The video nasties I love the most, Part 1

I was speaking to Dipesh on the phone last week and he told me how he’s planning to get some old film noir posters framed to hang in his apartment. I’ve always thought if I had my own bachelor pad I’d do something similar, except I would probably opt for more of a horror theme. More specifically, I think I’d pick out a bunch of posters for goofy 80s comedy horror movies.

I remember visiting the video store as a kid and always being drawn to the horror movies. The covers of the cassette boxes were invariably black, so the horror section was a huge dark rectangle looming in one corner of the shop. They made for an ominous presence and I was supposedly too young to watch them, which made them all the more dangerous and tantalising. Whenever I was allowed to rent one of those movies, it was a genuine treat and there was always a lot of ceremony to it.

I wasn’t very discerning at the time, so I watched a lot of dumb movies. It’s the goofiest movies I remember most fondly, though, because they’re generally the most fun.

Anyway, I started thinking about which three or four posters I might pick to represent my love of horror movies. I found it quite difficult to narrow it down, because you have to compromise between the quality of the poster and the quality of the film. You can’t just pick your favourite films because some of them have uninspired posters. For example, I happen to love Lost Boys (1987), but the movie poster doesn’t do it for me.

Once I’d posed myself the problem, I realised just how many horror movies I have watched. I thought I’d recommend a handful of movies and explain how great they are with reference to the posters, hopefully sharing some of my enthusiasm in the process. If you haven’t watched much in the way of ’80s comedy horror, maybe I’ll be able to inspire you to check a few of these films out.

Night of the Comet (1984)

The first poster I would purchase is definitely this one for Night of Comet, a fantastic blend of teen comedy and zombie horror from 1984. It has been a while since I last saw this film, but it is one of my favourites.

The film begins as a comet is about to pass close to the Earth, promising incredible celestial fireworks. Most of the Earth’s population goes out to watch and in so doing is exposed to strange cosmic radiation which dehydrates humans and turns them into red dust. Those only partially exposed become cannibalistic zombies, sometimes in a matter of days.

The film’s heroines are eighteen-year-old Regina Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her sixteen-year-old sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney), who are trapped in a metal shed the night the comet passes overhead and thus manage to avoid its effects. After escaping their prison, the girls fight their way across town trying to find other survivors.

There is a hilarious moment when the two girls have commandeered a cop car, they’re sitting under an eerie blood-red sky, and they decide to break up their ruminations on death of humanity by dancing around a shopping mall accompanied by a version of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’. Night of the Comet’s marriage of post-apocalyptic horror and light-hearted teen comedy doesn’t always work, but I find it consistently entertaining.

If you’re interested at all in exploring the influences on Night of the Comet, you should begin with John Wyndham’s novel Day of the Triffids, which has been adapted for film, television and radio. Just as in Night of the Comet, in Day of the Triffids civilisation is brought to its knees by strange lights in the sky. In Wyndham’s novel much of the populace is rendered blind by a meteor shower, leaving them vulnerable to the Triffids, bio-engineered plants which walk the land, feeding on human beings. The protagonist, Bill Masen, wakes in hospital to find London in a state of ruin. According to director Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland was influenced by this sequence. When I watched 28 Days Later for the first time in 2002, it was easier to compare it with Night of the Comet, though, as they’re both zombie films and because they each feature awe-inspiring scenes of a deserted city.

Another precursor is the film Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston, and based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. In Matheson’s novel, humanity succumbs to a form of vampirism, whereas in the film Omega Man they are affected by a plague which brings on a sort of zombification. I never felt Omega Man made much of the emptiness of its post-apocalyptic landscape, whereas the dreadful 2007 adaptation starring Will Smith had much more time for its deserted cityscapes.

Of course Night of the Comet attempted to tap into the popularity of the already thriving zombie genre and therefore owes much to films which are the cornerstones of the genre, such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). I alluded earlier to the mall scenes in Night of the Comet and they certainly owe a lot to Dawn of the Dead which was set chiefly in a mall.

Night of the Comet has more laughs than scares, so even if you don’t generally watch a lot of horror then you may still enjoy the film.

They Live (1988)

Following on from Night of the Comet, this is another great 80s comedy horror with a sci-fi element. I only saw They Live for the first time quite recently, but thought it deserved a show of love. The poster for this one, is sort of like a horror version of the poster for Risky Business (1983) and that’s how it grabbed my attention.

The film stars WWE wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as John Nada, a construction worker who stumbles into the middle of an underground movement to overthrow the invisible oppressors of humanity. When he discovers the local church is housing a secretive militant group, Nada grows curious about their activities. After a particularly violent police raid, he visits the church but finds a box of sunglasses is the only thing left behind. At first he believes his investigation has reached a dead end, but he tries on a pair of the sunglasses they reveal the world is filled with subliminal advertising telling him to “submit” and “obey”. As he walks the streets, he also sees many people are in fact aliens with skull-like faces.

They Live is written and directed by John Carpenter, but it’s got a lighter touch than some of the movies he is best known for. It’s a funny, entertaining film which boasts the longest fistfight in cinematic history outside of boxing movies. The horror-of-capitalism metaphor lifts the film above the usual fare and you won’t quickly forget the scene in which Nada tries on the sunglasses for the first time.

Society (1989)

The poster for this one really caught my attention when I was a kid; I remember wondering what the hell this movie could be about. The artwork doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but it remains such a terrific and disturbing image.

