One cinephile’s trash is another cinephile’s psychotronic treasure and a legendary haul of said treasure was created in the 1970s and 1980s. This was a landmark age for worldwide horror cinema before CGI domination, before the endless parade of remakes and before the Syfy Channel declared war on most of your favorite horror subgenres.
There are still some high quality survivors out there but the decline of the video store has eliminated one of that institution’s greatest functions: delivering the hands-on discovery process of films of this era.
There are very few opportunities for the adventurous to explore the stock of a mom & pop video store in search of strange and unusual hidden gems. The world of the on-demand film library is in its infancy and even at its eventual pervasive peak will not even be a remote equivalent to physical video store experience.
This article features 15 unusual horror films from the 1970s & 1980s (and one from the 1990s) that seekers of dark cinematic treasure would have come across in one form or another during their journeys into the world of VHS.
The films listed are all highly entertaining, some in different ways that others, and are in chronological order by release year.
1. The Bees (Alfredo Zacarias, 1978, Mexico/USA)
Screenplay by Zacarias
It was the late 1970s, the post-Jaws Revolt of Nature horror film cycle was in full swing and killer bee films emerged as a sub-subgenre in this wave of ecological terror cinema.
Fueled by the real-life American fear of a possible incursion by a particularly aggressive breed of South American bee, apian horror films hit the small screen in the form of TV films like Bruce Geller’s The Savage Bees (1976) and Lee H. Katzin’s Terror Out of the Sky (1978).
One the big screen front, Irwin Allen’s critically panned The Swarm hit theatres in 1978 as did Mexican director Alfredo Zacarias’ The Bees.
The Bees stars John Saxon as a scientist attempting the combat a killer bee invasion with the aid of an elderly bee expert played by John Carradine in a bizarre characterization.
An effort to communicate with the bees is a somewhat interesting element although that narrative maneuver was executed much more effectively in Saul Bass’ classic humans vs. highly intelligent ants film Phase IV (1974) and was also seen in Jeannot Szwarc’s forgettable Bug (1975).
The Bees ends with a scene that prefigures M. Night Shyamalan’s critically derided apocalyptic film The Happening (2008) with the swarm of bees descending on the United Nations with a message for humankind.
Certainly the most unusual of the killer bee film cycle complete with an inappropriate music score and use of stock footage, The Bees still manages to be more entertaining in its own cockeyed way than Irwin Allen’s highly disappointing big-budget attempt.
Note to all film actors: if you are looking for ways to improve your German accent skills, watching John Carradine’s performance in this film is not the place to start. Alfredo Zacarias, who replaced original director Jack Hill on The Bees, went on to make the killer severed hand film Demonoid in 1981, also featured in this article.
2. Crocodile (Sompote Sands, 1979, Thailand)
Screenplay credits unavailable
Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980) may have been the first truly great crocodilian Revolt of Nature horror film but the previous year’s Crocodile is still a must-see. Two doctors engage in a quest for revenge against the giant crocodile that killed members of their families, ultimately employing a Quint-style fisherman to aid them. This leads to a climactic showdown with the beast in the open sea.
One of the highlights of this obviously Jaws-inspired film is the carnage-filled destruction of a village by the titular creature using gloriously low-tech, pre-CGI miniatures. Director Sands, who incorporated fantasy elements into couple of future killer crocodile movies, also made the Thailand/Japan tokusatsu co-production The 6 Ultra Brothers vs. The Monster Army (1974).
3. Night of the Demon (James C. Wasson, 1980, USA)
Screenplay by Jim L. Ball & Mike Williams
If you love Bigfoot movies but think your favorites don’t have enough penis severing or Sasquatch on human rape scenes, Night of the Demon is for you. A college professor and his students seek to prove the existence of Bigfoot with disastrous and gruesome results as they come face to face with the creature.
Not to be confused with Kevin S. Tenney’s supernatural VHS-era hit Night of the Demons (1988), this film is Sasquatchsploitation at its most extreme and it proudly wears its exploitation film heart on its grimy sleeve.
Night of the Demon capped off the decade of the 1970s that produced a full-blown Bigfoot film cycle including Robert F. Slatzer’s Bigfoot (1970), Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) and Joy N. Houck Jr.’s Creature from Black Lake (1976). This subgenre is making a bit of comeback recently with films like Eduardo Sanchez’s Exists (2014) and Braden Croft’s Feed the Gods (2014).
