They Live (1988)

R | 94 mins | Horror, Science fiction | 4 November 1988

Director:

John Carpenter

Writer:

Frank Armitage

Producer:

Larry Franco

Cinematographer:

Gary B. Kibbe

Production Designers:

William J. Durrell Jr., Daniel Lomino

Production Company:

Alive Films
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HISTORY

They Live is copyrighted under the alternate title John Carpenter's They Live . In the opening credits of They Live the possessive "John Carpenter's" fades in onto a black frame moments before the remainder of the title. However, the director's name also fades out before " They Live ," allowing for a reading of the title with or without the filmmaker's name. After Carpenter's name fades out, the common title They Live , remains and is displayed in a graffiti-style white font over black background. This effect creates a transition from the title sequence to the film's first non-title frame, where the title becomes diegetic graffiti painted on an underpass pillar. The message "They Live" resurfaces numerous times throughout the film, most blatantly in the church headquarters of the resistance, as part of the graffitied phrase, "They Live We Sleep."
       Sep 1988 AmCin and Nov 1988 Starlog articles reported that They Live was based on the comic book Nada , published in a 1985 issue of Eclipse Comics' Alien Encounters , which in turn borrowed the narrative from Ray Nelson's short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning." The opening titles credit the screenplay to "Frank Armitage," a pseudonym used by Carpenter for this film. The Nov 1988 Starlog article discloses that Carpenter did not feel comfortable accepting a writing credit for the screenplay, because, in addition to input from Piper and associate producer Sandy King, the original author, Nelson, conceived most of the material. Carpenter borrowed his pseudonym, "Frank Armitage," which is also the full name of Keith David's character in the ... More Less

