Here is Retrobacktive’s Eighties-ized list of the ten best comedy films from the 1980s… and why not? That doesn’t really sum up the experience of this list; it was just the first thing that came to mind. But what the hell?
10.) Revenge of the Nerds (1984) – It all started with John Landis’ 1978 watershed opus National Lampoon’s Animal House, and from there frat humor would go on to inspire generations upon generations of college comedies. While most successors were buffonish knockoffs, the exception was Revenge of the Nerds. The story follows established themes: a misfit fraternity stands up to the oppressive ruling body; marginalized protagonists win over objects of desire, and copious amounts of substances are abused. This film stands out due in no small part to the lavish parade of eccentric characters, and the particularly deft performances of Anthony Edwards and Robert Carradine, who the audience never doubts for a moment are genuine nerds. Best line: Gilbert: She’s not that kind of girl, Booger. Booger: Why, does she have a penis? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCDDBjdJLjY
9.) The Great Outdoors (1988) – There were many gifts the cinema gods gave to comedy in the 1980s, and John Candy was one of them. The Canadian funnyman and SCTV alum had a knack for playing a variety of archetypes, including goofy authority figures and bumbling sidekicks. One his finer yet subtler performances was as straightman Chet Ripley opposite Dan Aykroyd’s obnoxious and brash Roman Craig in The Great Outdoors. Candy bitterly absorbs Aykroyd’s unrelenting boorishness until the film’s madcap climax. It’s one of the rare instances where Candy exchanges his broad sword for a scalpel. Best line: ROMAN: The rest of us are all probably going to die of heart attacks and strokes long before you. CHET: (mumbling) Ooooh I hope soooo… http://youtu.be/dxg0LRTHgAU
8.) Spaceballs (1987) – If you were a movie studio during the 1970s or 80s looking to produce a comedy hit, you sought out Mel Brooks. And if he wasn’t available, you waited. While Blazing Saddles is often recognized as his comedic masterpiece, Spaceballs is the oft-overlooked gem in Brooks’ line of parodies. Many critics note Brooks’ satirical truancy; the last Star Wars film was released four years prior and no longer at the center of movie-goers’ attention. There are, however, several remarkable performances from John Candy, Joan Rivers, and Brooks himself in multiple roles spoofing Yoda and Grand Moff Tarkin. But far and away it is Rick Moranis who steals the show as Lord Helmet. Taking megalomania to new heights, Moranis conjures up perfectly the most recognizable traits from almost every 80s villain and delivers them with stunning absurdity. Best line: RADIOMAN: I’m having trouble with the radar, sir. DARK HELMET: (throws radio in frustration) Now what is it?! http://youtu.be/8auGAJrnpY4
7.) Major League (1989) – David S. Ward wrote and directed this seminal baseball classic, and aside from the quirky characters that comprise the scrappy team in the film, it was the decision to include an actual major league baseball club, the Cleveland Indians, as the protagonist organization that made this flick resonate so deeply with fans. Connecting with baseball fans and movie audiences alike, the film found a wide array of devoted followers who often note the film for establishing the careers of Rene Russo, Wesley Snipes, and Dennis Haysbert. Best line: PEDRO: Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball. EDDIE: You trying to say Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball? http://youtu.be/bWdfDsLvm9I
6.) Stripes (1981) – The combination of director Ivan Reitman, writer Harold Ramis, and star Bill Murray would go on to landmark success in a few short years with Ghostbusters, but the three artists first had to cut their teeth together with Stripes, a comedy classic in its own right. Murray’s sardonic John Winger is not so far a stretch from Dr. Peter Venkman, but Ramis delivers an especially amiable moral compass as Winger’s best friend. Often overlooked in Murray’s sizable shadow, Harold Ramis proved he could not only write the lines, but deliver them, too. On another note: this is the third film in this countdown featuring John Candy. Best line: SERGEANT HULKA: Okay, Mr. Push-ups, let’s hear your story. JOHN WINGER: Chicks dig me, because I rarely wear underwear and when I do it’s usually something unusual. http://youtu.be/iTwIwfvNJLk
5.) Big (1988) – The comedy genre is divided into many different sub-sects. There’s slapstick, screwball, romantic, teen, sports, and so on and so on. But if you’re looking for that perfect blend of hilarity and sentimentalism, you can do no better than Big. Penny Marshall’s sophomore directorial effort found the former television star escape the comedic shadow of her father, all the while turning the lovable-yet-goofy Tom Hanks into an Oscar-worthy film icon. Indeed, in the hands of a lesser actor, Big would have sidled itself nonchalantly next to the plethora of age-reversal films that were popular in the late 80s (e.g. Vice Versa, 18 Again!), but thanks to Hanks’ uncanny performance as a 13-year-old trapped in a grown man’s body, the film now sits atop the highest echelons of American comedy excellence. Best line: Josh: What about golf? It’s a sport and you don’t sweat. Paul: It’s not a sport if you let a machine do all the work. Josh: What about car racing? Paul: Shut up, Baskin.
4.) Bachelor Party (1984) – Tom Hanks was no stranger to comedy in the 1980s. After his myriad of critically acclaimed performances in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as his multiple Academy Awards for acting, it became easy to forget that arguably the greatest living actor got his start on the cross-dressing comedy series Bosom Buddies. He also made comical waves in early 80s screwball farces such as Bachelor Party. An early predecessor of the Judd Apatow-inspired frat-pack productions (The Hangover owes a lot to this one), Bachelor Party highlights the misadventure of a care-free bus driver and his juvenile friends’ attempt to throw him the ultimate stag party. The hijinks are sophomoric and simple, but Hanks’ affable goofiness makes him undeniably amiable even amidst the locker room antics. Best line: Hotel Manager: Just wear do you think you are? Jay: The Library of Congress? Rudy: Detroit? Brad: Beyond the sun? http://youtu.be/g6LhrNIVI7k
3.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – If there was one director that kept a stranglehold over the ever capricious attention of a young Generation X, it was John Hughes. And among his many enduring hits throughout the 80s and 90s, none remain as fundamentally funny as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Absent of gonzo humor (Sixteen Candles) or egregious introspection (The Breakfast Club), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off strikes a perfect balance of silliness and charm. And while the principle cast members all excel in their archetypal roles, it is the oft-overlooked Jeffrey Jones as the hapless but determined Vice-principal Ed Rooney who comes up with the film’s most frequent laughs. Whether you’re looking for lighthearted amusement or a makeshift itinerary for a trip to Chicago, you could do worse than this film. Best line: Maitre D’: You’re Abe Froman? Ferris: That’s right. I’m Abe Froman. Maitre D’: The sausage king of Chicago? Ferris: Uh, yeah. That’s me. http://youtu.be/PDoYXZHK9aQ
2.) This is Spinal Tap! (1983) – In an era where Hollywood’s seemingly sole objective is to release nothing but sequels, prequels, remakes, and rehashes, it’s consistently reassuring to find no one even attempting to re-image Rob Reiner’s masterful This is Spinal Tap!. Of all the comedy treasures on this list, this is the one that truly lives in a vacuum. The pretentious and eventually bloated phenomenon of heavy metal rock in the late 70s and early 80s came about at a time when popular musicians still hid behind a veil of mystery and impossible charisma. This was long before social media captured an artist’s every movement, and rumors still remained a valuable tool among rock stars’ arsenal of intrigue. This is Spinal Tap! revealed all the secrets but without anyone realizing it. For later generations growing up with VH1′s Behind the Music, it may seem all par for the course, but the tongue-in-cheek improvisational performances of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer continue to make This is Spinal Tap! roll-on-the-ground, laugh-out-loud fun. Best line: it’s endless, but… Nigel: Eleven; one louder. Marty: Why don’t you just make ten a little louder, and make ten the top one, and make that a little louder? Nigel: … these go to eleven.
