From Frights To Fun: The Evolution Of 80s Horror


From Frights To Fun: The Evolution Of 80s Horror

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to my full reviews of the films referenced here!)

To me, the 80s is one of the best decades ever for horror flicks…with the 70s following right behind it. Sure, every decade since films started being made has it’s classics from 1922’s Nosfeatu to 2007’s Trick ‘r’ Treat, but in terms of sheer proliferation and the number of classics that came out of it, the 80s was an amazing time to be a horror movie fan and I am glad I was in my theater seat for it all the way. And as I have said before, it was a time where low-budget B horrors could still be seen in a theater, where they belong and a time I will always cherish. I will also admit there was a lot of garbage to sift through to get to the gold, but even those had their entertainment value, especially when you and your friends were sitting in your seats giving those lesser efforts the old MST3K treatment, years before that show even existed…and that classic show is also a product of the 80s, might I add. But the one thing I also find striking about 80s horror is a distinct tonal shift in the style of horror flicks as the decade wore on that can only be appreciated now as we look back in nostalgia. Darker and more somber slashers became flicks that were lighter in tone, more colorful and with far more of a sense of fun about themselves. Let’s take a look…

John Carpenter’s Halloween may not have been the first slasher, but it is the film whose success started the early 80s slasher trend as studios and indie filmmakers realized you could make a lot of money on a shoestring budget. The early 80s cinemas became filled with films that followed the slasher formula with the stories being set on or around a special event or time, such as the prom in Prom Night, or college hazing as in Hell Night, or a fateful day like Friday The 13th. And then, within that setting, having a group of young high school or college co-eds being stalked and cut down by a killer with a grudge, till one feisty young girl…or sometimes a couple…is left to fend off our killer. For the most part these films took themselves very seriously and had a somber mood and moderate pace with the violence level being anywhere from fairly tame, like in thrillers like Terror Train or over-the-top gory as in Willaim Lustig’s Maniac or Charles Kaufman’s Mother’s Day…though, let’s not forget that some of the gorier entries where a result of the success of George Romero’s ultra-violent Dawn Of The Dead which started it’s own trend of extremely violent horrors that predominately came out of Italy and was spearheaded by filmmakers like Lucio Fulci. There were some rare instances where a director had a more humorous approach like Joe Dante’s The Howling or An American Werewolf in London, but horror/comedy is nothing new and the early 80s horror films predominately followed a more serious direction at this point in time.

Monster movies like The Boogens or Without Warning or supernatural horrors like The Fog and  The Boogeyman also followed the slasher format with victims being isolated and killed off one by one, leaving a frightened heroine to fend for herself with the occasional surviving love interest to help her survive. And for the first two or three years of the decade, theaters where inundated with such horrors to the delight of screaming fans. And we got many a classic horror flick out of it. But like any trend, such as the 70s possession flick trend inspired by The Exorcist, these things run their course. But not only did 80s horror start to open up with more supernatural themed flicks like the A Nightmare On Elm Street films, that cleverly added an incorporeal villain and surreal elements to the slasher formula, but the films started to reflect the overall buoyant mood of the 80s with brighter cinematography, more humorous tones and even began to reference and acknowledge past films and filmmakers. The first ‘inside’ reference I can remember was Sam Raimi’s subtle shout-out to Wes Craven by having a The Hills Have Eyes poster displayed in the basement of the old cabin in 1981’s The Evil Dead…to which Craven responded by having Heather Langenkamp watching Evil Dead on TV in the first Elm St movie. In terms of the lighter tone, the first time I noticed it was back in 1982 with Friday The 13th Part 3. When I saw it at my beloved Oritani Theater, I was kind of taken back by it all. The film had a very colorful production design, had a lot more humor than the first two installments…including characters that seemed to be there just for comic relief…and seemed to almost be having fun with the fact that we’ve been through this twice before. Jason went from a creepy, deformed backwoodsman to a hulking comic-bookish monster complete with iconic hockey mask. The film’s trademark kills were a bit more elaborate and far-fetched, as if the filmmakers were getting a bit playful with Jason’s M.O. The tone shift seemed to be starting, but without knowing what was to come in following years, I was simply disappointed with the flick and had no idea the trend would continue.