They Live is copyrighted under the alternate title John Carpenter's They Live . In the opening credits of They Live the possessive "John Carpenter's" fades in onto a black frame moments before the remainder of the title. However, the director's name also fades out before " They Live ," allowing for a reading of the title with or without the filmmaker's name. After Carpenter's name fades out, the common title They Live , remains and is displayed in a graffiti-style white font over black background. This effect creates a transition from the title sequence to the film's first non-title frame, where the title becomes diegetic graffiti painted on an underpass pillar. The message "They Live" resurfaces numerous times throughout the film, most blatantly in the church headquarters of the resistance, as part of the graffitied phrase, "They Live We Sleep."
       Sep 1988 AmCin and Nov 1988 Starlog articles reported that They Live was based on the comic book Nada , published in a 1985 issue of Eclipse Comics' Alien Encounters , which in turn borrowed the narrative from Ray Nelson's short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning." The opening titles credit the screenplay to "Frank Armitage," a pseudonym used by Carpenter for this film. The Nov 1988 Starlog article discloses that Carpenter did not feel comfortable accepting a writing credit for the screenplay, because, in addition to input from Piper and associate producer Sandy King, the original author, Nelson, conceived most of the material. Carpenter borrowed his pseudonym, "Frank Armitage," which is also the full name of Keith David's character in the movie, from a character in H. P. Lovecraft's short story, "The Dunwich Horror."
       The protagonist is never referred to by name in the narrative. However, the closing credits identify the character as "Nada." However, numerous news sources refer to the character as " John Nada." Carpenter legitimizes these listings by referring to the character as "John Nada" in interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, but, as the character in the inspirational literary source material is named "George Nada," it is unclear when or where the name change first occurred.
       For the lead role of Nada, Carpenter cast former professional wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper after seeing him in his retirement match at Wrestle Mania III. The Sep 1988 AmCin article elaborated that Carpenter saw in the wrestler's scared yet kind face a man who has "lived life" and who could project a desirable point of view different from the typically glamorous Hollywood leading man. Carpenter additionally acknowledges that similarities between Piper and his character-to-be factored into his casting decision. However, the director is quick to clarify that Nada's specific traits were based on an unidentified childhood friend of his, not on Piper.
       Although the film's credits do not identify who designed the look of the aliens, Dennis Fischer, in a 4 Nov 1988 HR review, credits the design to makeup artist Frank Carissosa. However, in an interview with Gilles Boulenger, author of John Carpenter The Prince of Darkness , Carpenter credits the design to his current wife and associate producer of the film, Sandy King.
       The script was highly critical of consumerism, framing the aliens as exploitative capitalists that use subliminal messages hidden in advertisements and transmitted via television sets to hypnotize humanity into subservience while they drained Earth of its natural resources. A 11 Nov 1988 LAT article suggested that MCA, parent company of They Live 's distributor Universal, was initially reluctant toward the film, believing its "Yuppie-bashing theme" was about them. In an interview with Boulenger, Carpenter described meeting with then-Universal chairman Tom Pollock to listen to the studio's concerns about the script. Pollock suggested that the aliens' interest in Earth should be more than purely monetary and proposed the aliens could be literally feeding on humanity. Carpenter, having final cut and preferring his vision, kept the script as it was.
       According to production notes found on TheOfficialJohnCarpenter.com and the Nov 1988 Starlog , production for They Live started on 7 Mar 1988 and lasted eight weeks. The film was shot principally on-location in downtown Los Angeles. The motion picture industry database The Numbers lists the film's production budget at an estimated $4 million, while other sources put the number closer to $3 million, the per movie budget allotted Carpenter in his four-picture deal with Alive Films that also gave the filmmaker total artistic freedom. Although the deal was for four pictures, according to Boulenger's book, the deal was mutually called off in 1988 after the release of They Live .
