The 1980s ushered in the era of big summer blockbusters. Studios now wait for any time after Memorial day to put out the big guns–and this all started in the 80s. But what was the best summer for movies in the 80s?
The summer movies of the 80s gave us some of the most beloved films in history. Not only were there big blockbusters, but comedy classics, and memorable family films. The summer movies of the 80s were all about fun and adventure.
So which year was the best?
That’s what I’m going to attempt to narrow down here, today.
How Did Big Summer Movies Become a Thing?
We can really chalk this up to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. This all unofficially started in 1975 when Jaws was released. It became a massive hit and was the highest-grossing film up to that point.
Then, in 1977, Lucas put out a little robots and aliens movie that would change the landscape of Hollywood forever. They released these movies in the summer, and studios were noticing something: since most people were on vacation, they had been going back to see Jaws and Star Wars countless times.
It seems like a no-brainer now, but studios didn’t consider that younger people had little to do in the summer. But this was also because there hadn’t been any monumental, groundbreaking movies like Jaws and Star Wars.
So you could say that the idea of summer being the biggest movie season inadvertently started with Jaws, and was cemented with Star Wars. By the time the 1980s rolled around, there would always be at least two gigantic movies released each summer.
What Was the Best Summer For Movies in the 80s?
Let me tell you: I’ve never struggled more with a list like this. I went back and forth on the order and constantly changed things around. Eventually, I just had to stop, or I don’t think I’d ever finalize this thing.
There are also a few caveats when putting together this list on which the best summer for movies in the 80s was.
The summer movie season officially kicks off memorial day weekend, which is usually near the end of May. This is also the official kickoff for summer. So, to officially be a summer movie release, they had to have came out Memorial Day weekend or later. And I cut things off at the end of August.
Many of these movies are topics I’ve done more in-depth articles about, so any of them that are highlighted with a link will take you to that article I wrote all about them.
For each year, I’ll do a brief intro and talk about the theme that seemed to run through that summer. I’ll also wrap up each section talking about what I think was most notable about that year and how it stacks up in the list of the best summer movies for the 80s.
Hold on to your butts: here we go…
# 10. Summer of 1983
The single blockbuster summer
- Return of the Jedi
- Trading Places
- Superman III
- National Lampoon’s Vacation
Return of the Jedi was such a highly anticipated movie that I think no other studios wanted to go up against it. And fair enough. The summer of 1983 didn’t offer a lot when it came to epic 1980s pop culture movies.
National Lampoon’s Vacation was the perfect offering to go up against the sci-fi juggernauts in Return of the Jedi and Superman III. You always need those comedies mixed in to balance out the over-the-top big-screen blockbuster.
#9. Summer of 1981
The Summer of Indy:
- Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
- The Evil Dead
- Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
It’s hard to emphasize what a monster hit Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is. I really recommend checking out my blog about the story of Indiana Jones and how these movies came to be.
But adjusted for inflation, it made nearly a billion dollars. This is probably a good time to point out that movies opened on way fewer screens. There weren’t giant 32-screen multiplexes that showed the same movie around the clock. You only had limited showings.
But Indiana Jones dominated the summer of 1981–and most of the year. Porky’s is notable because it’s that summer comedy offering that will always be able to carve out its own niche.
The Evil Dead was a great release for horror fans, and the Max Max movies certainly made an impact. This is still the early days of turning the summer into blockbuster season, so it’s understandable that there’s a limited amount of choices.
#8. Summer of 1988
The summer of sequels.
- Young Guns
- Crocodile Dundee 2
- Rambo 3
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit
- Coming to America
- Short Circuit 2
- Die Hard
- A Fish Called Wanda
- Big Top Pee-Wee
- Caddyshack 2
- Mac and Me
By this point in the 1980s, there had been several blockbuster movies. There was now a lot of money in sequels and those big hits from 2 to 3 years ago had a new release for the summer of 1988.
