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10 Scariest Villains in ‘80s Action Movies

10 Scariest Villains in ‘80s Action Movies

What makes a good action film? Pulse-spiking scenes, certainly. An active protagonist who is ready to roll around and place themselves in perilous situations is a must. And a fast-paced soundtrack to prop up the tensest scenes sure does help. The ‘80s knew how to blend all these crucial elements and more to create propulsive action movies that still hold up today. Yet, there’s one other element that people may overlook that the best films in this genre have: a terrifying villain.



Cinephiles know the importance of an antagonist in a film, but often it’s seen as a necessary element in genres like horror or dramas. The best action movies also provide villains that make the protagonist (and, subsequently, viewers) all the more driven to see them defeated in the end. Action movie villains can range from a common criminal to a warrior set on world domination. Here are 10 of the scariest villains from ‘80s action movies.

10 Lady Tanaka – The Punisher (1989)

The Punisher is an underrated vigilante action film based on the Marvel Comics of the same name. Frank Castle is an ex-undercover police officer and marine who is racked with guilt. Years ago, the Mafia put out a hit on him by installing a bomb in his car. Only it wasn’t him who died, but his wife and two children.

Now, he lives in the sewer system and has killed over one hundred mobsters to avenge the lives of his family. He’s shaking up the foundation of the mob families and then catches the attention of another crime organization, the Yakuza.

A Killer of Few Words

Lady Tanaka is the leader of the Yakuza, and she is ruthless in her quest to pounce on the discord happening among the mobs. She uses their children as ransom and resorts to torturing Frank to get him out of her way. Her daughter could be an honorary mention on this list because she’s just as brutal. Lady Tanaka doesn’t have to use many words to be utterly terrifying, her sharp skills with weapons and her ability to command a room do all the talking for her.

9 Franz Sanchez – License to Kill (1989)

The James Bond universe has a plethora of villains that people love to see the famed agent take down. In the 16th film, License to Kill, Bond and agent Felix Leiter’s next assignment is to apprehend drug lord Franz Sanchez. His first attempt to capture the criminal is successful, but Sanchez bribes another agent to escape. To get back at Bond’s partner for aiding in his arrest, Sanchez hires men to kill Leiter’s new wife and later sets a Great White Shark on Leiter himself.

Don’t Get in His Way

If the above description didn’t make it clear, Franz Sanchez does not value human life. His pride and money are his utmost priorities, and anything (or anyone) who gets in his way is collateral damage. Sure, he may claim that “loyalty is more important to [him] than money,” but money is still high up on the list.

James Bond films often follow similar formulas, so most viewers know that he’s going to get his comeuppance by the end. Yet even knowing this, it doesn’t make his cold, calculated ways any less scary. Stream on Max through Prime Video.

8 Lord Humungus – Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Kjell Nilsson as Lord Humungus in Mad Max 2
Warner Bros.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior brings fans back into the barren, post-apocalyptic world that the protagonist, Max “Mad Max” Rockatansky, inhibits. Max used to be a police officer back when the world was normal. But after a war led to mass deaths of people, destruction of the environment, and oil shortages, among other concerns, that past is far behind him.

His dog is the only remaining member of his family that Max has left. While Max is focused on survival, there’s a biker gang led by Lord Humungus, who adds even more complications to his life.

A Large Presence

It’s no coincidence that Lord Humungus’ name is similar to the word “humungous,” because this villain certainly has a domineering aura that adds to his scariness. Viewers are first introduced to Wez, one of the bikers that Humungus reigns over. But it becomes clear once Humungus is introduced why he’s the one running the shots.

He seemingly offers Max and the others a bit of grace, promising to leave them alone if they give him fuel. But Max realizes that this is not a charitable man. For a villain who doesn’t have as much screen time as his cronies, he uses the time he does have to thoroughly invoke fear. Rent on AppleTV.

Related: Every Mad Max Movie, Ranked

7 Will Teasle – First Blood (1982)

First Blood is the first film that introduced us to Rambo and kicked off the successful franchise. Adapted from a novel, it centers on Vietnam War veteran John Rambo. While traveling, he learns that one of his friends died from cancer thanks to chemicals he was exposed to during the war. When he arrives in Hope, Washington, Sheriff Will Teasle drives him off and makes it clear he doesn’t want him in his town. Rambo doesn’t heed Teasle’s warning, leading him to get tortured by the officers in town until he finally snaps.

Someone We Could Know

Will Teasle is an interesting villain. He doesn’t possess any superhuman qualities. He’s not particularly big or strong. In fact, it’s apparent from the jump that Rambo could take Teasle in a fight easily. What makes Teasle a scary villain is the psychological torment he inflicts on Rambo.

Our ignorance of PTSD among veterans is a huge theme in this film, but even if Teasle did know it existed, he probably wouldn’t have cared. His dedication to getting under Rambo’s skin and his complete lack of empathy make him one of the scariest villains because it shows us the depths everyday people can lower themselves to. Buy on AppleTV.

6 Mola Ram – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a fun action-adventure movie and the second film in the Indiana Jones series. This prequel is set in 1935 and follows archaeologist Indiana Jones. He was hired by a crime boss to extract the remains of an emperor from the 1600s. However, said boss attempts to murder Indiana, though he manages to escape. Not for long. Once the plane he and two of his companions are on goes down intentionally and parachutes can’t be found, he realizes that he’s in for one heck of an adventure to outsmart this man.

Why He’s Terrifying

Temple of Doom’s beginning is setting up for the crime boss to be the Big Bad in this film. While his threat is always in the background, it’s a member of a cult named Mola Ram who stands out. The cult Mola Ram is a part of engages in several heinous acts—human sacrifice and black magic, to name a few.