       The Nov 1988 Starlog article notes that Carpenter brought back many of the same people with whom he worked on Prince of Darkness , including producer-first assistant director Larry Franco (who worked with Carpenter on his previous eight projects), director of photography Gary B. Kibbe, makeup effects artist Carissosa, visual effects artist Jim Danforth, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, character actor Peter Jason, and co-music composer Alan Howarth.
       Martial arts expert/stunt coordinator Imada composed the action scenes and stunts in They Live . However, Carpenter and Piper collaborated with Imada on the lengthy fight sequence between Piper and David, which lasts more than five minutes. According to Piper, Carpenter was motivated by a desire to upstage the drawn out fight scene in John Ford's The Quiet Man . The director even had Piper view the film in preparation for the scene. According to Carpenter, Piper worked with David on the fight choreography, which included some of Piper's old wrestling moves, for a month and a half to the point that actual contact occurred during filming. Piper contributed more than simply his wrestling know-how. In an interview with science fiction/horror blog Drunken Zombie , Piper attested that he improvised the line in the bank in which Nada proclaims: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum," at Carpenter's request. Cinematographer Kibbe shot the fight scene in four days using a Panaglide camera.
       According to the Sep 1988 AmCin article, Carpenter and cinematographer Kibbe decided on black-and-white footage for the point-of-view shots of the subliminal world revealed through the signal-penetrating sunglasses worn by the characters with electronic interference added to visually relay the pain the glasses cause the wearer. The point-of-view scenes were shot twice, once with regular set dressings and a second time with the subliminal messages. Both sequences were shot on color stock, and the subliminal world shots were later decolorized in post-production.
       Although Carpenter made the film as part of a four-picture deal with Alive Pictures, Alive traded off distribution of the picture to Universal. The film opened to mixed reviews. In a 5 Nov 1988 Washington Post review, critic Richard Harrington derided the film, calling the plot dated and "full of black holes," the acting "wretched," the effects "second-rate," and the film as a whole "preposterous." Janet Maslin, in a 4 Nov 1988 NYT review, similarly chided the film for its poor directing and dialogue, additionally calling-out the B-movie casting of Piper, who she wrote, "plays his role like the former wrestler that he is." In contrast, Michael Wilmington, in a 4 Nov 1988 LAT article, commented positively, forgiving the picture's "silly lines, plot lapses and goofball action scenes" because of "the sheer nasty pizazz of its central concept." Wilmington sees They Live as a campy update to the Red Scare monster movies of the 1950s. A 9 Nov 1988 Var review called the film "fantastically subversive" and predicted it was "sufficiently fresh and provocative to develop a cult following and decent b.o. returns." These predictions were realized as numerous internet sources, including Box Office Mojo and The Numbers , put the film's domestic box office gross at approximately $13 million. They Live has become a cult classic, recognized as such by Entertainment Weekly , The A.V. Club , and Screen Rant , among others and has been referenced in underground and mainstream media. The film is a favorite of the underground hip hop and graffiti movements, and a 21 Sep 2008 Wired article divulges that the subliminal messages in They Live inspired the popular street artist Shepard Fairey's "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" campaign, which appropriated the messages "obey," and "this is your god." The fight sequence has appeared on blog lists of Best Fight Scenes, and the animated television series, South Park , paid homage to the film in the 27 Jun 2001 episode titled "Cripple Fight" (Season 5, Episode 2), modeling a fight between Timmy and Jimmy blow-for-blow after the fight between Nada and Frank.
       An 11 Oct 2010 article on the film and entertainment blog Dark Horizons announced rumors of a They Live remake. Eric Newman, producer of the prequel to John Carpenter's The Thing , due out in 2011, suggested to Dark Horizons that production could start in 2011. Though never intended to be a series, numerous Internet sources, citing an unidentified issue of the discontinued science fiction magazine Starlog , claim a sequel to the film, reportedly titled Hypnowar , was discussed but never made.


