To have been a child in the 80s meant you were the imbiber of many a cultural phenomenon. And depending on your personality you may have gravitated to certain zeitgeists more fervently – well, somebody had to wear all those safari hats.
I had a natural affinity for movies that began at an age where I can remember virtually nothing save the Friday night videos my father and I watched. Even my fourth-grade teacher noted during a collective icebreaker for a new student that I was an accomplished “movie buff.” But this is hardly unusual given my impressionable presence during one of the biggest and most influential media revolutions of the 20th century: the rise of the home video and the video rental store. Give a child the opportunity to view and review the same movie over and over (and over) again, and trust me, he will internalize every component of that film down to the last frame. And with so many brilliant and endurable titles popping out at the time, it was impossible not to want to take them all in. Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Rambo, Spaceballs, Back to the Future, Lethal Weapon, Ghostbusters, Die Hard, Friday the 13th, Batman, Police Academy - it’s amazing to think there were moments of my childhood when I actually saw the light of day (the natural event, not the Michael J. Fox-Joan Jett film, though I saw that, too).
My favorite movies were monster movies. Not necessarily the ones from the 80s, which admittedly were a bit too intense for a child (although I often watched them anyway). Despite the runaway craze of serial killer flicks in the 80s, I maintained a fascination for the old Universal monsters of the 30s and 40s. So much so, I cultivated a friendship with a kid in the second-grade for the sole purpose of accessing his parents’ classic monster movie collection. When my mother threw me a birthday party I invited him over under the condition he bring King Kong vs. Godzilla, which I watched in its entirety while he and all the other kids played party games in the backyard.
Indeed, it was hardly “cool” or “bitchin’” to spend a good deal of your free time watching movies your grandparents were once too young to go see, but I got lucky with one particular gem from 1987 (that’s not true, as again I can hardly remember anyone else liking this move at the time). The Monster Squad was a cinematic exercise in duality: a film by intent meant to invoke that which nightmares are made of, and yet sate the dreams of every horror movie cinephile. Here we have a modern movie, in all its advanced costume and special effects glory, featuring the five most recognizable monsters in movie history.
The story is simple and sweet; a group of archetypal youths – fearless leader Sean, loyal sidekick Patrick, chubby-but-kind Horace, rebel Rudy, and nerdy Eugene – comprise The Monster Squad. They’re avid fans of classic monster films (enter relatability) and operate a social club out of Sean’s inexplicably elaborate and spacious treehouse. After coming upon a centuries-old book written by Abraham Van Helsing, the boys discover, via translation provided by ‘Old Scary German Guy,’ that Dracula is alive and attempting to capture an amulet in their hometown that controls the balance between good and evil. If he succeeds, he will use the amulet to plunge the world into darkness. In order to secure his objective, the Count recruits the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Gill-man, and Frankenstein’s Monster to aid his mission.
Recognizing the imminent danger – that is of course dismissed by every adult outside of the old German guy – The Monster Squad set out to find the amulet first and then have a female virgin read an incantation from the book that will open a portal sending all the monsters into Limbo.
Although the squad runs into constant opposition from the monsters, they are aided by the help of Frankenstein’s Monster, who is a gentle creature touched by Sean’s sister Phoebe’s kindness. A final battle breaks out near midnight in front of the local church, and only with the help of Phoebe, who was always desperate to join Sean’s club, is The Monster Squad able to banish the monsters back to Limbo and save the world.
As mentioned, a simple story, but much of the merriment comes from the humor (apparently you can kick a werewolf in the nards should you ever be attacked by one), the genuine sentiment of pubescent boyhood, and the opportunity to see new, detailed interpretations of classic monster characters. The film was co-written by Shane Black, famous for penning the first two Lethal Weapon screenplays. Black’s quick-witted humor is present throughout the script, but what he really excels at is recreating an authentic youth experience. The protagonists’ dialogue never feels forced or unnatural; it precisely mirrors what any 11-year-old boy would say, think, or do in the same situation. Credit Black and director Fred Dekker in developing a sense of immediacy and dread in the cast that is altogether genuine for its intended demographic. And that’s another great element to The Monster Squad, that while there are some intense moments (the Wolfman’s transition from human to wolf form is one of the best ever captured on camera thanks to late makeup master Stan Winston), the movie is kid-friendly.
Lionsgate released a 20th Anniversary Edition of The Monster Squad on DVD in 2007. Until this time the movie had only scene distribution via VHS. It wasn’t until over year after a special screening with a cast reunion at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas that had lines formed around the street that the copyright owners decide to do a digital release. Two years later, Lionsgate released the film on Blu-ray.
I’ve seen neither DVD release thus far. Scenes from the film often replay in the recesses of my conscious, but as a fan, I’m sorry to say I am the most superficial. Perhaps it is only because I watched it so often as a boy, I fear reacquainting myself may be disappointing. A number of my favorite flicks from childhood have suffered this fate. What held up for an eight-year-old, or 1989, often won’t in today’s aggressive film arena.
But there are ways to combat any potential antiquity, namely a screening with an unfamiliar party. I see it actually working wonders for a blossoming romance. Nothing says endearing as much as reminiscent romp through some adolescent innocence… even if the Wolfman does get blown up with a stick of dynamite (note: of course he’s not dead, and I trust you’ve come to the obvious conclusion at to why not).
“[It's] smoother, uh, uh, rounder yet, uh, bolder… a more harmonious flavor.”
So were the words of Robert Goizueta at a press conference held at Lincoln Center in New York City nearly 28 years ago. At the time, Goizueta was the Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. Formerly a flavor chemist with the world’s most famous soda producer, Goizueta knew what he was talking about.
Or at least he sure should have.
Goizueta was describing the flavor of the newly reformulated Coca-Cola, or “New Coke” as it would become more commonly referred to. On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola did what by any measure today would appear to be pure brand suicide – it took its flagship product, arguably the most beloved soft drink on the planet, and completely revamped it.
