17. Epidemic (1987)
The middle film in the Europa trilogy (which started with 1984’s Element of the Crime, and concluded with 1991’s Europa), Epidemic has Danish director Lars von Trier taking a rare turn in front of the camera, where he’s joined by co-screenwriter and co-star Niels Vørse in this eerie meta-horror film. Portraying simulacrum versions of themselves, the film features a frustrated director (von Trier) and a struggling screenwriter (Vørse) as they spend 18 months trying to concoct a suitable and bankable horror movie.
Intercut with scenes and sequences from the movie they’re writing, wherein von Trier is a rather dissident Dr. Memer trying to manufacture a cure for the titular epidemic. As the film progresses, things get more and more sinister, strange, and ultimately horrific –– the chilling capsheaf conclusion is particularly cruelly rewarding –– and Epidemic is also fascinating in that all of the director’s cinematic obsessions are proleptically displayed, making it must-see stuff for fans and the curious alike (plus it gets bonus points for featuring cult icon Udo Kier in his first von Trier film appearance).
16. Dudes (1987)
Enraged, absurd, and oddly entertaining, director/punk rock sympathizer Penelope Spheeris (who’s earlier 1983 film Suburbia is further on up this list) reimagines a Wild West-style adventure, in natty, denim and leather-attired modern dress, with Dudes. Grant (Jon Cryer), Biscuit (Daniel Roebuck), and Milo (Flea) are three Manhattan punkers bound for Los Angeles via Volkswagen Beetle only to find the need for revenge and vigilantism after some nasty redneck bikers do them some considerable wrongs.
Buoyed by a brilliant (and loud) soundtrack that includes Jane’s Addiction, Megadeth, and the Vandals, Spheeris also populates the picture with a quirky Elvis impersonator (Pete Willcox), and a seriously badassed (and well armed) gas station attendant named Jessie (Catherine Mary Stewart), to aid the Dudes in their darkest hour.
15. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)
The sassy, slinky, seductive, and endlessly witty cult movie TV hostess with the mostest, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson, awesome) made her character’s big screen debut with this campy comedy from director James Signorelli, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.
After inheriting a mansion (as well as an adorable poodle named Algonquin) and more amongst the estate of her great aunt (“I didn’t know I had a good aunt, let alone a great one!”), horror queen Elvira moves from her Los Angeles lifestyle to the sleepy, puritanical, and rather snooty small town of Fallwell, Massachusetts. Seeing this temporary move as a stepping stone on her path towards a lucrative Las Vegas one-woman show, she soon finds many elements of her new life rather appealing, despite the conservative politics and uptight ideals of many of the locals.
This silly, saucy, and often inspired comedy is pretty ridiculous, but charmingly so, and it’s a hoot to see the busty, sexually comfortable, deliberately lurid Elvira clash with the humorless Morality Club –– feeding them all a powerful aphrodisiac at their picnic is a laugh and a half. Sure, a lot of the fish-out-of-water gags have been done before, but they’re done with diligence and earnestness, and Edie McClurg is a great foil for Peterson, too. This is a goofy, maybe even great, comedy, with oodles of innuendo and several laugh out loud moments.
14. Night of the Comet (1984)
This neon-lit, tongue-in-cheek pastiche of Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Omega Man (1971) is buttressed by two strong female protagonists, in writer-director Thom Eberhardt’s influential post-apocalyptic party film, Night of the Comet.
Two headstrong teenage sisters, Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney), find themselves amongst a scant handful of survivors after a comet blows by the Earth, either reducing most of the populace to piles of dust or seriously effed up zombies. The two young women spend most of the movie either dodging or duelling the undead and some douchey scientists, and it all amounts to a surprising amount of fun.
Joss Whedon has proclaimed many times that Maroney’s 16-year-old Samantha was the basis for his vampire-killin’ creation Buffy Summers, so fans of that cosmology should take note and plan a sleepover with Night of the Comet –– you’ll have a witty, imaginative, occasionally scary, and enjoyably silly time.
13. Crimewave (1985)
This flawed, but undeniably energetic action comedy film from Sam Raimi (which he co-wrote with the Coen Brothers!), is his follow-up to the cult horror classic and surprise commercial hit, The Evil Dead (1981). A hit-and-miss mingling of black comedy, film noir, slapstick, and just about every B-movie convention you can think of, Crimewave unspools in a silly-strange underworld of hit men, femme fatales, and plentiful electric chair executions.
Fans of Raimi will enjoy seeing his muse, the iconic Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell in a small role, and Crimewave is also notable for being the first cinematic venture made by the Coen brothers, though this ambitious and inconsistent cross-genre caper is, by and large, disappointing. It was a huge flop, which easily could have destroyed Raimi’s career and reputation, but luckily he bounced back in a big way with Evil Dead 2.