And the shift did continue with the advent of Freddy Krueger who was creepy at first, but quickly became a wisecracking, demonic gremlin that pulled people into his dream world for elaborate and outrageously gimmick-laden fates. The movies were far more fun than scary, but these films at least were more creative and imaginative than the simple stalk and kill films that came before them, though I missed the intensity and the serious tone of films like The Prowler. Flicks also started to jokingly reference their inspirations, like 1986’s Night Of The Creeps which names every character after a horror film director of that era like “Chris Romero”, “Cynthia Cronenberg” and James Carpenter-Hooper”. We also got MTV inspired films like the music filled and music video styled Return Of The Living Dead, the classic The Lost Boys, as well as, the neon-lit Vamp. Those films were far more entertaining than they were frightening as The Lost Boys even has a touch of Spielberg in it’s over-all tone…reminding us of the stark example of what happened when Carpenter’s grim and gory extraterrestrial The Thing went up against Spielberg’s bug eyed visitor from E.T. in 1982No better an example of the start of audience change of taste in the 80s than was the beating Carpenter’s now classic sci-fi/horror got from critics and at the box office…though, I saw it at least three times in a theater!

The trend continued with even lighter and more humor-laced films as we headed toward the 90s with flicks such as Waxwork, Chopping Mall and Night Of The Demons which were loaded with as many laughs as they were scares and gore. The MTV generation was being fed films that were faster paced, brightly colored and took themselves far less seriously as the arrival of music video and the end of the Cold War had created an era that was a bit more overindulgent and the films of the day reflected this. Even somewhat more serious horror like 1988s Intruder and the 1985 classic The Re-Animator still openly had a good time with their premises and occasionally winked at the audience, which films now acknowledged were sitting there and were familiar with the type of flick they are seeing. Earlier 80s films rarely acknowledged that they were a movie and that there was a horror savvy audience watching, but the second half of the decade was filled with movies that referenced those earlier films and were quite aware of themselves and who their audience was. They played to that audience instead of simply telling their scary story. And at this point Freddy Krueger was turning girls into giant cockroaches and Jason was a zombie battling telekinetic teenagers. Even the old school boogiemen had traded in their scares for more outrageous and silly story lines with each installment, as almost every horror hit became a franchise. Michael Myers also returned in 1988 to now stalk his young niece…why not his second cousin too? Needless to say by the time 1990 rolled around, horror had become burnt out and silly until horror master Wes Craven would revive it as pop-culture-reference filled heavy nostalgia with a bite in Scream… but that is another story.

Another aspect of the shift that may not have been as noticeable to the average audience, but was very noticeable to film buffs was in how these films were now being made and how they looked. By 1985 the home video market was in full swing. I should know, I worked at a Palmer Video back then. Direct to VHS films were starting to appear due to the cost effectiveness of not having to produce film prints for theater showings. And a lot of the horror films of the later decade were being made with the home video market in mind. Even some of the ones that got theatrical releases lacked that theatrical look. Gone were the cinematic visuals and widescreen presentations. Flicks like Witchboard and Waxwork had the look and feel of a TV movie and were filmed in the more TV screen friendly 1:85 format. Only some of the big studio releases and films by veterans like Carpenter and Craven maintained that theatrical look in their visual styles and still looked like a movie made for theaters. A disappointment to those who find the film’s visuals as important as their story and content. And another example of how drastically movies changed from 1980 to 1990.

Whatever the course the horror films of the 80s took, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for these movies, good or bad. Whether it be the more serious chillers of the early years, or the reference heavy, lighter toned flicks that came later on, it was a decade when I came of age and was most influenced by movies and was still a time where a low budget flick like Galaxy Of Terror or Final Exam could see the inside of an audience filled theater. And not only was I proudly there to see it, but will never forget it. And now, decades later, many a night when my social calendar is empty, I can be found in a darkened living room, on the couch, with some of my favorite brews, reliving those days long gone, but never…ever…forgotten!

… and one of the reasons I now share my passion for those movies with all of you!

