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John’s Horror Corner: They Live (1988), featuring bubble gum, kicking ass, cheese dip and corporate alien takeovers

March 27, 2014


MY CALL: This sort of hilarious yet smart social commentary is like if a budgetless comedic The Matrix came out in 1988…oh, and there was no “matrix” or kung fu. Okay, fine! It’s nothing like The Matrix! MORE MOVIES LIKE They Live: The Hidden (1987), The Stuff (1985), The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and, on a microcosmic level The Thing(1982, 2011), all provide stories in which trust and conspiracy are tested during surreptitious alien takeovers.


Because the then-famous then-WWF wrestler Roddy Piper is playing a nameless drifter hero he is cast as “Nada” in the film–even though no one ever refers to him by this nonsense casting name. With this role Piper joins such nameless hero ranks with Kurt Russell (Soldier), Kevin Costner (Waterworld, The Postman), Antonio Banderas (Desperado), Scott Adkins (El Gringo), Dwayne Johnson (Faster) and Ryan Gosling (Drive).

Nada (Roddy Piper; Hell Comes to Frogtown) is new in town, strangely homeless, and looking for honest work. He and his sculpted pre-WWE body find work at a construction site where he meets Frank (Keith David; The Thing, Smiley), who has also fallen on hard times. These two tough guys get along immediately and we get the strong sense this will be a buddy movie.

Visionary writer/director John Carpenter (The Thing, Prince of Darkness) paints a world that is not unlike where you may live today. Like mental addicts linked to an IV-drip of social media, he illustrates the human race as media-steered cattle even before the advent of Facebook, Twitter, iPhones and email made this task of technological submission even easier.

Wow…how Brave New World of them.

Loosely touched upon in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978; the “good” version) and The Matrix (1999), this film answers the age old question: “if the world was run by aliens would we know about it?”


Well, lucky for us Nada stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses that reveal the truth about society; how we’re besieged with imperceptibly numerous subliminal messages guiding our every decision…and how there are aliens living among us who look like their “face fell in the cheese dip back in 1956.”


 To quote Schwarzenegger: “You are on ugly mother…”


But how does Nada get Frank to believe his crazy aliens and magic sunglasses story? With a back alley WrestleMania streetfight of course. I should add that Roddy Piper and Keith David have the longest, funniest and most painfully awesome fist fight of the 80s. It goes first They Live (1988), then Rocky IV (1985), then Bloodsport (1988) and Cyborg (1989), then a bunch of Schwarzenegger movies, and then whatever else! This fight accounts for most of the violence in the movie and endures for a gloriously long running time.


Regarding his two-man alien resistance, Nada proclaims “I’ve come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.” I guess the human race is lucky the corner store was all out of Bubblicious. I can’t imagine these ETs-in-humans’-clothing will be too hard to fend off. The aliens enjoy idle small talk and gold watches, and their takeover plan involves a corporate buyout of the upper economic echelons of mankind to help control the poor. They don’t exactly sound like good fighters.


If you somehow missed this allegory-rich 80s horror staple, then get to it! It’s hilarious, it has the best fight of the 80s, and it has a lot to say about how we let ourselves be led.


18 Comments leave one →
  1. MIz Anthrope permalink
    March 27, 2014 9:32 am

    One of my long time favorites! Of course it does not hurt that I have had a long time crush Rowdy Roddy Piper! lol! Also, I watched a few movies over the weekend and thought you and Mark may enjoy them as well. If you can find it, checkout “13 Sins” also watched The Feast trilogy over the weekend – lots of fun and worth it just to see Henry Rollins wearing pink sweatpants 🙂

    • johnleavengood permalink
      March 27, 2014 9:51 pm

      Love the Feast trilogy and all things Henry Rollins! ALL…THINGS…HENRY ROLLINS! LOL. 13 Sins isn’t for sale on Amazon or on Netflix yet, but you’ve placed it on my radar. I love suggestions so please keep them coming in the future.

  2. March 27, 2014 10:27 am

    Old-school cheese, but still fun. Just not very sly with the message its trying to convey is all. Good review.

    • johnleavengood permalink
      March 27, 2014 9:53 pm

      HAHAHA. So true. There was nothing subtle about the allegory therein. Carpenter took a page from Se7en’s John Doe’s book: “Wanting people to listen…you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention. “

  3. March 27, 2014 1:42 pm

    One of my faves too! When I was young, we used to rail against any big corporate product. The more they tried to get us to buy it, the more we resisted. Today, everytime Apple shits out a peice of plastic with a few wires in it, the young people line up like rats in the Pied Piper story. If an alien takeover like in this film ever happened, we’d lose Earth in a week, lol!

    • johnleavengood permalink
      March 27, 2014 9:56 pm

      WOW. I am so jealous I didn’t come up with that line: “every time Apple shits out a piece of plastic with a few wires in it, the young people line up like rats in the Pied Piper story. If an alien takeover like in this film ever happened, we’d lose Earth in a week.” You ooze brilliance, my friend.

  4. March 27, 2014 9:55 pm

    I loved this movie!

  5. Victor De Leon permalink
    March 28, 2014 9:45 pm

    This movie ruies on so many levels. I saw it when it first came out in the theaters and my friends all hated it. I loved it and thought it was brilliantly done. My friends just didn’t get it back then and now so many years later they all look back and tell me that they eventually saw the allegory (which hits you over the head, duh) and social message within. So, they admit to not appreciating it at first. Probably because they were too damned stoned at the time.

    I’ve always wanted to track down the short story it was based on out of curiosity. I love the concept and the story. This soundtrack was the very first score i ever bought on CD and the first JC score I owned on CD. I ran in into the ground. I used to love playing it very loud until my bedroom walls shook.

    Great review and post! They Live is one of my fav sci fi films and one of my fav JC movies period. It’s aged like a very fine wine indeed. Nice job, man!

    • johnleavengood permalink
      March 28, 2014 9:53 pm

      Thanks, Vic! I had no clue it was based on a short story. Do you know what it’s called?


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