To put this into context, imagine… well, herein lies the ludicrous scale of this maneuver: when imagining an indelible brand seemingly beyond the scope of compromise, the mind of even a novice marketer instinctively wants to turn to Coca-Cola. The brand is as much legacy as it is institution, since it’s creation by John Pemberton as a medicinal elixir in 1886 to its rise as the second most recognizable term in the world (“OK” is number one). Coca-Cola is as synonymous with 20th Century, new world tradition as baseball, hot dogs, and television. To change the formula would be like arguing a pantsuit for Lady Liberty.
Well, maybe not.
To be fair, when Goizueta took over as CEO in 1980, there was a lot for Coca-Cola to be worried about. The Cola Wars were in full swing, and PepsiCo had gained the upper hand. Halfway through the 20th Century, Coca-Cola had held the lion’s share of the soft drink market, but by 1983, it commanded less than a quarter. The younger demographic had migrated to Pepsi, with its sweeter flavor and lifestyle marketing campaigns (Pepsi rarely focused its advertising on its products, instead showcasing who drank them; this was a marketing first and major boon for PepsiCo). Goizueta, an aggressive tactician who abhorred sacred cows, well knew Coca-Cola had to embrace Pepsi as a viable usurper to its throne and meet this challenge head on with a drastic strategy.
Goizueta enlisted the support of Coca-Cola President, Donald Keough, as well as marketing vice-president Sergio Zyman and Coca-Cola USA President, Brian Dyson. An assertive marketing research campaign was launched involving taste-testings, focus groups, and surveys. And overwhelmingly what the results of the campaign showed were that people liked the taste of Coke’s new formula over both Pepsi and original Coca-Cola. Additionally, surveys showed people, for the most part, were open to the idea of drinking the new beverage, even if it were labeled “Coke.” The focus groups, on the other hand, weren’t as unilateral in conclusiveness. A small minority scoffed at the idea of altering Coca-Cola, which sparked peer-pressure resonance within the group dynamic. This, however, was widely ignored. Coca-Cola brass was confident in the taste test results and moved forward with release of “the new taste of Coca-Cola.”
Upon its initial release, New Coke did very well. Sales had risen from the same time the previous year, and surveys continued to show a substantial majority favor for New Coke. Of course, these were major metropolitan demographic results… not the South.
Coca-Cola was born in the Southeast, in the wake of defeat at the hands of the Union. Coca-Cola held a virtually unparalleled reverence throughout the region, and its perversion was considered sacrilege. That vocal minority from the focus groups had found its spawning ground, and from this nest it bred like wildfire. Disapproving letters and phone calls came pouring in. Critics began lambasting Coca-Cola executives for their carelessness in underestimating their customer-base’s loyalty. Pepsi fired back with its own advertising campaign questioning Coca-Cola’s motives. And even internal murmurs of dissatisfaction with the reformulation began to surface, prompting the question of a possible reintroduction of the old formula not even two months after New Coke’s release.
But perhaps no bigger component pressured Coca-Cola’s reversal decision than its own bottlers. Long entangled in a pricing feud – that at the time included litigation – Coke’s bottlers had become increasingly frustrated with the public’s alienation from the company. While Coca-Cola Company made the concentrate for Coke, the individual bottlers still had to produce, distribute, and merchandise Coca-Cola within their respective regions. In the South, this had become a challenge with so many consumers staunchly refusing to buy Coke – if not dump it on the ground in a show of defiance. Facing a major boycott from its bottlers, Coca-Cola had to concede defeat… to itself. The original formula would return to market.
On July 10, less than three months after the introduction of New Coke, Coca-Cola announced the heralded return of original Coke, dubbed Coca-Cola Classic. To say this merely stalled irrevocable damage would be a vast understatement. The return of Coca-Cola Classic rocketed company sales past Pepsi and reestablished Coca-Cola as the dominant force in the soft drink market. This quickly led to speculation that New Coke’s introduction and swift dismissal was an elaborate marketing ploy to reaffirm Coke’s value within the public arena. An amazing conspiracy, if it weren’t for the fact that New Coke wasn’t so readily dismissed.
While multiple product lines has become de rigueur in today’s diversified market, positioning two high-calorie soft drink beverages in a field recently divided by the advent of diet soda was a formidable task in 1985. But Goizueta and his team stood by their new product. It retained only a North American presence, but production continued until 2002 (New Coke was renamed Coke II in 1992). The beverage, however, was largely ignored by both consumers and corporate marketing. The soft drink that had found unanimous acceptance during its test phase died a slow and caustic death.
Despite what was seen as a monumental blunder by one of the most lauded corporations in the world, no blame was cast upon any one individual at the Coca-Cola Company. Simply, there was no one to blame. Marketing researchers have puzzled for years over one of the greatest missteps in free market history – how could a company as infallible as Coca-Cola make such a colossal mistake as tampering with their star product? Well, how did the stock market – with all its fancy, new computer hardware and mathematician brokers – crash only two years later? The Invisible Hand of economics revealed itself as the emotional unpredictability of consumerism during the height of the Cola Wars. If people loved Coca-Cola so much, why were sales down at the start of the decade? No one asked. The epic failure of New Coke was also the sweeping revitalization of Coca-Cola Classic. The power elite at Coca-Cola were happy enough to wipe the sweat off their brows and forget the whole thing ever happened.
Although that’s not entirely true, either. Its universal scorn notwithstanding, New Coke did maintain at least one loyal drinker for twelve years. Robert Goizueta continued to drink New Coke until his death in 1997.
“The moment avoiding failure becomes your motivation, you’re down the path of inactivity. You stumble only if you’re moving.”
When most people attempt to align the idea of war with the 80s, the first thing that comes to mind is usually The Cold War. And although the United States and Soviet Union’s near-cataclysmic rivalry warranted and earned the study and recognition it has received throughout history, the consumerist – reminiscing upon that golden age of consumption – might argue another armless conflict synonymous with 80s: The Videotape Format War.
