Film soundtracks, as a business, had always been a niche market along the lines of other film-related media including the novelization, posters, programs, etc. That all began to change in the 1970s as horror, a disreputable genre at best, began to make a few inroads towards mainstream respectability. Suddenly, successful films in the horror genre were being adapted from novels such as The Exorcist and Jaws.
Mainstream film soundtracks were becoming hits including those not built around musicals such as the traditional pop orchestral stylings of, say, a John Williams. His soundtrack albums for Jaws, Star Wars and Superman: The Movie all sold well. Soundtracks for musicals generally did the best in terms of sales; staples like The Sound of Music were supplanted in the late 1970s by the likes of Grease and Saturday Night Fever. By the mid-1980s, mainstream successes like Flashdance, Footloose and Against All Odds began to alter the landscape of the film soundtrack with orchestral scores slowly becoming the purview of the niche market. From the mid-1980s onward, soundtrack albums slowly became dominated by releases featuring the songs used in the films, finally recognizing that money spent on song rights could be money well spent. The horror genre, notorious for being amongst the cheapest to work in, began to follow suit.
Talking about the connection formed between horror films and music — in particularly the 80s — is always a pleasure because I, A) witnessed it firsthand, and B) was a fan of hard rock/heavy metal, a genre that prospered perhaps the most from the partnership. By the end of the 80s alone, the list of hard rock stars appearing on a horror film soundtrack was deep, and by the new millennium, the bond was forged in whatever the shit was that they cooked Storm Breaker in. The list is nearly endless.
Here, I offer my top five best and bust songs featured in horror films of the 1980s. Note: This list is completely arbitrary and is meant more as a historical touchstone than anything else. Opinions are solely my own and are in no way meant to be definitive.
“Maniac” | Flashdance (1983) | Performed by Michael Sambello | Written by Michael Sambello and Dennis Matkosky
You may be thinking “But Flashdance isn’t a horror film.” Of course, you’d be correct. This synth-pop ditty is on this list because it was inspired by a horror film. True story. Hardcore slasher fans may already know this, but Sambello’s 1983 hit single was inspired by the seminal 1980 slasher Maniac, starring the notoriously eccentric Joe Spinell and directed by Bill Lustig. Sambello had originally written it as a horror theme after watching the film. The original lyrics went something like: “He’s a maniac, maniac, that’s for sure / He will kill your cat and nail it to the door.” Fans may have the Blue Underground Blu-Ray release which features not only an excellent documentary on Spinell, but a short doc on this creative misfire (the song), which thankfully never happened. The song that appears in Flashdance is the same composition as the original, except the lyrics are sharply different (different meaning laughable). It’s a victim of its time, and like many songs of the time commissioned for a specific film, it suffers from the Gilligan-Isle school of lyric writing, meaning every line is too on the nose to be taken seriously. This is a theme that reoccurs with the worst songs on this list, so buckle up.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” | Halloween (1978) | Performed by Blue Oyster Cult | Written by Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser
Okay, so this one wasn’t from the 1980s. It’s the only one from the 1970s I’ve included on this list simply because it was my first taste of rock music in a horror film. I was 6 years old when I saw Halloween, and the experience shaped the course of my entire life. It not only enhanced the film, but it contributed to my strong love for rock music as well. Film, music and writing have always been the three-headed Cerberus of my life, and two of them came together in such a strong fashion that I remember the moment and feeling to this day. I have no idea how such a small budget could afford the rights to a contemporary hit song by an established artist; it’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask director John Carpenter. The use of the song is absolutely perfect. Annie and Laurie are driving through the sunset to their respective babysitting jobs as the Shape follows them from a distance, tracking them. The transition from day to night couldn’t find a better musical accomplice than the haunting and so-fitting melodies and lyrics of “Reaper.” To this day, I can’t hear the song without thinking of the film and the moment.
“Love is a Lie” | Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) | Performed by Lion | Written by Kal Swan
I’m sure 80s glam-metal act Lion thought it was a great day at the office when Paramount shelled out a few bucks and bought one of their early songs for Jason’s latest kill switch. Fans are invited to hear the original version on YouTube and avoid the abomination featured in the film itself. I don’t know why the original version was scrapped (my guess is contractual issues) but composer Harry Manfredini opted to RE-RECORD EVERY PART HIMSELF. This results in an utterly bankrupt version of the original. Devoid of any creative spark or flair, this rote version is capped with the most ludicrous howling…I’m sorry, I meant singing…that won’t leave my head long after hearing. Not even Jimmy’s “Dead Fuck Dance Moves” can save this stinker.
“Cry Little Sister (Theme From The Lost Boys)” | The Lost Boys (1987) | Performed by Gerard McMahon | Written by Gerard McMann and Michael Mainieri
While I’ve never been a big fan of the film (I consider it the weakest point in that triangle of influential 80s vampire films that included Fright Night and Near Dark), I was a fan of the soundtrack, one of the first horror film soundtracks featuring an entire album of songs rather than scores. “Cry Little Sister” is easily the best song on the record and comes the closest to conveying the themes and tone of the film (ironic, considering McMahon hadn’t viewed the final product when writing the song!). Director Joel Schumacher praised the song as “perfect” for the film and, unlike his decision years later to add nipples to Batman’s suit, he wasn’t wrong. This moody, atmospheric slice of Goth pop has been covered by other bands many times since.
