‘They Live’ (1988): Pro wrestler is John Carpenter’s muse in politically-tinged thriller

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

John Carpenter is a genius.

By Jason Hink

Returning to my childhood while approaching middle age, it’s fun to re-watch films from my youth that I haven’t revisited for a while. Some, in fact, for many years. Such as it is for John Carpenter’s They Live, the 1988 politically-tinged action flick starring one of professional wrestling’s greats, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. The last time I saw it was via VHS rental when I was about 16 (aside from bits and pieces on TV over the years), which would have been around 1991 or so. But over the past few years, with the cost of Blu-ray discs dropping to the cheapest levels we may ever see, I’ve been buying them up and replacing old versions of movies I’ve owned since childhood, many on VHS and DVD. I’m a big fan of “those weird B-movies,” as one of my cousins once described them, and they were right. Now, these films are enjoying a golden age on disc as boutique labels remaster and distribute these old movies in pristine, high-definition presentations on Blu-ray, such as Shout! Factory‘s release of They Live via their Scream Factory imprint.

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Starring “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Keith David and Meg Foster, They Live, based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” hit theaters in 1988 at an interesting time in America, especially considering director John Carpenter’s take on the politics of the time. They Live is a sort-of sci-fi response to eight years of Republican-populist rule under President Ronald Reagan’s administration, a time of unprecedented economic growth in America resulting from an advertising and marketing boom thanks to some strategic moves “to get government out of the way” by the administration’s easing of regulations. At the time, capitalism was celebrated and saved our collective bacon, economically.

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Of course, none of this matters to a teenager looking for a few sci-fi kicks while flipping through the channels on a Friday night or hitting up the local rental shack to spot that cover art that looks exciting. And that’s how I initially found They Live, which has a slow burn that somehow plays fast.

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It’s present day L.A., 1988. Drifter Nada (Roddy Piper, Hell Comes to Frogtown, Immortal Combat) is down on his luck and out of work, walking the mean streets of Los Angeles with his life stuffed into a huge backpack looking for work, checking in at local employment offices, sleeping at homeless camps, and generally living without direction. He eventually happens upon a construction site—a “union” outfit, the foreman (Norman Alden) tells us—which results in employment after Nada begs the boss.

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Now employed, Nada continues sleeping in homeless camps, which doesn’t go unnoticed by his coworker at the construction gig, Frank Armitage (Keith David, Platoon, The Thing), who offers to lead Nada to a squatter town where those less fortunate have built a tent city-like formation where they live in harmony. But while shacking up in this shanty town, Nada is suspicious of strange things a-happening in the middle of the night at the church across the street. When he investigates, spoilers he finds the church is actually a front for a mysterious group, complete with a sound system pumping through canned crowd noise making it sound like church services are taking place. Following a strange raid by local police, he goes back to the church and steals a sealed box containing…sunglasses? It appears at first to be anticlimactic, but then Nada puts the sunglasses on…

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At this point the true genius of the film kicks in. When Nada dons these special sunglasses, he can “see through” what the normal human eye sees: billboards and advertisements display as hidden directives subconsciously telling people what to do (“obey,” “reproduce,” “conform”); some normal-looking humans are actually scary-faced aliens quietly infiltrating and taking over Earth. After a handful of armed confrontations with these otherworldly beings, Nada, now a fugitive, kidnaps Holly (Meg Foster, Masters of the Universe, Leviathan) the assistant director of Cable 54, a satellite news station, and holds her hostage as a means to escape and distance himself from the authorities closing in.

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I’ve been on a John Carpenter kick lately, scouring my vault and digging up every last Carpenter film I have on VHS and DVD while slowly upgrading to Blu-ray editions when feasible and re-watching them as I go (I even picked up that Blu-ray of his debut feature, Dark Star, essentially his USC student film). There’s something magical to me about his films and the way they make live-action come to life while still feeling like a pulp novel or comic book. It’s pure escapist fun, done in that independent style while being more competent than others on his level. They Live would be Carpenter’s final film in the ’80s following 1987’s Prince of Darkness and Big Trouble in Little China in 1986. After They Live, he took a break before returning with 1992’s Chevy Chase haunt, Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

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Leaving behind his muse, Kurt Russell, who headlined many of his previous action-adventure outings, Carpenter chose an unlikely lead for They Live in professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a huge breakout star in the “sport” with the WWF (World Wrestling Federation), which hit its peak in the 80s after that company destroyed wrestling’s decades-old territory system. Having just played the lead in Hell Comes to Frogtown, released the same year, Carpenter saw a “real”-ness to Piper, a world-weariness that comes across on screen as someone who audiences could relate to. I happen to agree; the first thing I noticed seeing They Live for the first time in high definition was the makeup applied to Piper’s face, especially noticeable in closeups. You can see the scars on his forehead from all those years of faux-fighting and “blading” (where a wrestler intentionally cuts his forehead to make it bleed). Piper is stacked to the gills, more muscle-bound and pumped than I ever remember him being back then. And because he already had an entertainment background, Piper was allowed to occasionally ad-lib, just like he did in his wrestling promos. One of these ad-libs comes during the scene at the bank, where Piper recites Nada’s famous line about bubblegum and kicking ass.

