Sex, nudity, new wave music, parties—there’s just something special about the student body being slaughtered by a killer in 80s slashers. So it’s time for six of them.
FINAL EXAM (1981)
I would say the best thing about Final Exam is the atmospheric score. Other than that, there’s nothing holding it together, so it’s all downhill after an initial kill of a couple parked in a car.
There are a bunch of college kids about to take midterms. The girls spend a lot of time talking about boys. The boys spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to pass the exam, including playing extreme pranks – like staging mass school shootings (20 years before they were the cool thing to do). A bunch of side characters are tossed in, including a coach, the sheriff, a teacher, and some other old guy. We can’t even consider them red herrings, because there’s very little suggestion for the first hour that there’s even a killer in the vicinity.
With about a half hour left, a kid left tied to a tree in his undies as part of a prank falls victim to the first kill since the intro scene. After that, there are a series of rapid-fire kills—mostly simple stabbings, and mostly taking place in the gym. The killer is just a dude in a green jacket. His face is not hidden. We don’t know who he is, we don’t know why he’s killing, we never find out.
I can appreciate how the slasher formula plays out from this point. One jock sees the killer just standing in the dark gym, lets out a tribal howl, and bum-rushes him. Pretty refreshing response, but this muscular guy is easily overpowered. There are a couple of body reveal moments. When it’s time for the final girl chase scene, she runs (all over campus) while the killer walks, but he still catches up with her. When an arrow is shot at the killer, he catches it in midair. When the final girl knocks the killer from the top of a tower building, he falls multiple stories, but when the final girl makes her way to the bottom and walks past him, he is still alive and strong enough to grab her.
So the question is, can some random dude with feathered 80s hair and wearing a green jacket have superhuman powers if it’s not Halloween or Friday the13th? I guess that question would have been answered if there had been a sequel, but I guess Final Exam just sucked too much to deserve one.
THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983)
Mark Rosman, director of The House on Sorority Row, went on to direct Evolver in the 90s, but nothing can beat the perfect 80s vibe of this one.
Just before a big bash they’re throwing, a bunch of sorority girls runs in to a major problem—a cruel prank they play on their housemother ends in her death. So…they dump her body in the mucky pool she never had cleaned and go on with their plans.
As sadly overlooked new wave band 4 Out of 5 Doctors performs some of its greatest power pop hits (all of which were available on the CD Reconstructed when it was in print), partygoers begin to get gruesomely killed with the bird head cane the housemother used to carry.
Halfway through the film, there’s a shift, and suddenly, someone in a jester mask is doing the killing. This makes for one cool killer, but the plot pretty much falls apart as a new twist is introduced and plays out horribly, right up until the bizarre, unsatisfactory ending.
Let me just say that because there was never a sequel, we only kind of get a clue as to the killer’s identity, which is a huge disappointment.
THE INITIATION (1984)
Before hitting it big as Jo on Melrose Place in the 1990s, Daphne Zuniga left a mark on 80s horror – The Dorm That Dripped Blood, The Fly II, and…The Initiation. Here, she’s pledging a sorority, and as part of the initiation, she and her fellow pledges need to sneak into her father’s department store overnight.
But before that, the film pretty much spells out exactly who the killer will be. Daphne has nightmares about a little girl witnessing a murder. Daphne has no memory of her childhood because she is told she fell out of a treehouse and lost her memory. Daphne’s parents – Vera Miles of Psycho and Psycho II, and Clu Gulager of Elm Street 2 and Return of the Living Dead – freak out when they are called and informed about someone escaping a mental institution.
Daphne starts working with her cute professor on her dream problem. There’s an all-girl shower scene with boobs and bush. There’s a big costume party at which kids dance to 80s power pop, one guy dresses like an S&M caveman (?), and another like a big penis.
At last, it’s on to the department store, where things unfold pretty much like Hide & Go Shriek and Chopping Mall. Kids get naked in store, kids have sex in store, kids get killed in store, but it’s just not as scary or memorable as the two films that came after it. The guy wearing the S&M caveman outfit earlier now sports leopard print bikini underwear.
We don’t see the killer so there’s no mask, and the weapon of choice, for the most part, is a hand rake. There are bogus prank scares and lots of goofing off as the kids explore the store. Eventually, one girl is treated to loads of body reveals, there’s some chasing, and finally, the big twist.
