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.
9. My Bloody Valentine (Mihalka, 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)
This 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)
George 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)
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.
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)
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)
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.
3. Friday The 13th The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Tom 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)
Lucio 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)
This 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.
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:
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