-MonsterZero NJ


The Oritani Theater: 300 Main St. Hackensack N.J Photo from the Mitchell Dvoskin collection




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(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

I have to admit, I am not the biggest fan of this flick. True, I was first disappointed because, I was expecting something far more serious from the co-creators of Night Of The Living Dead and Alien and instead got a silly horror/comedy trying a little too hard to be hip. But, over the years I’ve come to realize that simply not all of the bits work and it wears out it’s welcome and gimmick long before it’s 90 minutes are over. Sure it has some fun scenes and a few quotable lines and I understand that many consider this a cult classic and I respect that, but, to me the flick is mediocre at best.

The film uses the original Night Of The Living Dead as a springboard, as medical supply warehouse worker Frank (Poltergeist’s James Karen) tells newbie Freddy (Jason Lives’ Thom Mathews) that the film Night Of The Living Dead actually happened and and George Romero changed the details to keep the army off his back. The zombie outbreak was caused by a military chemical weapon called Trioxin that accidentally raised the dead and an army screw-up brought some of the containers here to Louisville, Kentucky. He shows him some drums that he claims contain the imprisoned zombies and… of course… one gets punctured and Frank and Freddy become infected and the zombie inside escapes. With Freddy’s friends on the way to pick him up and party in a nearby graveyard and warehouse owner Burt’s (Clu Gulager) misguided idea to cremate a re-animated corpse during a rainstorm, it all adds up to a night of terror for all involved as the dead rise with one thing on their hungry dead minds… BRAINS!

There is some witty stuff in director Dan (Alien) O’Bannon’s script from a story by Rudi Ricci and NOTLD co-creators John A. Russo and Russell Streiner but, a lot of it is fairly by-the-numbers, too and adding a lot of punk rock songs to the soundtrack doesn’t really cover up the fact that this should have been a lot more clever. It uses another classic movie as a springboard and while there is the initial clever notion that NOTLD actually happened and there was a cover-up, the film doesn’t really use it for anything other then another routine zombie siege flick. I do like the notion that they eat brains to ease the pain of death. That was a clever touch, but, aside from that, it’s just another board the windows and doors zombie movie with some only half-successful comedy and slapstick thrown in. O’Bannon directs the proceedings with a fairly pedestrian hand, translating the script to screen with very little style or finesse. The film could have used a director who was willing to really go for broke with the premise and doesn’t play it safe like O’Bannon. Even Scream Queen Linnea Quigley’s nude cemetery striptease is done quickly and over before you can blink without ever even trying to exploit the whole nude minx in a sacred cemetery angle. The gore and creature FX are well done but, stay well within the R-rated limits and the last act simply gets annoying as characters shout, curse and cry continuously about their dilemma but, accomplish very little. The slapstick reaches a fever pitch but, O’Bannon is not skilled or experienced enough a director to keep it down to a tolerable level and let’s his cast over-act and it just gets grating. The film basically showed us all it had in the first half and now just barrels along to it’s predictable conclusion. There are some fun zombie bits but, they are few and far between as the action remains focused on those trapped in the mortuary and warehouse… and splitting the characters up and thus our focus, doesn’t help things either. It’s no surprise when the film is discussed that the conversation and quotes are all about the zombies as the human characters never really register.

The cast all over-act a lot, especially Karen who you just want to shut up sometimes. Don Calfa as the mortician is in constant bug-eyes mode even before the zombie show up and Clu Gulager is shamelessly unrestrained the whole flick. Quigley is certainly fetching as nude punk rocker/zombie Trash but, her line readings are flat and her dialog, not much better. And the film sadly makes little use of it’s naked, curvaceous brain-eating sex kitten… again, O’Bannon playing it safe. Mathews spends most of his time shivering and whimpering as he takes over an hour to turn into a zombie and the rest of the cast play stereotypical Hollywood cliche’ punk rockers and hipsters… two groups that would never have hung out together in real life. Even heroine Beverly Randolph is reduced to a crying, shrieking mess and it gives us no strong characters to endear ourselves too or identify with.

So, in conclusion my original opinion remains. The film has some fun bits but, overall plays it far too safe and doesn’t really make good use of it’s premise. Anything clever the film has to offer is basically in the set-up and aside from a legitimately creepy dialog scene with a dead corpse, the film really doesn’t do anything new with the whole zombie formula except to make a joke out of it in an attempt to be hip. There is some fun nostalgia at this point and the flick is very 80, but, overall it’s an overrated attempt to get more gas out of a classic movie’s legendary status and needed a far more deft and clever hand behind the camera to succeed in what it set out to do. Watchable but, very overrated. Made enough money to warrant a number of sequels with only Part 3 being a recommendable watch…and one that might be actually better than the film that inspired it.