1.) Ghostbusters (1984) – What The Great Gatsby did for books; what Muhammad Ali did for boxing; what M.A.S.H. did for television, Ghostbusters did for comedies. An inventive script, a battle-tested comedy director, a cast of ace performers all at the top of their game; the result is an enduring legacy that never seems to exhaust itself. Another example of a cinematic institution that has remained protected from the hands of re-imaging, Ghostbusters has been perched upon the bated breath of Generations X and Y with nearly 25 years of supposed scripts and talks and contracts and casting, and all ire of development hell. Sadly, the hopes of those eternally exuberant fans were laid to waste this past February when co-writer and original cast member Harold Ramis past away at the age of 69. While Bill Murray’s performance is often singled out, the genius behind Ghostbusters is that the group has always been bigger than the sum of its parts. The institution loses its foundation without the equal contributions of Peter Venkman, Egon Spengler, Ray Stantz, and Winston Zeddemore. Ramis’ death remains nothing less than tragic; thirty years after Ghostbusters‘ release, America lost perhaps its greatest comedy screenwriter, but the legacy left is a masterpiece that can never be touched; Ghostbusters sits upon an acme of exalt, adored and unfettered. Best line: Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes… Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave! Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! http://youtu.be/O3ZOKDmorj0
Ed. note: not all lines had accompanying videos.
In 1999, the American Film Institute released its list of the top 50 screen legends of the 20th century (25 male and 25 female movie stars were included). Keeping up with Retrobacktive’s 80s-themed AFI series, this countdown showcases the top ten male and top ten female actors whose rise to stardom reached heights of unparalleled glory in the 1980s.
Some ground rules: Each actor had to have released one major motion picture before 1985; television roles do not count. Credit is not based solely on award nominations, but a collective overview of accolades, box-office draw, and cultural relevance (i.e. performances still referenced in current media).
Opening this series are…
Bill Murray – Before denouncing Retrobacktive’s countdown based upon Bill Murray’s (relatively) low entrance,remember: A) he still made it on here, and B) there was a solid four-year period between 1984 and 1988 where Murray remained virtually absentee from Hollywood. It’s impressive he made the list considering his disappearance for over a third of the decade. But Ghostbusters is also impressive. As is Caddyshack. And Scrooged. And he’s Bill Freakin’ Murray. Signature Role: Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters.
Sissy Spacek – When it takes more than one hand to count someone’s Oscar nominations for leading roles, her inclusion on any screen legends’ list hardly needs justification. While no longer courting the limelight, Spacek was a perennial Academy Award nominee during the 80s, capturing four nominations between 1980 and 1986; she won in 1980 for her role as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Signature Role: Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Emilio Estevez – The de facto leader of the Brat Pack, Estevez eschewed the stage moniker his father adopted in favor of his familial surname. His characters, however, reflected less of his heritage but a great deal of range, from an L.A. slacker-turned-repossession-agent to a bumbling cop to a legendary outlaw. Estevez had a knack for playing against type, a quality that helped set him apart from his MTV-generational colleagues. Signature Role: William H. Boney in Young Guns.
Sean Young – If going bat-shit crazy is a common theme among 80s film stars (read further along), it fits to start early with the most literal example. Young, who was originally cast in Tim Burton’s Batman, was cut from the film after breaking her arm, and replaced by Kim Basinger. When it was revealed that Burton’s much-anticipated follow up, Batman Returns, would include Catwoman, Young made her intentions for the role clear by appearing on talk shows (unscheduled) in a home-made Catwoman costume. Burton was either unimpressed or scared… or both. Michelle Pfeifer was cast instead, and Young’s once promising career began a rapid decent into obscurity. But she did star in Blade Runner, which almost makes up for it. Signature Role: Rachael in Blade Runner.
Eddie Murphy – In the early 80s, Saturday Night Live had fallen from being a breeding ground for young, comedic talent to a direction-less parody of its former self. The only ray of light to emerge from this era was Eddie Murphy. Though a regular cast member on SNL from 1980 to 1984, Murphy’s popularity rapidly spilled over into the world of film with his debut in the 1982 cop-buddy pic 48 Hours. A year later, Murphy starred alongside Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places. The success of this film made Eddie Murphy a household name, and ultimately led to his starring role in Beverly Hills Cop after Sylvester Stallone dropped out. Beverly Hills Cop was the biggest film of 1984, and skyrocket Murphy to worldwide acclaim. It was followed up with a further string of hits that included The Golden Child, Coming to America, and Beverly Hills Cop II. Like many of his peers, Murphy’s career has been alluvial since the 80s, though he has found recognition among a new generation as the voice of Donkey from Shrek. Signature Role: Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop.
Demi Moore – While her heyday was arguably the 90s, Moore managed to establish herself quickly as the “It” girl of the Brat Pack’s female collective. Despite her association with the group, Moore remained something of an outsider, which ultimately proved strategic in maintaining success past the Brat Pack’s popularity. Nothing, however, could save her from Striptease. Signature Role: Debbie Sullivan in About Last Night…
Sylvester Stallone – No one can argue the string of duds Stallone put out in the 90s, but in the 80s he was the closest thing Hollywood had to John Wayne. There isn’t a single role between 1980 and 1989 where Sly doesn’t play an overt, brooding tough guy (yeah, even Rhinestone, when you think about it). It became laughable as an eventual caricature, but not many actors can pull off lines like “You’re a disease. And I’m the cure” with such plausible sincerity. His collective body of work during the 80s is not only prolific, but upon reexamination quite good. Crazy as it may sound, Stallone just may have been ahead of his time. Signature Role: Rocky Balboa in… well, any of ‘em.
Meryl Streep – To be fair, Meryl Streep almost did not make this list. As a more than reasonable contender for the title of greatest living actor, Streep transcends an acme of success restrained to one decade. But then you gotta think Silkwood, Ironweed, Out of Africa, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, A Cry in the Dark, Sophie’s Choice, the endless nominations, and the indelible legacy she built during the 1980s. She may be a timeless icon of cinema, but it’s hard not to look at a filmography from the 8os and not think, Damn, what wasn’t this woman not in? Signature Role: Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice.
Mel Gibson – Imagine this: you help propel the most successful movie ever produced in your adoptive home country to global acclaim; you play the lead in the greatest “buddy-cop” movie ever made – a sub-genre that would dominate the action film arena for the next two decades; then you make Braveheart; then you go insane. Who cares? You’re still Mad Max. Time and lucidity may not have been so kind to Gibson, but as arguably the most popular leading male in the 80s, there’s a lot Mel can be forgiven for. Just not Air America. Signature Role: Max Rockatansky in The Road Warrior.
Kim Catrall – Acting chops are irrelevant (though her’s are fine). Catrall cemented her legacy in the hearts of every Gen Y boy by bringing life (pun intended) into the world’s sexiest mannequin. While Mannequin didn’t win over critics, it provided the indelible fantasy of being locked in a department store playland at night with a beautiful woman. In addition to Mannequin, Catrall played numerous vixen-like characters in movies such as Porky’s, Police Academy, and Big Trouble in Little China. Signature Role: Emmy Heshire in Mannequin.
Michael Keaton – Controversy abounded when Keaton was selected to play Bruce Wayne/Batman in Tim Burton’s live-action production of the famous DC Comics character. At the time, Keaton was known for his comedic fare in films such as Mr. Mom and Gung Ho. The casting proved fruitful as Batman broke many opening-weekend box office records, with Keaton’s quirky portrayal particularly lauded. Keaton’s star continued to rise, not only based upon his nuanced performances, but also for his reputation as one of the most charismatic guests on television talk shows. Signature Role: Beetle Geuse in Beetlejuice.
Whoopi Goldberg – Surprisingly, Whoopi Goldberg is something of a late-comer to the 1980s film scene – though she made the 1985 cutoff. It was, however, this year that her prowess as a serious actor was put on display in The Color Purple, which earned Goldberg an Academy Award nomination. But it was the string of comedic hits to follow that made Whoopi a household name, including Jumping Jack Flash and Burglar. And of course, there’s her EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony awards collection). Signature Role: Terri Doolittle in Jumping Jack Flash.
Patrick Swayze – A tragic loss by any standards, Swayze left a void in Hollywood that will likely never be filled. In the 80s, Patrick Swayze was all things to all audiences. A dashing heartthrob in Dirty Dancing; the baddest bouncer on the planet in Road House. He at once charmed and dazzled female moviegoers yet impressed male viewers with his restrained toughness. It is a rare quality demonstrated by an elite few in cinema; Swayze undoubtedly earned his rank among the likes of James Dean, Paul Newman, and Robert Mitchum. Signature Role: Dalton in Road House.
