20. Chopping Mall
Director: Jim Wynorski
The original title of Killbots is a lot more accurate, but you can’t deny that Chopping Mall has a good ring to it. It’s another horror flick that perfectly captures the 1980s teen zeitgeist—imagine The Breakfast Club in a mall, crossed with a homicidal version of Johnny Five from Short Circuit, and you’re there. From there, it’s just teens vs. robots, absolutely nothing complicated or fancy because “fancy” was not in the budget. The trailer proclaims that they “broke into the mall for the wildest all-night party of their lives,” but what they get instead are electrocutions and the best exploding head scene outside of Scanners.
19. Moron Movies
Director: Len Cella
Moron Movies is unlike every other entry on this list. It was made by a single man, and it’s not a feature. Rather, it’s one of the clearest and least-guarded glimpses you’ll ever get into the life of a lonely, middle-aged human being. The brainchild of the perpetually morose-looking Len Cella, Moron Movies is essentially a compilation of short, “comedic” clips directed by and starring Cella. And when I say “short,” I mean they’re mostly about 15 seconds long, and each individually labeled with titles like “Hamburger Comedian” and “Man With Thumb Stuck in Bowling Ball.” They don’t contain jokes so much as “jokelets,” the smallest possible suggestions of a joke that you can imagine, as if every one was conceived only moments before it was filmed. Johnny Carson found them spellbindingly weird, to the extent that he featured Cella on the show several times between 1983-1985. To really understand the brilliance of a Len Cella segment such as “How to Protect Yourself,” though, you simply have to see it.
18. Dead Alive (aka Braindead)
Director: Peter Jackson
Before he was the Oscar-winning director of The Lord of the Rings or even the passable director of The Frighteners, Peter Jackson was the Grand High Gore-Meister of New Zealand. Dead Alive is his masterpiece in that respect, and one might even call it the masterpiece of the “gory comedy horror” sub-genre in general. It starts out as a film more gross in its portrayal of the elderly than anything and then devolves from there into one of the grossest, bloodiest films ever made. Every method of zombie mutilation imaginable takes place in just over an hour and a half, including one with a lamp shoved into its skull like a jack-o-lantern. Nothing, though, can compare with the final scene, the infamous lawnmower massacre. Watching this, it’s nearly inconceivable that producers over at New Line said, “Sure, let’s give this guy $300 million to make some fantasy epics, sounds good.”
17. Enter the Ninja
Director: Menahem Golan
This movie and its successors are pretty much the reason why the historical concept of the “ninja” is largely unknown to the average person today. What we think of is the Hollywood ninja, and I’m fine with it—these ninjas are way more entertaining anyway. Enter the Ninja was the first of the big American ninja B movies, the films that established so many stereotypes for hacks like Godfrey Ho to cash in on later. Primary color jumpsuits? Check. Throwing stars? Check. Caucasian guy as the primary ninja hero? Naturally. Ninjas were the “ultimate martial artists” of the 1980s, and it all starts with Enter the Ninja. Every movie about silent warriors since then is in debt to this one.
16. To Die is Hard
Director: Glenn Berggoetz
Let it be known: I love Glenn Berggoetz. Who is Glenn Berggoetz? He’s the man who can lay claim to the title of “director of the lowest-grossing film of all time” in reference to the $11 opening weekend of 2011’s The Worst Movie Ever! (Yes, that’s the real title.) His best-made film, though, is To Die is Hard, a shameless Die Hard parody about an English professor fighting terrorists on campus, in which he plays the lead role. A rogue filmmaker and shameless promoter, Berggoetz completed the feature for less than $2,000, making it one of the cheapest films on the list. The man is a genius when it comes to organization and getting things done on a budget that even you or I could scrape together, managing to make multiple features on a part-time professor’s salary. There’s nobody else like him—Berggoetz is the eternal Hollywood optimist, never giving up on his dreams. It’s impossible to not be charmed by his zero-budget gumption.
15. Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine
Director: Norman Taurog
Another Vincent Price vehicle with a great title, this one is anything but horror. Instead, this is a spoof of sorts on the spy movie genre, featuring Price as the nefarious Dr. Goldfoot, whose only defining characteristic is that he wears pointy gold shoes for no apparent reason. A genius in the field of robotics, he builds sexy female automatons to sleep with various world leaders and captains of industry, then steal their wealth and/or state secrets. As you can probably tell from that description, the first Austin Powers movie actually owed a lot to this plot. Dr. Goldfoot is pure, unadulterated 1960s camp of the highest order, always funny and never boring. It all wraps up with a five-minute chase sequence that rivals the infamous 1966 Batman “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” sequence in sheer lunacy.
Director: Jordan Downey
I think one of the reasons Thankskilling works so well is the disconnect between the quality of its writing and direction vs. the capability of the actors to deliver that material. For a movie that more than follows through on a DVD menu promise of “tits in the first second,” it’s not egregiously written, embarking on an ambitiously bizarre campaign of surrealism from the very get-go. It’s just a little bit less schlocky in its construction than you would expect a film about a killer turkey to be, and yet the quality of the acting is even worse than anticipated. Thanks to scenes such as the turkey impersonating a girl’s father by wearing his severed face, Thankskilling has made itself into a self-aware but still transgressive holiday classic for the modern age.
13. Return of the Living Dead
Director: Dan O’Bannon
It occurs to me that a lot of these films reek of the 1980s—especially this one—but it was a banner decade as far as a certain subset of B movies were concerned. It was a time when tasteless films zeroed in on youth culture with caricatures that have turned into pure camp when viewed 30 years later, and Return of the Living Dead is a prime example. The group of punk kids have names like “Spider,” “Trash” and “Scuz,” and there’s Linnea Quigley taking off her top (and bottom) once again. The zombies, meanwhile, subvert the Romero formula by being highly intelligent, especially if they’re recently turned. A great display of practical special effects, it has some truly iconic scenes such as the bisected dog biology exhibit that comes back to life. Also featured: “Tar Man,” maybe the coolest-looking zombie ever. The film established the trope that zombies ate human brains specifically, which has persisted and caused confusion in the public consciousness ever since.
12. House on Haunted Hill
Director: William Castle
We’ve hit a few William Castle features on this countdown, but House on Haunted Hill is the guy’s masterpiece. It’s got it all: Vincent Price at his goofiest, a big spooky house, a mystery and a profoundly non-frightening walking skeleton. The gimmick this time around was referred to by Castle as “Emergo,” and it amounted to a plastic skeleton on a pulley system being flown over the audience—not his most creative, but shameless enough that only Castle would stoop so low. To me, this is the quintessential 1950s horror film, even though it comes at the end of the decade. It’s totally tame by today’s standards but has some fun, over-the-top performances, a bit of witty dialog and a large helping of cheese. I can watch this thing over and over without getting tired of it.
11. Plan 9 From Outer Space
Director: Ed Wood
For decades, Plan 9 was the de-facto answer to “What is the worst movie ever made?” But although it’s certainly bad, it’s not quite that bad—or maybe it is, and we’re just willing to forgive because it’s also quite charming. It’s just a nothing of a movie, practically plotless and featuring some of Wood’s most nonsensical dialog. The alien characters in particular are written as these totally ineffectual pseudo-intellectuals, lambasting the humans about “your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” As most bad movie fans know, Bela Lugosi died in the course of filming, and unrelated footage he’d shot for other half-finished Ed Wood projects was cycled into the finished product. Some scenes also featured chiropractor Tom Mason impersonating Lugosi by crudely holding his cape over his face, as if no one would notice. It’s perfectly emblematic of Wood’s laissez-faire filmmaking.