The 1980s are considered by more than one source to be the best decade for horror. And one of the ways he’s excelled the most is with zombie movies. Birth of now famous franchises such as evil Deadchasing the Romero Dead movies, and Russo Undead series, it sparked unlimited and undeniable creativity and potential, changing horror movies, especially those involving zombies, for decades to come.
The amount of zombie movies made in the 80s is staggering, but the most iconic stand out to this day. Every movie on this list has had a remake or reboot, sometimes several. The references and parodies of these legendary films are endless, as their place in culture is known even far outside of horror fandom.
So out of this impressive and extensive list of 80s zombie movies, which ones are the best?
6 The Fog (1980)
Fog opens with a campfire ghost story and maintains that spooky style while delving into its story. Directed by horror movie titan John Carpenter, the film is a surprisingly short short that could have used another 20-30 minutes for its brief but fantastic climax. It went on to be a hit, starting the decade of ’80s horror movies in a big way. Leading actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Adrienne Barbeau are particularly fantastic in their roles – Curtis even has credits Fog by changing his life. With an aura of jazz and the brooding fog surrounding everything, the best part of this film is the atmosphere Carpenter manages to create as he tells the story of the nightmarish undead who arrive with the fog in the small coastal town of Antonio Bay, in Northern California.
5 Day of the Dead (1985)
The day of the Dead is George Romero’s third film in the night of the living dead series, and begins with what is probably one of the most memorable opening scenes of any zombie movie. The success of this film, and the entire series, has spawned two remakes, as well as a recent television series. Although the film’s ratings are often mixed, it has a sure-fire status as a cult classic, with countless parodies and references. Most notably, the film explores the nature of intelligent zombies who can learn to do things like listen to music, communicate, and even hold a gun. 1985 was going to be an extremely successful year for notable zombie movies.
4 Resuscitator (1985)
Resuscitator is loosely based on a story by HP Lovecraft, which is part of why it was so good and its signature – it helps that it stars the excellent Jeffrey Combs. This hilarious horror film tells the story of a university scientist who discovers a way to bring people back from the dead – to revive them. He brings his roommate into the project, and they take their experiments further, reaching a point where their entire campus is plagued by zombies. With a deadpan style of nonsensical humor, bizarre, gory special effects, and the perfectly cast combs down the center, this move was an instant hit, spawning two sequels and cementing its place in zombie horror movies.
3 The Evil Dead (1981)
diabolical death was a low-budget horror that bent the rules of any horror before – and had unprecedented success for it. A pet project of then-unknowns Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, the small amount of money they had for the film helped them get creative with their special effects, which resulted in a style hugely entertaining that propelled Raimi to lasting fame as a director. Raimi originally wanted to make comedy films, but he was fascinated by how skilful and fun horror films seemed to be, so he and Campbell were determined to make a horror film themselves.
The main question here is whether evil Dead counts as a zombie movie. The “dead” are possessed by demons, but they are also, in a way, corpses of the undead. Characters are brought back to life, albeit through necromancy rather than some kind of virus or experimental science. At the very least, it sits in a gray area between a zombie movie and a demonic possession movie – maybe we can call them “demon zombies”. If we count evil Dead as a zombie movie, it definitely ranks near the top.
The film stars Bruce Campbell as the legendary Ash, who is one of the most well-known horror protagonists of all time. Each sequel movie gets more ridiculous and fun thereafter, but the first is the most gruesome and weird, starting with a truly disturbing scene, and progressing to both chilling terror and entertaining effects, as each character becomes tainted with demonic possession or is murdered trying to fight them – except Ash of course, who continues to have bizarre and fantastic adventures. The film was so well received that even Stephen King, after watching it, wrote a stellar review that called evil Dead “the most ferociously original horror film of the year.” This movie spawned sequels, video games, comic books, a truly terrifying remake (which is described as a remake, sequel, and reboot all rolled into one), and even a TV series.
2 Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Co-creators John Russo and George Romero made the first modern zombie movie, night of the living dead, in 1968, setting the stage for all the zombie movies that followed. But Russo and Romero had a dispute over how their sequel movie would be made, so they agreed to split into two different franchises: Romero called the series “Dead” and Russo called the series “Living Dead,” the two branches sharing the same original film.
The compromise worked well, and so Return of the Living Dead was born. Russo went into a more comedic, goofy, slapstick style than Romero, with The New York Times describing the movie as a “biting punk comedy”. The film follows Freddy and his boss Frank, who discuss the events of night of the living dead, before moving to Freddy’s girlfriend and her punk friends in a graveyard. Notably, the film invented the concept of zombies eating brains – and they don’t die from a bullet to the head either. The ending is particularly tongue-in-cheek, and the film has achieved cult classic status over the years, spawning four more sequels to follow.
1 Evil Dead 2 (1987)
Sam Raimi made his mark with the first evil Dead movie, but it was the sequel, Evil Dead 2where he really refined the signature style of the evil Dead series, and the wild story of Ash. This film intensely intensified everything that made the first one so successful – the low-budget special effects, the over-the-top story, the slapstick humor, the cheesy – all of it. And it worked even better, glorifying exactly the right kind of cinematic magic that fans wanted again. It’s one of those rare instances where a sequel is actually better than the original, and it defines both Raimi’s style and the style of the evil Dead franchise.
After the resounding success of his first film, Raimi continued to direct Crime wave, which was not as well received. In light of this, he decided to review evil Dead, and amp up everything people loved about the first movie. Campbell’s over-the-top acting serves the film well, making the character’s story gripping. It manages to be both campy and heartfelt, just like the movie itself, and the result is a fun ride that’s definitely the best zombie movie of the 1980s.