. The action centers on a desperate group of scientists and soldiers crouching in an underground bunker who soon find themselves entertaining an unwanted company. Filled with exaggerated gore and some memorable backdrops, The day of the Dead raise the curtain on the franchise in style.
4 Re-Host (1985) – 7.3
Adapted from a classic story by HP Lovecraft, Re-animator came out of nowhere to claim a place among the best zombie movies of the 1980s and an enduring cult classic. Jeffrey Combs offers a career turning point as Herbert West, a medical student who invents a serum capable of bringing the dead back to life.
Teaming up with his classmate Dan (Bruce Abbott), they begin testing him on human cadavers, but end up confronting fellow researcher, Dr. Carl Hill, who wants to claim the invention as his own. Hilarity and horror ensue, with Re-animator delivering headless heckles alongside brilliantly tongue-in-cheek laughs.
3 Return of the Living Dead (1985) – 7.3
Having touched the living dead with the years 1981 Dead and buried, writer / director Dan O’Bannon returned to the genre four years later with this splashy tongue-in-cheek effort.
As much a comedy as a horror movie, Return of the Living Dead focuses on Frank and Freddy, a pair of clumsy medical supply warehouse workers who end up accidentally releasing gas into local airspace that brings the dead back to life with dire consequences. A fun, frenzied and surprisingly clean take on the zombie myth, the film is all the more enjoyable for its fantastic punk / new wave soundtrack.
2 The Evil Dead (1981) – 7.5
Director Sam Raimi has hit the nail on the head with this much-loved budget horror. It’s an intoxicating mix of gore and jet black humor, with Raimi’s enthusiasm and ingenuity behind the camera combining to create a thrilling film.
Bruce Campbell plays Ash who, along with his girlfriend and three friends, discovers that his plans for a fun night in a cabin in the woods derail when they discover the Necronomicon, a book capable of awakening the dead. In no time, the gang must deal with goods, zombies and a completely inappropriate tree.
1 Evil Dead II (1987) – 7.8
Sam Raimi doubled down on the gore and the laughs with this brilliantly manic, big-budget follow-up to the original. Partly sequel, part remake, Evil Dead II retains the inventiveness and burlesque gore of the original with Bruce Campbell taking center stage for this hyper-kinetic follow-up loaded with special effects.
Raimi’s creativity returns to the forefront, with this story that once again centers around Campbell’s Ash who, after battling a host of demons in a secluded cabin, finds himself locked in with a group of aliens battling an army of aliens. ‘undead enemies. Gloriously exaggerated and so much the better for that.
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