Blu-ray Review: ‘They Live’ (1988) – Trans-Dimensional Class Warfare

Between 1978 and 1994 (the period between “Halloween” and “In the Mouth of Madness”), John Carpenter had a nearly unbroken string of at times brilliant but always intriguing horror and sci-fi films. Among those was 1988’s “They Live,” an oddity that really shouldn’t play as well as it does with a wrestler-turned actor leading a story about the homeless of L.A. discovering a trans-dimensional plot to create a docile underclass while lining the pockets of the upper class?

And okay, the movie is a little rough around the edges: star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper wasn’t a natural performer but he was an earnest one, giving homeless hero-turned-freedom fighter Nada heart as one half of a buddy action movie with co-star Keith David (“The Thing”). We should really celebrate movies like this from Carpenter, and Shout! Factory seems to have agreed, giving “They Live” the deluxe treatment on Blu-ray.

The film sees Keith and Piper as two tough, average guys without homes, out in L.A. trying to scrape together a living while living in a shanty town with other homeless men, women, and children. Piper’s Nada is too curious for his own good and ends up uncovering an underground movement in a local church where a resistance effort has used modified sunglasses to identify skull-faced aliens living and working among us. They’ve infiltrated the government, the police, business, and entertainment, keeping the population controlled through subliminal messaging in TV and advertising.

Before you know it, Nada and David’s Frank are armed and on the run, hoping to take the fight back to these strange invaders.

Special Features and Presentation

Shout! Factory’s disc includes both a 5.1 and 2.0 DTS audio tracks–with the latter coming in strong and full (although some of the shooting segments sound a little tinny). Visually, the image is crisp enough that you can get in close enough to the screen to pick out every little detail in the aliens’ makeup effects.

Among the bonus features, there’s a 10-minute chat with Carpenter called “Independent Thoughts” (HD), with the director talking about the Reagan-era origins of the film and how his own cantankerous, suspicious mindset led to the movie, along with bringing the unique cast together. Interesting fact: Roddy Piper wrote his iconic “bubblegum” line for the film while on-set with Carpenter. “Watch, Look, Listen” (HD, 11:14) features interviews with the film’s DP Gary Kibbe who worked with Carpenter on “Big Trouble In Little China”, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada who played most of the aliens in the film, and Co-composer Alan Howarth whose credits include “Halloween III.” The short doc “Woman of Mystery” (5:20, HD) presents a recent chat with actress Meg Foster who shares her thoughts on the legacy of the film, while “Man vs. Alien” (HD, 11:12) offers a chat with actor Keith David where he talks at length–about “The Thing.”

In terms of archival material, the disc includes the original EPK “The Making of They Live” (08:02) and a collection of the fake commercials used in the film (SD, 02:02), providing with our regular reminder that the 80’s were very, very ugly. The disc also includes a still gallery and theatrical trailers for “They Live,” “Halloween II,” and “Halloween III.” As with the other Scream Factory releases, “They Live” features reversible cover art, with the new Mondo-produced packaging on one side and the original theatrical poster on the other.

But the key feature here is a lively feature commentary from the 2002 DVD between Carpenter and Piper, with the actor and the director’s digression-filled conversation wandering from the movie to Piper’s wrestling career, to his troubled childhood and life on the streets, and Carpenter’s own reminiscences of making the movie. You’ll come away with the impression that Piper is a great big bear hug of a man (he very pointedly doesn’t curse and seems both proud of the movie and embarrassed by his performance in it), while Carpenter almost serves as the moderator for their chat.

I’m hoping that the reputation of “They Live” lives on beyond its reputation as the movie with the six minute brawl and a couple of funny one-liners. As a sci-fi movie, it really reaches the heart of paranoia and social commentary that the best sci-fi has to offer and stands as one of the last, truly great films from John Carpenter.

“They Live” is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Shout! Factory via their Scream Factory label.

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