The Cult Club: They Live (1988)


[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favorite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]

I love They Live. I’ve been waiting to write about it for the Cult Club for months. The film is a wonderful, insane, fever dream starring “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame, but also Keith David, a man who possesses one of the most distinct African-American voices in Hollywood. It’s silly, it’s preachy, it’s brutal; it’s John Carpenter at his best. What makes this film so perfect for the Cult Club, whose annals are host to such films as Troll 2 and Cannibal Holocaust? You’ll just have to read on to find out!

The film begins with the title over black, which transitions into the same title as graffiti on a classic 80’s graffiti wall. We’re then introduced to Piper’s nameless drifter, “Nada,” a man who just wants to put in a hard day’s work and get what he has coming to him. In the world Carpenter shows us, it’s no easy job. On a construction site he meets Keith David’s purple tank top-clad Frank, who invites him to the shantytown Frank and dozens of others are living out their lives in. One thing leads to another, and Nada quickly discovers that everyone is being brainwashed by subliminal messages everywhere they look by vaguely human-looking aliens that live amongst the general population in disguise and only special sunglasses can give them away. “What?” you may be asking. Let me assure you: this movie is absolutely fantastic.

Having met Rowdy Roddy at Wrestlemania III, Carpenter knew that the man was just the kind of rugged badass he needed for the nameless protagonist and wrote the role specifically with Rowdy in mind. Similarly, having previously worked with David on The Thing, Carpenter knew that the man could provide just what he needed in an atypical sidekick: sheer, unadulterated Keith David-brand badassery. As such, Frank was tailor-made for David.

The dynamic of the two actors, initially, is like oil and vinegar. Nada is, despite all odds, a fairly easy-going optimist and Frank is a pissed-off mother who is mad as hell and is just short of not taking it anymore. It doesn’t really matter in the end, because once Nada gets the sunglasses and discovers that everybody’s being brainwashed by horrid creatures, ‘easy-going’ turns into ‘shooting non-people with a shotgun in a bank.’ Once he comes back for Frank after his brief but newsworthy killing spree, the two engage in one of the finest street brawls in the history of cinema as Nada simply tries to get the man to try on the glasses and see the real world for what it is.

Now, let’s talk about the ‘real world’ of They Live for a second, in case you’re unfamiliar. Billboards featuring your favorite products? Pop on those fancy sunglasses and you’ll see they say things like ‘Obey’ and ‘Consume.’ Pull the money out of your wallet. What does it say where George Washington should be? ‘This is your God.’ Pick up this month’s issue of Hustler and it will tell you to ‘Marry and reproduce.’ Go visit your local grocery store butcher and you might notice something a little off about his complexion, along with half of the people in the store with you. Also, they all have watches that also function as not only communicators but also teleporters. Oh, and if you throw in with the invaders, they’ll almost double your income and you can live the sweet life in exchange for betraying your entire race. It’s grim, it’s not subtle, and it’s beautiful. That’s John Carpenter for you.

This satire on the rampant consumerism and commercialization of the 1980’s is a result of Carpenter turning on the TV and not liking what he saw. “I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something…it’s all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money.” Buying up the movie rights to sci-fi writer/propeller beanie inventor Ray Nelson’s short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning and a short comic based on it, Nada, from the comic Alien Encounters, Carpenter got to work. While he wrote the script, he credited himself using the alias “Frank Armitage,” a nod to H.P. Lovecraft’s character from The Dunwich Horror, as he felt the common element of ‘the world underneath’ in Lovecraft’s work had everything to do with They Live.  After eight weeks of shooting and $3,000,000, They Live was unleashed upon the unsuspecting masses on November 4th, 1988 and sat in the #1 spot at the box office for three weeks.

They Live is one of those movies that you don’t see much of anymore: stupid fun without sacrificing its own brand of (albeit questionable) quality. Who didn’t feel the pathos of a dying Nada, having accomplished his mission of destroying the signal transmitter on top of the roof of Cable 54, flipping off the now-revealed aliens in the helicopter above him? Who didn’t wonder with a tongue firmly in their cheek how, after jumping into the blue, glowing hole in the ground that opened up, Nada’s machine gun turned into a pistol? Who could do anything but grin as they realized that the devices the aliens use to track humans are repurposed PKE meters from Ghostbusters? Who would be unable to find the alien makeup endearing, with the mouths that don’t entirely match what they’re saying? This movie is classic in its quirks.

The legacy of this film is a fun one. Graffiti artist Shepard Fairey was partially inspired by They Live for his “OBEY” campaign. South Park recreated a large portion of the epic brawl between Nada and Frank in the episode “Cripple Fight.” Duke Nukem borrowed (and slightly tweaked) Piper’s famously ad-libbed line, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.”

They Live Fight Scene

With lines like “Brother, life’s a bitch…and she’s back in heat,” “Mama don’t like tattletales,” and “This world needs a wake up call, gentlemen. We’re gonna phone it in,” visceral fights and tense shoot-outs, treacherous dames, and more machismo than one can shake a stick at, They Live is that perfect blend of action, science-fiction, humor, and social commentary. Talk of a remake has floated around, but this is one movie that does not need it. For all its flaws, They Live is only more endearing because of them. And really, nobody can shoot a little UFO out of the sky with a shotgun like Rowdy Rider Piper can.

If you’ve never seen They Live, it’s on Netflix Instant Queue. It’s only an hour and a half long, but you’ll wish it was longer.

THEY LIVE - Trailer ( 1988 )

Next month… Cub reporter Alec takes on House, the sensational 1977 Japanese horror film that will  blow your mind with its weirdness.


December: Jingle All the Way (1996)

November: The Blood Trilogy (1963-65)

October: Dougal & The Blue Cat (1970)

September: Top Secret! (1984)

August: Battle Royale (2000)

July: Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991)