This was an era where movies seemed to take longer to make, so enough time had passed that a brunch of now-classics had time to build a big following. It’s hard not to have the summer of 1988 higher on this list of the best summer for movies in the 80s, but sequels can be a tricky thing.
I see them as a follow-up to something already successful, and not exactly an original offering. The big standouts here have to be Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Die Hard. The summer of 1988 was the summer that had something to offer for everyone. You had action-adventure, comedy, and the worst movie of all time in Mac and Me.
Funnily enough, there weren’t any big science-fiction, fantasy blockbusters this summer.
#7. Summer of 1985
The summer of adventure
- A View to a Kill
- Back to the Future
- The Goonies
- Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
- National lampoon’s European Vacation
- Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
- Follow That Bird
- Weird Science
- Teen Wolf
When I think of the summer of 1985 for movies, I just think fun and adventure. These movies were all about fantasy and escapism. Many of these are the definition of that escapism. The year, of course, is centered around Back to the Future. Not only is it my favorite all-time movie—I think it’s the definitive 1980s film.
And a lot of people felt the same way. Back to the Future was the number one movie for an astounding 13 straight weeks. That made it easily the most successful film of the year—and the entire decade.
Michael J. Fox was also pulling double-duty with Teen Wolf, which I forgot had come out that same summer. But then there’s the movie that many cite as their all-time favorite 80s movie: The Goonies.
This is the positioning I had the most trouble with when determining the best summer for movies in the 80s. I think it’s because Weird Science, Teen Wolf, Follow that Bird, and Fletch were not gigantic hits. But they all gave us that fun and adventure that we go to the movies for.
#6. Summer of 1980
The summer of influence
- Friday the 13th
- The Empire Strikes Back
- The Shining
- Mad Max
1985 arguably had more hits, but the summer of 1980 has some of the most influential movies in film history. Just look at that lineup. You’ve got the best of all the Star Wars movies which changed the way people viewed what a sequel could be.
Then you’ve got Caddyshack and Airplane which are two of the most influential comedies of all time. Mad Max redefined what a film experience could be. And then there’s the Shining. Possibly my second favorite movie ever and one of the most influential horror movies ever. Throw Friday the 13th in there and you’ve got a collection of films that redefined what each genre could be.
The amazing thing about the summer of 1980 is that most of these gigantic films all came out within a week of each other. The decade was starting off by going full-on with summer blockbusters, and it gave us some of the greatest movies in film history.
#5. Summer of 1987
The Summer of fun:
- Beverly Hills Cop II
- Ernest Goes to Camp
- Harry and the Hendersons
- Full Metal Jacket
- Revenge of the Nerds II
- Summer School
- La Bamba
- Superman V: the Quest for Peace
- The Lost Boys
- Masters of the Universe
- Back to the Beach
- Who’s That Girl
- Dirty Dancing
The summer of 1987 really stands out in my mind. This is more from my perspective because I was now of the age where I could go to movies and was more likely to be allowed to meet up with friends at the mall.
The movies that came out in the summer of 1987 had this more light-hearted, upbeat feel to them. I remember them being promoted this way, and it was the summer where I really felt you didn’t want to miss out on any of them.
The commercials and trailers of many of these films really conveyed that sense of summertime fun. The summer of 87 had one of the best balances of different film genres. There were comedies, family movies, science-fiction, and action-adventure.
To me, the big standouts are Robocop and Spaceballs. I did a full review of Robocop over at Patreon.com which is where you can support my blog and podcast but get some audio bonuses for doing so.
You can check out more here: Patereon.com/80s
#4. Summer of 1982
The summer of epicness:
- Rocky III
- The Thing
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Epic is the only actual word that can describe some of the movies from the summer of 1982. The studios, directors, and producers were pushing the boundaries of what movies could be. The technology was improving so that it wasn’t a distraction but serviced the story.
I own several of these on Blu-ray, and they look like they were made yesterday. ET, Bladerunner, and Tron are specifically ahead of their time. The more I look at this lineup, the more I think it could be the best summer for movies in the 80s.