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Piper’s last memorable wrestling feud culminated with a win over “Adorable” Adrian Adonis at WrestleMania III in 1987, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t put his skills to good use outside of the ring. After Nada discovers the magic power of the sunglasses he wears that allows him to see people and things for who and what they really are, he then tries to convince his coworker, Frank Armitage. But when Nada asks Armitage to try on the glasses so he can see for himself, Armitage refuses. This results in the most drawn-out, longest fight sequence I remember seeing on film. I laughed out loud more than once wondering when this fight would come to an end—all over Nada trying to force Armitage to just try on those f*cking sunglasses! Punches are thrown, kicks land, and I counted three or four legitimate pro wrestling moves—mostly of the suplex variety—employed by Piper in the scene.

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After finally knocking out Armitage, Nada is able to place the sunglasses onto Armitage’s face, making him a believer. This gives Nada a sidekick, someone to fight his war with against the bad guys. Actor Keith David had boxing experience, further making for more realistic, high-energy fight scenes (he’d later appear in 1989’s Road House and 1990’s Marked to Kill). A third wheel, Cable 54’s Holly, joins the crime-busting team, but is she who they think she is? Is anything what we think it is?

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At first I felt like They Live‘s buildup was rather slow and plodding, with Nada investigating the strange things happening around him at the squatter camp, and the hijacking of the TV feed by conspiracy theorists looking to get the word out about these non-humans slowly taking over the planet. But when I hit the pause button to take a whiz, I noted that I was almost an hour into the film, so this slow-burn buildup is in fact quickly paced, holding the viewer’s attention before the more action-oriented final third kicks into gear. Carpenter has a knack for making B-film-style silliness engaging, and he does so here. During the final confrontation, Nada, Armitage and Holly band together to take out the key element allowing the aliens to operate in plain sight. Will they succeed? Will they live through it? If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you. Just know that whenever you reach for your wallet to make a purchase, it’s because you’ve been subconsciously manipulated by marketing and advertising to do so, and that’s the real power these aliens possess.

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1988 was an interesting year in American politics. For those who weren’t Reagan fans, it must have sucked knowing that whatever he was doing was working as evidenced by his landslide reelection in 1984 over Walter Mondale (Reagan carried 49 states, Mondale just one). 1988, the year They Live hit theaters, was another election year and another chance for Democrats to make the case that America sucked under Reagan. But George Bush (Reagan’s vice president) was elected, further cementing the 80s as exclusively Reagan’s, politically speaking (it’s likely also why presidential historians routinely rank Reagan in or near the Top 10 presidents of all time).

I am a huge fan of the 80s, as I lived my childhood through that decade, and I look back on it with kid-like nostalgia: The easing of regulations is what allowed us 80s kids to enjoy a boom in toy branding and cartoons. No longer were toy companies not allowed to create a cartoon based on their creations, essentially allowing us to watch action-packed, 30-minute commercials that then drove us to pester our parents into buying us the toy versions of the characters we just watched on TV (such as The Transformers and G.I. Joe). De-regulation of this type helped fuel a huge market that spilled over into all facets of American life. But with every “good” thing, there is always some bad that comes along with it (automobiles, firearms, the Internet); by 1988 some of this booming economy’s unfortunate side effects had been exposed, like the Wall Street insider trading scandals and 1987’s “Black Monday” stock market crash. The time was ripe for re-evaluation, and filmmakers were taking note.

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In an interview on Scream Factory’s They Live‘s bonus features, Carpenter says the 80s never really ended…that what started then continues today, with society’s elites outpacing us regular folk in every facet of life thanks to unrestrained capitalism (I can’t imagine anyone wanted to go back to what we had before—the Nixon/Watergate/Carter/malaise 70s). And I agree with Carpenter on that: we’ve had 16 years of Democrat rule in the White House since They Live came out (one more than Republicans as of this writing in 2019), and they enjoy what came out of the 80s just as much—there’s been no effort to reverse those trends. In a sense, “They” certainly do still live.

In modern times, there has been an anger and rejection of ’80s greed, excess, and superficiality. In the US, the ’92 Gulf War and a recession finally extinguished the 12-year firestorm of the Reagan/Bush era, bringing with it the rise of ’90s “grunge” and alternative culture. But the ’80s, especially the years leading up to 1988, were a shot in the arm for America, blunting those dour 1970s memories of scandal and economic woe. In other words, you can love or hate a particular era…but either way, none of them are perfect.

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As an independent, I generally dislike politics and loathe discussing them, but in a film like They Live, politics is the spine underlying the allegory. Carpenter employs advertising, imagery, and slick, stealth marketing to get what he wants: Like the aliens infiltrating us in They Live, he made a political statement disguised as a movie—one that grossed $13 million against a $3 million budget. It’s capitalism at work—and I love every minute of it.

John Carpenter is a genius.

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