Format wars are as old as industry. Ever since businesses have attempted to exploit mutually incompatible formats within two-sided markets, there have been “wars” to establish dominant technical standards. Basically that’s two or more companies saying to each other, “screw you; our stuff is better, and we’re not going to make it work with yours.” The consumers, of course, are the ones who primarily suffer, being left with coordination problems where they have to either buy multiple products, or choose one and accept any number of variable limitations. This social dilemma, however, typically forces the format war and ultimate resolution. And no such battle has been more highly influential than the Videotape Format War of the 80s: VHS versus Betamax.In order to understand the importance the Videotape Format War, you have to understand what was at stake. Before videocassette recorders (VCRs), your television viewing was at the mercy of station programmers. Got a favorite show? Better be home on time. Big game playing at the same time as 60 Minutes? Flip a coin. Want to curl up and watch Casablanca with your spouse? Better hope one of the networks is playing it. Sure, there were reel-to-reel video tape recorders, but these machines were cumbersome, faulty, and expensive. Essentially, you had a T.V., and what was on it was what you got.
In 1971, Sony released the U-Matic. This was the first commercial video cassette format. It was intended, however, for broadcast television stations, and could only play back up to 60 minutes. While a striking success in businesses, schools, and news stations, the U-Matic’s impracticality and hefty price tag made it unappealing for home use. Enter Philips’ N1500 and Avco’s Cartrivision in 1972. These were smaller, and by comparison, cheaper VCRs that looked more like the traditional machines that would become prevalent in the Eighties. Neither product went on to dominate the market, but they were instrumental in instigating the VCR boom of 1975. Suddenly the aspect being able to watch a beloved show or movie at any time took over the hearts and minds of average household viewers, and every electronics manufacturer wanted in on the craze. Matsushita, JVC, and Sony emerged as the industry leaders, developing the more sophisticated and advanced machines.
Sony struck first in 1975 with the Betamax, quickly grabbing 100% of the market share. But JVC soon followed with its own mutually incompatible format, VHS. Sony petitioned the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry to encourage a single format for “the good of all (read: Sony),” but both companies refused to compromise on the development of their products, thus launching the format war. Opposing stances were quickly established: Betamax, with higher horizontal line resolution, lower video noise, and less crosstalk, espoused quality, while VHS’ 120-minute playback offered longer recording time.
As in any war, there were, of course, other players. Philips attempted to enter the market with its own format, Video 2000, or Video Compact Cassette (VCC). The Video 2000 was an attempt to capitalize on the success of the audio compact cassette, which had grown in favor over the 8-track at the time. Much like an audio cassette, VCCs could be turned over to double their playing time. Another regarded feature of the Video 2000 was Dynamic Track Following. Anyone who owned a VCR in the 80s can tell you about having to get up and manually adjust tracking when a video’s image became distorted. The Video 2000 attempted to alleviate this problem, but the feature remained standard on only the priciest models. Entering the market in 1979, Philips couldn’t compete with the already established Sony and JVC brands, and the Video 2000 quickly disappeared.
Another key player in the format war was RCA. In the mid-Seventies, the American electronics company attempted to develop their own home video format called “Selectavision.” The idea was abandoned when RCA learned about Sony’s development of Betamax, and the corporation originally intended to align itself with Sony. RCA, however, had a handle on something Sony overlooked. The quality Betamax provided over VHS was infinitesimal, but its limited playback time was a significant deterrent. Why? Although both Sony and JVC competed to create longer playing times, RCA realized North American success would come down to whoever could produce a tape with four hours of playback, or enough time to record an average NFL football game.
Neither company wanted to yield to RCA’s request, both fully aware such a feature would severely diminish video quality, but JVC’s parent company, Matsushita, agreed, and RCA began developing VCRs for the American market that complied with the VHS format.
Ultimately, RCA was right. Consumers were more interested in quantity over quality. The VCR boom of the late-Seventies gave rise to one of the most indelible cornerstones of Eighties and Nineties strip malls and supermarkets: the video rental store. Originally, Betamax cassettes had only 60 minutes of play time, which was the standard play time Sony had incorporated in their successful U-matic system. What Sony failed to consider was that the U-matic was primarily used in network newsrooms under constant surveillance. Tapes were readily switched out in this setting, but home viewers wishing to watch feature length films 90 to 120 minutes in length found switching tapes more obtrusive than the perceived quality was worth. Hollywood studios quickly came to adopt VHS at their preferred standard giving JVC a significant edge.
Although the length of play was a pivotal role in the battle for industry domination, brand loyalty proved a milestone component, as well. JVC made a tactically sound decision to license its technology to major electronics corporations. Soon VHS-compatible VCRs were being made and sold by companies such as RCA, Zenith, Panasonic, and Magnavox. If you’d grown up watching The Wizard of Oz telecasts on your Zenith 40-inch T.V., it was only natural you’d want to watch a videotape of it on your new Zenith VCR. And since Zenith was directly competing with every other major electronic brand, it was cheaper than Betamax’s sole unit supplier, Sony.
Sony fought valiantly, but by 1981, was reduced to only a quarter of the U.S. market share. This decline proved a longer battle in the U.K., where expensive VCR machines were more readily rented from electronics rental companies than purchased outright. Thanks to VHS’ expansive licensure – JVC owned a good deal of the rental stores in England – Betamax sales slowly dwindled across the pond as well. Despite Betamax’s fair standing in Japan, by 1988, the epic Videocassette Format War was over. VHS emerged the victor. JVC continued to dominate the video cassette market for another ten years before being supplanted by DVD (in a similar format war, Sony’s Blu-Ray would go on to beat Toshiba’s HD DVD in the high-definition digital video battle).
Sony made a number of strategic errors in judging the then-burgeoning home video market, yet regardless of its loss, Betamax is still remembered fondly by many Gen Xers who recall the wonderment of growing up in an era where movies and T.V. shows were only a PLAY>> button away. Betamax and VHS are both obsolete now, but their fleeting fight for survival still echoes in media history.
With the impending premier of NBC’s latest thriller adaptation, Hannibal, fast approaching, it felt apropos to take a look back upon the cultural rise of Thomas Harris‘ most lauded creation: Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Than I realized this is an 80s blog, and most of the world’s association with Hannibal the Cannibal came after 1991.
