Cult Movies: John Carpenter's sci-fi satire They Live is bright, bold and dripping with 1980s excess

'Rowdy' Roddy Piper in John Carpenter's They Live
Ralph McLean

They Live

AS WILDLY entertaining and shockingly brutal satires of 1980s consumerism go, John Carpenter's They Live is up there with the very best.

The director's much-loved – and often parodied – 1988 spoof of Reagan-era America in general and Los Angeles specifically is just about to arrive in a brand new 4K Blu-ray transfer from Shout Factory, and it's well worth re-visiting.

Garish and gaudy on a surface level – well, what do you expect if you're making a film set in and exploring the garish and gaudy world of 1980's consumer heaven? – it's a broad satire for sure, but one that still packs a considerable punch in 2023.

The central premise feels like an episode synopsis for an early edition of The Twilight Zone, but in many ways that's what makes it so good. John Nada (Roddy Piper) is a drifter rambling through the broken down misery of a deeply depressed America when he lands himself a job working on a construction site and somewhere to stay in a homeless shanty town.

While there, he stumbles upon a strange underground community and a bizarre pair of magical sunglasses that allow him to see 'the truth' that others are blinded to. That 'truth' is the fact that the world is actually a drab, grey hellhole peopled by Skeletor-faced aliens who beat us into submission with subliminal advertising and senses-dulling slogans such as 'Obey' and 'Marry and Reproduce'.

This being the 80s, our main man deals with this disturbing, if wholly predictable, discovery in the only way he knows how and begins battering anything that moves, firing off cheap one-liners in the process – for make no mistake, They Live is at its heart and soul a brilliantly dumb movie.

For all it's obvious attempts at being satirical and pointing out the soul-sapping nature of modern society, it's really just a collection of outrageous fight scenes, gun battles and silly stunts. That is, I don't really need to point out, a huge plus point.

One fight scene in particular has passed into history, and rightly so. Even today, watching Nada and his buddy Frank (Keith David) duking it out for a phenomenal five-and-half minutes in a seedy back alley is a unique viewing experience. A more overblown, overdrawn and outrageously funny slugfest it's hard to imagine.

There's plenty more to savour in this very welcome re-issue, of course. Carpenter, as usual, provides a quality synth-heavy score to soundtrack the madness, and one time wrestler 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper is hugely likeable despite seemingly having the IQ of a wooden fence post.

This Shout Factory Blu-ray offers up all manner of exhaustive extras including commentary from Carpenter and Piper, and a brand new 47-minute retrospective documentary that explores the making of this garishly great B-movie.

Some of these bonus materials, bar the documentary, have appeared before on previous releases, but the quality of the print is what really proves to be the deal-breaker here.

Bright, bold and dripping with 80s excess, They Live has got 'weekend movie night' written all over it.