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10 Underrated '80s Horror Movies, with Special Guest Michael Myers

Updated: Mar 3

Raon Group LaserDisc Classics: Pheomena, Demons 2, Tenebre

The '80s was the golden era of horror movies. Everyone knows about the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, but there's a treasure trove of lesser-known horror films lurking in that VHS bargain bin. Let's look at some, spanning everything from bugs to yogurt. Most of the content here isn't for the squeamish, so if you want to skip out, you can read my review of The Care Bears Movie.

This isn't a "top 10," because there are a metric ton of unsung '80s horror gems, and our movies are presented in no specific order. I own all of these cult-following films on physical media, and many were picked up from local video stores.

This list is free of major spoilers. Prepare for therapy!

  • Phenomena (1985)

This Italian horror/mystery flick belongs to the genre known as giallo. Translating to "yellow," referring to the covers of Italy's pulp thriller paperbacks, giallo films feature:

  • mysterious, gloved killers

  • plenty of POVs

  • plot twists galore

  • garish colors

  • stylish camerawork

  • memorable scores and soundtracks (Phenomena's music ranges from opera to heavy metal!)

  • copious amounts of gore.

Phenomena stars a young Jennifer Connelly and the always-welcome Donald Pleasance of Halloween fame. It's written and directed by Dario Argento, who is largely responsible for the giallo genre with entries such as Trauma, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Cat o' Nine Tails, Inferno, Suspiria and Profondo Rosso (known outside of Italy as Deep Red). Argento counts Phenomena as his favorite project.

Fourteen-year-old Jennifer Corvino (Connelly) has the ability to telepathically communicate with insects. Mocked, misunderstood and feared by her classmates, Jennifer finds allies in bug-scientist John McGregor (Pleasance) and his trained monkey. Wheelchair-bound Dr. McGregor offers Jennifer resources to uncover the killer who's been stalking students at her exclusive Swiss boarding school.

Complimented by music from Claudio Simonetti's progressive rock band Goblin, and a host of heavy metal artists including Iron Maiden and Motorhead, this fever dream of a movie is unlike anything you've ever seen. Avoid the U.S. retitle Creepers, which cuts out a whopping twenty-eight minutes, and features cover art misrepresenting Jennifer as the villain. Phenomena is currently available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video, but if you're really hardcore, pick up the 1998 pressing on LaserDisc from The Roan Group!

I have Creepers on VHS and Phenomena on LD. They both came from my friend, the late John Polonia of Polonia Bros. Entertainment, as did the next movie on our list.

Horror movies on VHS and DVD with a fake severed hand and a meat cleaver.

  • The Burning (1981)

Sounding like a line from a Preparation H commercial, The Burning is very much an exploitation film that doesn't skimp on the sleaze. This "video nasty" is more culturally relevant than it should be, marking the big-screen debut of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens! The Burning features special effects helmed by practical effects wizard Tom Savini (Day of the Dead), and a score by Rick Wakefield of the band Yes.

The classic "summer camp slasher" trope, The Burning was inspired by an Upstate New York urban legend. The film was released a year after Friday the 13th, on which Mr. Savini also did the effects. Word on the street is that Savini was never happy with the antagonist's burn makeup, which he had to render in short time to accommodate the shooting schedule. Regardless, The Burning contains very solid effects work, including plenty of damage wrought by hedge clippers: Once you start loppin', there's just no stoppin'! So great is the film's gore that it was initially censored from all U.S. theatrical and video prints. A suspenseful cat-and-mouse game through isolated ruins is a highlight of The Burning.

Some horror fans accuse The Burning of being a Friday the 13th ripoff, but unrelated, similar movies are occasionally released around the same time. (Think Babe and Gordy, Antz and A Bug's Life.) It's funny how Friday the 13th was an intentional Halloween ripoff, but nobody seems to care!

Free (like the rest of the site) bonus content: Here's a much-chunkier me with Tom Savini at Pittsburgh's Monster Bash in 2004, where I got his autograph. I was working nights at a juvenile detention center during that time, and would routinely binge on Velveeta! Yes, I was single then.

Tom Savini at Pittsburgh PA's Monster Bash
George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead poster book autographed by Tom Savini

  • Demons 2 (1986)

My dad never gets into horror movies, but I'll never forget the day he watched Demons 2 on LaserDisc with me. He loved it, to the point of saying, "Wow, this is really something!" The son of acclaimed director Mario Bava (Hatchet for the Honeymoon), Lamberto Bava delivers Demons 2. It's essentially a zombie movie, as only Italy could render. Produced by Dario Argento, this film sees a high-rent apartment building spiral to the depths of hell as demons from a televised horror movie push through the screen to possess the building's tenets. It's up to a college student to get himself and his pregnant wife out of The Tower by any means necessary. A highpoint of this film is the puppetry on the more ambitious monster sequences; this is yet another '80s horror entry that puts CGI to shame. The English dubbing borders on ludicrous at times, but that just adds to the fun, and the film's great score heightens the tension.

Demons 2 doesn't waste a minute as it catapults you into terror, and it's the most intense movie on this list by far. According to my wife, it "makes American zombies look like angels." Basically the same premise as its predecessor, and with much of the same cast in different roles, Demons 2 is more of a remake than a sequel, in a similar vein to Evil Dead 2. If you've got a weak stomach, don't watch Demons 2!

The following year, The Video Dead has zombies emerging from a horror movie on TV. Hey, maybe it's the same coincidence shared by Friday the 13th and The Burning!

  • The Stuff (1985)

On a much lighter note, The Stuff is a tongue-in-cheek horror odyssey from the late Larry Cohen, who brought the world the killer baby with the It's Alive franchise. The Stuff proves that anything can be fear fodder.

Your supermarket's yogurt section is way more popular than it used to be, as droves of consumers line up for "The Stuff," an all-natural, non-dairy treat that tastes great... and eats you from the inside out! The Stuff stars Michael Morriarty and also features Garret Morris of Saturday Night Live.

I'm such a fan of this movie that I've already given it a dedicated article, and have a stash of the nefarious snack in my home arcade. The Stuff isn't as appreciated as it should be, so check it out. Just... not at the grocery store! Is this thing on?