But this is no cause for alarm as it still leaves the finest Harris film adaptation on the table to dissect (seemed the appropriate word). Sadly, far fewer moviegoers are as familiar with Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) as they are with 2002′s Red Dragon starring Anthony Hopkins. It is unfortunate because Manhunter is the superior film. But before getting into why, some quick confusion to clear:
Both Manhunter and Red Dragon are based on Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon, the first book in the Hannibal Lecter series. For reasons that included disassociation with the Kung Fu craze of the 80s (see Ninjas!) and Michael Cimino’s box-office bomb, Year of the Dragon (1985), production renamed the film. It does, however, follow the same source material – if not more closely – as Red Dragon.
Regarding Manhunter and its lack of popularity as compared to The Silence of the Lambs and its sequels, the biggest detractor that initially held the original film back was seemingly the art direction. Complimentary of Mann’s highly-stylized mid-80s aesthetics (as any fan of Miami Vice knows), the film is a sensory tour de force of white-washed backdrops, art deco design, and tinted lighting. It was an attempt to elicit specific moods from the audience, but many viewers found the heavy-handed colors jarring, particularly when coupled with an early entry in the forensic detective film genre. In recent years, as Mann’s style has found deeper appreciation, the film’s visual tone has become more celebrated.
Outside of the art direction, what really helps Manhunter stand apart from the later Lecter films are the characters, and moreover the actors who play them. William Petersen plays Will Graham, an FBI profiler brought out of retirement to track down a vicious serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy,” played by Tom Noonan. Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes played these roles, respectively, in the 2002 version, and though commendable portrayals, they pale in comparison to the originals. Unlike Norton’s stoic Graham, Petersen is much more unhinged. His character’s proficiency in profiling is a result of his ability to enter and replicate the minds of killers; Petersen’s internal struggle with his own duality is much more pronounced and compelling in Manhunter. Noonan, on the other hand, is a much more detached Tooth Fairy than Fiennes, and subsequently more menacing. The audience does not get to enter the psyche of the character as deeply as in Red Dragon, but this removes any chance of sympathetic attachment and leaves a more monstrous villain.
The remaining supporting cast of Kim Greist, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen, and Stephen Lang all shine in their nuanced roles, but it’s Greist who offers the film’s most evocative segues. Unlike Red Dragon, Manhunter focuses heavily on Graham’s psychological balance between good and evil, and Greist, as Graham’s wife, Molly, represents the protagonist’s primary anchor in humanity. She is at once sensitive to Graham’s needs, but also the stronger character – it’s a vastly under-appreciated performance.
As for the elephant in the room: Brian Cox played the first and best Hannibal Lecter. Not to say that Hopkins’ signature role is anything less than spellbinding, but study Cox’ portrayal closely and you’ll find a much more formidable opponent. Unlike Hopkins’ slow and deliberate Lecter, Cox is fast and eerily engaging; he comes off like a tricky used-car salesman. Whereas Hopkins is like an aggressive wolverine, Cox is like a spider, trapping you in a web before casually eating you. The latter’s performance is void of all humanity and preys upon the universal fear of duplicity. What it suffers from mostly in Manhunter is lack of screen time. Red Dragon was amended to give Hopkins more time in his hallmark role. Had the same been done for Cox, his portrayal would likely better stand in colleague, if not outshine, Hopkins’.
Manhunter is a must for any fan of the Harris novels, Michael Mann, or forensic thriller movies. Of all the Hannibal Lecter adaptations – and yes, that includes The Silence of the Lambs – Manhunter is the finest. Credit this to Mann, whose razor-sharp 80s stylization matched the vapid psychopathy of the movie’s primary characters perfectly. If you’ve never seen it, do so. And for those who have seen both, weigh in: what’s your favorite Hannibal Lecter film?
Few childhood experiences are as indelible and comforting as Saturday morning cartoons. Virtually every generation offsprung* from the Baby Boomers forward was partially raised by the nurturing hand of Saturday morning cartoons. They held the all-important sway of the bombastic child’s mind during the waking hours of the weekend, and the promise of 48 more hours of scholastic-free bliss to come.
The late 80s, however, initiated the decline of the Saturday morning cartoon. A wide array of reasons lent the cause: first run syndication programs like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Transformers usurped weekly programming’s popularity, live-action shows such as Saved By the Bell became more commonplace, and edgier cartoons like The Simpsons found their own place on prime-time TV. But like any transitory landscape, the genre’s redefinition would leave a cultural footprint firmly etched in the psyche of youth for time everlasting. The footprint for those children of the 80s was the sound of Lorenzo Music.
The name may not be household, but the character his voice will forever be linked to is. From 1988 to 1994, CBS aired one of the longest-running cartoon programs in Saturday morning history, Garfield and Friends. And the sleepy, listless voice of the world’s favorite overweight tabby: Lorenzo Music.
Born Gerald David Music in Brooklyn, NY in 1937, Music entered show business as a writer and performer for late 60s variety programs such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He went on to co-create The Bob Newhart Show and continued writing for the Mary Tyler Moore spinoff series, Rhoda (where he also provide the disembodied voice of Carlton the Doorman). In 1982, Music was cast as the lead for the first of what would be more than a dozen Garfield specials. Although his voice would become synonomous with the fat feline, it would not be the actor’s only vocal claim to fame.
Capitalizing on the success of 1984′s mega-smash, Ghostbusters, DiC Enterprises launched The Real Ghostbusters (not to be confused with Filmations The Ghostbusters; there were no ghost busting apes in the Real Ghotsbusters), which aired on ABC beginning in 1986. If Dr. Peter Venkman’s voice from the first two seasons sounds strangely more than reminiscent, fear not; it is, indeed, Lorenzo Music. Ironically, some 20 years later, Bill Murray, who portrays Dr. Venkman in the Ghostbuster film franchise, would go on to provide the voice of Garfield for two live-action films.
If both of these aforementioned cartoons proved too sardonic for your parents’ liking, you might have been free to watch Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears. Music provided the voice of Tummi Gummi, an overweight and lethargic Gummi Bear who enjoyed above all things eating. Must have been a stretch for the vocal thespian.
