Horror films of the 70’s and 80’s

Written by Phillip López Jiménez

More articles by Phillip López Jiménez

In the almost 150 years of cinema, there has been one genre that has frightened it’s way to the top…the horror film genre; from Georges Méliès 1896 short film LA MANOIR DU DIABLE, (The House of The Devil) considered to be the first horror picture, to the current horror picture THE NUN, which just grossed a whopping 50 million on its opening weekend (its September 2018 as I write this) yes, I know box office doesn’t mean quality, the reviews have been lukewarm at best; but the point is the horror genre has always been around and has drawn big crowds. But nothing in the annals of cinema can compare to the quantity, and quality for that matter, then the horror pictures that were unleashed upon scare thirsty audiences worldwide during the 70’s and 80’s. Why did this renaissance of celluloid nightmares happen during this period? It may be that horror cinema in the 70s was a way to come to terms with what had just happened culturally throughout the world in the 60s. This subject is very dense and I was hoping to do a series of blogs like my Spaghetti Western blogs but alas, it wasn’t meant to be, so if I omit some important films that is why, as this is almost an outline of what I was going to do. So in the words of Halloween III’s Conal Cochran, “Happy Halloween…”

The 60s was a tumultuous period, the Cold War was at its peak, the war in Vietnam, civil rights, the new left fueled by the works of Herbert Marcus and Norman O. Brown, assassinations, a rise in crime and drug use, free love, all these things would play out sub-textually on screens throughout the 70s and 80s. These changes weren’t just isolated in America, obviously, the Cold War affected everyone, but a social change was also happening elsewhere too; in Italy, a consumerist society was taking hold as Italy bounced back economically from the fascism of WWII. Here in America one picture captured the moment and spoke more about the current social changes than any other film at that time and that’s 1968’s unapologetic and apocalyptic film from the first time feature filmmaker George A.Romero, his film alone pretty much kick-started the 70s horror boom, as most of the early 70s most influential films all are illegitimate children of Romero’s masterpiece of horror NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Films like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and more would borrow on Romero’s Cinema Vérité pseudo-documentary style that style was not unique to Romero Gillio Pontecorvo’s BATTLE OF ALGIERS used it to great effect two years earlier, but that kind of “underground” technique didn’t really find its way into exploitation pictures until Romero.


George A. Romero was no intellectual elitist weened on the works of Trotsky, rather Romero was a Catholic from the Bronx weened on the works of Ghastly Graham Ingalls, Jack Davis, Jack Kamen et all in William Gains controversial EC Comics, eventually Jack Kamen would illustrate the original poster art for Romero’s 1982 picture CREEPSHOW. Like fellow subversive filmmaker, John Waters, Romero’s cinematic crimes started early when he was arrested at 16 for throwing a burning dummy off the roof of a New York building for his 8mm film THE MAN FROM THE METEOR.



In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Romero’s quasi-cinema vérité styled film of a 50s era sci-fi throwback, he uses flesh-eating ghouls to comment on the collapse of middle America. There’s a wholesome farmhouse setting, white brother and sister visiting deceased family, later another white middle-class family trapped a the farmhouse and interrupting are hordes of the walking dead, soulless automatons set on devouring middle America, much like threat of communism, and in the center of this is a headstrong, assertive black man barking orders and throwing punches. No mainstream Hollywood movie would come close to this, their social justice films were weak in comparison, NIGHT was a much stronger picture than say IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and the character of Ben was by far more aggressive and assertive than Sidney Poitier’s Mr. Tibbs. The most troubling and frightening moment of NIGHT is perhaps the murder of the mother by her, now, undead daughter, this is the most disturbing moment in all of Romero’s pictures as the girl kills the mother, who is a sympathetic character in the film, with a garden ho like some drug-crazed hippie, this predates the Manson murders by a year so I’m sure audiences in ’69 had that image in their heads when this scene occurred.

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Romero would be in his prime in the 70’s and 80’s and brought his zombies back for each decade and each picture spoke of their corresponding decade; DAWN OF THE DEAD, the rise of consumer culture and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, the 80s military build-up and a rise of a new conservatism.

