The 1980s wasn’t just the best decade for zombie movies, it was also the bloodiest. This was the decade that saw VHS emerge as the new go-to medium for horror fans seeking gore and viscera. Video nasties were the order of the day, with viewers lapping up the increasingly inventive array of movies centered around our enduring fascination with the undead.
A movement kickstarted by George A Romero back in the 1960s found new energy thanks to emerging filmmakers like Sam Raimi and Stuart Gordon. What these movies lacked in budget, they more than made up for in terms of invention and imagination – and that was only the tip of the iceberg.
10 The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – 6.5
A young Bill Pullman teamed up with horror master Wes Craven for this Haiti-set Voodoo-led take on the undead formula. Pullman plays Dennis Alan, an anthropologist who arrives in the war-torn country after hearing stories about a drug used in religious practices to turn the recently deceased into zombies.
Teaming up with a local witch doctor (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 films, The Serpent and the Rainbow is chillingly atmospheric, with the tension only broken by some superb moments of eye-popping gore.
9 Dead and Buried (1981) – 6.6
Alien writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett followed up the seminal sci-fi classic with this unique take on the zombie legend. Playing out like a grisly episode of The Twilight Zone, Dead and Buried centers on a local sheriff (James Farentino) and his wife (Melody Anderson) who discover the town coroner (Jack Albertson) has been busy building his own private army of deadly zombies.
A slow-burning, Gothic-tinged dreadfest, Dead and Buried also benefits from the sublime special effects talents of Stan Winston, who brings the film’s various gruesome shocks to sickeningly realistic life. A fascinating and suitably scary film.
8 Pet Sematary (1989) – 6.6
As bleak a zombie movie as you are ever likely to find, Pet Sematary is a suitably creepy adaptation of Stephen King’s excellent novel. Dale Midkiff stars as Doctor Louis Creed who, after moving with his family to Maine, learns of a patch of burial ground near an old pet cemetery with the power to resurrect the dead.
Which works fine when it comes to bringing back the family cat but not so good with his recently deceased son. It’s a film that sticks in the memory, not least thanks to Fred Gwynne’s fantastic turn as foreboding friendly local Jud Crandall.
7 Night of the Creeps (1986) – 6.8
This cult classic horror comedy provides an enjoyable riff on the alien-invasion flicks of the 1950s albeit with a zombie twist. Fred Dekker was the go-to guy when it came to blending scares and laughs back in the 1980s as anyone who has follow-up to this movie, The Monster Squad, can attest.
Night of the Creeps centers on a group of college kids who find themselves fighting against an alien parasite that transforms human hosts into killer zombies. Dekker executes proceedings with aplomb, playing it straight with a suspenseful homage 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 undead for this tale of ghost zombie mariners invading a sleepy seaside town. Life seems pretty idyllic for the residents of Antonio Bay, who are gearing up for the town’s centenary celebrations when a strange, glowing fog descends.
Unbeknownst to the locals, it has brought with it the vengeful ghosts of the sailors who perished in a shipwreck 100 years ago. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis alongside Adrienne Barbeau and Hal Holbrook, The Fog is a suitably ghoulish affair drenched in Carpenter’s signature sense of dread and boasting some memorable scares along the way.
5 Day of the Dead (1985) – 7.2
The third part of George A Romero’s undead trilogy, Day of the Dead might not deliver the same tension and terror as its predecessors but there are still plenty of visceral scares to enjoy alongside the series’ signature social commentary.
It presents a pessimistic vision of the future where the world has been overrun by zombies. The action focuses on desperate group of scientists and soldiers hunkered down in an underground bunker who soon find themselves entertaining unwanted company. Filled with over-the-top gore and some memorable set pieces, Day of the Dead brings the curtain down on the franchise in style.
4 Re-Animator (1985) – 7.3
Adapted from a classic H.P. Lovecraft story, Re-Animator came out of nowhere to claim a place as one of the best zombie movies of the 1980s and an enduring cult classic. Jeffrey Combs delivers a career-making turn as Herbert West, a medical student who invents a serum capable of bringing the dead back to life.
Teaming up with classmate Dan (Bruce Abbott) they begin testing it on human cadavers but end up facing off against fellow researcher Dr Carl Hill who wants to claim the invention as his own. Hilarity and horror ensue, with Re-Animator delivering headless horseplay alongside brilliantly deadpan laughs.
3 The Return of the Living Dead (1985) – 7.3
Having dabbled in the undead with 1981’s Dead and Buried, writer/director Dan O’Bannon returned to the genre four years later with this splatter-laden, tongue-in-cheek effort.
As much a comedy as it is a horror movie, The Return of the Living Dead centers on Frank and Freddy, a pair of clumsy medical supply warehouse employees who end up accidentally releasing a gas into the local airspace that causes the dead to returning to life with dire consequences. A fun, frantic and surprisingly sharp take on the zombie myth, the movie is all the more enjoyable for its fantastic punk/new wave soundtrack.
2 The Evil Dead (1981) – 7.5
Director Sam Raimi hit the big time thanks to this much-loved low budget horror. It’s a heady mix of gore and jet black humor, with Raimi’s enthusiasm and ingenuity behind the camera combining to for an absolute thrill ride of a movie.
Bruce Campbell stars as Ash who, along with his girlfriend and three friends, finds his plans for a fun night at a cabin in the woods going off the rails when they discover the Necronomicon, a book capable of reawakening the dead. Before long the gang are having to deal with possessions, zombies and one grossly 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. Part sequel, part remake, Evil Dead II retains the inventiveness and slapstick gore of the original with Bruce Campbell taking center stage for this special effects-laden hyper-kinetic follow-up.
Raimi’s creativity comes to the fore again, with this tale which once again centers on Campbell’s Ash who, after battling a bevy of demons in a remote cabin ends up holed up with a group of strangers fighting against an army of undead foes. Gloriously over-the-top and all the better for it.
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