And barring any complete denial of animated television programing from the 80s, you may remember Larry the Crash Test Dummy, whose gangly bodied suffered every malady a doll being slammed in to wall at 40 mph could. That was Lorenzo Music.
Sadly, none of these charming and iconic cartoon characters can be brought back to life today; Lorenzo Music lost his in 2004 from complications with lung and bone cancer. Of all the actors so closely associated with the decade – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Eddie Murphy – Music likely appears on few lists. But considering his far-reaching and instantly recognizable timbre, Retrobacktive wishes to salute a true gem within the annals of the 80s: Mr. Lorenzo Music.
Memory is a funny thing. With no intent to wax psychologically, it doesn’t take a Carl Jung to figure out humans do a better job of storing those memories that are satisfying and euphoric, rather than those that are upsetting or painful. And one thing that never failed to paint a promising picture of childhood jubilation was toys. Awesome toys. Monster truck toys!
It wasn’t only Bigfoot that reigned in the minds of impressionable young males in the 80s. Trucks as toys came in an endless array of shapes, sizes, styles, and functions. Before radio-controlled Hot Wheels became the rage, battery-powered vehicles dominated the toy truck market. Of course, they had to offer something other than simply ‘moving forward.’ A number of manufacturing companies offered variations, but Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. was the toy maker to beat.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s most likely due to the success of the Micro Machines toy line (a typical product of the 90s; small and unassuming). In the 80s, however, Galoob spurred more holiday-centric gift wishes with their Power Machines toy line than Bigfoot had burned-out station wagons to crush. These were big, aggressive, in-your-face toys that knew how to capture the attention and ingenuity (read: destructiveness) of little boys’ minds. One of the more inventive creations was “The Animal.”
A monster truck with tiger claws. Genius. If this product hasn’t been studied and dissected across collegiate marketing programs in every higher learning institution in the U.S., then I weep for the entertainment of modern youth. It is amazing how a truck with claws could enhance so much for a child with little else but a free day and a stack of sofa cushions to play with. But if that wasn’t enough there was always this mind-boggling gem of the Power Machines line:
A truck with a built-in bridge. This was one of those toys that sadly made too many kids worry over what they might be missing from life’s great puzzle. Surely if there was a toy with the ability to cross over impeding land gaps with its own supplemental bridge, why don’t real trucks, traversing through real situations, employ this same technique? Perhaps the “Cross Boss” ended up in too many storm drains while navigating street corners.
A number of other Power Machines enriched the Galoob toy truck line, including “The Flex” and the “Giant Command.” All truck toys that seemed to do the impossible: navigate immovable objects, negotiate land and water terrains, and even climb walls (okay, Giant Command couldn’t actually climb walls, but the commercials made it look like 90-degree treks were par for the course). But they’re were a few other toy producers out there that set their own bars with the youthful wonderment of trucks.
One of the most coveted trucks during the 80s was “Rhino” from Kenner‘s M.A.S.K. toy line.
M.A.S.K. filled a void between Transformers and Go-Bots. The vehicles changed, but they were still “man-powered.” Thus, the alien concept was eliminated and a human element lent a sense of credibility. Though I’ve yet to see a Camaro with functional wings, much to my chagrin.
And if all this is a bit too obscure for you, there’s always the ultimate 80s toy truck standby:
Wow; what is up with snarling kid halfway through the commercial? Lighten up; it is just a cartoon series.
If there is one cultural component of the 80s that has suffered more unilateral derision than any other, it’s music. Okay, a case could be made for fashion, but the playing field is uneven; those who considered themselves fashionistas are decidedly outnumbered by music lovers. And those who woke up in the 90s and realized their Cameo fade wasn’t as bitchin’ as they thought quickly disassociated themselves from previous musical inclinations with denial, denouncement, and ridicule.
“Hey, you remember that band Extreme? What a bunch of candies!”
“Um, yeah; you were just listening to Pornograffitti for, like, three months straight.”
Despite what anyone would like to forget, the decade did make a rather significant contribution to the recording arts and sciences: the two best-selling albums of all time were released in the 80s.
The average contemporary music fan either knows or could easily deduce that Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the best-selling album of all time. And more than a few are under the impression it’s the runaway leader. The race, however, might be closer than you think. Although so many people own it, AC/DC’s Back in Black isn’t widely recognized for being as hot on the heels of Jackson’s 1983 smash hit as it arguably is. Thriller is still ahead, but the gap’s disparity is questionable. Claims of Thriller sales in excess of 100 million copies are uncorroborated; the Guinness Book of World Records puts the number at 51 million, while figures for back Back in Black total about 50 million.*
Both albums are undisputed classics, having countless times been praised, commemorated, reissued, analyzed, and imitated. Yet while these lauded opuses share a common bond of success, their critical comparison is lacking. And originally that was the intent of this post – which is the better album: Thriller or Back in Black?
In short time, however, the incompatibilities of this battle became obvious. Both albums serve polarized functions. What one album does, the other doesn’t. The few similarities are superficial. Nonetheless, they’re worth noting:
Back in Black:
Highly anticipated follow-up to career-changing 1979 breakthrough LP (Highway to Hell).
Produced by a renowned studio genius (Robert John “Mutt” Lange).
Highly anticipated follow-up to career-changing 1979 breakthrough LP (Off the Wall).
Produced by a renowned studio genius (Quincy Jones).
And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The differences, though, range from the obvious to the interesting. Obviously, these are two distinct artists from unique backgrounds. Jackson was a child prodigy and American product of 50s and 60s do-wop, soul, and R&B. He incorporated elements of disco, motown, and rock music to create his signature, dance-friendly style of pop. Later albums would develop an edgier pop-rock sound, but Thriller was favorably R&B.
