I recently did a Phenomenal 5 on the movies of 1980. Well now it’s time for 1981. As a kid of the 80’s, there are so many of these films that strike a nostalgic chord with me. There are also many genuinely classic pictures that came out of the decade that still stand up today. As I look at these years I’ve decided to allow both nostalgia and classic movies to influence my choices. That was never more evident than with my picks for the year 1981. Of course, with so many movies released that year, I couldn’t call this the definitive list. But there is no denying that these 5 movies from 1981 are certainly phenomenal.


1981 wasn’t the greatest year for movies but it did give us some memorable ones including “An American Werewolf in London”. This crazy mix of horror and comedy follows two American backpackers vacationing through the English countryside. They are attacked by a werewolf which kills one and leaves the other in a London hospital. But everyone knows that if you’re bit by a werewolf you’ll turn into a werewolf and so this story goes. The film features some truly fantastic special effects and Academy Award winning makeup. But one thing that set this apart from most horror pictures is its clever sense of humor from the dialogue to the various moon-oriented songs. It definitely mixes laughs with its buckets of gore.


I wouldn’t normally think a fantasy film starring Harry Hamlin would be a good experience. But when you throw in Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, and special effects from the master of stop-motion animation Ray Harryhausen, I’m automatically onboard. This mythological fantasy picture pits our bushy haired hero Perseus against an awesome assortment of creatures including Medusa and of course the mighty Kraken. Sure the movie is campy and loaded with cheese. But there were many of these fantasy movies that hit the theaters during the 70’s and 80’s and “Clash of the Titans” is one of the best of them.


“The Road Warrior” was the second film in the Mad Max series and it was the movie that put Mel Gibson on the international map. This Australian action picture from George Miller creates one of the most impressive postapocalyptic landscapes in the movies. Gibson’s Max is a tough-as-nails ex-cop who ends up helping a group of settlers who are being terrorized by a murderous gang. The film features some amazing action, none better than the breath-taking vehicle chase scene at the end that still rivals anything else like it. This isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone but it’s one I thoroughly enjoy.


“The Evil Dead” remains one of my favorite horror pictures of all time and to this day it still creeps me out. Two friends and aspiring filmmakers Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell made “The Evil Dead” with a tiny budget of around $350,000. Now it’s blossomed into a cult classic with two really good sequels. A group of college kids head out to spend their spring break in a cabin in the woods. Once there, they discover The Book of the Dead and end up unleashing a horde of demons who begin killing them off one-by-one. It’s unashamedly gory but intensely creepy. It’s also a great example of quality filmmaking without the benefit of boatloads of money. And of course Campbell is a blast to watch. This is without a doubt a horror movie classic.


Without a doubt, one of my favorite movies from the 80’s was Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Not only was this a classic action picture but it introduced one of the most iconic cinema heroes of all time – Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford makes Indiana great through his pitch-perfect performance, rugged grit, and cracking whip. The movie features one of the greatest action-fueled character introductions you’ll find as Indiana and a young Alfred Molina venture into a deadly cave to retrieve a golden head. But his true adventure starts after he finds out the Nazis may have found the lost Ark of the Covenant. Indy races off to find it before the Nazi’s do and encounters a great assortment of friends and villains along the way. Brilliant construction, amazing action sequences, and just the right amount of humor help make this a true movie classic.

There are my five picks of phenomenal movies from 1981. Do you see one that I missed? Disagree with my selections? Please take time to share your thoughts.

22 thoughts on “5 PHENOMENAL MOVIES FROM 1981

    • Oh The Evil Dead is creepy. It’s also very well made especially considering it’s budget. Road Warrior is pretty wild. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I really like it. Anxious to hear your thoughts on these two.

      • Oh man! I remember staying in the theater all day long just so I could watch Snake Plissken do his thing and Scanners…I snuck into after ditching one of my classes. Ha. I was such a movie degenerate. 😀

  1. Year I was born! Always wanted to do a post on this year but couldn’t find movies I loved enough. Chariots of Fire is highly recommended but I’m not sure it’s really my thing.

    • I actually saw Chariots of Fire in the theater but it never really blew me away. I was just a kid then but even after giving it another chance it’s still just an ok movie. Thanks for checking out the list.

  2. Excalibur, Escape From New York, Ragtime, Reds, and all the ones you mentioned as well. I went and looked at a list of films I saw in 1981. It was a good year, I saw 67 in theaters that year. Oh yeah, The Howling and Wolfen along with American Werewolf in London made a great trifecta.

    • There was definitely a wolf thing going in 1981 wasn’t there? I couldn’t tell you how many movies I saw in the theater that year but it certainly wasn’t as many as you. I grew up and still live in a small town and as a young guy I wasn’t able to drive out of town to go see as many movies as I would like. But my parents were still good about those out of town cinema trips!

  3. Incredible year! Lola, Pennies from Heaven, Diva, My Dinner with Andre and Quartet top my personal top five, with Mephisto, The Long Good Friday, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds, Blind Chance, Blow Out and The Fox and the Hound rounding out my top 12.

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