Top 10 Innovative Horror Movie Deaths From The 1980s

We take a look at the special effects wizards who made 1980s horror unforgettable. A genre peppered with cash-in rubbish, tasteless exploitation and a lack of ideas did, however, produce some stand outs. Many worked so well as a result of the make-up and effects teams that brought these horific creations to life.

Why just this decade? With the advent of CGI in the 1990s the death scene got gorier but it also lost some of its organic feel. With computers, you can pretty much do anything. Hence we get the Saw films and the cool death scenes in Final Destination. But guys like Tom Savini and Rob Bottin were masters of their craft and they spent countless hours making fake heads and creating props that would make things look much gorier. That’s one of the reasons I love 80s horror so much.

10. Maniac (Lustig, 1980)

In the film, there is a killer on the loose and he is taking women’s heads as trophies. The scene Maniac is famous for is the shotgun to the head. In this scene, Tom Savini plays the hapless man in the car who gets shot point blank by the killer with a shotgun. Savini created a model of himself and filled the head with everything from tomato paste to animal guts. Savini was the one who actually shot “himself”. He used a real shotgun to blow the head up. The recoil from the shotgun was so strong that Savini was thrown from the hood of the car and he was caught by the director.

This scene, and others like it, were so revolting that film critic Gene Siskel walked out of the theatre, disgusted with the film. He said on his show with Roger Ebert that the film could not redeem itself after that horrific act of violence.

Discover More: “Maniac”: A Potent, Torturous Illustration Of Madness Evoking Evil

9. My Bloody Valentine (Mihalka, 1981)

My Bloody Valentine, Film, 1981,In the film that Quentin Tarantino called his favourite horror movie of all time, we have a miner named Harry Warden, on the loose. In a small Canadian mining town years ago, a massive mining explosion took the lives of dozens of miners while the town partied on Valentine’s Day. Harry Warden has vowed revenge if the town ever celebrated Valentine’s Day again. My Bloody Valentine was infamous for the MPAA cutting most of the gore and violence because of political pressure. But then in 2009, Paramount released a version to home video that included nine minutes of cut scenes.

The best one is probably the dryer scene, but the most innovative death is when the bartender sets up a practical joke only to have it backfire on him. He is on the receiving end of Harry’s pick-axe that goes through his chin and comes out of his eye socket. The laborious task of making a fake head and a protruding eye ball was done by the make up team of of Thomas Burman and Ken Diaz (both future Oscar nominees for make-up). The effect was one of the first scenes to be cut by the MPAA for what they called excessive gore. If you can find the uncut version of My Bloody Valentine, you will marvel over this scene. It’s one of the reasons My Bloody Valentine was named best Canadian horror film of all time on my top Canadian horror films list.

8. Scanners (Cronenberg, 1981)

David Cronenberg's ScannersThis could be David Cronenberg’s most famous kill in all of his films. It’s certainly one of the more famous scenes in horror movie history. The iconic head exploding scene with the inimitable Michael Ironside, was accomplished by using a shotgun (again). Stephen Dupuis (who later won an Oscar for The Fly) accomplished the effect by creating a latex head of the actor and filled it with dog food, leftover lunch and animal guts and fake blood. He then shot it from behind using a 12 gauge shotgun. The result looked like one of the Scanners (Ironside) had willed his head to explode. It was a terrific way to get the audience into the movie and set the tone for the film.
Discover More: Top 10 Contributions To American Cinema by Dick Smith, “special consultant” on Scanners

7. Day Of The Dead (Romero, 1985)

Great Horror Movie Jerks - Top 10 FilmsGeorge Romero’s Dead series of films set the tone for the Zombie craze that has swept North America ever since he shocked the world with his black and white 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. If you look at the credits for Day of the Dead, there are 20 names listed as contributors. One of them is Greg Nicotero, who is the creator of The Walking Dead comics and television series. Of course the main man behind the gore effects is Tom Savini and when Captain Rose, the soldier with an attitude, meets his demise, you’re glad to see him go, even if it is in perhaps one of the most painful ways imaginable. He is first shot by a zombie and then his body is ripped in half. He feels every minute of it as he screams horrifically while his lower half is being eaten. This effect was created by having the actor’s head above the set while the rest of his body was hidden. Then a fake corpse was created and filled with fake blood and whatever they could find on set to make the intestines look real.