On the other side of the world, AC/DC found its genesis at the hands of guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young, two Scottish brothers who immigrated with their family to Australia in the 60s. The Brothers Young were almost exclusively inspired through the blues and rock idioms, but they’re tastes were not as contemporary as their Jimi-Hendrix-and-Led-Zeppelin-loving peers. The Youngs cut their teeth on Chuck Berry and the boogie-woogie rockers of the 50s. Thus, AC/DC’s sound developed an elemental timelessness few associative acts have successfully captured. Back in Black is often praised for not only aptly showcasing AC/DC’s raw fundamental appeal, but also exhibiting remarkably balanced production and sound engineering. Simply, it is one of the best aural experiences in recorded music.
That these two masterpieces were released only two years apart and have gone on to dominate album sales in their nearly 30-plus year lives is telling of the era that welcomed their releases. There will never be another album that will reach either level of success. The recording industry has adapted to the digital age, and the single has replaced the album as the preferred musical delivery device. The fervor that once accompanied the album – a book of songs that detailed 40-60 minute narratives – is gone. The 80s were the apex of the album’s popularity. And that Back in Black and Thriller are so different might suggest they sated two distinct palates. There’s no point in arguing which album is “better.” People who bought Back in Black were not as likely to buy Thriller, and vice versa.
But one thing is certain: that’s a lot of album sales for a decade that produced “terrible” music.
*Defining worldwide albums sales is not an exact science. Various recording industries record sales by copy or disc differently. General estimates for Thriller put total sales around 51-65 million. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon supposedly has sold close to 50 million copies, but Back in Black has a distinct advantage in established RIAA sales.
Things take time. Good coffee takes time to percolate. Fine wine takes time to mature. A good blog post can never be rushed. Although the genesis of women’s liberation can be traced back some twenty years in time, it wasn’t until the 80s that we really got to see women not just portrayed heroically, but ferociously. Not to take away anything from Lynda Carter, or Ursula Andress, or any of a number of strong female stars from the 60s or 70s. Undoubtedly this was the era that blazed a path for prominent female characterizations. But the 80s took things a step further. It wasn’t enough to simply be tough. This was the time of Star Wars (the strategic defense initiative), advancing technology, soaring crime rates – you had to be on par with your enemy, or be dead.
In selecting the criteria for this Top Five list, there’s was only one reasonable principle to adhere to: no “heroines.” Heroine implies a specific qualification of hero. No one on this list is heroic… for a girl. This is a honed collection of some of the most enduring characters of the decade. And although they transcend their gender, it just happens to be the one bond they share. At the end of the day, bad ass is still bad ass. These girls just happen to be extra bad ass.
5.) Aunty Entity – It’s a stretch to use the term “heroine” to describe Tina Turner’s character from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Even anti-heroine seems restrained. If it weren’t for her sparing Max’s life after the film’s climatic showdown, Entity would remain irredeemable, and be remembered solely as the villain. Thanks, however, to her admitted admiration of Max’s valor, we forgive her earlier ruthlessness and tactical conspiring. But not “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” There’s no forgiving that.
4.) She-Ra – There were a lot of dumb people doing dumb things in the 80s (shoulder pads; seriously?), but the guys at Filmation weren’t some of them. What better way to secure financial backing than create cartoon series’ to promote toy lines. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe proved this strategy with its runaway success. Filmation, the show’s producer, backed up its winning formula in 1985 with She-Ra: Princess of Power. As He-Man’s twin sister, She-Ra shared virtually all the same powers as her brother, which is largely what set her apart from other animated female warriors. She-Ra pummeled her opponents with the same brute force as He-Man. While she often displayed intelligence, she was not merely resigned to cerebral negotiation of combat. For a children’s cartoon, this was bold. She-Ra: Princess of Power’s run was short-lived – the show had only two season – but left a strong enough impact that 20 years later all 93 episodes from the series were released on DVD.
3.) Zula – No one would argue 1984′s Conan the Destroyer is a much campier affair than the original Conan the Barbarian (1982). Although softer in tone, Conan the Destroyer doesn’t lack in action, and much of that action’s ferocity is thanks to tribal warrior, Zula. With the exception of an aversion to rats, Zula presents an early prototype of the relentless female fighter. She approached every aspect of characterization with the same aggressive disposition. No more evident is this then when Princess Jehnna asks Zula how she would acquire a male partner. “Grab him, and take him,” is her response. It’s humorous but apropos, as was the casting of Grace Jones in the role. The lithe and agile Jones presented a stark contrast from the muscle-bound spectacle of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and this worked to her advantage, giving Zula a swift and serpentine lethality.
2.) Sarah Connor – There have been a total of four Terminator films. The first two are considered watershed treasures within cinema history. The latter two are typically derided. An argument could be made for the absence of writer and director James Cameron, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the series lost its main character. Contrary to the suggestive titles, the first two films are not about the Terminator. The character whose arc the audience is supposed to identify with is Sarah Connor. And it’s an impressive arc. It requires both The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) to reach its completion, and is one of the richest ever captured on the big screen. Linda Hamilton receives universal acclaim for her physical transformation in T2, but her character’s evolution in the first Terminator is commendable, yet often overlooked. The Terminator is darker in tone, and Hamilton displays the occasional “Final Girl” attribute here and there, but in the moments leading up to their ultimate confrontation, she begins to demonstrate a cold brutality that virtually matches her cyborg component. This would go on to be an essential plot point of the second movie. Unfortunately once it was resolved, the series lost its importance.
1.) Ellen Ripley – In space, no one can here you scream. But if anyone could, you’d want it to be Ellen Ripley. Resourcefulness kept Sigourney Weaver‘s Xenomorph-plauged character alive in Alien (1979). Being a stone cold, unflinching, vengeful bad ass did in 1986′s Aliens. It’s hard to imagine anyone besides Weaver navigating the role’s delicate balance between sensibility and all out militarism. Matching her hatred for the Xenomorphs, and a lack of faith in the people around her, Ripley displays a penchant for successfully piloting every obstacle by keeping a cooler head. And when cooler heads cannot prevail, Ripley goes for the flamethrower. The magic touch here, though, is still Weaver, who unlike virtually all other female protagonists, is removed from the archetype feminine fearfulness. Distinct from “final girls,” who exist to showcase a level of terror that is considered inappropriate in a male lead, we never once see Ripley fall into hysterics. It’s not part of her makeup, and that’s what makes Ellen Ripley the ultimate sci-fi action hero.