Indiana is a smart guy, so when he manages to best our hero to perform his deeds, it can send a shiver down viewers’ spines. His introduction scene alone makes him worthy of a spot on this list and may have people question the movie’s PG rating. Stream on Disney+.

Related: Indiana Jones: The Best Action Scenes, Ranked

5 The Night Slasher – Cobra (1986)

Sylvester Stallone was no stranger to action films in the ‘80s. In 1986, he played the lead role in Cobra, which took inspiration from a novel. “Cobra” is the nickname for Marion Cobretti, a lieutenant for the LAPD who has to protect a witness of a crime while also trying to solve it. Cobra is first brought into the fold when a shooting occurs at a grocery store and the gunmen take people hostage. And with a city as crime-ridden as L.A., law enforcement doesn’t realize at first that a string of seemingly unconnected crimes are underway.

A True Sociopath

There are many villains that Cobra encounters throughout the film, but the biggest is no doubt the Night Slasher. In tandem with having a moniker fit for a slasher film killer, the Night Slasher is the leader of the New World. This cult believes picking off the weakest in society is part of their life’s calling.

Such a warped way of thinking is extremely fear-inducing, with his rampant killing sprees across the city. Taking human life is as simple as drinking water or breathing for him, part of his DNA. When Cobra finally gets the chance to confront him, it’s clear what side the audience is on. Rent on AppleTV.



George P. Cosmatos

Release Date
March 21, 1986


4 The Duke – Escape from New York (1981)

When we think of Manhattan, images of Times Square, yellow taxi cabs, and hot dog stands may come to mind. In Escape from New York, the entire island is now used as a maximum security prison, the only one in the country. A wall is erected around the island with heavy surveillance.

However, not even the best security measures can predict a plane carrying the president being hijacked. The president is kidnapped, and the plane crashes into the wall. Snake Plissken, a soldier turned convict who is en route to the prison, is told if he saves the president, he can escape jail time.

Why He’s Scary

The stakes are as high as New York City’s largest skyscrapers in Escape from New York. Snake’s quest becomes even more dangerous when viewers learn more about The Duke, the crime boss behind the entire scheme. The best movie villains are ones who are incredibly smart because it’s terrifying to see others use all that knowledge for evil.

He’s not only comfortable targeting the president, but he even uses the leader as a decoy to protect himself. Duke is a flashy character, going so far as to have chandeliers on the hood of his car. A villain who is both showy and evil? A perfect combination for an action film. Stream on The Criterion Channel.

3 Chong Li – Bloodsport (1988)

Bloodsport follows U.S. Army Captain Frank Dux, who is competing in a martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. Frank has trained in ninjutsu since he was a boy. He was trained by Senzo Tanaka, who took Frank under his wing after the death of his son. Dux is invited to compete in an illegal competition called Kumite. Since he can’t get approval from his superiors to leave, he deserts his position. While there, he learns that one person he’ll have to overcome is the champion Chong Li.

He Plays Dirty

Chong Li doesn’t know what the meaning of good sportsmanship is. Even in an illegal competition, one would hope that each fighter wouldn’t thrill in causing serious bodily harm to another. Not the case here. His fight scenes are a bit gruesome, with bones protruding and Chong Li using his brute strength to incapacitate his adversaries.

Sure, the film itself goes a little bit off the wall and the acting itself veers into the campiness category every so often. Still, this is one antagonist who viewers are glad isn’t a real person. Stream on AMC+.



Release Date
April 29, 1988

92 Minutes

Related: Movies Where New York City Is a Dirty Hellscape

2 Hans Gruber – Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard revolves around an NYPD detective John McClane who gets more than he bargained for when he decided to visit Los Angeles. His marriage is on the rocks, so on Christmas Eve, he opts to visit her and try to work things out. His wife Holly’s company is throwing a party and while he’s in the bathroom, terrorists take control of the building. Though McClane can escape, he cannot simply walk away and allow Holly and the other innocent victims to be left to the criminals’ devices.

Ruthless and Conniving

The leader of the group is a German radical named Hans Gruber. To be fair, any person who is willing to go to the lengths he did would instill fear in viewers. However, Hans in particular possessed a fair amount of qualities that set him apart from a standard action movie villain. First off, he’s not a mustache-twirling ball of evil. There are moments where he even comes across as a bit… likable.

Which makes him scarier, knowing how quickly the switch can flip and have viewers wonder how many masks a man like him wears. As a character who shows little mercy to others and has corralled a hoard of others to do his bidding, Hans Gruber is pretty scary. Rent on AppleTV.

die hard

Die Hard

Release Date
July 15, 1988


1 The Joker – Batman (1989)

One action subgenre that is known for having a tangible, evil villain is superhero films. Batman follows the titular character, also known as Bruce Wayne, as he combats crime throughout Gotham City. From the outside, Bruce Wayne is an accomplished, wealthy man. By night, he dons a mask and stops criminals, still impacted by the death of his parents when he was a child. The most formidable foe he must defeat is The Joker, a clown-like man who is equal parts ghoulish and unhinged.

Both Fun and Frightening

Many of The Joker’s most iconic moments are when he’s being kind of funny. Whether in the original ‘80s movies or subsequent reboots/remakes, audiences have come to know (and love) his sarcastic quips.

However, if we get past the charismatic performances by the actors and truly put ourselves in Batman and the citizens of Gotham City’s shoes, he’s horrifying. His moral compass is faulty, to put it mildly, and he thrills at torturing others. While we love seeing The Joker on screen, few of us would volunteer to be in a room alone with him. Stream on Max.



Release Date
June 23, 1989


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