Although there was a begrudging sense even at the time that subgenre movies would typify the period, contemporary critics were less than kind to THE BURNING. In fact, today it may come as a surprise just how much they hated the ‘maniac movies’, as they were often dubbed.
Variety got the boot in right away, by savaging the film just before it opened: “Despite presence of five screenwriters, "The Burning" could have been written by computer. Barrage of clichés makes pic in many ways the reducto ad absurdum of the horror genre and might most appropriately have been titled "Leatherface Goes To Summer Camp On Friday the 13th." Shocker category will undergo further burn-out”. It goes on to say, “Disfigured cretin wields giant shears in doing his dirty work, which often takes place — when else? — after juves have indulged in naughty sex play.” After attacking pretty much every aspect of the film it ends sniffily, "It might be noted that this pic features more convoluted executive and consultant credits — including seven "special business advisers" — than any film in recent memory."
Janet Maslin was hardly kinder in the New York Times, when she reviewed the 1982 Orion re-release in November of that year: “The Burning'' makes a few minor departures from the usual clichés of its genre, though it carefully preserves the violence and sadism that are schlock horror's sine qua non. Instead of following the one-dead-teen-per-15-minutes-of-screen-time formula, this film dawdles; it devotes endless time to horseplay among the campers, who are a tanned, frisky, co-ed bunch.” Interestingly, she views Todd as the Final Boy, not Alfred: “The hero of the movie - in a film like this, the hero is the character who appears Most Likely To Survive - is a pretty-boy counselor named Todd (Brian Matthews), who is finally chased by a torch-wielding Cropsy, who means to damage the pretty-boy's face. This is someone's idea of poetic justice.” She finishes with a weary sigh, “The film ends as a counselor tells his charges that, even though Cropsy has been chopped and incinerated, ''his spirit lives on.'' This horrifying coda suggests that that someone may have a ''Burning II'' in mind. One is enough.”
However, Maslin’s review was positively glowing compared to the one by Dann Gire for the Chicago Daily Herald. To say that he hated the film is putting it mildly; it even drove him to the edge! He ranted: “Enough is enough. This is it. I’ve had it.” He was on a one-man mission to attack slasher movies. He says he had tried to see the good in all movies (which wasn't true, he even hated the original HALLOWEEN), but now he was mad – and THE BURNING did it! He vented: “They all follow the same predictable pattern. Obnoxious and sexually promiscuous teenyboppers one by one are graphically murdered by a mutilated or masked maniac armed with unusual weapons from arrows and axes to butcher knives and machetes.” Interestingly, though, he commented on another type of butchery: “But something has happened to the maniac movie since May 1980 … This year’s ‘Friday the 13th Part 2’ and ‘The Burning’ both were heavily and sloppily edited, as though the once obligatory closeup of a razored throat was hastily removed at the last minute.” He doesn’t make it clear if he thinks the film-makers themselves did this, or – as was the fact – the cuts were insisted on by the MPAA. He finishes by saying: “No more stars for maniac movies. I’m sick of them” and, presumably tongue-in-cheek, in response to those who say that violent movies don’t cause violence in society: “They’re wrong. … I know because every time I come out of another maniac movie, I get an uncontrollable urge to kill the people who made it.”
Halliwell's Film Guide keeps it short if not especially sweet: “Dire, totally predictable, uninventive low-budget horror.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror calls it “[A] ... slavish imitation of the already imitative Friday the 13th.” It expands, “The film is a particularly clear example of puritanism of this particular subgenre, since virtually all the killings follow various scenes of sex play, and can thus all too easily read as 'dire warnings' or 'punishments justly deserved'”. It gives scant praise by calling Savini's special effects “efficient as usual”, but lambasts Maylam's direction and Wakeman's score as “... both annoyingly insistent and nudging.”
Whilst THE BURNING did not exactly set the box office on fire, the critical brickbats thrown at the film did little to affect the film's eventual success on video.