There’s no doubt that the 1980s were a prime decade for horror cinema of all varieties, witnessing the birth of numerous subgenres and the golden era of the slasher film in the decade’s first half. There were great werewolf movies like The Howling and Wolfen, sci-fi creature features like The Thing, and monumental haunted house yarns such as The Shining, all making it a great time to be a horror fan.
There was no horror subgenre, though, that spanned the decade so prolifically as zombie cinema. What began in 1968 with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead slowly gained strength during the 1970s but truly blossomed into a phenomenon during the ‘80s. Zombie films became endemic to the U.S. in the 1980s, but also spread virulently to Italy and beyond as a worldwide obsession with the undead made them the decade’s most recognizable movie monster. Along the way, greater access to inexpensive video equipment slowly began to make the zombie film a fixture of low-budget, independent horror cinema, a status that the subgenre still enjoys today. All over the world, up-and-coming, would-be horror auteurs crafted zombie movies as their first shot at the bigtime. Some broke though, but many others have since been consigned to the dustbins of horror film history.
If you’re reading a list like this, you likely don’t need to be told to check out the likes of Day of the Dead, Re-Animator, Evil Dead or even foreign films like Demons or The Beyond. These are all rightly hailed as zombie classics of the 1980s, and are among the first films suggested when someone goes looking for an ‘80s zombie flick. What we’ve put together here are five more obscure, off-the-beaten path features to expand your 1980s zombie palate. They’re gory; they’re trashy; they’re everything you want from zombie cinema of the era. Enjoy!
Note: If you want to move beyond the ‘80s, please enjoy our list of the 50 best zombie movies of all time.
Director: Robert Scott
Cheesy, low-budget zombie movies abounded in the straight-to-video horror boom of the ’80s, and The Video Dead essentially satirizes that very reality. These types of films are almost defined by their own lack of ambition—it’s not Dawn of the Dead trying to make some cultural statement, and it’s not 28 Days Later trying to reinvent the wheel; it’s just silly for the sake of silly. The kind of people who watched this film when it was first released were the horror and zombie completionists, the people who were scouring the video rack each week for anything new and gross that they hadn’t seen. This one simply stands out for being particularly goofy, with a gang of zombies that manage to clamber out of a haunted television, like they’re in The Ring, before wandering the neighborhood and murdering the neighbors for sport. They’re all in tattered business suits for whatever reason, like they just got off a shift at the local insurance agency. The whole thing takes place because of a shipping error which sent the cursed TV to the wrong address, as it was apparently meant for the “Institute For the Studies of the Occult.” It even features a protagonist who is a disgruntled, hobo-looking fellow called “the garbageman,” so named because he takes out “human garbage.” It’s just absurd, vintage ’80s zombie silliness that is as hilarious as it is stupid. This is a film where a zombie wearing a wedding dress pops out of a washing machine to strangle a housewife—just go with it. —Jim Vorel
Director: Umberto Lenzi
If you love ludicrous foreign horror cinema, and especially batshit crazy Italian zombie movies, then Nightmare City is like the holy grail of your subgenre. Because this movie is insane. Its zombies are irradiated and pizza-faced, with ridiculous makeup and a compulsion to drink blood like they’re vampires, because the radiation is destroying their own red blood cells. They’re unique for zombies in the sense that they retain some cognition—enough to pretend that they’re uninfected until they’re within range of people to kill. And oh, how they kill! These zombies are armed to the teeth with knives, axes, even machineguns. I repeat: This movie features machinegun-firing zombies, priestly zombies, doctor zombies and even zombies that are implied to have somehow flown and landed a large military plane on their own. Add to that a delightfully wacky English dubbing, full of awkward pauses, strange voices and philosophical ramblings, and you have the birth of a camp classic on your hands. Nightmare City stars Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz (yes, the inspiration for the character in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds) as a rogue news reporter who races across the countryside with his wife, trying to evade the ghouls as she rambles continuously about the futility of the human experience. It all builds to one of the most laugh-out-loud conclusions you’ll ever see in a zombie film, and I wouldn’t dare spoil it. Suffice to say, Nightmare City is Euro-trash zombie cinema, but it’s GREAT Euro-trash zombie cinema for your next weird movie night. —Jim Vorel
