Summer’s almost here and it’s time to grab your gear and take the kids camping… and scare yourself silly! Aren’t sure what to pack? Don’t worry, we have the survival guide to some of the scariest, far out and fun horror films to prepare you for survival at camp!
There are plenty more camp movies, mind you, but this is a list of the ones that really have a certain mood to them that bring me back to being younger and going on camping trips and growing up watching horror films during the summer. So here they are in no particular order.
Evil Dead (1981)
Considered to be one of the most frightening and inspirational horror films, so what better place to start? It’s the first work of horror legends Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi and also has copious amounts of gore and tension mixed with some humor that is sure to keep you entertained the whole time.
A group of four friends are headed to a cabin in the woods for brews, food, and a good time. Absolutely nothing can sour this little vacation… well, that is until they stumble upon the Necronomicon in the basement and accidentally summon the demonic deadites!
One by one they are taken over by the evil forces until the iconic sole survivor Ash must battle (and mutilate) his now possessed friends if he wants to make it to morning. Evil Dead also spawned two sequels, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness, which are both worthy successors of the original, becoming goofier with each installment.
Cheerleader Camp (1988)
It’s the peppiest camp around for adults to play teenagers getting slaughtered, like 80’s icon Leif Garrett. He, along with his girlfriend and other members of their cheer squad, head off to Camp Hurrah to train for the finals and bring home the gold… or whatever it is cheerleaders win.
One of the cheerleaders, and our heroine of the movie, Allison, is having bizarre visions and nightmares of the other campers being murdered, but it turns out that the nightmare is a reality! It’s a pretty damn silly movie and doesn’t get more complicated than I described.
I think the film is most notable for having actors that are clearly in their mid-thirties playing high schoolers. I know just about every film does this, but some of them sport stubble, have crow’s feet and Leif Garrett is rocking a serious widow’s peak. Not only that, they come off as very unconvincing cheerleaders.
One, in particular, is an overweight “kid” with an obsession with spying on girls with a camcorder, which ironically captures his fate. I remember I use to confuse this one with a Friday the 13th film when I was younger. Or maybe it’s because this one is very middle of the road, blending in with all other slashers.
The Burning (1981)
Kids are always up to no good, as the unfortunate Cropsy learns when a prank goes bad, engulfing him in flames and scarring him for life. That doesn’t stop him from returning to camp and exacting bloody revenge!
The campers at Camp Stonewater fall victim to Cropsy’s revenge after a rafting trip goes awry, leaving them to be stranded and separating the group as they look for means to escape. Soon, awkward Alfred discovers Cropy’s presence and tries to warn the others before it is too late.
On paper, it sounds pretty straightforward, but The Burning is a very unique slasher film that is more than what it seems to be, although until a few years ago, the film could only be seen in its heavily edited form (this was mostly due to the famous raft scene). For starters, the film has a very interesting dynamic between the kids, developing believable friendships and a bully that torments Alfred.
The kids are played by an amazing cast, including a young Jason Alexander (George from Seinfeld), Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit 1 & 2), and Holly Hunter (blink and you’ll miss her)! And not to mention, who else would you get to kill these campers in horrific ways by none other than Tom Savini, who passed on Friday the 13th Part 2 to do this film.
You round that off by having Rick Wakeman of 80’s mega synth band Yes do the score and you have yourself one of the best slasher films of all time.
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
I could have put just about any of the entries from the Friday the 13th series on the list, but the sixth in the series offers something none of the sequels has: kids actually camping at Camp Crystal Lake. None of them are butchered, unlike the aforementioned The Burning, but that doesn’t stop ol’ Jason from busting through the cabin door and scaring the heebie-jeebies out of them.
Jason is accidentally brought back to life by his adversary Tommy Jarvis (making him the only recurring character, aside from Jason, in the Friday the 13th series) in a very Frankenstein-like manner. Tommy escapes and tries to warn the local authorities that Jason is on his way back to Camp Crystal Lake, now renamed Camp Forest Green, but in typical horror movie fashion, they don’t believe him.
Unfortunately for the counselors, as well as some corporate fatcats on a paintball retreat and residents of the area, who are dispatched of in messy ways upon Jason’s arrival. Personally, this is my favorite of the series as I feel it has the most distinguishable and unique style of the bunch, as well as having a parodic sense of humor that makes it an incredible amount of fun.
You want a camp slasher that’s full of mood and atmosphere, topped off with over-the-top kills?
It’s the last day of camp for kids as their head counselor Max tells them the legend of Madman Marz, who murdered his wife and child and was hung for his crime… but his body disappeared. His name is never to be spoken above a whisper, so of course the loudmouth, idiot kids shout his name and dooms them all too horrific and violent deaths.
Sure enough, Marz appears with superhuman strength and begins to butcher these poor counselors vividly, one of whom is played by Gaylen Ross from Dawn of the Dead, as she struggles with her relationship with TP. Having said that, these counselors have pretty decent chemistry and you tend to root for them, but watching them meet a graphic demise outweighs that.
The film balances false secure, innocent moments with alarming and vicious slasher moments very well and as I stated earlier, it has a nice soft moonlight glow to it, playing into the false sense of security. It truly is movies like this that put me in the mood for slashers and camping.
Highly underrated, it’s an absolute must-see that paces well and packs a punch, but don’t expect a happy ending.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
If there ever was a quintessential summer camp horror flick, this would be it. The film centers around young Angela and Ricky being sent to camp by their nutty aunt.
