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Remembering They Live

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If your childhood was spent watching WWF in the 80’s, it no doubt took a Bulldog off the top rope this weekend, with the news that ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper (the state name of Roderick George Toombs) passed away at the age of 61 due to cardiac arrest. His larger than life persona delighted many a generation of wrestling fans, and if there ever was a Heel (wrestling speak for a bad guy) hall of fame, he would have an entire wing dedicated to him. But we’re not called The Wrestling Bit, so we look to Hot Rod’s massive contribution to the cinematic, and more importantly, pop culture landscape. No, not the music video for The Goonies that he appeared in with a handful of other WWF Superstars, or even cult classic Hell Comes to Frogtown. I am, of course, talking about They Live, John Carpenter’s underrated cult masterpiece.

Released in 1988, They Live was adapted from Ray Nelson’s short story ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’ by Carpenter, who used the story’s premise of an everyman who discovers the entire human race is being controlled by alien invaders to make a more politically subversive statement outing Carpenter’s growing distaste at the increasing commercialisation of politics and culture of the 1980’s. From this came the tale of Piper’s Nada, a unemployed drifter seeking work in L.A., who happens upon a special pair of sunglasses that shows him the world in black and white (quite literally), cutting through the falseness of the everyday and showing him the terrible truth: aliens have taken over the planet, and are hiding in plain sight. Billboards hide subliminal messages ordering us to obey and conform, while the wealthy and powerful are actually horrifying, skull faced aliens ruling over all (a fantastic practical effect that admittedly works better in black and white), manipulating people to spend money, breed, and accept the lie they have created. Of course, Nada and his side kick Frank (Keith David) decide to deal with this the only way they know how: by wrecking all sorts of shop.


You would think, considering the amount of times they collaborated together, Kurt Russell would have been a shoe in for the role of Nada, but Carpenter wanted a truly rugged individual for the lead role. Piper was cast after the director saw him at Wrestlemania III, where he trounced Adrian Adonis in a Hair vs. Hair match. This proved to be just one choice that made the film the long lasting success it is, with Piper ad-libbing most of its iconic lines, most notably ‘I have come to chew bubble-gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble-gum’ which came from a list of ideas he had from wrestling promos. David’s casting came about from Carpenter remembering his role in The Thing, with the role of Frank being written specially for him. Really, the movie probably wouldn’t have worked without this leading pair. Nada wasn’t your usual hero and Frank wasn’t your usual sidekick, and with these roles, Piper and David excelled. No more so than in the crown jewell of They Live, the scene everyone talks about, the fight scene.

Oh, that glorious, glorious fight scene. Let me break it down: Nada really wants Frank to put on the sunglasses. Frank doesn’t. That’s all it takes for five minute and twenty second fight scene ensues. They tackle each other. They bite each other. They suplex each other. They even take a break halfway through. One of the most brutal, drag out, and absolutely hilarious brawls in cinema history, it was designed, choreographed, and rehearsed in the back of Crapenter’s production office, a process which took over three weeks. Originally envisioned to last only twenty seconds, Piper and David just went at each other, deciding to fight for real and only faking hits to the face and groin. Carpenter was so impressed that he decided to keep the entire scene intact, and that’s how we got one of the greatest fight scenes in cinema history.


Despite my gushing until now, They Live is by no means a perfect movie, but what works far outweighs what doesn’t, and its legacy has endured to this day. The iconic bubblegum line has being used time and time again, famously as the catchphrase of computer game character Duke Nukem, and the fight scene has being parodied a number of times, most notably the South Park episode Cripple Fight which recreated it shot for shot, and the video game Saints Row IV which reunited Piper and David, in digital form, for a mission which closely followed the plot of They Live. It also served as one of the influences for the hardcore wrestling scenes in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.
Much like the aliens scheme, They Live is everywhere, worming its way into our everyday lives without us even knowing, and the bona fide cut legend that is Roddy Piper is in a big way responsible for that. For that we salute you, and always promise never to have enough bubblegum.

RIP Sir.

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The Movie Bit: Remembering They Live
Remembering They Live
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