8. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
Crass, campy, and gruesomely violent, who could have guessed that this satirical superhero horror comedy film, The Toxic Avenger, would generate three silly sequels, a successful stage musical, and even a TV cartoon aimed at the kiddies –– complete with collectable action figures?
Certainly when directors Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman (who also co-wrote the film along with Joe Ritter), along with Troma Entertainment, set out to delightfully disturb niche audiences of their usual B-movie mindlessness, who could have predicted their puerile pisstake would generate such odd adoration? Hell, Toxie and company put Troma on the map!
Mark Togl is Melvin Ferd, a 98-pound nerd janitor from New Jersey who fatefully finds himself in a vat of toxic waste that will transform into the eponymous Toxic Avenger (Mitchell Cohen) as all sorts of hilarity, obscenity, and carnage will ensue.
The town of Tromaville will never be the same again, and don’t let the milder sequels and the kid-friendly cartoon fool you, this film that started it all is not for the little ones or the easily perturbed. There’s heaps of cruelty, buckets of blood (and other fluids), every kind of nasty exploitation, and non stop vulgarity. In short, the Toxic Avenger is an all-out riot.
7. Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam perfected the movie mindfuck with his dystopian satire Brazil. This dense, detailed, and visually rich sci-fi fantasy pairs sublimely with a strangely nostalgic retro-future where unexceptional everyman Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is but a cog in an Orwellian governmental machine.
There’s a slapstick quality to Brazil, which was written by Gilliam along with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown, and a majestic ambition in its futuristic depiction of bureaucracy gone mad, and for all it’s bizarro visuals –– terrorists with baby-faced masks, angelic dream sequences, Lowry’s mother’s endlessly odd facelifts to retain her youth –– it’s a film that can be deliberately hard to follow. That doesn’t mean that Brazil isn’t Gilliam’s finest hour, for it certainly is.
The original title for Brazil, according to Gilliam, was 1984½. “Fellini was one of my great gods,” says the director, “and it was 1984, so let’s put them together.” This easily accounts for the arthouse instincts of the film, as well as the surreal and very serrated edge in this playfully pretentious but still remarkably miraculous sortie into the imagination.
6. Videodrome (1983)
Videodrome is vintage Cronenberg and easily his most influential and conceptually ingenious film. Chronicling psychological and societal collapse with an Hieronymus Bosch-like eye for morbid detail and deranged intelligence, this is a film that’s impossible to forget.
Described by Andy Warhol as “A Clockwork Orange of the ‘80s”, this sci-fi-horror hybrid from Canadian iconoclast David Cronenberg presents a prophetic vision of a dystopian future where television, media piracy, pay-per-view violence, rampant perversion and torture porn rule the ratings.
Max Renn (James Woods) is the owner of a trashy TV station who’s forever searching for risqué programming to broadcast. Soon Max discovers the torture/snuff show known as “Videodrome” and he must acquire it for his network. Along the way Max meets radio personality/sadomasochistic psychiatrist and femme fatale Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) and events intensify as an erotic dream logic kicks in.
Part aphrodisiac and part body horror nightmare, Videodrome is a sensual and scary tour de force and makes for absolutely indispensable viewing.
5. Re-Animator (1985)
Stuart Gordon’s fast-paced, funny, and wonderfully bombastic adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft is a quintessential 1980s B-movie with lasting charm, trash appeal, loads of explicit sexual perversion and serrated social criticism. Sound like a mouthful? It is!
Gothic sensibilities pair with splatter comedy and genius practical effects as Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna (also a legend in cult horror from that era) hilariously and horribly revise the mad scientist trope and make an iconic antihero in Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and his arch rival Doctor Hill (David Gale).
Easily Gordon’s most enjoyable film, and the first in the Re-Animator franchise, it’s an irresistible little shocker that’s as disturbing as it is comical and is, make no mistake, a genuine genre original. Not to be missed.
4. Dirty Dancing (1987)
“Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” speaketh Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) in this silly, sensational, and cultural touchstone romantic dance film from Emile Ardolino, Dirty Dancing.
Jennifer Grey is Frances “Baby” Houseman who has one last summer before the Peace Corps whisks her away and aww heck, wouldn’t you know it? Baby is stuck in a sleepy, dull resort in the Catskills with her folks. Enter Johnny, the resort’s exceptionally studly dance instructor –– whom Baby’s father forbids she see –– and before you know it they’re both getting naughty on the dance floor in preparation for the last big shimmy of the summer, or something like that.
The predictable plot and placeholder characters are all forgivable due to the charisma and hot bodies of Grey and Swayze, both relative unknowns at the time, and while it made a profit at the box office it was home video that really pushed Dirty Dancing into the stratosphere of cultdom.
A lame prequel would follow, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004) and an even lamer remake in 2017, but the original is where it’s at, even after all these years. The image of Grey and Swayze, sweaty and grinding against one another to Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” became airily iconic and emblematic of 1980s American cinema and popular culture as a result.
“…and I owe it all to yooo-eww-eeww!!”