6. The Thing (Carpenter, 1982)

The Thing, Film, John Carpenter, Jack Russell,This film has too many makeup artists and effects designers to count. Legendary makeup designer Rob Bottin was the man who helped design many of the creature scenes and his finger prints are all over the scene where Kurt Russell thinks he knows who has tainted blood. In this scene, he and Clark have the rest of the team tied to chairs after an unknown entity has killed two of the members of his crew. When the creature is unexpectedly revealed to be Palmer, his skin boils, his eyes pop out of their sockets, and he spews blood before finally turning into a giant monster and eating one of the crew. This is a celebration of all kinds of make up effects, all of them practical. Moulds, fake bodies, plaster, artificial blood and much more, was used by Bottin and his team to create this effect. It’s one of the more memorable of John Carpenter’s career.

Discover More:
Top 10 Dick Smith Contributions To American Cinema | Top 10 Films talks to “Jim McKeown: Building The Worlds Of Harry Potter, James Bond & Captain America” | Top 10 Films talks to Mike Kelt about creating the effects for Paddington 2

5. Hellraiser (Barker, 1987)

The follow-up to the directorial debut of one of England’s best known contemporary horror writers literally ends up being nothing more than a bloody mess. Mark Fraser revisits a movie which eschews originality by relying too heavily on its predecessor.Dave Chagouri (who would later go on to work on big budget films like Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan) and Cliff Wallace were two of the brains behind the nasty effects in Clive Barker’s film that featured minions from Hell, the Cenobites. Even if you haven’t seen Hellraiser, if you are visiting this site, you probably are aware of the “Jesus wept” scene where Andy Robinson is pulled apart by hooks before being sent to Hell. Lots of latex was used and of course a fake head of the actor was placed in the scene. When it all came together, it looked so authentic that when filming was at a halt, one of the crew members threw up because it all looked so real. Barker has said that they used so many buckets of fake blood in this scene that he didn’t know if the stains would come off the walls.

4. The Burning (Maylam, 1981)

The Burning, Top 10 Films,Another low budget rip off or homage to Friday the 13th, this film was one of the first of Jason Alexander’s career (George on Seinfeld). This is why it got a bit of a cult following in years to come. Like Friday the 13th, it takes place at a camp ground and features young, sex crazed teens getting systematically picked off by an unknown killer. The raft scene is a celebration of ingenuity and skill. Make up and effects creator, Darryl Ferrucci had the killer use a giant pair of shears and he cut off fingers, sliced open faces and stabbed necks. Latex, a staple of 80s effects, was used as well as props and fake blood. The five kids on the raft were all killed in violent and gory ways. The Burning isn’t as famous as some of the other films on this list, but it does have one of the iconic scenes from 80s horror.

Discover More: “The Burning” Stands Up Strongly Next To Other 1980s Slasher Movies

3. Friday The 13th The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)

Friday The 13th, Film, part 4, The Final ChapterTom Savini shows up a lot on this list, because he is simply, in my opinion, the greatest make up effects guy in history. He created the effects in the original Friday the 13th and was the man responsible for Mrs. Voorhees losing her head at the end. I could have included many different deaths from Friday the 13th films on this list (Andy walking on his hands in Part 3, the impalement in Part 2, the head getting crushed in the shower in Part 4) but the best of the death scenes from all of the Friday the 13th films is when Jason falls on his own machete in The Final Chapter.

Savini was asked to work on the film because director Joseph Zito and he had a good working relationship from Maniac. But Savini had one condition, he had to be allowed to truly kill Jason (yes, we all know he comes back in future chapters). And so Savini was given carte blanche to kill Jason in any way he wanted. There are two versions you can see on You Tube. I’d suggest finding them both. Savini created a mould of the character’s head and then filmed the machete entering the head before Jason falls to the ground and impales himself with the blade sliding through his head and brains while blood gushes out. It’s an amazing practical effect. A young Corey Feldman plays Tommy Jarvis and he is the one responsible for whacking him with said machete. It’s a beautifully executed scene in every way.

2. City Of The Living Dead (Fulci, 1980)

Gates of Hell, Film, Fulci, PosterLucio Fulci’s gross out horror film about the dead rising and the gates to hell being opened is one of the most graphically realistic splatter films. In fact, up until about 10 years ago, I truly wondered how the drill to the head scene was accomplished. Part of me, a small part, but a part nonetheless, was convinced Fulci really might have killed the actor in this scene (call me crazy but others have wondered this kind of thing before….director Rugerro Deodato had to produce his actors in a court of law to prove he didn’t really kill them while filming Cannibal Holocaust).