U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A.!
How many times have your heard this chant roused by a conglomerate of beer-in-hand compatriots settled into your local watering hole, awaiting imminent, televised crowning of red, white and blue champions of some fill-in-the-blank international tournament? Probably more so lately if you’re a woman, as American female national teams continue to expand their global dominance outside of basketball – although we’re still pretty good at that, too.
Regardless, that truest of blue sports cries, if you’re wondering, is the offspring of the Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century (as declared by Sports Illustrated in 1999, in case my authority is insufficient). And what better time to bring up this monumental topic? It’s February. The NHL lockout is over. Play has resumed. And for those embittered sports (and culture) fans who have forgotten, or have never been inclined to engage hockey (lockouts are as common in hockey as steroids in… well, pretty much everything else, and the perennial player/owner rivalries have dropped hockey to the bottom of the “big four”), this month marks the 33rd anniversary and perfect time to fall in love with the “Miracle on Ice.”
Great sports moments are all about peculiarities coming together. Curt Schilling pitching through a bloody ankle to lead Boston’s stunning comeback in the 2004 ALCS. Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” win over George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle. It only takes one unpredictable yet serendipitous step for the underdog to secure an immortal victory. But for the 1980 U.S.A. Olympic hockey team, all the pieces could not have been better placed.
For those unfamiliar with the Miracle on Ice, here’s what you need to know: there’s is absolutely no way the United States of America should have beaten the Soviet national hockey team. No way. In truth, the United States should barely have beaten anybody in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. Back then, the Olympics were for amateur competitors. Professionals weren’t supposed to compete. That said, communist countries technically did not have “professional” players. What they did have, at least in the case of the Soviet Union, were state-of-the-art training programs and facilities, highly sophisticated national leagues, and several players of active military duty… whose only job in the Red Army was to play hockey. Coming into the Lake Placid games, the Soviets had an undefeated record and gold medals from the last four Olympics. As noted by sports commentator, Jim Lampley, hockey was to the Soviet Union then what Basketball is to the United States now. It was their sport.
In comparison, the United States National Hockey Team was a bunch of kids. Team U.S.A. Coach, Herb Brooks, put together a rag-tag team of mostly collegiate players from the University of Minnesota, Boston University, and a few outlying amateur leagues. They lacked the speed, discipline, and cohesiveness that Soviet head coach Viktor Tikhonov had had years to develop – if not mercilessly pummel – into his team. So underwhelming were the Americans, the Soviet team took them of virtually no consequence.
Leading up to the Lake Placid games, the U.S.S.R. displayed their dominance for all the world to see. In late 1979, The Soviets beat the NHL All-Star team in the three-game Challenger Cup series. They later crushed Team U.S.A. 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden on February 9, just two weeks before the Olympics. A demoralizing loss, it echoed the tone of a nation and its frustration at the height of the Cold War.
Threats of a U.S. boycott of the impending Moscow summer games had already been levied in response to the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, increasing tension between the two superpowers. Additional disillusionment in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis put American spirits at an all time low. A beacon of hope was in desperate need, but given the Soviet’s might, it seemed no where to be found.
Enter Herb Brooks, a national team hockey player whose career prior to the 1980 Olympics would best be described at respectable, if not blase. Brooks set a record by playing on eight US National and Olympic teams between 1960 and 1970, but he missed his opportunity at glory after being cut from the 1960 U.S. gold medal Olympic hockey team. He later went on to lead his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, to three NCAA championships as head coach. Looking for something beyond just good, Brooks saw hope in the 1980 Olympic team he was tasked to assemble, and he cultivated that hope with brutal, tactical training. From the moment they were put on ice, Brook’s players received no quarter. In order to match the cohesion of the Soviets, Brooks taunted and bullied his players, driving them to solidarity through a mutual enmity. Immediately after the embarrassing loss to the Soviet club in their exhibition game, Brooks threw his team back on the ice, forcing them to do drills even as the lights were shut off inside MSG.
But if Brooks’ ambition to etch a name for himself in the annals of hockey was harsh, it was not without its benefits. Team U.S.A. entered the first round of Olympic play with a 2-2 tie against Sweden, followed by an upset win over Czechoslovakia – the only team considered a viable rival to the Soviets. Wins over Norway, Romania and finally West Germany put the U.S. team into the medal round against the U.S.S.R. Little did anyone know, the outcome of this game was already being set into motion.
Dismissing Team U.S.A. entirely, Tikhonov chose to rest his players prior to the medal round, while Brooks increased pressure, attempting not to lose the momentum of victory the U.S. had built. As a result, a much more physical and strategic Team U.S.A. skated onto the ice on Friday, February 22. Although they dropped early to 1-0 by a goal off LW Vladimir Krutov at 9:12, U.S.A. answered less than five minutes later with a goal by Buzz Schneider. Sergei Makarov struck back with a goal at 17:34, putting the Soviet’s up 2-1. As the final seconds of the first period wore down, the Soviet’s made a second crucial mistake: waiting for the buzzer to sound and leave them with a one-goal lead going into the second period, the Soviet defensemen neglected a deflected shot by Dave Christian that bounced off goalie Valdislav Tretiak and was rebounded by Mark Johnson, who shot right between the two defenders to score with a second left in the period. The game was now tied 2-2.
Following one gaffe with another, Tikhonov executed arguably the worst decision possible. Perhaps it was spite, perhaps anger; the world may never know. Tretiak, at the time, was widely considered the greatest goaltender in the world, but evidently for Tikhonov, two goals was two too many, and so he replaced Tretiak with second-stringer Vladimir Myshkin. Myshkin shutout the Americans for the second period, and although they outshot the U.S. 12-2, the Soviets were held to one goal in the second period.
With the Soviets up 3-2 in the third period, Mark Johnson scored his second goal of the game on a power play at 48:39. One minute and 21 seconds later, team captain Mike Eruzione fired from the high slot off a pass from Mark Pavelich that went past Myshkin and gave the United State a 4-3 lead. It was their first lead of the game, and a definitive turning point in the history of sports. All Team U.S.A. had to do now was hold the Soviets down for ten minutes.
