Movies · Projects

Junkfood Cinema: They Live

By  · Published on December 11th, 2009

Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoy this new Friday afternoon column, Junkfood Cinema, by Brian Salisbury. It celebrates movies that are so bad, even though they are also sometimes so good. For more (coming each and every Friday), stay tuned to the Junkfood Cinema Archive. Also, please feel free to let us know what you think of this new weekly feature in the comment section below.

Dinner is over, your parents are asleep. Time to switch on the TV, reach under your bed, and pull out your secret stash of Junkfood Cinema. Welcome back to the only weekly column on the blogosphere that 4 out of 5 doctors call “a perpetuation of the overwhelming obesity problem in America.” As I continue to raid my movie pantry, I’ve noticed something interesting. While it does contain the works of several masters of schlock, there are also the scattered titles of truly quality directors of truly quality films who discredited their own infallibility by making some very lacking films. To put it into a Junkfood Cinema frame of reference, it would be like Special K suddenly making a cereal composed of brownie chunks and Big Macs.

For the record, all joking aside, I absolutely love the films of John Carpenter. He is probably my favorite living director. He is the reason I became fascinated with movies in the first place. If you didn’t get a chance to read my gushing love letter to Halloween, check it out and that should give you an idea of the scale of my geek crush. In many ways, John Carpenter and his films exemplify my exact brand of film appreciation. He is a guy that bucked the system and made the kind of movies he would have wanted to see as a kid. His inspirations ran the gamut from German Expressionism to the worst Sci-Fi films playing at his local drive-in. His subjects are the cultivated passions of unrestrained geekiness and his methods are rooted in classical filmmaking and demonstrate a wealth of knowledge in the art of storytelling. That being said, he also made today’s snack: They Live.

They Live is the story of a pair tough guys who, in the wake of complete economic collapse in America, find themselves living as drifters struggling to get by. Nada, the more Caucasian of the two, notices a strange church across from the hobo town in which he is living. There always seem to be strange people wandering around and though he often hears singing, he never sees anyone going in or out. When he finally decides to investigate, he finds a tape recorder playing worship songs on continuous loop and a box of ordinary-looking sunglasses. But when he puts them on, Nada starts to see the whole in a whole new light. The terrifying discovery he makes sends him on a nightmarish quest to save the planet.


This movie is like an extraordinarily delicious candy bar that no one ever eats because of the crappy wrapper. At its core, it has a lot to say about the dehumanization of mass consumerism and how that could be used to subdue us so some evil power could ultimately control us. It actually has an eerily prophetic message about the precariousness of the American economy. Keith David, who plays the not-so-Caucasian drifter, makes a comment about the steel companies asking for a bail-out and then giving themselves raises with it; hits a little close to home in the current climate. The problem is that it takes a thought-provoking Sci-Fi/socio-economical idea and decides to tell that story using magic sunglasses and professional wrestlers. It’s a great concept that is executed with a reckless abandon of common sense. If a little more time was taken to construct the script, which has one of the goofiest aborted endings I’ve ever seen, this may have ranked up there with Carpenter’s best. But it seems as though the 1980’s finally grabbed a firm grip on his senses and cheesiness began infiltrate his methods.

Let me expound a little bit. The movie stars WWF superstar of the 80’s “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. While he was far and away my favorite wrestler when I was a lad, his presence in this film never evolves past gimmick. He’s not a good actor, though possesses the ability to deliver stale action movie quips with the appropriate level of dryness. With Roddy’s similar frame and unmistakable mullet, it’s almost as if the part was originally intended for Kurt Russell but he must have been unavailable during the two weeks in which Carpenter shot this. Add to that the fact that one of the films strangest plot devices seems a thinly-veiled ad campaign for Ray Ban and it’s easy to see why most people found this film far too silly.


The execution may be bonkers, but I freaking love this film. It’s seriously like a Christmas present from Santa Carpenter to 5-year old Brian Salisbury. My favorite wrestler running around punching people and shooting aliens? I must have been very, very good that year! The ridiculousness of the actual story seems to drift off slowly into the ether as I watch Piper get hit with a bottle, crash through a second-story window, and careen violently down a hill. Granted this fall would surely have killed a normal man, but luckily professional wrestlers are made of spit and steel.