Kathleen Turner – She wasn’t bad; she just sounded that way. Kathleen Turner may have worked hard to steer herself from being typecast as a femme fatale, or the embodiment of Gen X’s Lauren Becall, but with the most sultry voice in cinema, and a film debut that would make Rita Hayworth blush, Turner was primed to be one of the decades biggest stars. She found multiple award nominations for her work in films such as Prizzi’s Honor, Romancing the Stone, and Peggy Sue Got Married. Despite her promising career, Turner quickly fell out of the spotlight in the early 1990s, owed to a debilitating struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, severe alcoholism, and a reputation for being difficult to work with. Since then Turner has remained active in theater, television, and working in support of Planned Parenthood of America. Signature Role: Matty Walker in Body Heat.
Arnold Schwarzenegger – There may have been no bigger star in the 80s than Arnold, literally. The former Mr. Olympia made his feature film debut in the campy Hercules in New York goof-fest. But it wasn’t until 1981′s live-film adaptation of Conan the Barbarian when Arnie finally got the starring role that put him on the action-film map. And from there the future Californian governor dominated the breakout film genre of the decade. Signature Role: T-800 Model 101 in The Terminator.
Molly Ringwald – Emilio Estevez may have been the Brat Pack’s leader, but Molly Ringwald was undoubtedly Brat Pack auteur John Hughes’ fair-haired child in the 80s. Ringwald served as the cornerstone of the seminal 80s actors collective, portraying standout characters in The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink. Widely considered the greatest teen star of all time, Ringwald’s ubiquitous Hollywood presence waned in the 90s, but her career eventually came full circle after landing the role of mom Anne Juergens on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Signature Role: Andie Walsh in Pretty in Pink.
Michael J. Fox – In an earlier post, Retrobacktive named Michael J. Fox the definitive actor of the 80s. But a significant component of Fox’s universal popularity was his deft portrayal of conservative yuppie Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties. Following AFI’s exclusive cinematic theme, Fox’s Emmy-winning television work is omitted from consideration, yet that only holds the Canadian actor at the number two spot. Fox effortlessly transitioned his small-screen career into cinema stardom with the runaway success of Back to the Future. Audience pleasing leads in The Secret of My Success and Bright Lights, Big City also contributed to Fox’s meteoric rise. Though stricken with Parkinson’s Disease since the early 90s, Fox has continued to maintain a successful presence on television, though his last major film release was over 16 years ago in The Frighteners. Signature Role: Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
Sigourney Weaver – The six toughest words from any 80s movie: “Get away from her, you bitch!” And if you think it would have held the same guttural authenticity with any other actor, remember this: Weaver was actually nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Aliens. That’s right; she carried a grizzly sci-fi action romp to the stuffy 80s Oscar party. If that weren’t enough, she also played the female lead in the greatest 80s movie, Ghostbusters. Then there’s Working Girl, and Gorillas in the Mist, which earned Weaver Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards at the 1988 Golden Globes, the first person to ever win both in the same year. Signature Role: Ellen Ripley in Aliens.
Tom Cruise – If a Gen kid (a “Gen” is either a member of Generation X or Y, and comprise the youth of the 80s) could create a cinematic soundtrack to accompany his or her autobiography, you might hear kitschy lines from Tom Cruise at every moment. Virtually every film from the first decade of Cruise’s career is culturally poignant in some way. From his early roles in The Outsiders, All the Right Moves, Risky Business, and Legend, to maturing work in The Color of Money, Rain Man, and Top Gun. Cruise then capped off the decade with a shining performance as paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, earning his first Golden Globe award for Best Actor and first Academy Award nomination. While his personal life has comprised a generous portion of his celebrity for the past 20 years, Cruise’s popularity at the box office has never waned. In 2012, he was still the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Signature Role: Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun.
Phoebe Cates – She has never been nominated for an Oscar. And her filmography is modest compared to many of her contemporaries. But remembering the 80s is more than just picking the “biggest” people and moments from it (okay, it’s sorta that); it’s about remembering! Put yourself back in that time and try to recall who or what was on everyone’s mind. Certainly Gremlins. Despite its controversial content, the film was a huge success. But if your memory needs further jogging, go find a music file for The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo.” Play it. What comes to mind? If you’re a guy over the age of 30, it’s one scene from one film in particular. Is this worthy of the number one spot on this list? No. But Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Gremlins is! Signature Role: Kate Beringer in Gremlins.
Lots of good 80s and 90s music mashed up here, courtesy of Joe O’Brien. Where do you get these wonderful toys, Joe?
Originally posted on Popular Fiction:
Hello, and happy 2014.
It is now a new year and aspirations are high. Given the plethora of twists and turns Retrobacktive has yet to explore (“give or take a decade…” Damn it! Where are the 70s and 90s?!), why not start 2014 with an ambitious undertaking married to a tried-and-true staple of the digital reliquary?
From 1998 to 2008 the American Film Institute presented 13 lists of movies that were categorized and rated based upon their merit and cultural impact. As one of those lists was an update presented ten years after the original, AFI compiled a total of 12 unique countdowns within their series. There are 12 months in a year. Thus (wink wink, nudge nudge)…
Here are the guidelines: Retrobacktive will present its take on AFI’s “greatest” series with an original countdown based upon the institute’s lists starting with 1998′s 100 Years…100 Movies. Each month there will be a new countdown that follows the next chronological list from the series. While some subjectivity will find its way into these lists, attempts to measure each entry based on creativity, legacy, and artistic merit are considered. All films will have been released between 1970 and 1999, with the exception of this inaugural list which contains only films released between 1980 and 1989.
Finally, considering the abbreviated era of time within Retrobacktive’s scope, only 20 films will be presented for each list.
This seems fair.
And so, our first drum roll for 2014 leads to…
20) Batman (1989) – Believe it or not, there was a time when superhero movies were not that popular. Today it feels like studios release a new comic-book flick every week, but back in the early 80s there wasn’t much outside the Superman franchise. By 1987, however, even that series had floundered thanks to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Warner Bros. had been sitting on the rights to Batman for some time, and wanted Tim Burton to direct, but were wary of the unproven director’s abilities. After the success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, Warner Bros. greenlit production for Batman with Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton in the titular role.
The casting of Keaton as Batman sparked controversy among fans as he was known at the time for playing comedic characters. Producer Jon Peters, however, lobbied for the actor’s casting, and Keaton’s tormented performance is often lauded for adding to the film’s dark tone. Batman was a commercial success breaking opening-weekend box office records and going on to win an Academy Award for Best Art Direction. While much of the character’s legacy today is centered around Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Tim Burton’s Batman deserves as much, if not more, credit for establishing the iconic image of the brooding, tortured superhero.
19) Return of the Jedi (1983) – To address the immediate concern of all Empire Strikes Back devotees, yes, the first Star Wars sequel was made in 1980 and could have been included on this list. But it wasn’t. And no consideration was given to include only one Star Wars film on this countdown, though in many ways Empire is the superior film. This is, however, an 80s retrospective, and when it comes to cultural impact that exists in the vacuum of time, it’s hard to deny posters of lovable Ewoks on every Gen X boy’s bedroom wall. As captivating as The Empire Strikes Back’s morose tone was, ROTJ provided a bit more of the effervescent jubilation inherent to the 80s.
18) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – John Hughes is as synonymous with 80s cinema as Woody Allen is with awkward charm – which incidentally is also what most of Hughes’ films are about. But Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ masterpiece. It inspires every boy’s favorite fantasy of dodging school to spend a day carousing through an urban wonderland with your beautiful girlfriend, best pal, and a really fast, red car. It may not have the varied introspection of The Breakfast Club, but who needs introspection when you’ve got Abe Froman: the Sausage King of Chicago?
17) The Thing (1982) – Allow me to save the trouble for anyone interested in seeing a Retrobacktive face-off between Wes Craven and John Carpenter for best 80s horror director. Carpenter wins. As great as Craven, Hennenlotter, and Barker were, Carpenter had a subtle charm that the others just couldn’t match. With The Thing, he nails it despite the fact that its gore level is through the roof. What Carpenter does with this remake of 1951′s The Thing From Another World is elevate the psychological component of isolation and distrust among those fighting for survival. This is a more faithful recreation of the original source material Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, only with all the grizzly benefits of 80s animatronics.