4. Bloody Birthday (Ed Hunt, 1981, USA)
Screenplay by Hunt & Barry Pearson
No exploration of the “killer kids” subgenre which includes films like Sean MacGregor & David Sheldon’s Devil Times Five (1974), Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s classic Who Can Kill a Child?, Max Kalmanowicz’s The Children (1980) and Tom Shankland’s underrated The Children (2008) would be complete without a viewing of the very offbeat Bloody Birthday.
Three children born simultaneously during an eclipse explore their love of homicide while trying to avoid detection by adults including a sheriff named Brody (don’t you feel like you’ve heard that name for a local law enforcement character somewhere before?). Bloody Birthday is highlighted by some unique & unusual murder scenes including death by bow and arrow.
5. Demonoid (Alfredo Zacarias, 1981, Mexico/USA)
Screenplay by Zacarias, David Lee Fein & F. Amos Powell
Mentioned earlier in this article, Zacarias had previously helmed the strange killer bee film The Bees in 1978, a film intended to capitalize on the anticipated success of Irwin Allen’s The Swarm from the same year.
The director’s killer severed hand film Demonoid, sometimes called Demonoid: Messenger of Death, emerged as lower budget rival to Oliver Stone’s underwhelming The Hand which was also released in 1981 and for the second time in his career, Zacarias makes a film that manages to be more entertaining than a similar bigger budget effort starring Michael Caine.
Demonoid, starring veteran actors Samantha Eggar and Stuart Whitman, follows the murderous influence of an unearthed severed hand as it controls its various owners. The film contains an insane must-see sequence of the hand devising an escape from a medical clinic with pursuers giving chase.
Mexican horror cinema of the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by director Rene Cardona Jr. with such films as the killer shark movie Tintorera (1977), the self-explanatory The Bermuda Triangle (1978) and the very late Revolt of Nature film Beaks (1987) along with exploitation dramas like Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979) starring Stuart Whitman, none of which are recommended.
If Alfredo Zacarias would have dedicated more of his career to horror films, his off-kilter take on the genre would have very likely produced a horror filmography much more enjoyable than Cardona’s which has a larger cult following than it deserves.
6. Mystics in Bali (H. Tjut Djalil, 1981, Indonesia)
Screenplay by Jimmy Atmaja based on the Putra Mada novel “Leak Ngakak”
Doing research on Indonesian black magic, an American woman falls under the spell of a powerful sorceress and is transformed into a leak-a creature with a disembodied head.
A much rougher, lower budget precursor to the more polished Asian “good sorcery versus evil sorcery” classics of the late 1980s like Ching Siu-Tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) which is also featured in this article, Mystics in Bali succeeds with bizarre visuals and raw enthusiasm where its cinematic cousins Ho Meng Hua’s Black Magic films (1975 & 1976) fail.
Mystics in Bali is notorious for a scene showing the leak creature eating an unborn fetus. While the effects don’t live up to that description-a problem that afflicts the film as a whole-the scene is still a jaw-dropper for sheer audacity.
Other great moments include a climactic battle between sorcerers featuring a character’s brief but incredibly strange transformation into a bipedal pig creature. Isn’t the international horror film scene ready for an awesome new leak movie? Director Djalil went on to make the Nightmare on Elm Street riff Satan’s Bed (1986) and the cult favorite possession film Lady Terminator (1989).
7. Pieces (Juan Piquer Simon, 1982, Spain/USA)
Screenplay by Dick Randall & Joe D’Amato
With the classic tagline “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre”, Pieces takes viewers to a college campus that becomes the site of a series of gruesome murders in this delirious, nonsensical and tremendously entertaining horror film.
Spanish director Simon executes some outrageous and highly memorable murder scenes as he simultaneously manages to waste the talent of actor Christopher George.
Sadly, George was no stranger to having his talent wasted on the big screen during this phase of his career. Best known for his work in series television as the star of The Rat Patrol and The Immortal in the 1960s, George turned in a great villainous performance in Howard Hawks’ John Wayne western El Dorado (1966) and went on to appear in two more films with Wayne.
George made memorable television appearances in guest starring roles in episodes of SWAT and other shows but his best big screen work in the mid-1970s/early 1980s was his lead performance in William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976). The actor was cast much less effectively in Girdler’s Day of the Animals (1977) and the 1980 cult favorites James Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator and Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (aka The Gates of Hell) before his untimely death in 1983.
The improper use of a talented actor who deserved better aside, any serious archivist of jaw-dropping endings in horror cinema would hold the bizarre final moments of Pieces in very high regard. Juan Piquer Simon went on to direct the very unsatisfying Revolt of Nature horror film Slugs in 1988.