In a game where players can travel in excess of 20 mph, firing pucks at over 100 mph, ten minutes provides a lifetime’s worth of scoring opportunities. But instead of retracting into a defensive mode, Brooks kept his players on the offensive. The pressure wore on the Soviets, who filled the remaining time with uneven, uncharacteristically sloppy play. Having never used a sixth attacker, Tikhonov kept his goalie in the game during the final minute of play, eliminating any chance of a comeback. As the last seconds on the clock ticked away, sportscaster Al Michaels – along with the attending crowd and presumably anyone able to catch the game on local T.V. (it was pre-recorded for a later national broadcast) – counted down the final seconds and delivered his famous call, “11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! YES!“
Team U.S.A. met each other in embrace on the ice. Herb Brooks returned to the locker room to sob. The mighty Soviets had fallen. And America had a new team of heroes to believe in.
The gold, however, wasn’t secure. Bear in mind, this was a round-robin tournament, and thanks to their earlier draw to Sweden, U.S.A. still had to beat Finland to take the gold – which they did with a 4-2 victory, two days after their impossible win over Team U.S.S.R.
Weeks after their win against the Soviets, Team U.S.A. was highlighted on a cover of Sports Illustrated that featured only the jubilation of their inconceivable triumph, and not a word of explanation. None was needed; the Miracle on Ice was a triumph for every American, and every sports fan searching for that ultimate home team win. The Miracle on Ice demonstrated for a country, if not the world, the value of determination and what it means to never succumb to doubt. If you can find a better sports story, in any decade, I’m all ears.
And besides, it gave us this two years later.
Bubble hockey: if that’s not worthy of the Greatest Sports Moment of the 20th Century, I don’t know what is.
You got to hand it to Cannon Films. Along with Carolco and New World Pictures, they led the pack in low-budget B-movie production during the 1980s. Sadly, these studios are defunct now. Like so many stalwarts of the Eighties, these were devil-may-care, hair-in-the-air, nose-on-the-mirror exploitation grindhouses. They burned bright (Carolco did launch The Terminator and Rambo franchises), and burned quickly. But Cannon, however, had its own marketable niche – the ninja.
Ninjas were to the Eighties what superheroes are to the Aughts.* Boyhood, action-packed fantasies come to life on the big screen – some minimal outstanding work, and a lot over-bloated crap. Yet what the ninja film never fails to demonstrate is its durability – even a bad ninja movie is still pretty good. But Cannon didn’t care either way. They made a habit of snatching scripts out of the dustbin and watching the results with tongues firmly in cheek. It may seem all harebrained to the sophisticated minds of the cinema elite, but if you were a kid growing up in the 80s, the death-defying, acrobatic, martial arts sorcery of the ninja made total sense – at least until you realized covering yourself in black doesn’t make you invisible to anyone.
How the wave of the ninja entered the global film market began with a book. Eric Van Lustbader‘s The Ninja introduced the world to martial arts’ lonely master, Nicholas Linnear, in 1980. A success, the book stirred an appetite for the nearly superhuman ninja assassin. One year later, enter the ninja… literally that is the name of the movie.
Although not directly based on Lustbader’s novel, Enter the Ninja does pit the “western ninja” against the old, rival nemesis – a consistent them throughout ninja culture. Like The Ninja, Enter the Ninja gained a popular following and became the first in what is now regarded as Cannon’s “Ninja Trilogy.” The films are not directly related by storyline, but all contain the martial arts majesty of Sho Kosugi.
A former All-Japan Karate Champion, Kosugi is a criminally overlooked action star that filled a much-needed gap between Bruce Lee and Jet Li. Along with the Ninja Trilogy, Kosugi starred in a plethora of low-to-mid-budget martial arts movies during the 80s, including Pray for Death and Black Eagle, an early Jean-Claude Van Damme co-starring vehicle.
Now for those who’ve never seen or heard of the Ninja Trilogy, here’s the inside tip: the second film is the runaway star of this series. Revenge of the Ninja (1983) single-handily set the bar for the modern myth of the big-screen ninja, and is virtually unmatched in its balance of over-the-top action and realism.
Revenge of the Ninja either established or developed many of the stealthy-near-supernatural skills that separated the anti-heroism of the dark ninja from the nobility of the devoted samurai. Poisoned shurikens, chained whips, flame throwers, smoke bombs, and even life-size ninja decoys are all part of the arsenal used to unprecedented effect throughout the film. And 20-foot leaps through the air are easily broken through superior ninja ankle strength.
Okay, it’s a little stupid. But it’s a ninja movie, and as far as ninja movies that don’t force you to suspend your disbelief too far go, you could do a lot worse than ROTN. The acting is respectable, the plot is solid, and at 90 minutes, its lean on self-indulgence. Yet what truly makes this film so laudable is the climatic battle atop an L.A. high-rise between our good ninja and our bad ninja. Before their grand duel, the two adversaries share meditative gestures that seem to reflect honor and code, which becomes ironic moments later when they leverage every opportunistic advantage to kill each other. Again, it doesn’t have to make sense.
The final film in the trilogy, Ninja III: The Domination, took the series in a much more mystical direction, which may explain its modest reception compared to the first two films. Other ninja movies were released as part of the Cannon catalog throughout the 80s and early 90s, including the American Ninja series and a bevy of Chuck Norris flicks (these sorta count). Few, if any, however, received positive critical responses. The popularity of the ninja movie began to wane shortly after 1990. A number of guesses exist as to why, but it’s reasonable to speculate the sub-genre suffered a similar fate to the video game crash of the early 80s. The market became over-saturated. Often when a niche market has too many so-bad-they’re-good items it reaches a plateau when each fan has his or her one so-bad-its-good item and a myriad of options is not needed. Ninja films may be consistently entertaining, but without enough ROTNs to keep audiences reeled in, well, sometimes bad pizza really is bad pizza.
*I’m including Aughts as 2000 – 2012. It’s just easier this way.