In 1979 Romero’s zombies went from communist metaphors to consumerist metaphor and by the end of DAWN OF THE DEAD it’s hard to tell the difference between the brain-dead zombies and the bored and complacent survivors and in his final picture of this period in 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, (he did make more zombie pictures, but those are a pale comparison to his original trilogy.) society has completely broken down and it’s the Reagan era of military build-up and the rise of new kind of conservatism, the subtext here isn’t as strong as it was in the previous pictures because his original story would’ve been too costly for an unrated film, so his original idea of zombie warfare was never fully realized only hinted at with the zombie character of Bub (Sherman Howard billed here as Howard Sherman)

The Family That Slays Together Stays Together: Class Warfare.

One of the big things that were happening in America in the 60s and continued in the 70s, was the deterioration of the so-called Nuclear Family and quite a number of horror pictures commented on this, consciously or sub-consciously. These films would put traditional families against non-traditional families, often with the psycho killers filling the role of the traditional family. A couple pictures come to mind Toby Hopper’s 1974 masterpiece THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and Wes Craven’s brutal THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and his second picture THE HILLS HAVE EYES.

In Tobe Hopper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, we have two families of sorts, a group of young people; Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her invalid brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) and her boyfriend Jerry (Allan Danziger), along with Kirk (William Vail) and his girlfriend Pam (Teri McMinn) who stumble, or rather trespass, onto a farm in a rural part of Texas. Once there they are killed off and tortured by family of cannibalistic reprobates consisting of three brothers, at least that’s what I’ve always figured it’s never really said, The Cook (Jim Siedow), The Hitch-Hiker (Edwin Neal), and the infamous Leatherface (poet/author Gunnar Hanson) and their practically comatose Grandpa (John Dugan). The friend “family” mostly bicker aren’t considerate of each other nor do they particularly care about each other, Franklin may be a pain in the ass but he’s still Sally’s brother and no one really cares what happens to him. The cannibal family, however, fill traditional family roles The Cook is the Father figure, who brings home the bacon, or rather human BBQ, Leatherface is The Mother figure, performing domestic duties, like preparing meals and setting the table, though house cleaning must not be on his list of chores, just to hammer down the message director Hopper has him adorn his human skinned mask with rouge and lipstick. These savages eat and argue together at the family table, even letting Grandpa in on the killing, kinda like having the patriarch dress the turkey on Thanksgiving, in this case, the diner is Sally Hardesty. Eventually, Sally escapes while her Family all perish. The Cannibal clan only suffer one loss, The Hitch-Hiker.

Tobe Hopper returned to his cannibal clan in 1986’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II, this time the unrelenting visual assault that was the first picture, has instead been pushed aside for a more traditional looking film with a more satirical storyline written by fellow Texan and PARIS, TEXAS scribe, L. M. Kit Carson. Here the cannibal family no longer live in the rural, dilapidated farmhouse in Texas, but rather have become upwardly mobile entrepreneurs, making their special brand of chili, “It’s all in the meat.” and are winning awards, and butchering people, all over the state of Texas. They now travel around in a Grumman Olsen vending truck and replaced their old beat up white ’53 Chevy pick-up with a brand new Chevy C-10 Silverado with a sidestep and a ‘Mercian flag painted on the tailgate. They still work together as a family unit, their brother Chop-Top (Bill Mosely) filling The Hitch-Hiker roll from the first film, apparently, he was in ‘Nam when the events of the first picture happen and came home with a steel plate in his head and a “Sonny Bono wig.” Unbeknownst to the cannibal family, who we find out are actually named Sawyer, their killing of a couple of 30-year-old looking, preppy teenagers was being recorded while the preppies were calling a request radio station. They go to the radio station to get the DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) who has been playing the recording every hour for Texas Ranger “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper in his first picture straight out of rehab and it shows) but success has made Leatherface soft and he falls for stretch and lets her live. Stretch and Lefty finds their lair, an abandoned amusement park, where all hell breaks loose. The picture loses its satirical edge because of the gratuitous violence created by the Sultan of Splatter Tom Savini. The gore is outstanding but the satire Hopper and Carson were aiming for is lost in the mayhem, this could be because producers Golan and Globus (Cannon Films) had set a release date while the picture was being made and so the film was rushed to make its August 22, 1986 release. I saw this opening day as a teenager and was thoroughly disappointed. It didn’t fare too well for Hopper it marked his third failure in a row (though it made a profit it was nowhere near the money maker Canon was expecting), he had a three-picture deal with Canon; LIFEFORCE, INVADERS FROM MARS, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II, the last two picture both coming out the same summer! Like George A Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD, TCM II has grown on me and I enjoy them for the quality entertainment that there are. TCM II is very well made, with plenty of gore and excitement but nowhere near the brilliance of its predecessor.

