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Retro Review: They Live (1988)

Director John Carpenter is known for his masterful mixing of horror, action, sci-fi, and comedy. He best displayed this unique amalgamation in 1986’s brilliant “Big Trouble in Little China,” a genre-defying classic that has no equal to this day.

However, a close second would be another Carpenter film, “They Live.” Kickass fight scenes, quippy one-liners, genuinely terrifying creatures, and aliens unlike any you’ve seen before, all come together to form a truly unique cinematic experience.

Initially intended to be yet another team-up between Carpenter and muse Kurt Russell (following Escape From New York, The Thing, and the aforementioned Big Trouble), the director ultimately decided that he was playing favorites, and should give someone else a chance. But who else, in 1988, could embody the muscle-bound, wisecracking antihero he had written? Enter “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a WWF star whose character was pretty much exactly that.

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Fun Fact #1: Piper ad-libbed the classic line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass……….and I’m all out of bubblegum.” He often came off the cuff in a similar fashion in his wrestling promos.

So, as it turned out, Piper was a fine choice for the role. Second billing went to Keith David, who Carpenter had previously worked with on “The Thing.” In fact, he wrote the role specifically for David, because he saw him as an actor who would play the character of Frank as a strong entity in his own right, rather than simply a standard sidekick. He wanted someone just as big, strong, and intimidating as his lead, and he got it in David, whose commanding presence has been seen in many films over the last several decades.

Fun Fact #2: Arguably the greatest fight scene in the history of film is contained in this movie. The back-alley brawl between our two heroes was scripted to last less than 30 seconds. However, unbeknownst to Carpenter, Piper and David had been secretly choreographing and rehearsing the fight for weeks. In fact, they decided among themselves to make the melee as authentic as possible, and only punches to the face and crotch were faked.

The rest of the fight was slugged out for real, and it created the intensity that dragged the combat out for more than five minutes. The director was so impressed with the final product, he made no cuts to the scene. FF #2.5: This legendary brawl was referenced in the South Park installment “Cripple Fight,” in which handicapped Timmy and Jimmy duke it out for nearly the entire episode.

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With the two leads in place, the chemistry of their begrudging friendship carries the characters through the film, while the thoroughly Carpenter-esque plot did the rest of the work. I don’t want to give away too much, for the sake of the unfortunate among you who haven’t yet seen this movie. But I’ll say this much: it will make you wonder if the tinfoil-hat-wearing nutjobs among us are really that crazy after all. Ignore alien commands!

Fun Fact #3: Speaking of aliens, numerous extraterrestrials are seen throughout the movie, in the guise of both male and female humans. However, all of the horrific creatures are actually played by a single man – Jeff Imada, the film’s stunt coordinator. FF #3.5: The aliens were designed to look like rotting humans walking among us. Carpenter’s idea was that, since they were trying to corrupt humanity, they should appear in their true form as a corrupted version of us.

Bottom Line: It’s an 80’s classic in a class by itself. If you enjoy any of the many genres thrown into this particular blender, “They Live” is mandatory viewing. As a kid, it simultaneously scared the hell out of me, cracked me up, and made me think. And it still does today.

Grade: B+

Bonus Trivia: Director John Carpenter composed the music for this film, as he does all of his movies. The atmospheric score from “Big Trouble” and the iconic theme from “Halloween” were also his original compositions.

Although he is the film’s lead, Roddy Piper’s character is never given a name. In the credits, he is simply listed as “Nada,” which was his name in the short story that inspired the movie. Nada is also Spanish for “nothing,” which is intended to paint the character as an everyman, making the point that anyone could have been the person to stumble across the horror he discovered.

According to Carpenter, the film’s basic premise – that we are unwittingly being controlled by unseen forces who want us to only consume, eat, sleep, work, and reproduce – is a criticism of the failings of capitalism, wherein most of the population are simply “worker bees” whose labors benefit not ourselves, but the ruling class, who wish to keep us distracted from this fact.

Did you love “They Live”? If you’ve never seen it, do you plan to now? Tell us in the comments below!

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