Society stars Billy Warlock as Bill Whitney, a teenager who lives a privilieged life in Beverley Hills but feels awkward and isolated in his surroundings. If you can recall Billy Warlock from early seasons of Baywatch, the more disturbing aspects of this film will be all the more surprising.

After being given a tape recording of what sounds like his family engaged in a murderous orgy, Billy begins to suspect his feelings of alienation are justified. As he tries to make sense of his life, events become increasingly bizarre and his sanity is thrown into question.

I won’t say more about the details of the plot as I don’t want to spoil any of the twists, but it isn’t giving too much away to reveal Society is a social satire. The film’s surreal, nightmarish quality is helped along by the therapy sessions in which Billy questions whether what he is experiencing is real.

Society opened in Europe in the 1989 with some success, but was shelved in the States; it had a lukewarm reception when it finally got a release there in 1992. The director Brian Yuzna said in an interview with in 1999: “I think Europeans are more willing to accept the ideas that are in a movie. That’s why for example Society did really well in Europe and in the US did nothing, where it was a big joke. And I think it’s because they responded to the ideas in there. I was totally having fun with them, but they are there nonetheless.”

I always felt Society was interesting beyond its shock value and a much underrated film. I guarantee it will not be what you expect and it will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.

House (1986)

If you mention House these days, most people assume you’re talking about the medical drama starring Hugh Laurie. I am one of the dwindling few who think first and foremost of this ‘80s gem.

Roger Cobb (William Katt) is a Vietnam veteran and horror novelist whose son Jimmy goes missing while visiting his aunt. His obsessive search for his missing son subsequently causes the break up of his marriage. When his aunt dies, Cobb moves into her house to write a serious novel about his experiences in the war. He soon finds the house fosters an evil presence which forces him to re-evaluate his life and face his demons.

The horror movie elements are an exaggerated reflection of Cobb’s psyche, which is perhaps a bit of a cliché. That doesn’t stop it from being a fantastic idea, however, or House from being a brilliant example of the haunted house genre. It was successful enough to warrant several sequels, although it was the first offering which had the most substance.

The poster tells you next to nothing about the film, but I have always liked it. The posters for the sequels featured disembodied, mummified hands in a variety of alternate poses.

Fright Night (1985)

I still love the poster for Fright Night and it’s certainly been influential on other movies in the horror genre. Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) has a similar face-in-the-cloud type of poster and Wes Craven’s superb The People Under the Stairs (1991) used almost exactly the same composition, but switched the cloud for a giant skull.

During the 1980s, vampire movies were given a new lease of life as directors found ways to contemporise the genre. I mentioned Lost Boys earlier, undoubtedly the most famous example from that era, but there were plenty of other films which tried to bring the vampire legend up to date in similar ways.

Near Dark (1987) is similar to Lost Boys because once again vampires are represented as a ruthless gang of outlaws. However, the brutal setting and darker mood mean it’s generally considered the brooding older brother of Lost Boys and its comic book world.

Four years before the release of Lost Boys, Tony Scott directed The Hunger (1983), a stylish vampire movie starring David Bowie, Catherine DeNeuve and Susan Sarandon. The director of Fright Night, Tom Holland, says of The Hunger: “I got outraged when I saw The Hunger. It was godawful, because it was a picture ashamed of the genre. It didn’t mention the word vampire once. I wanted to bring it back.”

Holland recognised the biggest problem for the genre was that during its heyday vampire movies were period pieces. In Fright Night he modernised the genre but kept a bridge to the past in the character Peter Vincent, a supposed vampire slayer from the fictional TV show “Fright Night”, played by Roddy McDowall in the film. Peter Vincent, whose name is an amalgam of Hammer Horror veterans Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, represents the old school of vampire fiction.

When Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), a teenage horror fan, begins to suspect his neighbour Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire, he attempts to recruit Vincent, his idol. At first Vincent is sceptical, but when he sees for himself that Dandridge has no reflection he is persuaded to become a vampire slayer for real. The film then becomes homage to vampire movies of the past, as they provide the two would-be slayers with the knowledge necessary to deal with the modern day vampire.

Of all the recommendations on this page, Fright Night is the film you’re most likely to have seen, because it was a big commercial success. Audiences reacted more positively to the re-imagining of the vampire legend in Fright Night than they did to the re-imagining in the Jim Carrey vehicle Once Bitten, which came out the same year.

You don’t have to be a horror fan to enjoy the film, but don’t bother watching if you don’t like ‘80s movies – Fright Night is resolutely of its time. As you might expect, the soundtrack is filled with ‘80s synth pop. The legendary club scene makes mesmerising use of Evelyn “Champagne” King’s ‘Give It Up’, but my favourite track featured in the film is Brad Fiedel’s ‘Come To Me’. The track is used for a brilliantly atmospheric scene in which Charley is spying on his neighbour and sees more than he bargained on. It’s such a good track they added vocals by Deborah Holland and made it the main theme for Fright Night Part II.

When I started writing this I thought I’d include a bunch of clips and trailers, but I’m sure you’re capable of exploring YouTube for yourself. Maybe you’ll enjoy trawling the web looking for information on these movies as much I did when I wrote this. I certainly found pictures and commentary for lots more films which I haven’t mentioned, so perhaps I’ll post a few more recommendations up at some point.


3 Responses to “The video nasties I love the most, Part 1”

  1. I think societyis a really underrated movie. I thought it was fantastic when I first saw it. I think people may have been put off by the Billy Warlock/Baywatch factor as well….

  2. thebigsmoke Says:


    Remind me to lend you my copy of They Live. I think you’ll like it.

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