2 and 1/2 tar men.

return of the living dead rating





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This week’s double feature focuses on Trimark Pictures and two of it’s more popular releases Leprechaun and Return Of The Living Dead 3. Trimark was formed in 1985 and was renown for producing genre themed titles, such as these two, predominately for direct to video release, though there were some theatrical releases such as Peter jackson’s Dead Alive. Trimark merged with Lionsgate in 2000 but, in the 15 years of it’s existence it was quite prolific. I am not a huge fan of either of these two flicks but, they are entertaining and just needed a little bit more skill behind the camera and they could have been something really special, though both have a cult following and certainly pass the time well along with a few brews.




(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Leprechaun at no time expects to be taken seriously and while it is obviously a horror/comedy, the mix doesn’t always quite work. The story opens with Daniel O’Grady (Shay Duffin) returning from Ireland and making the outrageous claim to his wife (Pamela Mant) that he has caught a leprechaun and now, with it’s gold in hand, they are rich! But the vicious little fairy creature (a scenery chewing Warwick Davis) has followed him back here to the O’Grady farm in South Dakota, wants his gold back and will kill to get it. After dispatching O’Grady’s wife, the man manages to seal the creature in a crate, locked in with a four leaf clover, and then proceeds to have a heart attack. 10 years later, a single father (John Sanderford) and his daughter Tory (Jennifer Aniston) have bought the house and are fixing it up with the help of a trio of not-so-handymen (Ken Olandt, Mark Holton and Robert Hy Gorman). No surprise to say, the gold is found, the creature accidentally freed and now the occupants and their hired help must battle the murderous leprechaun as he terrorizes them for the return of his stolen booty. Will they make it to the top-o-the morning?

Leprechaun is a silly flick and I get that. I think my problem with it is that at times the humor and horror elements don’t quite mix. Sometimes it is a little too silly for it’s own good. It’s also a little too anxious to exploit the Leprechaun clichés and with a moderately small body count, a little too hesitant to embrace the horror elements. Directed and written by Mark Jones, who did a lot of TV work and a lot of it aimed at teens or young audiences, seems to be holding back when the film needed a more devious and over-the top-hand like a Sam Raimi or Eli Roth. It’s moderately fun, but could have been a real treat in the hands of someone willing to have a much better time with the premise. The film’s FX are mixed, with visuals looking cheap, yet, the gore and Davis’s make-up looking very good. The film does have a TV movie feel, which is probably due to it’s TV veteran director and while it does provide some chuckles, especially watching a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston going one on one with a little critter in a green leprechaun outfit, it just doesn’t really cut loose and run with it’s story and really spatter us with red and green like it should.

Cast performs well enough. Davis is the star and the diminutive actor is the only person who seems to understand exactly the degree of horror and comedy this flick needs. Whether it is slaughtering his prey or, dispensing typical leprechaun shenanigans, Davis is perfectly over-the-top. Maybe he should have directed. Aniston is a cute and feisty heroine and she seems to take her role seriously which helps make it work as well as it does. Olandt is the hunky handyman, love interest and he is fine as that, but the film wisely sidelines him and let’s the livelier Aniston take center stage when battling the nasty fairy creature. The rest are fine including Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’s Mark Holton who plays a sort of man-child house painter that is oddly comic relief in a film that already has comic elements.

To rap things up, I am moderately entertained by Leprechaun, but it’s not a favorite and I think it could have been much better with a far more twisted hand guiding behind the camera and writing the script. There is solid work by Warwick Davis as the title villain and at least the character is dead-on in terms of the proper mix of horror and comedy. It’s fun too, to see Jennifer Aniston…before Friends, Brad Pitt and needless generic rom/coms…as our heroine and it did generate enough interest to produce a series of increasingly silly sequels. Worth a look and could have a bit more impact viewed closer to St. Patty’s Day.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 2 and 1/2 (out of 4) gold seeking Leprechuans!

leprechaun rating






Second sequel to the cult classic Return Of The Living Dead decides to drop the humor and play it’s story straight with some surprising elements of Romeo and Juliet thrown in for good measure. I really wish I could like this more, but a weak middle act really brings it down after a solid beginning and then a really gory and over-the-top finale.