The Shape of Rage: The Body Horror Films of David Cronenberg.

The swingin’ 70s was a time of wild and crazy free sex and the consequences that derived from such a lifestyle and nobody spoke better of this than Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg in his body horror films like SHIVERS, RABID and VIDEODROME. Of all the great genre filmmakers of this period, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg was perhaps the most well-read and literate of his peers. Unlike his peers, he didn’t get into film making until his college years, rather he was writing often and was interested in the sciences, particularly botany and lepidopterology ( the study of moths and butterflies) Influenced by the literary works of writers like JG Ballard, William S. Burroughs (he would go on to direct NAKED LUNCH and CRASH respectively) and Vladimir Nabokov who wrote Lolita.

His first two horror features were produced by fellow Canadian Ivan Reitman, SHIVERS aka THEY CAME FROM WITHIN and RABID. These two pictures have similar themes, the symbolic spread of STDs. In SHIVERS a scientist was working on a secret experiment; a parasite that would turn the world into a mindless orgy and he had implanted it in a sexually promiscuous girl at a luxurious high-rise condo and in RABID, porn queen Marilyn Chambers (BEYOND THE GREEN DOOR and INSATIABLE) stars as Rose who after a motorcycle accident, is operated on by plastic surgeons using an experimental process. This creates a parasitic phallus that comes out of a newly formed sphincter in her armpit that has an insatiable thirst for blood, human or animal, after which the victim shortly becomes a rabid maniac or zombie if you will. In SHIVERS the action takes place all in the high rise condo where the parasites turn people into sex-crazed zombies, in RABID since it had a bigger budget the plague is more widespread going on throughout Montreal.

When Nature Attacks.

In the wake of the enormous worldwide success of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS, producers jumped on the bandwagon and the animal kingdom seemed to be at war with mankind with pictures like (1977), Joe Dante’s PIRANHA (1978), Michael Anderson’s ORCA (1977) William Girdler’s GRIZZLY (1976) a yarn about an oversized Grizzly Bear terrorizing a campground, and DAY OF THE ANIMALS Girdler’s semi-sequel, but this time instead of a hungry bear, it’s the depleting ozone layer has caused animals including a middle-aged Leslie Nielsen (currently in his angry white male period just before his comedy boom.) to go mad. In Australia, however, you had Colin Eggleston’s, similar but much more poignant, LONG WEEKEND (1978).

LONG WEEKEND is a film that’s rarely on 70s horror lists, which is unfortunate because it’s quite a good slow-burner of a movie. Upwardly mobile couple Peter and Marcia go on holiday to the Australian outback to escape from their marital problems, Marcia wanted to go to a resort but Peter wants to rough it, that in itself just adds to their relationship ills. On their way to a remote beach, Peter runs over a kangaroo and from that moment on it seems like every living creature has it out for them which really gets to Marcia especially the creepy moaning that’s heard throughout the film. They try to be loving to each other but always end up disrespecting each other as well as the environment around them. Everything is against them bugs, birds beasts, even a sea cow that won’t die. Then we find out that the growing tension between the couple is on account of an abortion Marcia had. The picture is less of a when animals attack film and more of a metaphysical revenge picture, you know this couple is doomed from the beginning, it’s slow but nerve-wracking exercise in suspense.

Hollywood’s Scary Summer

In the summer of 1979, a few important things happened in horror cinema. Horror was now big business at the Box Office and a plethora of horror pictures was released; so much so that it made the front cover of Newsweek magazine, who labeled it HOLLYWOOD’S SCARY SUMMER! Just what were the films released? Here’s a list for you boys and ghouls


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From that list Stuart Rosenberg’s THE AMITYVILLE HORROR would be the biggest grossing film of the year, at least five can be called bonafide classics; PHANTASM, DAWN OF THE DEAD, ALIEN, THE BROOD and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR; Cult classics, PROPHECY, John Badham’s DRACULA, Abel Ferrara‘ s THE DRILLER KILLER, TOURIST TRAP and possibly Arthur Hiller’s NIGHTWING, I know I loved it when I saw it that summer.