16) The Princess Bride (1987) – “Hello. My name in Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” “Good luck! Have fun storming the castle!” “Never go in with a Sicilian when death is on the line.” Shall I continue? “Miracle Max: Beat it or I’ll call the brute squad. Fezzik: I’m on the brute squad. Miracle Max: you are the brute squad.” Swashbucklers may have seem dated in the era of big hair and neon tights, but The Princess Bride out-slices any Errol Flynn flick. Although lead stars Cary Elwes and Robin Wright never recaptured the recognition this film brought them, they are supported by one of the strongest casts ever assembled for the screen, including Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Chris Sarandon, and the undeniably charismatic Andre the Giant.
15) Top Gun (1985) – It was the movie that made Tom Cruise a bona fide superstar. All those retro-trendy aviator sunglasses the hipsters sport now? Guess where the trend originally started. Cruise’s cocky-yet-competent fighter pilot Pete Mitchell personified a decade marked by brazenness – Pete’s ‘call name’ is Maverick after all. When he’s not buzzing the tower in an F-14 jet, Mitchell races his motorcycle down runways, picks up girls with cheesy renditions of Everly Brothers tunes, and rocks a mean pair of tighty-whiteys (admit it, fellas, we all think of buying some after watching Top Gun). Despite being the Miami Vice of the Air Force, this movie continues to hold its own against today’s ubiquitous military dramas. While known better now for his outlandish talk show appearances and devotion to Scientology, Cruise gives a meaningful performance nuanced with brushstrokes of human infallibility. Watching Top Gun today consistently begs the question can’t someone tell Tom Cruise to go back to drama.
14) The Road Warrior (1981) – Few film franchises have ignited legacies as indelible to an era as George Miller’s Mad Max series. Images of leather-clad, mohawked biker gangs set against the backdrop of desolate wastelands became staples of 80s post-apocalyptic sci-fi.
The original Mad Max was a cultural phenomenon that realized massive global success and sparked the Australian New Wave cinema craze. The one country where it remained relatively unknown was the United States. When Miller and production partner Byron Kennedy decided to make a sequel it was simply dubbed Mad Max 2. Warner Bros., however, feared American audiences wouldn’t relate to the subject matter as a sequel, so the stateside release of the film was titled The Road Warrior. And unlike Mad Max, it found critical and commercial success in the U.S., as well as the rest of the world.
Much like a western, the plot is uncomplicated; Mel Gibson’s despondent anti-hero rediscovers his lost humanity while aiding a group of settlers in their battle against a merciless group of thugs. Where the films excels is in its fast-cut pacing, non-stop fight scenes, and one of the greatest car chases ever captured on film.
13) The Fly (1986) – Here is another example of a classic 50s horror film – based on an innovative sci-fi short story – being updated in an age of seemingly limitless cinematic effects work. The Fly is arguably the greatest “science-experiment-gone-wrong” story ever told, and there was no better director to capture the torturous physical and mental transformation of Jeff Goldblum’s doomed main character than David Cronenberg.
After finding success with cult horror films such as Scanners and Videodrome, Cronenberg was primed to make his mark with a big-budget production. He delivered with a reinterpretation of George Langelaan’s 1957 short story about a scientist whose experiments with teleportation go horribly wrong when a housefly is sent through space with him. Although the premise provided Cronenberg with an endless platter to set his trademark gore upon, the film’s cornerstone is the deterioration of the relationship between Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle and Geena Davis’ Veronica Quaife. Goldblum in particular gives a gut-wrenching performance as a lost soul whose physical destruction is eclipsed only by his mental collapse. Be warned: this film is not for the weak of heart, and requires a strong stomach to sit through. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
12) Gremlins (1984) – Gremlins is the Johnny Rotten of movies. It did everything wrong and without apology. First, all the wrong names were attached to the film, namely Steven Spielberg as executive producer and veteran character actors Hoyt Axton and Polly Holliday, who were better known for playing lighthearted television roles. Second, the film had a vivid Christmas setting despite a summer release. But the biggest curveball was the extensive promotion that revolved around Gizmo, the cute little mogwai the presented the movie as a story of one mild-mannered young man’s fluffy little pet. From there the movie spit right in the audience’s face. Many parents who brought their kids to see Gremlins did, in fact, leave halfway through the film, unprepared for its graphic violence, dark humor, and unnerving tone. This, however, only mirrors the eponymous characters’ qualities. The gremlins are punks; they’d want to see mothers whisking their children away in disgust. Gremlins was widely criticized for being too explicit for a PG rating. Hence it became, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, one of the catalysts in the development of the PG-13 rating.
11) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Most fans all know the story by now: Tom Selleck was originally offered the role of Indiana Jones, but had to decline because of his commitment to Magnum P.I. The truth is Harrison Ford was Steven Spielberg’s first choice to play the adventuring archeologist. Screenwriter George Lucas was concerned Ford would be seen as his go-to actor, but that ultimately would not matter. Raiders of the Lost Ark proved to be bigger than the sum of all the principals who came to create it. It was far and away the most successful film of 1981, and is still one of the top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time when adjusted for inflation.
10) First Blood (1982) – Sylvester Stallone’s most well-known character may be Rocky Balboa, but an argument for his most nuanced performance could be made for that of the unhinged Vietnam veteran John Rambo. Adapted to screen from David Morrell’s book, First Blood is the story of an aimless war hero suffering from deep survivor’s guilt after learning the last living member of his platoon died from cancer as a result of exposure to agent orange. Isolated and out of touch with civilian life, Rambo runs afoul with a small-town sheriff who attempts to make an example of him. The result is a mental snap which Stallone executes brilliantly as a stoic but efficient killer. And his emotional breakdown at the movie’s climax gives sobering insight to the suffering many veterans endure after returning from war. First Blood went on to spawn three sequels, and is widely considered the progenitor of the archetypal 80s action film where one man must defend himself against many in a contained, foreign environment.
9) Rain Man (1988) – It wasn’t all machine guns and monsters in the 80s. Hollywood managed to turn out a few dramatic flicks, too. Rain Man remains most notable for Dustin Hoffman’s celebrated performance as Raymond Babbit, an autistic man with a nearly eidetic memory who has spent the majority of his life in a mental institution. Tom Cruise plays Raymond’s estranged brother, Charlie, who seeks out Raymond when he learns their late father bequeathed his multimillion dollar estate to the older, autistic son. Although Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor, film critics often consider Cruise’s character to be the film’s actual protagonist. His transformation from a callous, money-hungry opportunist into a caring and sensitive brother desperate to reconnect with his family is deftly executed, but understated by Hoffman’s unbreakable acting. The film also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Barry Levinson), and Best Original Screenplay.
8) The Terminator (1984) – This is one of those films that had such an enormous sequel, it’s almost always overshadowed in any discussion about the franchise itself. A shame because The Terminator is the best Terminator film in the series. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a tour de force – the other two sequels pale dimly with the absence of protagonist Sarah Connor – but it steps into bounds that borderline fantastic (read: campy). The original is pure sci-fi/horror/action with a tight but brilliant script (there’s even a moment in the movie where one of the characters admits that the plot is brilliant because it “doesn’t require a shred of evidence to prove!”), and a perfect cast. Try to imagine anyone else in Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s respective roles. It’s impossible.
7) Back to the Future (1985) – Everything about this movie scream 1980s. It stars the definitive 80s actor, Michael J. Fox, features a cameo by Huey Lewis (as well as his bitchin’ soundtrack song “The Power of Love”), and the story’s MacGuffin, a time machine, is a DeLorean. It helps that the script is hilarious and witty, the acting perfectly balanced, and the suspense nail-biting. If it weren’t for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Back to the Future might have had a possible contender for the title of Greatest 80s Trilogy. But as it stands, the Back to the Future series has no competition. Even considering Back to the Future II. It probably seemed funny on paper, but Michael J. Fox in drag just doesn’t work.
6) Die Hard (1987) – This film really deserves its own Retrobacktive entry (and honestly the number one spot on this list, but as mentioned, an actual measuring system was used). To be clear: this is the greatest action movie ever made. Are there flaws? Yes. Are they kept to a bare minimum relative to the garbage barges of ridiculous crap audiences are forced to put up with in other action films. Also yes. While it has been referenced in virtually every review ever written about Die Hard, it’s worth noting again; the pièce de résistance in this flick is Bruce Willis’ everyman characterization of John McClane. Stallone and Schwarzenegger did what they did very well, but the last thing film-goers needed in the late 80s was another overblown superhero. Willis gave audiences something everybody could relate to. Of course, let’s not forget Alan Rickman… but wait, that’s topic for another month’s list.
