Random Ephemera

8 of the Best Horror Films From the 1960s and '70s

From the early 1960s to the end of the 1970s, horror films went through a period that produced some of the best scary films ever made. With a few exceptions, movies produced earlier seem old fashioned, with creepy castles and monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein that were pulled straight from literary sources dating to the 1800s. While some of those are atmospheric and spooky, they're not generally frightening to modern audiences, and by the 1960s, horror movies were largely considered to be "kids stuff", or cheesy and suited to making teenagers jump at the drive in. Truly scary horror movies made before 1960 are rare, but that began to change as filmmakers created films that not only weren't aimed at younger audiences, but we're probably too intense for them. Many of the movies listed here are referenced over and over as "The Best" horror films ever made, but there are reasons for that. All of them were either ahead of their time, or completely changed the genre in some notable way.

8. Psycho (1960)

There's not much that can be written about "Psycho" that hasn't already been, but it was one of the first films to deal with the types of modern day serial killers that are a staple of the horror genre now. Effectively creepy, it's iconic for a reason, and introduced a type of killer who might be living next door to any of us. It's also one of the most important horror movies for its influence on the slasher films that would be appearing a few years later.

Alternative selection:

"Peeping Tom"

Fans of "Psycho" should also seek out "Peeping Tom", a British film released the same year, that dealt with similar material, and was strong enough to effectively kill its director's career. Nowadays it's considered a classic.

7. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Horror maestro George Romero's game-changing masterpiece invented the modern day zombie film. It also treated the subject matter seriously, and injected a heady dose of social relevancy into its plot. It's rare when a filmmaker comes along who invents an entire genre of film, but that's exactly what Romero and his cast and crew managed to do with "Night Of The Living Dead". There would be no "The Walking Dead" without this or its sequels.

Alternative selection:

"Tombs of The Blind Dead".

The first of a Spanish series of zombie films about resurrected evil Templars, this film lacks all of the modern reinventions that makes "Night of the Living Dead" a timeless classic, but it's still an effectively spooky and very atmospheric film worth searching for.

6. The Exorcist (1973)

So scary that audience members supposedly fled theaters in fear, The Exorcist treated the concept of demonic possession as entirely real, and with a top-notch cast and special effects that still look amazing today, the film continues to pack a punch. It also spawned plenty of terrible imitators, and is so entrenched in pop culture that it's regularly referenced today. The movie doesn't hold back, presenting demonic possession as not only a believable phenomenon but one entirely terrifying.

Alternative selection:

None from the era. There are lots of '70s satanic horror films, many of which were directly inspired by The Exorcist. Most of them range from terrible to "cheesy but fun," but none are anywhere as good as the film they were modeled after. I guess a person could watch The Devil's Rain ( For cheese) or fast-forward a couple of decades to The Ninth Gate (For quality).

5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

This film, which put the Lone Star State on the map, still packs a hell of a wallop in the scares department. Shot in an almost documentary style, this movie is nowhere near as gory as many people suspect, but it's so relentless in its savagery that viewers often don't notice. One of many films to borrow liberally from real-life necrophile killer Ed Gein's story, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre delivers on the city dweller's fear that somewhere out there, insane rednecks who want to kill and eat them DO exist. Copied time and time again, the original film is way better than any of its imitators.

Alternative selections:

A whole slew of films tread similar ground, or just cannibalize (sorry) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Interested viewers might check out Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, The Hills Have Eyes or Motel Hell.

4. Jaws (1975)

I recently re-watched Jaws for the first time in a few years, and it still manages to hold up as a frightening movie. While not strictly a "horror" film, Spielberg's first blockbuster packs in as many (or more) genuine scares as most horror movies. Tapping into the primal fear of being eaten alive, Jaws can still keep some people from swimming in the ocean, and while not 100 percent "biologically accurate," Bruce, the animatronic shark built for the film, looks better than the CGI sharks used in films decades later.

Alternative selection:


This 1978 gem was a Roger Corman-produced Jaws rip-off, directed by Joe Dante. It's also highly entertaining as long as the viewer doesn't take things too seriously, and scenes were filmed in San Marcos at the old "Aquarena Springs" theme park. Alligator, released in 1980, is basically Jaws, except set in Chicago's sewers, and it's a lot of fun for fans of cheese.

3. Suspiria (1977)

The '70s were a golden age for horror, and not just in English-speaking countries. Italian directors were making some excellent fright films, and none was more accomplished at the time than Dario Argento. The auteur director had filmed several great giallos (stylized Italian murder mysteries that often had horror movie elements) throughout the decade, before releasing his most famous movie. Suspiria was shot with an intense color palette that almost seems to bleed off the screen, and the visuals are complemented by a pounding soundtrack by Goblin, a now legendary prog-rock band. The story of malevolent witches killing girls attending a prestigious ballet school has an almost fairy-tale feel to it, and the film has an unnerving, dream-like quality. There's nothing quite like Suspiria.

Alternative selection:

Profondo Rosso

Argento's own Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) from two years earlier is one of his best, and rivals Suspiria in overall quality, even if it's not as widely influential.

2. Halloween (1978)

Considered by most to be one of the best horror films ever made, Halloween has a simple plot about an escaped killer stalking teenagers, but John Carpenter and Debra Hill took that basic premise and made it great. As with many of the movies on this list, there's not much I can say that hasn't been said, but Halloween is the film that took earlier horror film styles and created the slasher genre from them. It's so well made that it still holds up today, even if almost everything about Halloween has been copied over and over by other filmmakers.

Alternative selection:

Black Christmas, Private Parts (The 1972 horror film, not the Howard Stern biopic) and Friday the 13th, which was directly inspired by, but not nearly as good as, Halloween.

1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Many still consider George Romero's sequel to Night of the Living Dead to be the best zombie film ever made, and I'm one of them. Even more than the earlier film, Dawn of the Dead entertains, and its scope is much greater. The movie still came with a hefty dose of social commentary, but also is driven by a more fleshed-out and satisfying plot. Watching the movie, I'm reminded of just how influential it was, and how every major plot point I've ever seen in The Walking Dead is lifted directly from Dawn. It's a classic, and for good reason, even if the zombies often look a strange hue of green or blue.

Alternative selection:

Zombi 2

An Italian film that was directly inspired by Dawn of the Dead but that goes off in a completely different direction, this gorefest isn't anywhere as good a film, but it's definitely a lot of fun. Besides, I've never seen another movie where a guy wearing zombie makeup fights a large (and very real) tiger shark underwater. Worth checking out.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.