***Spoilers in this paragraph***The concept and the various themes of the film are awesome. First of all, the economical quandaries posed by the film are far more intelligent than they have any right to be. Again totally botched by a silly plot, but They Live is really clever. I also love the classic Sci-Fi idea of aliens invading Earth and already walking among us. I love that this script has the aliens using subtle, more manipulative methods to obtain our submission; methods we aren’t even aware of. The lull of mass consumerism hypnotizing the populous into intellectual catatonia is genius. The aliens don’t use lasers or monsters to conquer us, but instead our slavery to the almighty dollar.

***More Spoilers***There is also a not-so-subtle denunciation of the upper classes in this film. The aliens employ the aid of most of the upper class, as they have the most influence in a capitalist system, to push the propaganda and keep the masses in line. There is a scene depicting an elaborate banquet wherein the alien leaders are thanking the human conspirators for their support. They are receiving large cash remunerations for their betrayal of their own species as that is their only true motivation. That one scene is like a giant finger waving in the face of not only class structure, but to the overwhelming excess of the 1980’s. The author of the story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” and subsequently Carpenter, who wrote the screenplay, have constructed a world where the bottom has fallen out of the middle class. It is unnerving to consider what could have happened, or I suppose what still could, if this sort of dichotomy was established in our current economic situation; where you are either rich or you are poor.

They Live features arguably the greatest fight scene ever filmed. When Nada and Frank (Keith David) come to blows, it is a moment of blood-soaked brilliance. The fight is so visceral; so brutally honest. I cringe every time I watch Keith David using his knee to repeatedly ensure that there will be no little Pipers in Rowdy’s future. Every punch, every kick, and every knee to the face lands with such authority that it’s hard not to exclaim out loud in sympathy. This fight has actually been recreated, nearly frame-for-frame, in the episode of South Park where Timmy fights Jimmy. I love this fight scene so much, and yet even it speaks to the absurdity of the film. The fight starts because Nada wants Frank, with whom he had been friends, to put on the sunglasses for a moment so he can observe the true forms of the people around him. Frank refuses with oddly misplaced aggression and there is then a moment where they both recognize their only alternative is to duke it out. What?! I cannot imagine a stupider reason for two people to nearly beat one another to death than a refusal to don Ray Bans. But here again, this is something 5-year old Brian would have totally understood.

I would be completely remiss in my duty if I did not mention the seminal bank scene. Basically, Roddy is driven mad by the images he observes through the sunglasses and decides to remove a few perpetrators from the mortal coil. He walks into a bank, armed to the teeth and still sporting the signature shades. It is at this moment that he utters a phrase that is not only the best of this film, but may define the line between iconic and moronic.

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

I love this line. How could you not? It’s respectably bold, but also hopelessly goofy. I have a tendency to call out this very sentiment whenever I enter a room. The machismo of every action front man of the 1980’s swells up in his chest and the epitome of their collective terrible humor flies from his mouth. It is a great moment that is followed by wanton violence and the slaying of several people. There’s that twist that justifies his actions, but ultimately it’s a moment fraught with metaphor as a down-on-his-luck regular guy rages against money-changers; the working class striking a blow to the faceless, fiscal machine.

I’m sorry, I feel like I may have gotten up on a high horse today. I promise I am not a Commie, I just really enjoy the themes explored by this camp sandwich. I wouldn’t even put it in my top five Carpenter films but I do have a nostalgic soft spot for it.

Junkfood Pairing

Bubble Tape: When you walk into your livingroom tonight, ready to light the fire on another successful movie night, don’t forget to recite the They Live pledge as you provide your guests with a spool of chewing gum. This candy complement, with its yards and yards of chewing gum satisfaction, will ensure that no one in the room finds themselves out of bubblegum and thus ensures that you will not have kick anyone’s ass.

Related Topics:

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.