Director: J. R. Bookwalter
The story behind The Dead Next Door is one of those cases that is arguably more interesting than the film itself: It was produced by Sam Raimi, using a portion of the proceeds he’d made on Evil Dead II, to allow friend J. R. Bookwalter to direct the low-budget zombie epic of his dreams. Raimi, for whatever reason, is credited as an executive producer under the name “The Master Cylinder,” while Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell pulls double duty—not on screen, but as a voiceover for not one but two characters, because the entire film has seemingly been redubbed in post. Unsurprisingly, this lends The Dead Next Door an air of dreamy unreality, and that’s before we’ve even mentioned that this film was SHOT ENTIRELY ON SUPER 8, rather than 32 mm film. What you have in The Dead Next Door, then, is something unique even for this genre: A grainy, low-budget zombie action-drama, featuring a combination of cringe-inducing amateur acting performances and touches of unexpected professionalism, all at once. The story revolves around an “elite team” of zombie exterminators stumbling on a zombie-worshiping cult, but you’re not watching this one for plot, you’re watching it for the gore. Seemingly made as an excuse to just practice blood effects and practical decapitations, The Dead Next Door sometimes feels like a backyard attempt to replicate the demented bloodletting seen in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, except with genre references that are so on-the-nose you can’t help but laugh. “Dr. Savini”? “Officer Raimi”? “Commander Carpenter”? They’re all here, in a zombie film that feels like it was never meant to be seen by anyone but the director’s family members. Still, there’s an odd charm in that level of shoddy intimacy. —Jim Vorel
Director: Mark Goldblatt
A truly screwball fusion of the buddy cop genre with zombie comedy, Dead Heat stands out as a genuinely unique concept from the late 1980s, one that faceplanted on release and has seemingly been forgotten at this point even by many genre devotees. This is a shame, as the film is actually startlingly creative as it takes the format of something like Lethal Weapon and then dips it into a vat made from the leftover bits of Re-Animator and Return of the Living Dead. Vincent Price and Kolchak legend Darren McGavin appear as a pair of villainous scientists, but the screen is largely dominated by the misogynistic antics of an extremely smarmy Joe Piscopo and his more sympathetic partner Treat Williams, who is killed and then brought back to life with experimental technology, having only 12 hours to solve his own murder before he devolves into a complete zombie. Stuffed to the gills with one-liners, expensive-looking stuntwork and top-notch practical FX, makeup and monster costumes, Dead Heat is a demented joyride that really never lets up for even a moment as it careens from shootout to car chase to monster spectacle. Sequences like an entire butcher shop meat window coming to life make for a memorably gaudy experience, in a zombie comedy that deserves to be rediscovered by devotees of the 1980s in particular. It genuinely has some of the best FX of the era, in a film many horror geeks have never seen. —Jim Vorel
Director: Andrea Bianchi
Infamous even among its Italian zombie horror contemporaries, Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is some premium Euro-shlock, which aimed to shock and offend the sensibilities of even the jaded horror geeks who stumbled upon it. Extremely basic in its construction, it was one of the plethora of Italian zombie flicks that looked to profit off the notoriety of Lucio Fulci’s seminal Zombi 2 from 1979, which was itself profiting off Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. That makes Burial Ground more or less a rip-off of a rip-off, which perfectly encapsulates its laissez faire attitude toward the basics of continuity or quality acting performances. The characters here stand out starkly for their utter strangeness, particularly the “child” character of Michael, who was in actuality portrayed by a 25-year-old dwarf actor. His oedipal attraction to his own mother is just one of the taboos confronted in Burial Ground, which pushes the limits of how much audiences were willing to incorporate Jesus Franco-style sexual deviancy into their zombie horror experience. The ghouls, meanwhile, have the mummified look of Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead, and the quality makeup effects are the best case for seeking out Burial Ground today—it’s obvious that this is the one area of the film where someone actually cared about the end result. If you’re in the mood for some really seedy stuff (and horrendous dialogue) this Halloween season, Burial Ground has you covered. —Jim Vorel
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.