Ricky connects with old friendships and is shunned by last summer’s girlfriend, Judy, who has it in for poor Angela. As Angela is picked on by the campers (and a sleazy cook), they soon start to die terribly. Camp Arawak’s bitter old owner, Mel, refuses to believe there could be a murderer until his hot young tail (yes, it’s implied he’s having a relationship with one of the counselors) winds up dead. Mel suspects it’s Ricky since the kids disappearing have it out for Angela. But he couldn’t be the killer, could he?
Sleepaway Camp feels like a light-hearted summer romp type of comedy at times, then takes a dark turn when one of the kids is killed. At times, you will forget you are watching a horror film, being lulled into its charming antics, and then like a suckerpunch, it catches you off guard and drops you with intense death scenes.
What makes it so shocking (aside from some of their ages), is how well developed these characters are and the honest relationships they have with each other, which makes it heartbreaking when you know what’s coming to them.
It’s a classic in my book and has one of the most ghastly twist endings of all time. Its sequels, Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland, go for a slapsticky comedic route and happen to star the sister of famous rocker Bruce Springsteen, Pamela.
Return to Sleepaway Camp attempted to return to its original roots, but didn’t possess the same charm and shock and failed miserably. Also, if you happened to buy the Sleepaway Camp box set from Best Buy, it included a fourth disc that contained the footage for the aborted fourth sequel, Sleepaway Camp: The Survivor.
Just Before Dawn (1981)
Often called a mix between Deliverance and Friday the 13th, Just Before Dawn centers around, what else, a group of youngsters on a camping trip? However, something in the woods is waiting for them, but that something is not what you’d be expecting.
It’s not a masked killer, nor is it a creature, but a family of inbred madmen, unbeknownst to a local forest ranger played by George Kennedy. During a night of drinking and one drink dancing around a fire, they are approached by a local redneck and warned to leave, but do they listen? Of course not.
It doesn’t take long after that for the chuckling pair to arrive and gut these campers and as their number dwindles, they realize they need to reach the forest ranger and call for help… if they can make it.
Just Before Dawn is something just a little out of the ordinary that’s well worth a watch. It also features a drunk Mel from Sleepaway Camp as a hunter.
The Forest (1982)
Men are better camper than women. It’s a fact… or at least it is according to the macho characters in this film.
Wanting to prove to their husbands that they are just as good as survivalists as they are, Sharon and Teddi venture off into the woods for a weekend of camping with their significant others, Charlie and Steve, who are meeting up with them later. After all, how hard can camping be?
Teddi is an expert since she read how to do it in a book. Soon, everyone’s survival skills are put to the test once they are being hunted down by a maniac who lives in those woods, hunting human prey and eating whatever he catches! Luckily, a pair of ghost children warn our survivors of the danger that lurks.
It’s a slow burn, boasting the most on-screen hiking montages in cinema history and having very little in the blood and guts department, but it’s filled with camp (no pun intended) classic, like bad acting and ridiculous dialogue.
They also try to flesh out the film’s killer, giving him a tragic backstory and one disturbing scene where Charlie and Steve, unaware of who their camping guest is, accept his invitation to dinner and eat the roasted remains of one of the characters.
Don’t Go in the Woods (1981)
Also confusingly known as Don’t Go in the Woods… Alone due to (possibly) an odd tagline placement, it’s another film that is in tone with The Forest, being extremely campy and incredibly hammy, but that’s what makes it so good.
By now, you’re probably used to seeing, “A group of friends go camping and someone kills them.” It may be simplifying the synopsis, but… that’s what it is! A hysterical, grizzly man who looks like he hasn’t showered and wrapped himself in camo netting runs around an unknown wooded area and butchers everyone he encounters with a machete.
There is a focus group of campers that serve as our main characters, but most of their scenes are meandering around, being lectured on how dangerous the woods are by their guide, and then it will cut to another random person out in the woods getting their arm severed off or stabbed to death.
The effects are laughable and when you mix that with ludicrous character reactions, Don’t Go in the Woods is a great time to be had. It has a noticeable amount of sleaze to make you feel unclean, but you’ll be glad you watched it.
Night of the Demon (1980)
Ever hear the legend of Bigfoot and how he ripped some biker’s weiner off? Or how he twirled a camper in his sleeping bag like he’s a Shot Put champion and impaled the poor guy on a tree branch? No? Well then hunker down, because this is one strange Video Nasty.
Often confused with Night of the Demons or the 1957 monster flick of the same name, this film, believe it or not, doesn’t feature a demon. At least, not by definition. The entire film is told by a bigfoot survivor, a teacher of anthropology at a local college, in flashback form, as he and his students search for the legend.
The film is a little disjointing, cutting back and forth between the class standing around and talking in flannels to graphic scenes of Bigfoot’s murderous rampage (as silly as the special effects are). Along their journey, they discover that the monster they have been seeking is actually the spawn of a woman who was supposedly a witch (at least according to her father) after she was raped.
For a low-budget b-movie, there is quite a bit going on in this movie and they certainly are pushing the boundaries. Their encounter with a sasquatch in the climax is a hilarious and bloody montage of slo-mo, gut-slinging fun that you don’t want to miss.
Until next year, campers, zip-up that tent tight!
[This article has been updated since it was first published in May 2022]