The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Michael Thielvoldt, a student at University of Texas at Austin, with Tom Schatz as academic advisor.
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GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
Sep 1988.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Nov 1988
p. 6, 41.
Los Angeles Times
4 Nov 1988
p. 6.
Los Angeles Times
11 Nov 1988.
---
New York Times
4 Nov 1988
p. 8.
Starlog
Nov 1988.
---
Variety
9 Nov 1988
p. 16.
Washington Post
5 Nov 1988.
---
Wired
21 Sep 2008.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Larry Franco production
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Exec prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
2d cam/Panaglide op
2d cam/1st asst
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Best boy elec
Best boy grip
Dolly grip
Video playback
Still photog
Still photog
Filmed in
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Art dept asst
FILM EDITORS
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
Negative cutter
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Leadman
Prop master
Asst prop
Asst prop
Const foreman
Propmaker
Labor foreman
Paint foreman
Standby painter
COSTUMES
Cost supv
Cost
SOUND
Sd mixer
Boom op
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Rec
Supv sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Asst sd ed
Foley supv
Foley ed
Foley ed
Foley ed
Sd eff research
Sd eff rec
Sd eff coord
Sd eff coord
Synthesized sd eff
Foley artist
Foley artist
ADR mixer
ADR rec
Foley mixer
Foley rec
Dolby Stereo consultant
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff coord
Spec eff asst
Spec eff asst
Spec eff asst
Spec photog eff
Spec photog eff, Effects Associates
Process compositing
Titles and opticals by
MAKEUP
Make up
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Scr supv
Helicopter pilot
Helicopter pilot
Extras casting
Voice casting
Asst to Mr. Franco
Asst to Mr. Carpenter
Prod accountant
Prod coord
Loc mgr
DGA trainee
Prod assoc
First aid
Craft service
Transportation coord
Transportation capt
Driver
Driver
Driver
Driver
Driver
Driver
Driver
Driver
Driver
Prod legal counsel
Prod legal counsel
Prod legal counsel
Commercials prod
Commercials prod
Caterer
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stand-in
Stand-in
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col timer
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson (publication date undetermined).
AUTHOR
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
John Carpenter's They Live
Release Date:
4 November 1988
Production Date:
began 7 March 988
Copyright Claimant:
Universal City Studios, Inc.
Copyright Date:
25 October 1989
Copyright Number:
PA436609
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo in selected theatres
Color
DeLuxe®
Duration(in mins):
94
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
29297
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Nada, an unemployed and homeless construction worker, walks the streets of Los Angeles in search of a job. Finding no work at the unemployment office, he wanders the streets. In a park, he sees a blind street preacher warning a small crowd that a deceitful, controlling force is taking over the rich and powerful. When Nada sees a pair of police officers arrive to remove the blind man from the park, he walks away. Down the street he notices a man mesmerized by a television news broadcast in a department store window. The next day Nada is hired to work at a construction site, where he meets Frank, a former steel worker who left his family in Detroit to find work. Frank takes Nada to Justiceville, a shantytown of unemployed workers, where he can get a shower, food and a place to sleep. Over dinner, Frank expresses bitterness about the unfair power dynamic in America, which he says distorts the Golden Rule to "he who has the gold makes the rules." Nada says he believes in America and suggests that Frank be patient. At night, a couple of Justiceville neighbors watch television as the broadcast signal is disrupted by a hacker, who appears on the air and warns of an unidentified group using an undetectable signal to sedate and repress the public. While watching the broadcast, Nada sees the blind preacher in the distance synchronously mouthing the hacker's words. The Justiceville spokesman, Gilbert, approaches the preacher and, after an exchange of words, the two go into a nearby church. Those watching the television complain of headaches and turn off the set. The next morning, when Nada inquires ... +