5) Field of Dreams (1989) – A sports movie had to find its way onto the list. Bull Durham and Major League were strong contenders, but there’s something to be said for a picture that can produce a phrase so ubiquitous people say it without even thinking of the source from which it came. If you build it, they will come. And they did. Phil Alden Robinson’s directorial debut In the Mood may have disappointed audiences, but sophomore effort Field of Dreams‘ story of an Iowa farmer’s mystical reconciliation with his father though baseball undoubtedly redeemed the filmmaker and further propelled star Kevin Costner’s career. James Earl Jones’ monologue best sums up the heart of this gem.
4) Big (1988) – Heart-warming. Funny. Original. Sentimental? Perhaps, but is that the worst quality we could attribute to a big-budget Tom Hanks vehicle? For those exclusively familiar with the AIDS-patient/Forrest Gump/lost in space Tom Hanks, Big is the film that took the once tongue-in-cheek actor from a likeable goofball and transformed him into an Academy Award-contending film star. Virtually all of Big‘s emotional depth can be attributed to Hanks’ uncanny performance as a 13-year-old boy trapped in a thirty-something’s body. But what really gives this film it’s iconic reputation are the numerous scenes that stand-out as indelible, if not cliched, classic cinema moments. Most notably Hanks and Robert Loggia’s “Chopsticks” duet on the pedal-powered keyboard. Moments like that aren’t constructed; they just occur while the camera happens to be rolling.
3) This is Spinal Tap (1984) – Despite the seemingly endless amount of famous quotes that emanated from this Rob Reiner classic, the truth is This is Spinal Tap was not a huge, breakout success upon release. But eventually as a number of renowned musicians began to take note and compare their own experiences with that of England’s dim-witted but “loudest band,” This is Spinal Tap soared in popularity. Say what you want about Gone With the Wind; when it comes to quotable movies lines… well, again, topic for another list. But the whole production is all the more impressive when you consider the vast majority of the dialogue was ad-libbed by Reiner, and lead actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer.
2) Robocop (1987) – Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop. Imagine yourself a young boy in the 80s whose tastes for the finer things in life include superheros, gunfire, explosions, robots, and invincibility. If you can come up with a better tag line for such an audience, quick your job and write movie poster copy.
Of course, any young person watching this movie in his or her youth (Warning: do not let young people watch this movie; it is traumatically violent) will miss the endless allegories and critiques of capitalism, greed, consumerism, commercial exploitation, and identity loss. On the surface, Robcocop is a sci-fi superhero thriller where the protagonist holsters his gun inside his leg. Similar to The Terminator, no one should have expected such a cerebral story and polished production. Yet it was praised by critics and became the 16th top-grossing movie of 1987. Although many of the film’s themes reflect the monetary and commercial obsessiveness of the 80s, the film continues to echo through time as a dark foreshadow on the dangers of reckless technological and social incorporation.
1) Ghostbusters (1984) – Of the things one could say of Ghostbusters‘ legacy, none is more appealing than the addition of Bill Murray. Yes, the film is rounded out by a flawless cast, including writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, and Annie Potts. But it is Murray who remains indefatigable in his signature role as the wise-cracking, aloof Peter Venkman.
When Aykroyd first conceived the project he had fellow Blues Brother John Belushi in mind for the role of Venkman. Belushi, however, died while the script was still in development. Murray stepped into the role, improvising the majority of his lines and ad-libbing his way into comedy history.
The strength of Ghostbusters lies in the cast’s collective performance. Aykroyd and Ramis are the brains and subsequently the nerds; Murray is much like the older brother who is by now immune to his surrounding absurdity yet beyond reproach in his criticism of it. Hudson is the everyman; Weaver is the beautiful damsel in distress; Potts and Moranis are the quintessential New Yorkers providing an elemental sense of geography (where else could Ghostbusters take place?). The story was never intended to be highbrow, but just as most Hollywood triumphs weren’t, the sum of its parts magically work together to create something bigger. Ghostbusters is in the hearts and minds of a generation still yearning to wear a proton-pack and drive Ecto-1, and its legacy is now ready to be passed down to the next audience who will undoubtedly find something to relate to, something to mimic, something to idolize, and always something to laugh at.
Honorable Mention: Aliens, The Karate Kid Part II, Manhunter, Rocky IV, Pretty in Pink, Wall Street, To Live & Die in L.A., Lethal Weapon
Though digging up historical pop culture landmarks 30-some-odd years in the grave can, at times, be challenging if not in some critics eyes arbitrary, without a doubt one of the standout sensations of the 80s worth mentioning is the slasher film. In fact, if you were to ask any number of pop culture enthusiasts to name their top five defining trends of the decade, the slasher film would likely be noted on more than a handful of occasions. According to Peter Bracke’s Friday the 13th chronicle Crystal Lake Memories, in 1983 slasher films were responsible for 60% of all box-office earnings. For reasons argued up and down the annals of film academia, kids just loved going out in the 80s to watch their peers get chopped, stabbed, sliced, and generally mutilated by unstoppable psychotic killers.
For anyone new to the sub-genre, that last sentence pretty much sums up the slasher film. A more aggressive offspring of the classic monster movie, the slasher film almost always portrays a small group of people, usually comprised of teenagers, being targeted and viciously murdered by an overpowering, nearly invincible stalker. With a few notable exceptions (see below), these films typically eschewed plot and character depth in favor of graphic violence and inventive death scenes. In most films, the killer is (seemingly) destroyed in the end by a lone survivor of the group, usually a young woman.
Due to the horror genre’s popularity in the 80s, the list of films in the slasher catalog is dense and littered with obscurities and cheap knockoffs. But there are few better ways to spend Halloween than settled on the couch and sharing with that special someone… you’re favorite unstoppable serial killer! Presented in this seasonal Retrobacktive entry are all the basics you need to know – or re-known – about the slasher film.
See what I did there? Re-know is like Retrobac… ah, whatever; let’s get on with it.
Black Christmas – The first thing you need to know is that the slasher film sub-genre didn’t begin in the 80s; it began in 1974 with Black Christmas, a Canadian film directed by Bob Clark. Clark, most famous for the sophomoric Porky’s and lighthearted A Christmas Story, helped develop a screenplay by writer A. Roy Moore into what is widely considered the first true slasher film. The movie depicts a sorority house whose inhabitants are individually killed off by a killer whose identity is never revealed. Many of the techniques that would become staples within the genre were first executed by Clark here, including most famously camera shots from the perspective of the killer. Though the film was not a success upon its initial release, it has gained a cult following as the recognized progenitor of the genre.
Final Girl – The Final Girl, or Survivor Girl, is a routine characteristic of the slasher film in which the killer is finally confronted by the last survivor within his/her intended group of victims. The survivor is almost always a woman, and usually one that has shown virtuous or masculine traits throughout the movie, and is thus able to destroy the killer. The term was first used by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. It has since gone on to be embraced openly by several of the genre’s most important filmmakers.
Freddy Krueger – The primary antagonist from Wes Craven‘s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger is readily identifiable by his clawed glove with four razors jutting from the fingertips, as well as his brown fedora and red-striped sweater. Unlike many of his slasher villain contemporaries, whose menace only hinted at the supernatural, Krueger’s abilities completely defy human convention and allow him to carry out previously inconceivable methods of violence. The character was most famously portrayed by Robert Englund.
Friday the 13th – Arguably the biggest franchise to develop out of the slasher film phenomenon. The Friday the 13th series is most widely known for introducing the character Jason Voorhees. Known universally as simply ‘Jason,’ the hockey-masked killer didn’t actually begin terrorizing Crystal Lake until Friday the 13th Part 2. While well know to genre aficionados, it wasn’t until Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) that laymen audiences learned the killer from the original Friday the 13th was Pamela Voorhees, Jason’s mother. Jason’s signature hockey mask was another later development within the series, first being used in Friday the 13th Part 3-D and in all subsequent films – which currently span nine sequels, a spinoff, and a 2009 reboot.
