When New Hollywood came to an end in the early 1980s, independent cinema continued to thrive throughout the colorful and rebellious era.
The classic indie movies that spawned from that decade were met and recognized with deserved legitimacy, and some of them are so iconic that you probably didn’t even realize they were indie, like the dark teen comedy Heathers or the cult blockbuster Robocop.
Even international filmmakers were making the rounds during the decade, including Pedro Almodóvar, Stephen Frears, and Bille August. Other big players like Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, and the Coen Brothers made modest beginnings during the era.
The reception of 1980s independent film paved the way for the indie films we know and love today. Here are the best classic indie films of the 1980s that truly represent the decade.
10. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
Indie films in the 80s wouldn’t be complete without Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Entertainment. While films like Tromeo and Juliet emerged as cult favorites, the best has to be The Toxic Avenger.
Parodying superhero tropes within the limits of a B-movie, this origin story wears its gaudy campiness boldly.
The premise is silly enough: an unlucky janitor morphs into a deformed hulking brute who seeks justice. But Kaufman let his freak flag fly with the stock characters, chilling action, and gruesome elements.
The Toxic Avenger proved that B-movies can be so much more than trash fodder, that they can accomplish real success.
9. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Steven Soderbergh consistently embraces his indie roots with every film he directs, and that’s certainly true when it comes to one of his earliest works: Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
This thriller drama follows a man (played by James Spader) who voyeuristically records several women who open up about their sexuality. He ends up entangled with an estranged married couple.
While it’s not the first indie drama to tackle domestic and sexual themes, Sex, Lies, and Videotape expanded the capacity of limited budgets and minimalist executions to create heightened drama.
In Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh does not play safe on the voyeuristic elements and the tension between characters.
8. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Let’s crank it up to eleven! This Is Spinal Tap is a solid stepping stone for mockumentary media, taking a set of tropes (rock bands and their publicity) and weaving them into something clever.
Saturday Night Live alumni Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer form the fictional British heavy metal band Spinal Tap, who compose and perform their own songs.
Unfortunately, egos and outlandishness put a spanner in the works during their band tour, and their mishaps are as hair-raising as their glam hair. Insane, clever, and hysterical, This Is Spinal Tap rocks!
7. The Evil Dead (1981)
When it comes to the best indie horror film, it’s a toss-up between Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead.
Wes Craven made a big splash in the 1970s, so we’re giving the honor to Sam Raimi’s gory masterpiece for the 1980s. From an indie standpoint, it’s bloody amazing—and it’s still scary to this day.
The Evil Dead copies the same tropes as other slashers, but Raimi never forgets to be playful amidst relentless horror and violence. With a $90,000 budget, he effectively pulled off supernatural elements and subsequently turned Bruce Campbell’s Ash into a cult icon.
6. Blue Velvet (1986)
While David Lynch is probably best known during this decade for adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune, he never forgot his indie roots—and that put on full display with Blue Velvet.
Blue Velvet revolves around the exploits of a young college student (played by Kyle MacLachlan) who returns home to visit his sick father but haplessly falls into a web of criminal conspiracies.
Lynch is known for ambiguous mysteries without clear answers, and that’s no different here. The core mystery is puzzling in a way that leaves room for exploring the ambiguous characters.
Even with its limitations, Blue Velvet leaves us with tantalizing scenes that either mesmerize or perplex us to death.
5. The Terminator (1984)
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Not many people know that the world-famous Terminator franchise actually started with an indie film. That little-known fact makes the original 1984 sci-fi classic all the more compelling.
With The Terminator, director James Cameron gave everything he had and paid meticulous attention to his simple premise of a cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill a woman who holds the future.
This is apparent from Stan Winston’s visual effects and practical scenes, which are still impressive. And for a sci-fi film with broad scope, the action scenes are strangely limited yet tense. It proves that single-idea action flicks with limited budgets can still make a great impact.
4. Paris, Texas (1984)
Wim Wenders was one of the most influential foreign indie filmmakers during the 1980s decade. However, his best work is an American road movie that has a lot on its sleeve.
Paris, Texas follows the journey of a vagabond named Travis (played by Harry Dean Stanton), who convinces his son and his brother to help him find his long-lost wife.
The beauty of this indie drama comes from its atmosphere, which captures the splendor of gleaming deserts to the bleak underbelly of rural America. The story’s slow burn makes it hit hard and transforms its characters into empathetic figures.
3. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
For most people who saw The Road Warrior, it was their introduction to Max Rockatansky and the post-apocalyptic dystopia he struggles in. The Road Warrior is the epitome of post-apocalyptic escapism.
Needless to say, they witnessed the peak of post-apocalyptic grandeur with this indie flick. In his second conquest, Max defends a group of settlers from a ravaging band of marauders.
George Miller raises the stakes for this outing. The Outback is more dangerous, the foes are fiercer, and Max’s journey goes farther. With all his gravitas to hard-knuckle action and the post-apocalyptic setting, Miller executed some of the best action sequences ever.
2. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee is one of the trailblazers of Black American cinema. While She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze are good starts, Do the Right Thing is where Lee found his footing as a force to behold. To this day, its impact is still felt in society and in filmmaking.
What truly makes Do the Right Thing endure is its unmasking of both sides in its conflict. The result is a story about power grabs, about who has the strongest stance, and Lee never gives a clear solution. Instead, he provides an open door for understanding.
1. Platoon (1986)
This film right here is the masterwork that defined the impact of independently produced film projects. From cast training to execution of its war scenes, director Oliver Stone faced every obstacle head-on with raw emotion.
As a Vietnam War veteran himself, Stone knew the wartime hardships and the moral conflicts that transpire in every dutiful unit, and we get to see that in full effect throughout Platoon.
What’s also impressive was the commitment of his ensemble cast and esteemed crew to go through the motions of Stone’s vision, regardless of how painstaking it was. Rather than settling for patriotic gesturing, they all opted to show a real philosophical battle within the troops.
Bold and breathtaking, Platoon is peak independent cinema.