And yet, the drill to the head scene is not the most notorious scene from this Italian masterpiece. That would go to the scene where a character bleeds from the eyes and then tosses up her internal organs. This scene made audiences queasy. What’s so unique about it is that it doesn’t cut away all that much. It’s very slow and methodical. This is a death that would have been incredibly painful. For Daniela Doria’s death scene, she swallowed and regurgitated a plate of tripe. In closeups, a fake head was used, which contained a pump that spewed the organs out more forcefully. Make-up artist, Franco Ruffini was told by Fulci that he wanted it to be as gory and bloody as possible. Italian films weren’t overseen by the MPAA so they could do a lot more than a North American film. The result is one of the goriest and nauseating scenes in horror history.

1. A Nightmare On Elm Street (Craven, 1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street - Top 10 FilmsThis brings us to my favourite horror movie (and most innovative) death of the 1980s. The death of Tina in A Nightmare on Elm Street is innovation and risk at its finest. Wes Craven said he wanted Tina’s death to be otherworldly and when he came up with the idea of dragging her across the ceiling, mechanical effects supervisor, Jim Doyle thought of the Fred Astaire film Royal Wedding where there was a scene with him dancing around a rotating room. When Craven asked Doyle if could do this, Doyle said “I think so.” Editor Rick Shaine later said in one of the behind scenes features that to this day he’s still not sure how they pulled it off.

In the film, Tina, played by Amanda Wyss, is sliced up in her dreams and then wakes and is dragged from the bed to the ceiling and pulled by an unknown force while screaming out Rod’s name, before being dropped to the bed in a splatter of blood and guts. To accomplish this effect, they built a rotating room and everything was pinned down, including the props and other actors. Wyss said it was the most bizarre thing she’d ever been asked to do in her film career and initially didn’t feel safe. It took the prop department an entire month to build the rotating set and when you put it all together, some incredible movie magic was created. Craven directs it with flair and style, Wyss sells it with her terrified screams and desperate eyes and the effects department adds the coup de grace by making it all work. Tina’s death is one of the most iconic in horror lore and it deserves its place as the best and most innovative death of the 1980s.

Honourable mention…

Rick Baker

Griffin Dunne, American Werewolf In London, John Landis, Werewolf, comedy, horror,On a side note, there is one person not mentioned here and that is Rick Baker. Baker is one of the most well known and respected names in the horror business. With credits from An American Werewolf in London to The Howling and even big budget studio films like Star Wars and The Nutty Professor, to the genius behind Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller, he has created some of the best monster and make-up effects. He finally won an Oscar in 1998 for Men In Black. Although not in this article, he is someone I feel deserves to be heralded. He’s done some of my favourite werewolf transformation scenes and his work has been emulated for years. Rick Baker is a giant among giants.

Written & Compiled by Dan Grant

Your turn? What are your fave innovative deaths in 1980s horror movies? Let us know…

Read more from Dan Grant:
Top 10 Films About The Oppressed Taking Their Revenge
Top 10 Embarrassingly Cringeworthy Moments In Film
Top 10 Supporting Actors Who Always Bring Something Special To A Movie

About the Author
Dan Grant is an author and horror film fan from Canada. His first novel Terrified and Defenseless is now available for e-download from Amazon. Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72.

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  1. Rory Reply

    Love the honourable mention of Rick Baker as I was thinking of An American Werewolf when considering innovative 80s death scenes. But the love of Tom Savini is great – a charismatic figure, great actor and incredible effects wizard.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Rick Baker is one of the icons of this field for sure. That scene in AWWIL is simply incredible. Also, his The Howling transformation is incredible. He’s a true icon.

      That’s the thing about make up wizards, they add so much to the film and to me it feels more real when you don’t have a computer to help you out. Savini, Baker, Bottin, they are all special artists.

  2. Callum Reply

    A bit too graphic for me, although I like horror, I prefer suspense over gore. That’s not to say there isn’t some very talented special effects guys working on these films. I do like A Nightmare on Elm Street though, that scene with the rotating room is undeniably memorable.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Thanks for always reading and commenting. I always look forward to what you have to say. And yes, the rotating room is simply genius.

  3. Fenster Reply

    Savini’s a god in this field… there’s no one who touches him… that whole Maniac car scene is genius.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      And the budget for that film was basically nothing. Savini said he was paid $5000.00 to do the movie and the reason he did it was because he got to spend a month in NYC. But it also helped develop a relationship with him and Joseph Zito, who would go on to direct part IV of the Friday the 13th series. So something really synergistic came out of this film. The shotgun blast was incredibly effective, no doubt.