The film starts with army brat Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) sneaking his sexy, rebellious girlfriend Julie (Melinda Clarke, billed here as “Mindy”) into the secret army base his dad (Kent McCord) works at and witnessing a horrible experiment where a corpse is re-animated using the gas from a mysterious metal drum. When Curt’s dad tells him later on that he has been reassigned, Curt and Julie run away, but a motorcycle accident takes Julie’s life. Three guesses where Curt takes her body and what he does with it. Suffice to say, Curt and the re-animated Julie are now on the run, not only from the military, but from a vicious gang of Latinos they have a bad encounter with and Julie’s increasing hunger for human brains. Will true love prevail or will Julie eat the love of her life and anyone else who crosses her path?

Written by John Penney and directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna there is a lot this flick gets right and it’s sad the middle act slows things down and really kills the momentum of this otherwise fun and gory flick. Yuzna is a decent director, but doesn’t have quite the pacing or devious imagination Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon had in that classic and the film could have used it for the stretch of time Curt and Julie are on the lam. The set-up is well-done and well-handled, introducing us to both the young lovers and the zombie filled drums from the first flick. Once Julie is re-animated, the couple flee into L.A. and things really slow down as they hide out in the sewers from an army clean-up team and a gang of bad acting Chicanos. A lot of time is spent hanging out in a sewer pump room with a character called Riverman (Basil Wallace) and it’s only when the Latino gang lays siege to their hideout and Julie goes on the attack, with her makeshift body piercings (the pain helps her control her hunger) that the film slams into gear and the gory over-the-top fun begins. From that point on, Yuzna delivers, as we return to the secret base where a rescue attempt to free the imprisoned Julie leads to a zombie breakout bloodbath. And it all works and really well. It’s too bad that the middle of the film is such obvious filler and they couldn’t have padded the time with something more entertaining. It’s like the middle act came from another movie. Back on the plus side, there is some really well done makeup and gore effects and some very inventive zombie designs, as the military is trying to use them as bio-weapons, and it all makes that last act…complete with an oddly sweet and tragic final scene…work really well, as did the opening act setting up the story. But that darn middle act really slows the gears down and keeps this from being a consistently entertaining horror treat.

The main cast are all good. Edmond is a solid hero and believable as a frustrated army brat tired of loosing friends and his feeling of stability, when dad is reassigned. He then does a good job demonstrating love is stronger than brains and guts, as he protects his girlfriend, who is now basically a homicidal monster. Mindy Clark is very good as Julie and once re-animated she does a great job conveying Julie’s confusion, fear and at the same time, hunger and aggression. She really tugs the heart strings when Julie is captured and imprisoned in the army base and it’s one of the few times, outside Romero’s “Bub” in Day Of The Deadthat we feel pity and endearment for a zombie. McCord is solid as Curt’s dad, torn between duty and family and Superman II’s Sarah Douglas gets to play a good, bad girl as the army officer chomping at the bit to take Col. Reynolds’ (McCord) work away from him and proceed with her own gruesome experiments. Basil Wallace also gives us some surprising depth to his Riverman character and he has some nice scenes in the last act. The rest are adequate, thought, I felt the actors playing the Latino gang members were overdoing it, as was the script with the Spanish catch phrases. Do L.A. Latinos really say ‘esai’ that much? Ay! Caramba!

Overall, this is an entertaining enough thriller with a very effective set-up and a really good and gory finale. One that is sadly dragged down by a mid-section that is obvious filler to pad out the running time till we get to that finale. Too bad, a more imaginative and interesting way of making use of that time wasn’t found, as the middle act is simply dull till the blood and body parts start to really flow again. The scenes in and under L.A. lack the energy and imagination of what came before and comes after and it’s a shame. The main cast, especially our leads, are solid and there are some really imaginative gore and zombie FX to go along with a clever way of continuing the franchise, while taking it in a new direction. I really want to like this more, but that flabby middle definitely looses it some points. I still recommend it, if you haven’t seen it and “Mindy” Clarke does give us what might be one of the sexiest zombies on film.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 2 and 1/2 (out of 4) zombie hotties, though I wish I had it in my heart to give it more.

return of the living dead 3 rating