GIRL SCHOOL SCREAMERS (1986)
Girl School Screamers has the perfect 80s opener. A kid is dared to go into an old house. Inside, he sees a zombie in a wedding dress, her skin all oozy and covered in worms! He screams, runs out, and falls into a coma….
On to the main story. Catholic school girls are sent to catalog an estate. Soon, they’re digging into the mansion’s history. There’s a painting of a woman that supposedly looks exactly like the main girl, but when it’s uncovered, there’ a goofy sound effect that practically mocks the idea (the portrait looks more like a drag queen to me). The main girl finds a diary that she reads throughout the movie (acted out in flashbacks at one point), revealing a story of a girl, her uncle, and a mysterious accident. So what better way to get answers than to hold a séance?
Finally, someone starts killing the girls off. Sure, this is a bottom of the barrel 80s slasher, but at least it hits the most crucial elements of the genre. The music score is on target. While not super gory, the kills are classic for the era—meat cleaver to the mouth, hanging on a meat hook, pitchfork, electrocution, etc. The movie even climaxes with a satisfying corpse party at which the killer and motive are revealed.
My major disappointment with Girl School Screamers is that there’s never an explanation for the zombie bride from the beginning, even though its worm-covered hand makes a random appearance, crawling through the woods at one point and taking out one of the girls.
WELCOME TO SPRING BREAK (1989)
With the shit I grew up on in the 80s, it’s no wonder I love watching every crap slasher that comes out.
In Welcome to Spring Break, a bike gang leader named Diablo is being executed for murder, while the sister of the victim and John Saxon (playing – brace yourself – a cop) watch on.
Awesome girl pop plays over the opener as two cute guys (who look great in tight 80s jeans) head to the beach for spring break.
Pretty soon, the party in the sun starts. There’s flesh galore, with both a wet T-shirt contest for the girls and an “oil the muscle stud” contest for the boys.
A cute jerk keeps playing horror pranks, and our two main guys clash with the local biker gang that so wants to be The Lost Boys.
And of course, there’s a killer. It’s pretty much the cool rider from Grease 2, and his kick ass motorcycle electrocutes anyone who touches it.
Even when the cool rider killer gets off the bike, the weapon of choice is electricity, which takes a fuck load of planning on the cool rider killer’s part.
The movie just continues to fall apart as one of the main guy’s disappears, the other main guy searches for him with help from the sister of Diablo’s victim, and John Saxon and a priest are thrown into the mix to make this an even greater disaster and give us more suspects. Finally, the cool rider killer’s helmet is removed and we get the answer to the question we’ve been singing all along: Who’s That Guy?
CUTTING CLASS (1989)
A slasher that isn’t specifically comedy, Cutting Class has enough goofy moments in it to be remembered as one of the weirdest of the genre to come out of the 80s.
Scream queen Jill Schoelen is our main girl, and her dad is leaving her alone to go hunting. It’s not very often that this setup in a horror movie takes us briefly on the father’s trip. This opener—which feels like it was made to feature someone known for comedy, hence the casting of Martin fricking Mull—makes it clear right from the start that this movie is odd.
Then we meet the main players. Jill is pretty much being lusted after by every guy she comes across: her boyfriend (Brad Pitt), her art teacher, her principal (legend Roddy McDowall), and a student just released from a stay at a mental institution that followed the mysterious death of his father. This kid seems to be obsessed with Jill…and stalking her.
As Jill and friends spend their time doing teenage stuff, it’s sort of like we’re just watching the mostly uninteresting daily school day of a bunch of average kids.
So the movie starts tossing in some teen flick farce and occasional kills to spice things up. And the school is a playground for a psycho killer – a furnace, a copy machine, the bleachers, a trampoline, an American flag.
That said, the death scenes are pretty lackluster, and almost incidental. But the soundtrack is 80s awesome, brought to us by “Mexican Radio” new wave band Wall of Voodoo (but not that song) and their lead singer, Andy Prieboy.
Eventually, Jill is chased around the school by the killer, never really sure which of her admirers actually is the killer in this slasher whodunit, which reminds me a lot of the vibe of Cherry Falls. After the climactic face-off with the killer (one of the best parts of the film), it ends with another silly scene involving Martin Mull. The 80s doesn’t get hokier than Cutting Class.