“No More Mr. Nice Guy” | Shocker (1989) | Performed by Megadeth | Written by Alice Cooper and Michael Bruce
One of the benefits for Alice Cooper following the massive success of his 1989 album Trash was getting offers for more lucrative and mainstream projects. Universal, in partnership with Alive Films, produced and released Wes Craven’s 1989 flick Shocker. Alive Films was run by Cooper’s longtime manager, Shep Gordon, and a deal was quickly struck to produce the film’s soundtrack. The track listing runs the gamut from sublime to laughable, but this cover version of Cooper’s classic “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is simply puerile. Performed and mixed on the cheap, the track sounds like it was recorded in Mustaine’s basement. The stripped-down aesthetic simply sounds half-baked. Dud. Too bad it was the single.
“He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask)” | Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) | Performed by Alice Cooper | Written by Alice Cooper, Kane Roberts, and Tom Kelly
Horror films have had a very strong connection with hard rock and heavy metal music ever since the 1980s, and this track is one strong reason why. When Paramount Pictures and head executive honcho Frank Mancuso, Jr. decided that Jason Vorhees would be reborn after the negative critical and fan response to Friday the 13th Part V A New Beginning, the decision was made to spend a little more money than customary to give the film a leg up on its competitors, particularly the burgeoning Nightmare on Elm Street series. This included a late summer release, more TV and print ads, a novelization, and the inclusion of three songs by a newly sober and resurrected Alice Cooper, who was staging a major comeback in 1986 following several years of tanking album sales and alcoholism. The song itself is an anachronism; it’s desperately dated and feels tacked-on to Cooper’s album Constrictor. Written with his new guitarist Kane Roberts and Madonna songwriter Tom Kane, the song is heavy on cheesy synths and Gilligan Isle-esque lyrics. Although it was Cooper’s latest single from his new album, he didn’t even play on the subsequent successful tour, except in Sweden where it inexplicably hit number one. While barely cracking the top 100 in the U.S., the song was extremely important for multiple reasons. The song itself may be cheesy, but it was a strong and fitting end credits theme for a film that relied upon atmosphere, fun storytelling and a bit of goofiness for its success. It helped solidify a bond between horror and established metal icons; it spawned a video featuring many clips from the film. In these respects, the film set a template for future successes.
“The Darkest Side of the Night” | Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) | Performed by Metropolis | Written by Stan Meissner and Fred Mollin
Stalwart composer Harry Manfredini was gone by the time 1989’s Jason film rolled around. A victim of the tight scheduling surrounding a film series procreating at the rate of a rabbit farm, Manfredini was replaced in the previous year’s Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood by synth specialist Fred Mollin, who immediately proceeded to replace Manfredini’s largely orchestral score with a load of cheap synths. Director Rob Hedden had initially latched on to a Robert Plant song for the film’s opening credits sequence. Paramount took one look at Plant’s asking price and immediately said “nuh-uh.” Mollin enlisted friend Stan Meissner to produce a knock-off, and, well, at least they delivered. It’s fitting, actually. Paramount hopes to polish up a turd with a bit bigger budget and the New York setting and failed miserably. So does the song.
“Dream Warriors” | A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) | Performed by Dokken | Written by George Lynch & Jeff Pilson
New Line Cinema’s Nightmare on Elm Street series may have been starting to kick Jason’s ass by this point, but Paramount’s Friday the 13th franchise was still quick to capitalize on their character’s strengths. Cooper’s experience with Paramount led New Line Cinema to quickly follow up with Dokken on the third Elm Street opus that following winter. New Line Cinema had already made a strong connection to the heavy metal crowd simply by being an established groundbreaking series. Hell, even the Stormtroopers of Death had released an ode to Freddy Krueger on their latest album around this time. Dokken’s song was also a little bit too on-the-nose in terms of lyrics except it had a decided upgrade in terms of sheer quality and musicianship. Cooper set the template, but Dokken and Freddy would both benefit through strong sales of the single, a music video and an episode of MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball hosted by Freddy Krueger himself.
“Fright Night” | Fright Night (1985) | Performed by The J. Geils Band | Written by Joe Lamont
This one is truly a shame. Fright Night’s soundtrack was a pioneer back in 1985. I personally owned the album and cassette and wore out several of the latter. It’s the first horror film I can remember that released a primary soundtrack of 10 songs. And some of them are SO GOOD. Not the title track, though. Not long before this project came to be, original frontman Peter Wolf had gotten sick of fighting for his more bluesy, rock n’ roll tone with synth player Seth Justman, resulting in Wolf quitting and going solo with minor success. Justman took the band in a more synth-heavy, light pop direction with disastrous results. The J. Geils Band quickly died, and this misfire was part of their last salvo. It was released as a single and even had a video (well before Cooper and Dokken came along). This pablum didn’t stand a chance and quickly sank before briefly charting.
“Pet Sematary” | Pet Sematary (1989) | Performed by The Ramones | Written by Dee Dee Ramone and Daniel Rey
The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” was commissioned personally by author Stephen King. The band already had a strong presence in King’s novel of the same name including song lyrics and band member references. In one scene, Louis Creed signs himself into a motel using the name Dee Dee Ramone, the Ramones’ bass player. Dee Dee, who was writing the band’s best material at that point, tossed the “Pet Sematary” lyrics at Joey Ramone and producer Jean Bouvier which then generated this classic song. Its use in the film is perfect, and I’ve often said this is the example I would use to teach the perfect 3-minute song structure to new artists, Again, the lyrics are a bit spot-on, but the atmosphere, production, and tone here are absolutely gorgeous. Yet another in a long line of Ramones songs that should have been a number one hit. The song didn’t do much for the band’s album sales, but it’s everything you could ever want in every other way. The low-budget music video features cameos from a plethora of metal and punk gods and is more fun than any music video you’ve seen in a while.
About the Author
Michael Crosby was a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He passed away on December 5, 2020. We miss him dearly. His articles remain on this site in his honor.