I think the only thing that holds it back is the focus is on supernatural/sci-fi–not that that’s a bad thing. This summer really pushed the bounderies for a movie could be. This was a summer of movies that was ahead of its time.
#3. Summer of 1986
The most consistent summer
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
- Top Gun
- Stand by Me
- The Fly
- Flight of the Navigator
- Howard the Duck
- Transformers: The Movie
When I was going back to make this list, I had forgotten all of these movies had come out at the same time. What makes the summer of 1986 so significant is how consistently good all of these movies are. To me, there isn’t one standout leader in this group.
Each movie holds up on its own–as does the whole summer. There isn’t one movie that defines the year the way Return of the Jedi or Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark did.
If you had to pick the top one, it would probably be Top Gun, but there’s just so much balance between these releases. Aliens was epic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a generation-defining comedy, The Fly is a science-fiction classic, and Stand By Me is the ultimate coming-of-age film.
On a side note: for a young kid in 1986, nothing was bigger than the Transformers movie. If you remember this, you also remember how soul-crushing it was when *spoiler alert* Optimus Prime dies. Check out my blog all about the history of Transformers here.
These films are all just so equally solid that I believe the summer of 86 is worthy of the number 3 spot on this list.
#2. Summer of 1989
The true blockbuster summer
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
- Dead Poets Society
- No Holds Barred
- Ghostbuster 2
- Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
- Weekend at Bernie’s
- The Karate Kid Part 3
- License to Kill
- When Harry Met Sally
- Turner and Hooch
- Uncle Buck
The summer of 89 could easily be in the number 1 spot–but I think my choice holds up. Still, this is the summer that defined what the blockbuster could be. I think Batman is the standout for this year. Batman is also significant because it started the era where studios became consumed with the opening weekend box office results.
But from there, just look at the offering we got that summer. There were critical hits like Dead Poets Society, classic comedy in Weekend at Bernie’s, an all-time great romantic comedy in When Harry Met Sally, and family staples such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
Then there was the final (at the time) installment in the Indiana Jones franchise. I believe that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade may be the perfect movie. This summer was all about excitement and everything that was coming out seemed bigger than the previous release.
It also has one of my all-time favorites in UHF. The Weird Al Yankovich staple was actually thought to be able to hold up but was released during one of the biggest summers in movie history. It got crushed by all these hits which is unfortunate because it’s such an underrated comedy.
This could easily be the best summer for movies in the 80s, but hopefully, you see why my number 1 entry is.
#1. Summer of 1984
The summer of the instant classic.
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
- Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock
- The Karate Kid
- The Muppets Take Manhattan
- Revenge of the Nerds
- Purple Rain
In the summer of 1984, you knew you had something special on your hands. I just feel some of the movies that came out in the summer of 1984 are the ones that many people think of when they think of 80s movies, especially Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid.
But then add to that the highly-anticipated follow-up to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Temple of Doom was another MONSTER hit.
You also get an all-time comedy classic in Revenge of the Nerds, and one of my personal favorites: the family-friendly Muppets Take Manhattan. Add to that the critical drama of Purple Rain, and the Star Trek 3 which pleased Trekkies everywhere, and you’ve got a summer of massively influential movies.
In my opinion, most of these movies could have come out in other summers with no other hits and still made that summer significant. So the summer of 1984 is my narrow choice for the best summer for movies in the 80s.
Wrapping It Up
I better stop now, or I’ll keep adjusting this list. No matter what order you put these years, we can all agree how lucky we are to have had all these great releases in the 80s.
The 1980s set the stage for what summer at the movies would become. I still love the big blockbusters of today, but sometimes they feel a little soulless. The summer movies of the 80s were able to capture a unique tone and spirit that we still feel today when watching them.
If you want some more 80s movie content, I have a blog where I count down the 21 best movies of the decade.