Halloween – Although Black Christmas is considered the original slasher film, Halloween is far and away the genre’s most lauded and seminal entry. Fulfilling the trope that would follow in virtually every slasher film made in the 80s, Halloween in recognized for not only perfecting many of the slasher staples established in Black Christmas – including eerie first-person camera perspectives from the villain’s point of view – but also creating the genre’s most indelible component: the masked killer. What makes Halloween unique and outstanding (aside from Michael Myers’ white William Shatner mask) is John Carpenter’s deft direction. Halloween contains very little gore, and the violence pales in comparison to the numerous sequels that would follow. Instead Carpenter relies on tone and immaculate pacing to create suspense. It works; as a horror film, this movie is virtually flawless. Extra points for the creepy soundtrack, composed by none other than John Carpenter.
Hellraiser – While not a traditional slasher film in the strictest sense, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser deserves mention given its legacy in the horror film canon, and for introducing Pinhead, one of the genre’s most popular villains. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser leans heavily towards the supernatural, but the gruesome visuals and deplorable characters align the film with other slasher classics. As a precursor to ‘torture porn,’ Hellraiser could be seen as the original, and the best.
Jason Voorhees – Jason Voorhees is the main antagonist (or antihero, depending on how you view the films) in the Friday the 13th series. Though his mother is revealed as the killer in the original movie, Jason takes the helm throughout the remainder of the sequels. As the son of Pamela Voorhees, Jason was a mongoloid who supposedly drowned in Crystal Lake, his cries for help unheard by camp counselors preoccupied with sex. Despite his mother’s attempts to avenge her dead child, Jason is shown to be alive in Friday the 13th Part 2, and launches an endless campaign of violence upon anyway who dares to reside near Crystal Lake. Jason’s acquisition of a goalie’s mask in Friday the 13th Part 3-D would elevate his pop culture status as arguably the most recognizable serial killer in film history.
John Carpenter – An Academy-award winning American filmmaker notable for producing, writing, editing, scoring, and directing several watershed films within the horror genre, John Carpenter is most well-known for creating the classic horror film Halloween. Carpenter released a string of horror films in the 80s and is consider by many to be the most influential horror filmmaker of the decade. Other notable movies in his catalog include The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Prince of Darkness, and They Live!.
Leatherface – As the chainsaw-wielding, skin-wearing, transvestite butcher from Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface arguably defined the image of the homicidal stalker that would become prevalent in 80s slasher films. A silent, brutish figure devoid of personality, actor Gunnar Hansen studied the behavior of children with mental disabilities to develop the character’s creepy mannerisms.
Michael Myers – Michael Myers (aka ‘The Shape’) is the primary villain from the Halloween film series. A mysterious and relentless opponent, Myers is portrayed as the epitome of pure evil after he murders his sister as a young boy and escapes a mental institution 15 years later to stalk and murder a number of babysitters on Halloween night. The famous white mask Myers’ wears was actually a Captain Kirk Star Trek mask painted white by production designer Tommy Lee Wallace. The mask that launched a hundred horror flicks cost the film crew only $1.98. Ironic considering John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece is the closest thing the slasher film has to high art.
Nightmare on Elm Street – Director Wes Craven followed the burgeoning success he’d grown with low-budget cult films such as The Hills Have Eyes and Swamp Thing with 1984′s A Nightmare on Elm Street. The film introduces audiences to Freddy Krueger, whose wit and supernatural abilities set him apart from the traditional, silent slasher film villains of the day. Like Halloween and Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street spawned a number of sequels, spinoffs, and a recent remake. Most, however, lacked the artistic input of Craven, but the original is a highly innovative entry into the slasher film canon thanks to its incorporation of reality-bending concepts.
Phantasm – A little-known American horror film from 1979, Phantasm earns a place in this overview as it contains many of the traditional elements found in slasher films of the era, primarily a young teenage protagonist engaged in battle with a larger, brooding antagonist. In the case of Phantasm, the antagonist is large enough to be colloquially dubbed “The Tall Man.” As The Tall Man, Angus Scrimm plays a mortician who controls a brood of dwarf zombies that fulfill his murderous desires. Though not as popular as contemporary films such as Halloween or Alien, Phantasm gained a strong cult following, and three sequels were eventually released.
Pinhead – As the leader of the Cenobites, a order of extra-dimensional sadomasochistic beings from the Hellraiser series, Pinhead distinguishes himself from several contemporary horror film antagonists by demonstrating erudite mannerisms as opposed to belligerent aggression. He is, nonetheless, an imposing figure identifiable by an encompassing grid of pins impaled into his skull. Hellraiser director Clive Barker hired actor Doug Bradley to play the role; when Bradley asked Barker how he ought to interpret the character, Barker instructed Bradley to consider him a cross between an administrator and a surgeon. Bradley’s chilling clinical portrayal is spot on.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Released the same year as Black Christmas, Texas Chainsaw Massacre predates the rise of the slasher film. A groundbreaking work of horror, Tobe Hooper created a visually disturbing movie about a group of young travelers terrorized by a psychotic family of cannibals in rural Texas with a shoestring budget and cast of unknown actors. The grainy, broken camerawork and anonymity of the actors, however, gives the film a stark, documentary feel, which adds to the suspense and terror. Followed by two sequels, a remake, prequel, and one “almost-sequel” that references the earlier films but is essentially a shot-for-shot remake, the original TCM is relatively light on gore, but still stands as one of the most controversial movies in horror film.
Wes Craven – As a director, writer, and producer, Wes Craven has created several of the most indelible films in horror. His 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street launched one of the most popular slasher series of the 80s. Craven followed this success in 1996 with another horror mega-franchise, Scream, which unabashedly parodies several staples of the slasher film. Other notable films directed by Craven include Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Notable Mentions - Since this blog serves only as an introduction to the slasher film sub-genre, it would be impossible to cover every milestone within its sphere. Below are a list of films and directors who have bore some influence within the genre, or are simply worth further investigation. They might not all be slasher films, per se, but they deliver the same startles and chills as those mentioned above.
Alien, An American Werewolf in London, The Burning, Child’s Play, David Cronenberg, Sean S. Cunningham, House, The Howling, John Landis, Maniac Cop, My Bloody Valentine, Predator, The Prowler, Silent Night Deadly Night, Sleepaway Camp, Terror Train.
And not what you’ve all been waiting for… my favorite Jason kill scene!
Of all the Friday the 13th death scenes, this one is unbeatable. There’s so much wrong with it! For those who haven’t seen the movie, the character Julius is an amateur boxer, yet here he’s completely winded after about a minute! How do you go 15 rounds in the ring with somebody actually fighting back, but can’t handle 60 seconds of what is essentially shadow boxing? And why would you try to punch someone already wearing hardened facial protection?! If there’s a least effective way to battle Jason, this is it. That’s what makes this death scene so rewarding; Julius tells Jason to take his best shot. He does. And it is awesome. It’s so over the top, but you can’t help feel like this idiot deserved it.
In the decade that nurtured the birth of Reaganomics there was perhaps no greater right-wing evangelist, or icon of conservative ambition, than young Ohioan Alex P. Keaton. He rejected those notions of the previous counterculture generation – including those of his own parents – and openly held the ideals of Milton Friedman, William Buckley, Jr., and Richard Nixon in the highest regard. He worked tirelessly to not just put himself within position of economic benefit, but to participate in its very direction. He eventually broke free from the confinement of Columbus to engage first-hand in the financial world of Wall Street before following his idols’ footsteps into the political arena, ultimately serving as a United States Senator.
Alex Keaton was undeniably charming in his emphatic, if not buffoonish, devotion to conservatism. As he should have been given that Alex Keaton was never a real person, but the indelible protagonist played by Michael J. Fox on the hit NBC sitcom Family Ties.
Airing from 1982 to 1989, Family Ties chronicled the lives of the Keatons, a middle-class suburban family comprised of liberal parents at constant odds with their conservative children. Though mother Elyse (Meredith Baxter) and father Steven (Michael Gross) were to be the focal characters of the program, Fox quickly became the breakout star. He continually defined the tenor of the sociopolitical era with his earnest albeit self-absorbed portrayal, which would go on to earn the him three Emmy awards and the number 17 spot in TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time” list.