3. Evil Dead II (1987)
Sam Raimi hit his stride with this gleefully gory splatter comedy, the second of the still ongoing Evil Dead series that made star Bruce Campbell something of a horror movie superstar, an indisputable cult hero, and immortalized his flippant and nonchalant delivery of the one word line: “Groovy!”
Ostensibly a remake of the earlier 1981 film The Evil Dead, only here there’s more of an emphasis on laughs and Three Stooges-inspired physicality, with the horror elements more played for outlandish and gross thrills then for the darker nightmare fuel of the original.
It’s still dark –– who are we kidding here? –– but there’s no tree molestation, for instance, like the more severe original. And this recalibration of what makes the movie work best was a wise move from Raimi, who also co-wrote the script with pal Scott Spiegel.
Ash Williams (Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) just can’t seem to have a romantic getaway at a secluded cabin in the woods for the life of them, and that the cabin in question contains the Book of the Dead –– a deadly, demon summoning relic of antiquity that people have a terrible habit of reading aloud from –– as well as some pre-recorded tapes of evil spirit conjuring text, well next thing you know there’s geysers of blood, chainsaws, projectile eyeballs, witch carving, and all sorts of other nastiness on gauche display.
Evil Dead II is probably the best film in the franchise which was followed in 1992 by Army of Darkness, a fourth sequel and kinda sorta remake in 2013 by Fede Álvarez, as well as the splatter-ific fan service spectacular Ash vs Evil Dead (a gruesome and groovy TV series for the Starz network, about to enter its third season), and don’t forget all the Evil Dead action figures, video games, comic books, and there’s even an off-Broadway rock musical.
To paraphrase Ash as he fired up the ol’ chainsaw and moved in on some evil demons; “who’s laughing now… who’s laughing NOW?!”
2. Withnail & I (1987)
The archetypal British cult film comedy, writer-director Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical eulogy to unemployment and acquaintanceship, Withnail & I, is a tiny tour de force.
A mélange of quotable discourse (“We want the finest wines available to humanity, and we want them here, and we want them now!”), not to be forgotten characters (Richard E Grant’s Withnail is absolutely iconic, and Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Monty is divine and pitiably droll), coarse social commentary, and elegant farce, guarantee greatness.
Set in a dog-eared Camden-Town flat at the ass-end of the 1960s, Withnail & I fixates on two actors on the dole, and their attempts to return to form. Narrated by Marwood, played by Paul McGann, life is anything but biscuits and butter drips. Withnail, a lovable but self-destructive drunk, doesn’t so much buoy his friend, as hold him down. Taking an ill-starred holiday in the country ultimately alienates the pair, but not after many booze-soaked scenarios play out as self-discovery and desolation ooze in.
Numerous drinking games accompany the film, a witness to its prestige. Anyone who’s ever struggled, said goodbye to a friend, or gone on a regrettable drinking binge, can find familiarity with this wonderful, witty, and humanly relevant picture.
1. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Topping our list is Rob Reiner’s 1984 cult classic This is Spinal Tap… and why not?
Not only is this mockumentary on “Britain’s loudest band” a comedy classic, it’s barbed satirical sting on rock ‘n roll and the egos that dwell there is painfully precise, funny AF, and now an integral part of the pop culture canon of the 1980s and beyond.
Flailing filmmaker Marty Di Bergi (Reiner) decides to follow the nearly forgotten UK heavy metal band Spinal Tap on their comeback tour of America after a lengthy lull. Will this unholy trinity of aging rockers –– David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) –– be able to restore their former glory? Hits like “Big Bottom”, “Listen to the Flower People”, and “Stonehenge” may say otherwise, but watching the band implode (and in the case of an ill-fated drummer, explode) on stage, backstage, in the hotel, and on the tour bus, is all part of the fractured fun.
The improvisational master class lead by Tap truly astounds, as does brilliant comic turns from the likes of Bruno Kirby, Paul Shaffer, Tony Hendra, Fran Drescher, and June Chadwick amongst others (indeed part of the great fun in viewing Spinal Tap is keeping track of all the cameos). The music is as funny as it is furious, and the quotable quips and endless jags are unconquerable.
Limiting this list to 25 films spanning a decade bustling with great cult films was no easy task so here’s a short list of secondary titles also amongst the best of the 1980s:
Time Bandits (1981, directed by Terry Gilliam), Kamikaze 89 (1982, directed by Wolf Gremm), Strange Brew (1983, directed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas), Gremlins (1984, directed by Joe Dante), Legend (1985, directed by Ridley Scott), Critters (1986, directed by Stephen Herek), Highlander (1986, directed by Russell Mulcahy), One Crazy Summer (1986, directed by Savage Steve Holland), Amazon Women on the Moon (1987, directed by Joe Dante, John Landis, Peter Horton, Carl Gottlieb, Robert K. Weiss), The Lost Boys (1987, directed by Joel Schumacher), Elvira Mistress of the Dark (1988, directed by James Signorelli), Heathers (1988, directed by Michael Lehmann), Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988, Guy Maddin), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988, directed by Pedro Almodóvar).
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.