The other big event that summer was the August launch of what would become the greatest horror magazine ever, FANGORIA. Originally conceived as a little sister magazine to STARLOG, a science fiction film mag from the minds of Kerry O’ Quinn and Norman Jacobs and was to focus mainly on Fantasy and be called FANTASTICA, but then the mag FANTASTIC FILMS had something to say about that title and FANTASTICA became FANGORIA under the editorial-ship of the great Robert Martin or how us fans fondly remember him as, Uncle Bob.

FANGORIA’S focus on fantasy didn’t last long, the first issue had a story on DAWN OF THE DEAD, the sleeper hit of 1979, with bloody photos and the bloody mutant bear from PROPHECY graced the cover of the second issue, but it was really issue 6, with bloody photos from the summer of 1980’s sleeper smash hit Sean S. Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13th and #7’s scalping photos from William Lustig’s controversial and sleazy exploitation classic MANIAC that set the course for what the magazine would become. Kids, especially, this 12-year-old, went absolutely nuts over this mag and the term “Gorehound” started to turn up as a description for us budding connoisseurs of sleaze, and controversy soon followed. In Issue 9 and 10 with Rory Calhoun holding a chainsaw while wearing a pigs head and the exploding head from Cronenberg’s SCANNERS graced the covers respectively, causing a shitstorm and grocery stores around the country pulled the mag from their racks! So now us kids had to drag Mom and Dad to B. Dalton’s or the corner liquor store to score a copy.

FANGORIA under Uncle Bob was not the kid-friendly magazine that was FAMOUS MONSTERS, no siree, Bob, FANGO, as it was lovingly referred to, was where I first heard of underground filmmakers like John Waters, Nick Zedd, David Lynch; cult favorites like Hershel Gordon Lewis, Ted V. Mikels, but most importantly FANGORIA was a forum for up and coming filmmakers to speak intelligently about their work, filmmakers and writers like John Carpenter, George A Romero, David Cronenberg, Joe Dante, Sam Rami, Stephen King, I even remember an article on PBS’ or was it the BBC’s bloody rendition of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus! What Shakespeare in Fango?! Yep and adding a bit of culture for us purveyors of the perverse. The magazine made Rock n Roll stars out of SFX make-up guys like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger collectively known as KNB EFX GROUP and made villains out of critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, though their feud I always felt was mutually beneficial. My first exposure to Siskel and Ebert was their review of MOTEL HELL on their PBS show AT THE MOVIES and through them, I was exposed to pictures I never would have checked out as an early teen like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcaraldo, a film Ebert championed, “Hey, that’s the guy who made Nosferatu! I read about him in FANGO! I’ll have to check that out!” Siskel and Ebert went on a mission to go after the so-called Slasher Film and its assault on women, they wrote letters to FANGO condemning them for their coverage

The Rise of The Strong Woman or In Space No One Can Hear A Woman Roar!

From 1968s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s comatose Barbara and all throughout the 70s women, as Siskel & Ebert mentioned above, were on screen only to be stalked and chopped, all that began to change when Ridley Scott decided to change male Executive Officer Martin Roby to female Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley in his big-budget sleeper hit ALIEN. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon in his screenplay notes that “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.” Scott figured that the audience would be surprised if the final survivor was female, I don’t know if the audiences were surprised by that, after all both TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and the previous year’s HALLOWEEN both had lone female survivors. What does separate Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the other two is not that she survives but rather she perceivers through her intelligence and strength, the only time she comes close to screaming is when Science Officer Ash, and not the alien, attacks her. She has logical arguments with Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) doesn’t take any lip from hired crew members Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and his sidekick Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). James Cameron’s 1986 Robert A. Heinlein influenced sequel ALIENS not only made Ripley more of a RAMBO like action hero but grounded her by bringing out her feminine side by making her motherly to young settler Newt (Carrie Henn) who, like Ripley was a survivor of an alien attack. Ellen Ripley would set a precedent for strong female roles to this day, though roles such as hers are still few and far between.

Again, I could only scratch the surface on this subject on the subtext of the 70’s and 80’s horror films as well as the current horror culture these two decades spawned as it’s ripe for exploration as horror cinema has yet to even come close to the quality and quantity of those twenty years of fantastic cinema.

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