(Michael J. Fox, second-from-right. Photo Credit: Wikipedia)
Although it would be the role that would launch Fox into stardom, NBC hadn’t originally intended to cast the 21-year-old Canadian actor. Even after first-choice Matthew Broderick turned down the opportunity to play Keaton, producer Brandon Tartikoff lobbied to have Fox removed from the show, doubting the actor’s ability to connect with an audience. At its peak, Family Ties’ viewership represented one-third of American households. But even as Fox’s nimble charisma continued to put naysayers to silence, there were few who could have anticipated just how giant the actor’s future would be.
A 1.21 Gigawatt Role
By now, even the most novice cinephile knows that when principal shooting for Back to the Future began in 1984, Eric Stoltz was cast in the lead role of Marty McFly. Many, however, believe that Stoltz was director Robert Zemeckis‘ first choice for the part. But this is something of an inaccuracy. Though Zemeckis was impressed with Stoltz’ performance in Mask, Michael J. Fox was his first choice for the lead. Conflict, however, with filming for Family Ties initially kept Fox from accepting the role.
As Fox had become the centerpiece of the show, producer Gary David Goldberg feared with Meredith Baxter absent on maternity leave, losing their two biggest stars would be a ratings disaster for Family Ties. Production of Back to the Future moved forward with Stoltz, but five weeks into filming, Zemeckis came to an unsettling conclusion: Stoltz was miscast. Convinced Stoltz could not deliver the whimsical disbelief essential to the role, Zemeckis scrapped five weeks of filming to start anew. It was an expensive decision that cost production $3 million and pushed the release date back from May to July. But by now Baxter had returned to Family Ties, and the producers of Back to the Future were able to negotiate a deal with Goldberg that allowed Fox to work on the film after shooting dailies for his show.
The process was arduous but fruitful. Fox’s everyman charm and on-screen chemistry with co-star Christopher Lloyd made Back to the Future a runaway success. The film grossed over $380 million and became the most successful movie of 1985. It propelled Fox into Hollywood superstardom. The fervor of Back to the Future was followed up not two months later with the release of Teen Wolf. Along with a hit TV show, Michael J. Fox had almost overnight become a bonafide movie star.
Fox credited much of his acclaim as Marty McFly with how easily relatable he found the character. Like McFly, Fox was both an avid skateboarder and guitar player. It was a genuine kinship that translated with the audience. Back to the Future spawned a franchise the included two sequels, Back to the Future II (1989) and Back to the Future III (1990), an animated television series, and a theme-park ride at Universal Studios Theme Park.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception, Fox was briefly in a precarious position. He’d found success in playing off-beat yet engaging teenagers. The pitfalls of typecasting were abundant during the mid-80s as many of the child stars of the 70s attempted to reinvent themselves for a more adult audience.
Fox countered, however, with a string of movies that relayed his calculated wit in increasingly adult roles. He finished two films in 1987. In Light of Day he played, Joe Rasnick, the guitar playing brother of Joan Jett’s character, Patti Rasnick. While not a hit, the film received critical praise and was an unequivocal departure from Fox’s previous light-hearted fare.
The Secret of My Success brought Fox back to his comedic origins, but this time in the more sophisticated setting of the boardroom. Fox played financial wiz Brantley Foster, who moves to New York for a lofty job only to find himself living a double life in order to scale the walls of corporate success. It is arguably Fox’s bawdiest role, pitting him against corporate megalomania (in an ironic twist as Fox was still portraying Alex Keaton on Family Ties) while screwball sexual farce ensues.
It was not, however, until 1988 that Fox was given the opportunity to truly break out of the hapless-come-charming youth persona he’d set the bar for with his earlier work. In Bright Lights, Big City - a screen adaptation of Jay McInerney’s second-person examination of urban decadence – Fox starred as Jamie Conway, an aspiring writer who numbs his emotional turmoil with drugs, alcohol, and the endless solace of big city anonymity. The performance is uniquely Fox, filled with rattled wittiness faintly a hair above tragic isolation. While critics stood polarized on Fox’s selection as the lead, Bright Lights, Big City would be the door that would lead Fox through his ultimate acting arc.
By 1989, Family Ties had come to an end, but Fox’s movie career was in full swing. He’d followed up his smash success as Marty McFly with Back to the Future Part II, simultaneously filming the second sequel, Back to the Future Part III, and having them released only six months apart. But it was a lesser-known film by Brian De Palma that showcased Fox’s most reaching role. In Casualties of War, Fox plays Max Eriksson, a troubled Vietnam vet who recalls the horrific rape and murder of a young Vietnamese woman by his fellow squad members. The film is graphic in its recount of the Incident on Hill 192, with Fox playing the sole center of morality, defying orders and threats in an ultimately vain effort to save the teenage girl. The film is purely morose, absent even the smallest shred of Fox’s frenetic giddiness. Casualties of War failed to resonate with audiences, but it remains Fox’s most desperate characterization to date and cemented his breadth within cinema.
Despite demonstrating his ability to contend with “dramatic” actors such as Sean Penn and Keifer Sutherland, Fox returned to his comedic roots by wrapping up the Back to the Future series in 1990, and releasing Doc Hollywood in 1991. A string of lighthearted fare followed, including Life With Mikey and For Love or For Money in 1993, and Greedy in 1994, until Fox’s last major film role in 1996′s The Frighteners.
Rise of the Incurable Optimist
Unlike the seminal roles he’d created during the 80s, Fox’s 90s character canon – with the exception of Doc Hollywood – is mostly forgettable. Fox, however, remained indefatigable, reclaiming his infectious small-screen charisma as Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty in ABC’s Spin City (1996-2002). As the ringleader of a social misfit New York City municipal administration, Fox captured audiences virtually overnight by engaging over 15 years’ worth of practiced coyness, restrained disbelief, and righteous mockery, and amalgamating it into the relentlessly kinetic Mike Flaherty. It remains his most definitive character.
Sadly the kinesis that drove Fox’s performance was a symptom of the real-life disease he had been suffering from in private since 1991. It was on the set of Doc Hollywood that Fox began showing symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. He filmed three seasons of Spin City before revealing he had Parkinson’s and that the fourth season would be his last as the show’s star. He accumulated three Golden Globes, an Emmy and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award during his run as lead actor on the series, after which he continued in Emmy-winning guest appearances on television shows such as Rescue Me, Boston Legal, and Scrubs.
Since his diagnosis, Fox has most commonly been seen in the public eye as a crusader in the fight for stem cell and degenerative disease research. He has published three autobiographies, and will return to television on September 26, 2013 in The Michael J. Fox Show. Outside of his role as a public advocate for medical research, Fox has continuously delivered open, honest, and at times self-mocking candor in both acting and personal demonstration. The actor has received two honorary doctorates of law, one honorary doctorate of medicine, and was lauded by Time Magazine in 2007 “to be celebrated for his work, his kindness, his humor under duress, and for a noble heart.”
While his accomplishments as an actor can often be overlooked in relation to his highly publicized battle with Parkinson’s Disease, there is no denying that Fox’s versatility, timing, and natural aplomb make him the irrefutable cornerstone of the last 30 years of North American film and television. Thus, Michael J. Fox earns the title of Retrobacktive’s Definitive Eighties: Actor.
Holy cow, look at that coat!
Since the 1950s, television has sat atop the telecommunications media throne as the purveyor of all whims societal. Sure, the internet has gained impressive footing with its ability to deliver terse (Ha! Not around here), multimedia news in real time, but let’s be honest: we have machines whose whole purpose is to capture what’s on our televisions when we’re too busy to watch them. Whatever you’re opinion, there’s no denying that T.V. is a powerful medium.
Yet you may have noticed a lack of television references on Retrobacktive. It may seem odd, given television may qualify as the most capricious of all entertainment sources, and certainly the Eighties was a decade of sleek-if-not-transient fashion. But it’s important to take into consideration the nature of television programming 25 years ago. Unlike today’s epic sagas demanding devout adherence to developing plot lines and intricate themes, television was formerly the medium of the short sighted. Everything on television had to be neatly summed up in an hour. Audiences didn’t want cliffhangers or lead-ups; they wanted well defined beginnings, middles, and ends. There was Wang Chung-ing to be done at the clubs, after all.