  4. Angela Reply

    Scanners would be my pick. Cronenberg has done a lot of memorable things with his body horror obsession but that Scanners scene takes some beating. It’s not just graphic, it’s really suspenseful.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      You’re right! It is more than gore. Suspenseful is certainly a great way to describe it.

  5. Greg Reply

    Hellraiser is great for this sort of stuff. It’s physically painful to watch it.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Barker created an incredibly tough film to watch. Andy Robinson’s death is, as you say, painful to watch. One of the themes that dominates these films is that the budgets were all pretty low and yet the innovation behind them all is simply incredible. Hellraiser is a prime example of that.

  6. CineGirl Reply

    More sci-fi than horror but there’s plenty of innovation in the massacres that take place in RoboCop. The Ed-209 malfunction is gruesome but the real stand out is when that guy gets doused in acid and his skin begins peeling off before being smashed into pieces by an onrushing car.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Excellent mention! And you’re right, there are so many other films that could be mentioned on this list. Verhoeven has always been known for his blood and splatter fests and RoboCop is certainly one of the best for that.

  7. Chris Reply

    I’m not much of a big horror buff but I’ve seen a fair amount of these. Nice write up, Dan.

    Also, what about the dude getting killed in BONE TOMAHAWK?

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Thanks for reading Chris. The Bone Tomahawk scene is quite graphic but this is a list for just the 80’s. If we are talking about the same movie that one came out in 2015.

  8. Peter M Reply

    I remember seeing Gates of Hell/City of the Living Dead and nearly throwing up. That’s a sign of a good make-up/special effects artist! 🙂

    • Dan Grant Reply

      I know what you mean. The drill scene and the puking up your own guts scene are things of legend. I was nauseated watching the film the first few times as well.

  9. Kit Fairbrother Reply

    Single best special effects moment in 80s horror – the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf In London. I’d put Baker up there with Savini.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      I couldn’t agree more. They are both legends.

  10. ArchE Reply

    Giannetto De Rossi’s work on films such as Dune, Conan The Destroyer, The Beyond and Cannibal Apocalypse probably deserves a mention. Agree that Baker, Savini, Nicotero et al have done some marvellous work. Nicotero’s highlights can be found in Evil Dead II and a bunch of other horror sequels in the 1980s.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      And this is just one of a million reasons I love this site. There are so many knowledgeable film fans here. De Rossi isn’t someone I thought of but of course, these films you mentioned here are certainly innovation at its finest. And yes, Nicotero has a good resume from the 80’s. One of my favourites he did was Creepshow 2. The raft episode was really fun and although there wasn’t a tonne of makeup effects in the short film, the scene where the blond rich kid gets sucked through the bottom of the raft and his leg is sticking up, is one of my favourite scenes from the 80’s.

      Thanks for reading ArchE.

  11. Roger Keen Reply

    Dick Smith is another that did some incredible work work both prior to, during and after the 1980s. The best 80s work I can think of is from Altered States but he also did some great stuff in the otherwise lacklustre Poltergeist 3.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      I certainly could have mentioned him in the honourable mentions as well. He did some work on Scanners as well and I’m sure he assisted with the head explosion scene. Also, the Starman transformation scene is quite well done. He’s certainly another name worthy of mention.

  12. Drew Reply

    I like Savini’s work in films like The Burning and Friday the 13th part 4 because he got to be so creative with so many scenes.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      He really was incredibly creative. He could envision things that perhaps a lot of other effects people couldn’t. The chopping of Mrs. Voorhees head in the original Friday the 13th was so crazy for the time, I’m surprised they were allowed to keep in the film.

      Thanks for reading, Drew.

  13. Amilia Totten Reply

    This list reminds why the 80s was so great for horror. You couldn’t have these films hit cinemas today and expect to turn a big profit. Audiences have changed. These films worked because we were screaming at the screen as one, without taking the source too literal. Now people only want cinema that pacifies like a baby’s dummy. Great horror today passes most people by apart from genre fans. In the 80s, great horror was mainstream not an overlooked niche. Great top 10 Dan.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      I agree with you in many ways. Horror today is a little tame. There are exceptions of course. The Saw series, Hostel and a few others, have taken some big risks but for the most part you can’t make films today like you did the 70’s and 80’s. I think guys like Savini and Bottin and Baker added an authenticity to the productions they were on because they were allowed to do what they felt was right. And they had little to no studio interference. Today, you would have a director, producer, DP, studio head and who knows who else, putting their two cents in. Rick Baker said that when he did Men In Black, it was the most difficult production he’d ever worked on because every decision he made had to go through Barry Sonnenfeld and Steven Spielberg. It was not what he was used to. Back in the 80’s these geniuses just did what they do best and no one bothered them and hence we get some of the most amazing work for make-up in film.

