Best Horror Movies: 1980

Last Updated on May 25, 2022

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Many horror fans feel that the ’80s were the best decade the genre ever saw, so this week we here at Arrow in the Head have decided to go back to the beginning and take a look at the Best Horror Movies of 1980. In the list below, we take a journey through 1980, picking ten of the best horror movies the year had to offer along the way. See what you think of our list, and let us know what your picks would have been by leaving a comment!

THE FOG (February 1)

Production on John Carpenter’s The Fog was a bit of a mess, and Carpenter has even flat-out stated that his first cut of the film “sucked”. The project always had an interesting concept, the story of undead sailors invading a seaside town, enveloped in a thick fog, to get revenge for their murders 100 years earlier. Problem was, the scare sequences just didn’t work as originally shot. Reshoots were required to punch them up with added jumps and violence, and those reshoots saved The Fog from being a disappointment. The film also receives a boost from its cast, which includes Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook.

best horror movies 1980 2CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (February 7)

Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is not an easy movie to watch, and I might be fine if I never sat through it again, but the fact that it is so deeply disturbing makes it rank as one of the best horror movies of 1980. An early found footage movie, it follows a crew that claims to be making a documentary about a cannibal tribe in the Amazon, but footage they never intended to be shown reveals that they were actually terrorizing the tribe and staging moments of shocking violence. Which is why the tribe ends up striking back against them. Cannibal Holocaust has the power to make you queasy even when it’s not showing those infamous moments of actual animal deaths.

best horror movies 1980 3THE CHANGELING (March 26)

After losing his wife and young daughter in a tragic accident shown in the film’s gut-punch of an opening sequence, composer John Russell (George C. Scott) moves from New York out to Seattle… and picks a bad place to settle into. A historic mansion that happens to be inhabited by a spirit that drags him into a complicated mystery. Directed by Peter Medak, The Changeling is a little slow, but also manages to be quite creepy while telling a very interesting story. Plus you get to witness George C. Scott calling a ghost a “goddamn son of a bitch”.


A lot of slasher movies came out of the ’80s, but one of the best ones was Sean S. Cunningham’s summer camp slasher Friday the 13th, which spawned a massive franchise that is still dearly beloved by fans more than 40 years later. It took a few films for all of the elements to come together for the franchise, but this is a great movie even if it doesn’t feature a hockey mask-wearing Jason Voorhees. The isolated Camp Crystal Lake setting is wonderfully creepy, FX legend Tom Savini provided some awesome gore as the counselors are knocked off, and Betsy Palmer delivers an iconic performance as the bereaved and insane Mrs. Voorhees.

best horror movies 1980 4MANIAC (May 10, Cannes premiere)

Tom Savini created some of the grossest special effects of his career for William Lustig’s slasher Maniac, but as gross as they are, they aren’t nearly as troubling as Joe Spinell’s performance in the titular role of Frank Zito. Driven insane by some major mommy issues, Frank roams New York City at night, murdering random people and collecting scalps to stick on the mannequins he keeps at home. There isn’t much to Maniac beyond murder scenes and Frank giving crazy monologues, but Spinell, Savini, and Bond girl Caroline Munro – who shows up as a photographer Frank makes a connection with – make it a must-see.


Stephen King may not like this adaptation of his novel The Shining, and some fans agree that the film dropped the ball when bringing King’s story to the screen. But if you can separate it from the book, director Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stands up as an all-time great horror film, an incredibly well-crafted examination of a family’s destruction in a ghost-ridden hotel. It’s packed with thrills and scares, and carried by unforgettable performances from Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers. When a film is this fascinating on its own, I can’t bring myself to be too concerned with how well it matches the source material.

Prom Night Paul Lynch Jamie Lee CurtisPROM NIGHT (July 18)

Halloween heroine Jamie Lee Curtis’s horror streak continued with this “dead teenager” whodunit from Paul Lynch. Prom Night is pretty much your average slasher, but manages to stand out from the pack due to the cast (Leslie Nielsen plays Curtis’s father), some memorable death scenes, a three minute disco dance break, and an opening scene that I found to be deeply disturbing when I first saw this movie at a young age. A group of kids are playing a “Hide and Seek”/”It”-style game called “Killers” in an abandoned convent, and their creepy game results in the accidental death of a 10 year old.  This death is the reason for all the murders that follow years later.

Mother's Day Charles Kaufman Frederick Coffin Michael McCleery Beatrice PonsMOTHER’S DAY (September 19)

Filmed at the same time and in the same area as the “killer mommy” classic Friday the 13th, Mother’s Day was directed by Charles Kaufman, the brother of Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman. It’s clear that Charles has a sense of humor that’s very much in line with his brother’s, as the film about an awful mother (Beatrice Pons) and her two dimwitted sons (Frederick Coffin and Michael McCleery as Ike and Addley) tormenting a trio of women (Nancy Hendrickson, Deborah Luce, and Tiana Pierce) on a camping trip has some really goofy, amusing stuff in it. It also has disturbing moments, and some satisfying violence when the women are able to strike back against their attackers.

Terror Train Roger SpottiswoodeTERROR TRAIN (October 3)

Jamie Lee Curtis was in three films that were released in 1980, and every one of them made it onto this list. She isn’t a horror fan herself, but somehow ended up starring in a lot of classics. Director Roger Spottiswoode’s slasher Terror Train starts off with a group of college students playing a really appalling prank on one of their classmates. Jump ahead three years and those college students are having a New Year’s Eve costume party on a moving train – and someone starts slashing their way through the partiers, switching costumes between kills. Most of the characters in the film are either unlikeable or bland, but you get to see some David Copperfield magic and in the end Curtis screams her way through an extended chase sequence.
Motel Hell Rory Calhoun Kevin ConnorMOTEL HELL (October 18)

Rory Calhoun delivers a terrific performance in director Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell, playing a farmer and motel owner who sells a line of smoked meat products that just happen to be made from human flesh. Calhoun’s character Vincent and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) capture people, sever their vocal cords, and keep them buried from the neck down in their secret garden, waiting for the right time to harvest their meat. Boasting a crazy sense of humor and some very strange characters, Motel Hell is an entertaining horror comedy that builds up to a chainsaw duel where one of the participants wears a pig’s head over their own. Classic.

Do you think these are the best horror movies of 1980? If you think we missed one, sound off in the comments below!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.