John Carpenter, genre master and director/composer of such popular '80s classics as Escape From New York, Halloween, and Big Trouble in Little China made one of the most subversive horror films of all time in 1988; They Live!. Marketed as an action sci-fi film about an alien takeover starring pro-wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, it's also a scathing indictment of the mass-consumerism that dominated the '80s.
They Live is a film that only gets better with age, standing as a polemic against mass media manipulation and blind, unrestrained capitalism. It didn't generate much popularity in its day, but its cult classic status is undeniable. John Carpenter has claimed that a film this counter-cultural couldn't be made today, so here's 10 crazy facts behind the making of one of his most important films.
10 JOHN CARPENTER CONSIDERED IT A DOCUMENTARY
Due to its constant use in pop culture today, sampled in everything from songs played by popular bands, to quotes plastered on t-shirts and sweaters, John Carpenter likened the film to a documentary rather than a piece of science fiction.
He was adamant that everything used in the film, from the cars, to the weapons, to the products, were all American made. Since it was an ode to consumerism and the perils of it, he wanted everything American made, like the citizen's of Earth's peril was of their own making.
9 A REAL HOMELESS CAMP WAS USED
In order to tell the story the way he wanted to tell it, John Carpenter had to look to the streets of America. If he felt that the rich and powerful were exploiting the working poor and everyone else not of the (then) opulent middle class, he needed to go to the scene of the carnage.
Roddy Piper's Nada character is a working drifter, going from town to town with everything he owns on his back, looking to work as a day laborer. He lives in a homeless camp that's the real deal, not a set. Carpenter paid all the homeless people to be used in the film as extras.
8 IT WAS MEANT TO BLAST '80s VALUES
The '80s was an era of excess, that birthed the "Me First" generation, for whom no commercial consumable was unattainable because America's economy was booming. Ronald Reagan's conservative revolution seemed to inspire a lot focus on material wealth and the pursuit of monetary security as power.
John Carpenter saw certain values he'd grown up with pushed aside in favor of this new burgeoning avarice, and decided to fight back with They Live, highlighting the dangers of what he was witnessing. The manipulation of consumers by the media, and the constant need for validation through more material things.
7 THE CAPITALIST CRITICIZED UNRESTRAINED CAPITALISM
Reagan's economic policies emphasized a lot of deregulation for the wealthiest citizens in America, and "trickle down economics" which construed if they got certain tax breaks, they'd use that advantage to create more jobs and provide more pay incentives, allowing the working class to spend more of their hard earned money into the economy.
John Carpenter, a self-professed capitalist, witnessed the birth of "unrestrained capitalism", in which Reagan's principles were taken and inflated into something unrecognizable. He felt it would lead to recessions, depressions, and economic chaos, which is featured by the downfall of human society towards the end of They Live.
6 RODDY PIPER CAME UP WITH THE MOST FAMOUS LINE
As Roddy explains it, he came up with the most quoted line from the film in a unique way. He was driving down the highway in a yellow Lincoln, going 80 mph, his knee guiding the wheel, with a case of beer in the passenger seat, and a yellow pad of paper.
He scribbled various versions of the phrase, inspired by different interviews he'd done as Rowdy Roddy Piper, his WWF wrestling persona for years, and gave them to John Carpenter. The line selected was from when Piper faced Playboy Buddy Rose, and said, "I'm here to chew bubble gum and kick ass" with the added, "And I'm all out of bubble gum".
5 NADA'S BACKSTORY DIED WITH RODDY PIPER
John Carpenter fully intended Roddy Piper's character to be an everyman, a member of the working-class poor who eventually brings down the aliens masquerading as the bourgeois elite. No one ever speaks his name in the film, and he only appears in the end credits as "Nada".
Carpenter did tell Piper to come up with a backstory for his character to give his performance more authenticity. Piper did eventually come up with it, something which he never shared with the director or anyone else before his untimely death in 2015. Nada's origins remain a mystery to this day.
4 IT WAS INSPIRED BY LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR
To get the right chilling feel for They Live!, John Carpenter looked to authors like H.P. Lovecraft, who specialized in stories about the madness that comes from uncovering the truth. He specifically credited horror author Ray Nelson's short story "Eight O'Clock In The Morning" for many of the elements he used in the film's plot.
The novella was published in 1963, but made into a comic book in the '80s while Carpenter was making They Live!. It features a vagrant character called Nada who wakes up one morning to discover the world is run by aliens. Carpenter made a few tweaks to make it more relatable to his story, particularly the political message.
3 THE ALLEY SCENE WAS ORIGINALLY LESS THAN A MINUTE
John Carpenter wanted a unique and explosive fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David's characters, so he called in Jeff Imada, the fight choreographer and stunt coordinator for Lethal Weapon, and more recently, The Bourne Supremacy and Fast and Furious 7.
Imada chose to capitalize on Roddy Piper's immense wrestling prowess and Keith David's physicality to create a fight that looks visceral and authentic. The fight swelled from less than a minute to a six minute brawl that has become one of the most celebrated fight sequences in cinema history.
2 THE STUNT COORDINATOR PLAYED ALL THE ALIENS
Any skeleton-faced alien that you see on screen in They Live that had a close up shot or a speaking part was portrayed by the stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Jeff Imada. A slight man with a wiry build, John Carpenter selected him specifically because he could fit in all the costumes.
According to the 1988 documentary about the making of the film, Imada was fine playing the female characters because he could fit into the frocks and didn't mind wearing the pumps. As Carpenter said, "when you have 14 black belts, you can wear pumps!".
1 RODDY PIPER IDENTIFIED WITH HIS CHARACTER
Not only is Roddy Piper the perfect physical choice for John Nada as an unpolished construction worker (without the charisma of John Carpenter's usual leading man Kurt Russell), he shares similarities with the character that give his performance (the first of his career) a lot of nuance.
Like Nada, Piper has been homeless. The scene involving the demolition of the film's homeless camp hit home for Piper, who had seen his own living situation be destroyed in a similar fashion. Contrary to his gregarious wrestling personality, Piper can also be a loner and an introvert, just like his character.