      • Dan Reply

        Yeah, it’s a interesting point about how make-up artists/special effects guys’ roles have perhaps diminished. There was a Fangoria documentary about Tom Savini in which he talked about the creative process and said… (I’m paraphrasing)… “We’d bounce ideas around [between Savini and the director], we’d argue, and I’d win.” Now the special effects artists probably lose more of those arguments than they once did (hence Baker’s difficulties on Men In Black).

        • Dan Grant Reply

          Along the same lines, but a bit different (obviously) but can imagine guerilla film making today the way it was in the 70’s and 80’s? There’s just no comparison. Imagine trying to film a movie like Last House on the Left in 2017. They used very little in the way of permits and not did they have permission to film in a lot of places. Today, I just don’t see that flying. The Last House remake was good but it was from raw like the 1972 film was. It’s just a different film climate today.

  14. Derrick Hance Reply

    Not sure it was very innovative, but one that I’ll always remember was when Jason was boxing the guy in Friday the 13th pt8. Jason takes Manhattan. Knocked the guys head of with a punch. Lol

    • Dan Grant Reply

      That was a terrific scene. There were a few others in Friday the 13th that could have been mentioned as well. It was one of the staples of good gore in the 80’s.

  15. Mark Fraser Reply

    In late 1984, Australian Philip Brophy – who went on to make a schlocky movie in the early 1990s called Body Melt – wrote an extended piece about slasher/gore movies in the now-gone Cinema Papers. There’s a few interesting observations in it: “The major factor which determines the misunderstanding of the contemporary horror film is its nature as a second-degree genre. Many people think that recent gory films are the same, old, hand-on-the-doorknob, wobbly subjective camera shot screaming woman stuff, but with 10 times more fake blood and some animal entrails thrown in. Their complex relationships with the psyche, catharsis, society, the family, realism, the photographic, the body humour, theatre, sexuality etc have very little to do with any previous historical phase of the genre.” Also: “In the cultural domain of film criticism (in magazines, journals, courses and manuals), the contemporary horror film serves as a temporary geiger-counter for detecting where the ideological boundaries of dominant film culture rests. As such, it exists in the same realm of marginalisation inhabited by practices characterised as independent, avant-garde or feminist. Currently the contemporary horror film, at its best misunderstood , is further displaced due to its lack of social concern and political motivation as manifested in the stylistic rhetoric of many an alternative film practice. But effect is more interesting than concern, an area which is greater and more encompassing than the inevitable limitations of the notion of practice.” I must admit that, at the time as a 20-year old arts undergraduate, I didn’t give this much credence. After all, I considered my tastes a little more highbrow; I was (for some strange reason) worried ultra-violence would mess with my head; plus a lot of this stuff just wasn’t available in Australia (we had some pretty serious censorship issues down here). Since then my thinking has changed – so much so that I’ve seen nine out of 10 of these films and own four of them. I’m not a total convertee by any stretch of the imagination, but one of the reasons this top 10 tickles me is that it proves movie buffs can, on the whole, be a fairly open minded and inquisitive bunch.

    • Dan Grant Reply

      Insert Wayne and Garth “We’re not worthy” gif here.

      What a fantastic post there, Mark.

      Just to add my two cents, I remember seeing a documentary about horror films and how they had their place in society. There will always be critics of horror films and of the gore and the violence and some of the perceived misogyny that comes with the genre. But then there are people that say that horror is just a release, a fantasy, and those of us who like them can obviously separate reality and fantasy. I grew up loving horror films and to the best of my knowledge I’m a well adjusted member of society and I have never been to jail or assaulted anyone. And yet there’s just something exhilarating about seeing an axe cut off someone’s head. That doesn’t make me or anyone else who loves these films, a deviant of social pariah. It just means we enjoy make believe.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  16. Dan Grant Reply

    I wish i could go back and add Savini’s work from the original Friday the 13th. His innovation in that film is just beyond iconic. The head chopping scene, the Kevin Bacon death and the axe to the face are all incredibly innovative. Savini was given $15,000 to work on that film and that included paying his assistants and making all the moulds.

    Savini was also the main man in The Burning. I mistakenly put that Daryl Ferruci was the one responsible for the make up, he was the assistant and Savini was the master.

    Also, Zito and Savini didn’t meet on the set of Maniac. Another mistake of mine.

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