Title: They Live
Year of Release: 1988
Director: John Carpenter
Length: 94 mins
Starring: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason
And now we arrive at yet another worthy entry in this series for horror maestro John Carpenter following The Fog, The Thing and Christine, and we haven’t even come to Halloween yet. Despite making back its entire budget of $3 million in its first weekend in theatres, upon release They Live offering was largely met with lukewarm reviews and indifference. Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post, “It’s just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate.”
However, like so many other Carpenter films, They Live soon gathered traction and built a dedicated cult following further down the line. Since then, it has become known in underground circles as a bona fide sci-fi horror classic in the vein of Terminator and Robocop, containing all the elements essential for such an illustrious title such as satire, social commentary, a healthy dose of humour and, of course, some explosions. Its cultural impact is so profound that more than three decades after it came out, those perma-woke hipsters over at Rolling Stone are still writing articles about it.
The plot is pretty basic. Renowned wrestling star Roddy Piper, now sadly departed, plays Nada, a good-natured drifter who befriends construction worker Frank Armitage (David, who also played Kurt Russell’s sidekick in The Thing). Near a soup kitchen in a local shanty town he discovers a church full of scientific equipment, shortly thereafter the entire place is razed to the ground by police and Nada salvages a box of sunglasses. He steals one pair, and hides the rest in a dumpster. Upon trying out the glasses the first thing he notices is that all the ads that surround us in our daily lives are really vehicles for hidden subversive messages or commands like ‘obey’ and ‘marry and reproduce.’ And that’s just the beginning. The glasses also allow him to see for the first time that the legions of yuppies populating Los Angeles, and presumably the rest of the world are, in fact, aliens. When the nasty aliens learn that Nada is well on the way to uncovering the truth, he essentially takes TV worker Holly Thompson (Foster) hostage, until she throws him through a window. Now a fugitive, Nada meets Armitage and, after a marathon six-minute street fight, finally succeeds in forcing a pair of sunglasses on his disbelieving buddy. Now alert to the truth, the two pair up to try to stop the alien invasion.
The idea for the movie came from a short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight o’clock in the Morning,” which was originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1963. It was later developed into a comic with the much snappier title Nada which was published in the Alien Encounters anthology in 1986. Carpenter acquired the film rights to both the original short story and the comic book, and used them as the basis for the screenplay which he wrote under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, which was also the name of David’s character. The name is actually an allusion to H.P. Lovecraft, one of carpenter’s favourite writers, who named a character in his classic The Dunwich Horror Henry Armitage. Ironically, most Lovecraftian horror involves a hidden or unseen world, a core element of They Live.
In the years since it came out, the movie has been taken as a metaphor for Reagan’s America, with Carpenter himself throwing fuel on the fire in various interviews. In a nutshell, the more political elements of the movie are derived from the director’s growing distaste with 1980’s commercialisation and consumerism, especially the economic policies promoted by the president which were dubbed Reaganomics. Carpenter once said, “I began watching TV again [and] quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something.”
In keeping with the OTT eighties trend of cramming as many naff one-liners in each film as was humanly possible, Piper’s peak comes with the sublime, “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum,” second only to, “Life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”
A remake has been mooted since around 2010 but details remain elusive. One thing is certain, if any cult movie would benefit from a big-budget, modern-day makeover, it’s this one.
Even politically-conscious pop punk stalwarts Green Day paid homage to They Live in the video for their single Back in the USA from the 2017 compilation Greatest Hits: God’s Favourite Band.