Nada, an unemployed and homeless construction worker, walks the streets of Los Angeles in search of a job. Finding no work at the unemployment office, he wanders the streets. In a park, he sees a blind street preacher warning a small crowd that a deceitful, controlling force is taking over the rich and powerful. When Nada sees a pair of police officers arrive to remove the blind man from the park, he walks away. Down the street he notices a man mesmerized by a television news broadcast in a department store window. The next day Nada is hired to work at a construction site, where he meets Frank, a former steel worker who left his family in Detroit to find work. Frank takes Nada to Justiceville, a shantytown of unemployed workers, where he can get a shower, food and a place to sleep. Over dinner, Frank expresses bitterness about the unfair power dynamic in America, which he says distorts the Golden Rule to "he who has the gold makes the rules." Nada says he believes in America and suggests that Frank be patient. At night, a couple of Justiceville neighbors watch television as the broadcast signal is disrupted by a hacker, who appears on the air and warns of an unidentified group using an undetectable signal to sedate and repress the public. While watching the broadcast, Nada sees the blind preacher in the distance synchronously mouthing the hacker's words. The Justiceville spokesman, Gilbert, approaches the preacher and, after an exchange of words, the two go into a nearby church. Those watching the television complain of headaches and turn off the set. The next morning, when Nada inquires about the church's suspicious late-night hours, Gilbert deflects the question, claiming the church is where Justiceville's food is prepared. Later, the hacker again penetrates a television broadcast to warn that "the signal must be shut off at the source," and the viewers again get headaches. Gilbert again turns and darts toward the church after the hacker's signal is cut off. Nada discreetly follows Gilbert to the church. Once inside he discovers that the sound of a choir singing, which is ever-audible outside the building, is a recording and the chapel is filled with boxes, laboratory equipment, and numerous pairs of sunglasses. The message, "THEY LIVE WE SLEEP," is painted on one of the walls. In an adjacent room, the hacker and various members of the Justiceville community, including Gilbert, discuss their unsuccessful attempts to warn the people by hacking into the television broadcast. As Nada eavesdrops, the preacher grabs him, but sensing he is not an enemy, offers to show Nada "the revolution." When Nada declines the opportunity, the preacher predicts he will be back. As Nada leaves the church, a helicopter approaches. Gilbert and another man leave the church and, after putting on sunglasses, look up at the circling helicopter. Later Frank sees Nada spy on Gilbert, who is loading boxes from the church into a car. Concerned only about his family and keeping his job, Frank tells Nada to mind his own business. That night, Nada stakes out the church and watches as its occupants flee moments before a police raid. After clearing out the church, the police also bulldoze Justiceville's makeshift structures. During his escape, Nada passes a gang of police officers mercilessly beating the preacher and the hacker and seeks refuge in a nearby building along with other displaced Justiceville community members. The following morning, he finds Justiceville leveled and the church stripped bare, with the exception of a sealed box he finds stowed away in a wall. Nada opens the box to find it filled with sunglasses. Confused, he discards the box in an alley, taking a single pair for himself. He puts them on while walking down the street and quickly discovers they reveal hidden messages embedded in surrounding advertisements. The message, "Obey," is masked by a computer company advertisement and "Marry and reproduce" is embedded in a promotional billboard for Caribbean vacations. "Stay asleep," "Watch TV," "No independent thought," "Consume," "Conform" and "Submit," are messages embedded on signs, bags, boxes, walls and products everywhere. A well-dressed businessman becomes a skeletal, bug-eyed creature in a suit when seen through the glasses. When Nada enters a grocery store, he notices that most of the socialite clientele look like the creature in the business suit, as do news personalities on the shop's television. However, when he tries to warn the humans in the store, the disguised creatures report his presence to an authority via wristwatch communicators. Back on the street a pair of police officers attempt to apprehend Nada, but he easily disables them. Now armed with the officers' guns and realizing the threat the undetectable invaders pose, Nada enters a bank and shoots several of them. As one reports the rampage via wristwatch, Nada attempts to shoot him, but the creature teleports away using the wristwatch as a control. Leaving the bank, Nada spots a flying surveillance mechanism that he shoots out of the sky. In order to escape, he takes Holly Thompson, a woman in a parking garage, as hostage and demands that she drive him to her place. At her home, Nada tries to explain his situation, but Holly dismisses his seemingly insane ranting. Upon learning that she is an assistant program director for a local television station, he lets his guard down long enough for Holly to club him over the head with a liquor bottle and push him out her window, which is several stories above ground. Injured, but not incapacitated, Nada flees after hearing police sirens responding to Holly's emergency call. The next day Nada drags himself to the construction site to show Frank what he has learned. However, Frank, who has heard about Nada's killing spree, wants nothing to do with him. Having left his sunglasses at Holly's place, Nada returns to the alley to get another pair. In addition to the box, Nada finds Frank, who has followed him in order to give him survival money. Nada tries to get Frank to put on the sunglasses, but only succeeds after they have a long and vicious fight. Beaten, bruised, and now "awake," the two hide in a seedy hotel room where they decide to track down the people who made the sunglasses. The next day, before Nada and Frank can begin their search, Gilbert finds and informs them of a resistance meeting that night. At the meeting, the participants are given contact lenses, upgraded versions of the sunglasses that filter out the signal transmitted by the creatures. Frank and Nada learn the creatures are aliens exploiting the Earth. The aliens offer wealth to humans who support them and they use a powerful signal, relayed via television, that disguises their true form. The signal, which the resistance wants to locate and disable, also sends subliminal messages that keep the rest of humanity submissive. Holly, who has Nada's first pair of sunglasses, arrives at the meeting moments before authorities raid it and slaughter many members of the resistance. Nada and Frank are cornered in a back alley, but escape through a portal created by a malfunctioning alien wristwatch acquired by the resistance and given to Frank during the meeting. The portal leads to a long corridor, which Nada and Frank follow and stumble onto a human-alien alliance dinner celebrating the downfall of the resistance. At the dinner Nada and Frank run into a former Justiceville drifter turned alien collaborator, who mistakes them for new alliance members. The drifter shows the two around the corridor that serves as a kind of intergalactic airport. He also shows them the news station where Holly works, which is the source of the alien signal. Once inside, Nada and Frank find Holly and shoot their way to the rooftop where the alien signal is broadcast. However, Holly shoots Frank, exposing herself as a member of the alliance. Nada, choosing not to submit to the aliens, kills Holly and destroys the transmitter broadcasting the alien signal before being gunned down. With the signal down, the people of the world are able to see the truth. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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