So while most television shows came with less emotional purchase than the average blockbuster film or landmark album, there were a few watershed moments that helped define the era by way of the small screen.
Those won’t be discussed here today, at least not in detail. There’s a more pressing component of 80s television to ruminate upon, perhaps the most enduring of all: the theme music.
It may seem archaic today, but there was a time when opening credits were part-and-parcel for television. And of course, in order to grip your audiences, every show needed a captivating theme. Fortunately, in effort to exploit the multimedia wonders of this particular medium (the Blog!), there will be no long-winded lament over television theme music of the 80s. Simply, here are the music and opening television segments that defined a generation, and likely stayed stuck in your head throughout the years.
1.) MacGyver (1985 – 1992)
2.) Knight Rider (1982 – 1986)
3.) Miami Vice (1984 – 1989)
4.) Quantum Leap (1989 – 1993)
5.) Magnum P.I. (1980 – 1988)
And why not a sixth, since these lists always seem to culminate in five…
Images are like mental footprints; they tend to last a little longer than the ephemeral whisper or incidental sensation. It makes one wonder if society’s entire perception of days gone by is only a mural of movements and zeitgeists that equals less than the sum of its cultural parts. Philosophical waxing aside – though it’s an appropriate topic for such – see if you remember this one…
In 1979, former medial doctor-turned-director George Miller, along with filmmaker Byron Kennedy, and screenwriter James McClausland, made a movie for 400,000 dollar-y-doos (Australian for “dollars”) called Mad Max. This movie did three significant things. It launched the arrival of Australian New Wave cinema, a notable film force of the 80s and 90s in its own right. It catapulted the career of then-unknown lead actor Mel Gibson. But most importantly (for the purposes of this article), it heralded the exorbitantly popular early-80s trend of post-apocalyptic sci-fi films.
It should come as little surprise that the post-apocalyptic sub-genre found such universal appeal in the 80s. Aside from the fact the Mad Max was an astounding success (it went on to gross over $100,000,000 worldwide, earning one of the highest budget-to-profit ratios in film history) and duplicates were sure to follow, the emotional climate was set for this onslaught of moribund movie tales of deserted highways and broken societies. While the idea of desolate wastelands ruled by dehumanized marauders may seem absurd in today’s cyber-saturated culture, it was not so far from reality at a time when the world’s foremost superpowers perennially brandished the threat of nuclear annihilation. Regardless of which corner of the planted you dwelt in, it was on your mind.
Thus the boom began in earnest. Three countries lead the way: Australia – if with nothing else to offer than the pinnacle Mad Max trilogy, usual standby North America, and Italy, the latter of which made a number of low-budget post-apocalyptic flicks based in dystopian New York City. Although the criteria for what makes a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film is rather self-explanatory (first, there needs to have been an apocalypse…), there is often much dispute over classic films that seem to reside on a gray line of inclusion. So, for the sake of a list, here is a brief overview of the most noteworthy entries in the post-apocalyptic film canon (with Retrobacktive’s obligatory two-cents).
5.) Warrior of the Lost World – On the surface, it’s an obvious rip-off of Mad Max, only now our good guy is on the motorcycle and the bad guys drive the trucks. Upon closer examination, WLW is fairly ambitious, layered with an evolving storyline and twist ending. The problem is you need to examine the film more closely… which is pretty painful because it is not that good. An “ambitious” film is not always a good film, especially when it’s a low-budget Italian bandwagon piece. It nonetheless warrants inclusion on this list as it’s become a cult staple within the genre. Probably for no other reason than it is often laughably bad. Admittedly, this is for fans of the genre only, but even on those terms, you’ll get a bigger kick out of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 season 5 episode which features the film.
4.) 1990: The Bronx Warriors - Despite the deluge of cheap knockoffs, the Italians made at least one decent contribution to the dystopian dustland category. Though laughable by today’s standards, the action is plentiful in 1990: The Bronx Warriors. The plot veers away from anything overly cerebral, as well. It’s a story laced in heavy machismo; a young girl runs away from her rich-but-scrupulous family and finds herself lost in the no man’s land of the Bronx, which is now ruled by vicious gangs. She is fortunately protected by the tough-as-nails bike leader, Trash. That is until Daddy sends a psychotic mercenary after his daughter, and all hell brakes loose. There’s a heavy helping of cheese here, but 1990: The Bronx Warriors still tops the list of Italian post-apocalyptic movies based in New York (a bigger genre than you’d think). Chalk it up to authenticity; they brought real Hell’s Angels in as extras.
3.) The Running Man – Surprisingly, this isn’t a film that gets tossed around the post-apocalyptic movie discussion table that often. It does, however, meet all the requirements. In the future, the United States economy has collapsed. A military state controls people, and things are bleak for the majority of a marginalized class. The only source of entertainment – and means for ensuring complacency – is a sadistic television where prisoners are forced to survive for 24 hours while evading a band of ruthless “stalkers.” The film is based on a short story by Stephen King, and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his action-hero era. Possibly why it misses inclusion in other post-apocalyptic lists is the presence of at least one demographic continuing to exist in affluence. But considering the sequence of events takes place after a clearly noted global catastrophe, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of room for argument. And it’s another Schwarzenegger/Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura mash up; just enjoy.
2.) Escape From New York - No one seemed to appreciate this concept more than the Italians, who made about 800 similar films based around the idea. But credit director John Carpenter who really made a statement with his dismal, futuristic look at the Big Apple. After the crime rate in America increases 400 percent, Manhattan island is turned into the country’s only maximum security prison. But instead of cell blocks and guards, convicts are merely thrown onto the island to fend for themselves. Any attempt to escape is thwarted by a police unit that patrols the bridges and walls surrounding Manhattan. When Air Force One is hijacked by domestic terrorists, the President’s escape pod lands on the island. The only person who can save him is Snake Plissken, a former war hero turned rogue criminal who barters his way out of incarceration by agreeing to save the President and return him before an important summit meeting between the world’s power nations. One could certainly make the argument this film ought to be omitted based on the fact there is no truly apocalyptic event to speak of. It does, though, bring up an aforementioned point of relevance. The plot is based on a 400 percent increase in crime, which isn’t necessarily apocalyptic but does reflect the majority of people’s sentiment towards New York City in 1981. At the time, New York was a dangerous, crime-ridden, and arguably decaying metropolis that seemed on the verge of implosion. As a social commentary, Escape From New York is an insular response to growing dissolution that mirrors the global interpretation exhibited in other dystopian movies. And it’s got a cool synth soundtrack.
1.) Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) – Let’s get something clear: the entire Mad Max trilogy owns the number one spot on any post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie list. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Mad Max own the number three and two spots, respectively. But in the interest of variety and comprehension, the decision was made to include only one film from the franchise here, that being the film most representative of the genre’s legacy and the trilogy’s influence. This is the movie that established it all. Barren, desolate wastelands. Mohawked nomads clad in leather armor. The “Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla” mercilessly encroaching upon the last remnant of humanity clinging to life in an isolated outpost. Enter Max Rockatansky. Having spent a long-but-unspecified amount time on the road in the wake of events that conspired in the first movie, little now separates Max from the marauding gangs he swore revenge against. When a chance meeting with a “Gyro Captain” leads Max to a refinery nearly overrun by the Lord Humungous, a battle ensues to finally drive away the looters and salvage whatever oil can be saved.
If this whole topic has been as foreign to you as cream cheese on pancakes, you’ll want to start here, at least before George Miller’s re-boot of the series hits theaters next year. Mad Max 2 works on a number of levels, but its two most enticing components are 1.) Max’s lack of redemption – there’s no sentimentality or self-discovery here. Max agrees to help the members of the outpost for no other reason than his own sense of general revenge. This lent the film its dark, realistic tone. And 2.) the chase at the end with the truck and armored convoy… words cannot do it justice. If you don’t enjoy it, you don’t like action cinema. Case closed.
So there’s your basic introduction to the world of post-apocalyptic cinema. If you’re already a fan, I’ve probably told you nothing new. But for those of you novice to the genre, you’ll now be well prepared for Mad Max: Fury Road… whenever it finally digs itself out of development hell (rumor has it this time next year).
And now what we’ve all been waiting for: more pics of the V8 Pursuit Special Interceptor!
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.”