But, as with so many films on this list, Crimewave has a lot of charm. If you ever got excited flipping through old horror comics or laughed yourself silly watching the Three Stooges, well then the odds are good you’ll find a lot to keep you entertained from this fast-paced frenzy of a film.
12. Critters (1986)
Sure, director and co-writer Stephen Herek (along with Dominic Muir and Don Keith Opper) will argue that their script was finished well before Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) made bank at the box office, but to anyone who’s seen and giggled at this fuzzy creature opus, Critters isn’t exactly a wealth of new ideas. But that said, this teeth-gnashin’ horror comedy, which would spawn a four film franchise, is a perverse and playful guilty pleasure.
When a spaceship full of Krites –– diminutive space aliens with sharp teeth and healthy appetites –– crash lands near the Brown family farm in the boonies of Kansas, it’s soon up to preteen Brad (Scott Grimes), and some intergalactic bounty hunters to wipe out the aggressive little beasts, and crackwise while they’re at it.
The cool creature effects are courtesy of the Chiodo brothers (their film Killer Klowns from Outer Space cracks the top 10 on this very list), there’s a unintentionally hilarious heavy metal anthem on the soundtrack called “Power of the Night” by 80s hair band Savatage, though performed by fictional rocker Johnny Steele in the film, and is it just me or do the fur balls occasionally sound like the Gremlins’ voice man Howie Mandel in a handful of instances? Sure you weren’t ripping off those little monsters, Herek, sure you weren’t. 😉
11. Night of the Creeps (1986)
Writer-director Fred Dekker, who had already established a beachhead with smart horror comedy fans having written 1986’s House (he was still a year away from his cult classic The Monster Squad), further endeared himself to genre adherents with his campy B-movie homage, the audacious Night of the Creeps.
With a main plot occupying itself with zombies on a college campus, heroic doses of alien invasion films and sadistic slashers also vie for room as a pair nerdy fraternity pledges (Jason Lively, Steve Marshall) regrettably agree to pull an over-the-top prank involving a frozen cadaver. Not only does the plan malfunction, the hapless duo let loose slug-like creatures on the quad, amidst undulating co-eds and sorority soirées.
As ghoulishly goofy as Night of the Creeps is, it’s also a pretty genius artifact of 1980s pop lunacy. A wealth of one-liners also ups the pleasure factor here, any my favorite zinger has got to be the deadpan from Detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins) when he blurts out: “I got good news and bad news, girls; the good news is your dates are here, the bad news is they’re dead.”
10. One Crazy Summer (1986)
Q: How could a film featuring Bobcat Goldthwait and “Booger” (aka Curtis Armstrong), that was written and directed by Savage Steve Holland go wrong?
A: It can’t!
Hot on the heels of Holland’s teen-centric 1985 cult comedy Better Off Dead was this similarly spunky reteaming with John Cusack as recent high school grad and art school hopeful Hoops McCann. Reluctantly led by his bff, George “Squid” Calamari (Joel Murray) for a fun summer outing to Nantucket, Massachusetts, it’s not long before Hoops is befriending the likes of rock singer Cassandra Eldridge (Demi Moore), Ack Ack (Armstrong), and Egg (Goldthwait) and the promise, not of an idle and boring vacay away, but no, that of a verifiably crazy one.
While the zany antics, infantile excursions, and surrealist silliness might not wash with all viewers, there’s still a lot to laugh about, and the first-rate period-perfect soundtrack (featuring the likes of Herb Alpert, the Beach Boys, Honeymoon Suite, Twisted Sister, ZZ Top) adds to the appeal. Odds are you’ll not find a movie that’s this much fun that also perfectly captures the youthful exuberance of yesterday. “Chilly dog?”
9. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
“What in the blue blazes is the circus doing here in these parts?”
Destined for a certain degree of cult designation based on its title alone, 1988’s Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a campy, colorful, and imaginative horror film written, produced, and directed by the Chiodo Brothers (Stephen, Charles, and Edward Chiodo).
When a pair of inept and intrepid teens, Mike (Grant Cramer) and Debbie (Suzanne Snyder) see a comet crash on the outskirts their bucolic small town, they just have to investigate. Seeing no sign of a downed asteroid they instead discover a big top circus tent populated by a pack of murderous alien clowns. Will the authorities buy Mike and Debbie’s attempts to warn the town? Will killer balloon animals, deadly cotton candy, and poisonous popcorn rue the day? Probably.
Despite what could have been a silly premise and a goofy gimmick overplayed to the nth degree, Killer Klowns from Outer Space sticks it out with ghoulishly great results (and a fist-pumping theme song from the Dickies).