The 14 Most Controversial Movies of The 1980s

Cannibal Holocaust

This list gathers some of the most controversial movies of the 1980s. A time of major commercial hits and the undeniable boom of the blockbuster formula, the 80s tend to be seen as disappointing when compared with the serious and imaginative cinematographic experimentation of 70s.

The case of controversial and transgressive films seems to support that regard. Perhaps due to the commercial focus of most of the cinema of the time, most controversial films in the 80s were reduced to commercially successful slasher flicks; some of them are cult gems today. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the 80s, a decade of excesses, lacked major controversial movies.

Most of the movies listed here raised serious controversy due to the rawness of both their means and their taboo themes. Others created controversy due to circumstances of both their production and their time.


14. Twilight Zone: The Movie (John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller, 1983)

Twilight Zone The Movie

“Twilight Zone: The Movie” is based upon Rod Serling’s legendary supernatural 1950s and 60s TV series. As a horror anthology, it is composed of three remakes of some of the series’ most memorable episodes, plus an argued original story. The controversy created by the film was due to the tragic accident occurred during its production.

As a result of the pyrotechnics used during the making of a scene for “Time Out”, the film’s opening story, the pilot of the helicopter used for the scene lost control and crashed. Actor Vic Morrow and the illegally contracted children, My-ca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-yi Chen, were killed.

While Morrow’s daughters sued the film’s production, in which Steven Spielberg was involved, the shock caused by the accident as well as the illegal conditions of Dinh Le and Shin-yi’s contract forced the implementation of stricter safety regulations on Hollywood sets.

Due to that shock, the release of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” was widely criticized, especially for the moralizing tone of its stories that, though an essential part of the original TV series, were considered a tasteless joke after the accident.


13. Heathers (Daniel Waters, 1988)


“Heathers” follows the struggle of 17-year-old Veronica (Winona Ryder in one of her most amazing performances) as she is torn between her wish to belong to the top crowd at her high school, and the hilarious alternative a proud outcast classmate (Christian Slater) offers her: killing the school’s popular kids and passing off their murders as suicides. At the time of its release, “Heathers” dealt with issues surrounding adolescence not many teen flicks were willing to present.

Sociopathic tendencies, suicide and alienation are only some of the issues that made “Heathers” a quite controversial movie and, today, still an obligatory reference in teenage cinema.


12. Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)

Possession film

Andrzej Zulawski’s epic “Possession” focuses on the nightmarish spiral of madness a spy (Sam Neill) follows in order to discover why his delusional wife (Isabelle Adjani, who won the Best Actress award at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival for her insane performance) decided to end what he regarded as a happy marriage.

Apparently set in the old-fashioned triangle-conflict story, “Possession” is a widely ambiguous and seductive movie. Its erratic narrative and emotionally exhausting rawness raised considerable controversy, mainly due to the confusion they caused among both audiences and critics.

Some have depicted “Possession” as a torn and surreal allegory about the neuroses surrounding a broken relationship. Others have found a political message beneath it. Interpretations like these have made “Possession” an uncomfortably beloved cult piece among its enthusiasts.


11. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)


Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead”, a cabin-in-the-woods movie about demons released by a supernatural book, is an astonishing horror film driven into involuntary comedy mainly due to its cast’s poor performances.

Regarded today as both one of the best and worst movies ever made, the film was widely banned and criticized in several countries due to the brutality of its graphic sequences. The large number of such scenes – the infamous and disturbingly hysterical tree rape sequence was the main target – resulted in the most of the criticism and the many calls to ban the film.


10. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, John McNaughton’s amazing low budget directorial debut, is a fictionalized portrait of Henry Lee Lucas, one of America’s most infamous serial killers.

The film was entirely built upon Lucas’ delusional confessions and, in spite of its raw depictions of his murders and perversions, is committed to offering the audience a portrait of him through his own eyes; something it has been acclaimed for since its release. Due to the abundant brutality and amorality of its sequences, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was X-rated and had very limited distribution.

The especially ambiguous relationship in the film between Lucas and Otis Toole, another infamous serial killer, deserves to be especially mentioned. McNaughton was particular in his efforts to depict this.


9. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)


Set in an idyllic American town, “Blue Velvet” is a nightmarish depiction of the American dream’s dark side. Arguably David Lynch’s first major exploration of the denied inner perversity of the status quo, “Blue Velvet” is both one of his most ambitious and ambiguous films. Also, in spite of its overall success, it was one his most controversial ones.

As a film that established Lynch as an international star, “Blue Velvet” contains most of the attributes with which his avant-garde career has been labeled. On the positive side, it has been regarded as being surrealistic, delirious and shocking. On the negative side, it’s seen as aberrant, bestial, and yet cartoonish.


8. Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980)


“Cruising” is a thriller about a police investigation carried out in New York’s gay underworld in the 80s. It follows a detective (played by Al Pacino) infiltrating that world in order to trap a serial killer who is targeting homosexuals in order to make them take part in his sadistic games.

Originally X-rated and highly criticized, the currently incomplete film opens with an explanatory disclaimer as an attempt to defuse misinterpretations surrounding its depictions of homosexuality.

Nevertheless, “Cruising” raised major protests against what gay groups regarded as openly homophobic allusions. In doing this, the film has been said to set a precedent in depicting homosexuality in film.