6 Must See Movies From 1981

December 3, 2010

by Joel G. Robertson

1981. The year that gave us the greatest action-adventure film ever committed to celluloid and one of my top five favorites of all time: Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I almost put Raiders on this list, but everyone’s seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, right? No, my film-lovin’ friends, I’m afraid not. So many of us take for granted that Raiders of the Lost Ark is almost 30 years old, and while it may have once  entered our collective thoughts daily, well, to untold millions of people not yet thirty, they either haven’t seen it or, Indy help us, haven’t heard of it.

Allow me to illustrate my point with some evidence, albeit anecdotal: While teaching middle school (12- to 14-year-olds) several years ago, I took an impromptu survey. “Who’s Raiders of the Lost Ark?” I asked, half-expecting to get a 15 to 20 percent response in the negative. Well, you can imagine my horror when out of some 160-plus kids, fewer than 5 had seen it!

I ask you, faithful film fan, if so many children can enter their formative teen years without having seen such a seminal, influential work like Raiders of the Lost Ark, what hope have we for the future?

The Evil Dead PosterWell, wipe those eyes, stiffen that spine, and dislodge that wedgie, ’cause that’s why we’re here. You and me. Together we’re going to make damn sure that everyone remembers these movies– from the elderly to those who have yet to twinkle in their old man’s eye.

Join me won’t you, as we stroll through that big, box store of memories and take a turn down the aisle of 1981.


The Evil Dead

A group of college friends spend one hellish night fighting an ancient, forest-dwelling, supernatural force. This is the one that started it all. It gave us Sam Raimi and it gave us Bruce Campbell. And by “klaatu barada nikto” it gave us Ash and the Evil Dead series. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), but I respect The Evil Dead as an original, horror classic. It is a must see for any horror fan… or for anyone that wants to witness the birth of cinematic greatness.

Stripes PosterComedy:


Two loveable losers (Bill Murray and Harold Ramis) decide to join the U.S. Army as a way to get in shape and have a bit of fun. Soon after Meatballs (1980) and a mere three years before making one of the greatest comedies of the 1980s, nay of all time, Ghostbusters (1984) director Ivan Reitman and Bill Murray teamed up again for a raucous good time. Joined by actor/director Harold Ramis (fresh off his directorial debut, Caddyshack), John Candy, John Larroquette, Sean Young, and P.J. Soles (of Halloween fame), this is a raunch-riddled laughfest with Murray at his charming/smarmy best.

Scanners PosterSci-Fi:


People called “scanners” possess the ability to control minds, or make them explode. Despite the cranial splatter, this is one of director David Cronenberg’s least visceral pictures. With Stephen Lack and Patrick McGoohan, there’s a quiet cool that permeates every frame, and with gravely-voiced Michael Ironside as the villain you just can’t go wrong. If you’re new to Cronenbergland, a double-feature of this and Videodrome (1983) will give you a proper introduction courtesy of the flesh-mutated nightmares of Cronenberg. Warning: this double feature may cause copper-tainted tastebuds and vessel-shattered eye sockets…

Brief digression: Is it just me, or was Deborah Harry in her prime everything that Madonna was not–and she could act to boot!

Speaking of boots…

Das Boot PosterDrama:

Das Boot

Tells the story of German soldiers aboard a U-boat during World War 2. A tense, gripping drama, starring Jürgen Prochnow (In the Mouth of Madness). This film  established the template used by other great submarine movies like Crimson Tide (1995) and U-571 (2000). It was also one of the first films directed by Wolfgang Peterson, who would go on to direct The Neverending Story (1984) and Enemy Mine (1985) a few years later. If you like a good, Escape From New York Posterclaustrophobic war film that’s heavy on human drama and the effects of war on the mind’s of men, this is definitely one you should check out.


Escape from New York

Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) must rescue the President of the United States, who is being help hostage in New York City, which has been transformed into a prison. It would take too long to list everything I love about this film. From Carpenter’s throbbing synth score (damn, he does Casio proud!), to Plissken’s iconic eye-patch, to Adrienne Barbeau’s, uhm, talents… this one has it all. For Snake’s sake, it even has Ernest Borgnine and Isaac Hayes in featured roles.

And a world where Donald Pleasence is the president? Oh boy, is that a world I want to live in!

Clash of the Titans PosterFamily:

Clash of the Titans

Perseus, half-mortal son of Zeus, battles Medusa, the Kraken, and other assorted mythological beasties on his quest to save the beautiful Princess Andromeda from her former suitor turned half-Satyr, Calibos. More than Pegasus, the Kraken, Medusa, or even Bubo the mechanical owl, it’s the collective whole of Ray Harryhausen’s brilliant artistry on display that makes this a must see. This was also the last feature film to feature Harryhausen’s stop-motion brilliance.

Harryhausen’s stop-motion maquettes and puppets are tangible. They are really “there,” whereas most visual effects today exist only as ones and zeroes. I believe that the audience knows, on a deeper level (and sometimes on a not-so-deep level) that the things they’re watching on screen don’t exist. Not just in the “it’s a made up story” kind of way, but rather in the “it only exists on a hard drive” kind of way…

So, there you have it, my six picks from 1981. Do you agree? Disagree? Maybe you think I’ve spent one too many nights down at the Stop ‘n Shop huffing BENGAY and freebasing Blueberry Slush Puppies (or maybe that was freebasing BENGAY and huffing Blueberry Slush Puppies… doesn’t matter, it wasn’t me anyway!)? Well then, why don’t you let us know what movies you think we should check out before we, well, check out.

Until next time, remember, a flick is only forgotten if you’re not talking about it!

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