So this particular dual review I’m doing at the behest of the 2 guys running the Slaughterfilm podcast. I got them to review a few of my recommendations in the past, so today I’m going to return the favor. They asked me to review Combat Shock (aka American Nightmares) from Troma films (likely the only film they’ve ever done that is dead serious and not tongue-in-cheek in any way), and John Carpenter’s They Live.
I was going to do a drunk review of this film. But this film is anything but fun. Badly acted (though the main character is decent when he’s not narrating), poorly edited (seriously, there’s a moment about 2 and a half minutes into the film where everyone is standing still for a split second before the director yells, “Action!” and they start moving), and depressing as hell. It’s not pleasant, which pretty much makes this film one of the ultimate buzzkills.
As for what it’s about, it’s about a Vietnam vet who is living a low-class lifestyle after the war with a wife and deformed baby (caused by him being exposed to agent orange or something while he was in Vietnam). He tries his damnedest to get things right financially, but never succeeds. The world is cruel, and its cruelty makes others cruel as well.
But he isn’t the only one we see suffer in his poor low-class state (aren’t soldiers supposed to be getting payed for their service in the war or something?). A friend of his is hopelessly hooked on drugs, and in dept to drug lords. And he dies at the end of a needle, hopelessly lost in his miserable state of being.
As for the main protagonist, he has shellshock (hence the title Combat Shock), but he still tries to remain positive, hopeful that he will get work, get a job, get some money to improve his current living situation with his wife and deformed couple months old baby. But as the film goes on, the more hopeless it gets, until he loses all hope of making an honest living and turns to theft (though to be fair, he does rob a bitch of a lady, though she’s probably only a bitch because she’s in a similar low-income situation as him), only to get mugged. So then he turns to violence. Eventually, it all gets to be too much for him, and he snaps.
Believe me, I’m making this sound more interesting than it actually is. This is a slow-burn and depressing low budgeted film, with potential with some of its photography and themes. There’s potential, but it’s squandered mainly due to poor acting and some of the horrendous flashback dubbing during the first 10 minutes of the film. I mean, the acting gets particularly bad when the main character is getting mugged and beat up, you can clearly tell the actors are pulling their punches. It’s one of the most unrealistic looking beat downs I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Strike Commando, which is a much more entertaining film than this in that it can at least be enjoyed on a so-bad-it’s-good level. This film, it’s too goddamn slow and too goddamn boring and too goddamn poorly made (despite its few strengths, especially when it comes to capturing the icky griminess of the environment, to the point that I though I could feel/smell it) to be entertaining.
Which is the exact fucking opposite of what you would expect to get with the trailer, which is undoubtedly the most severe case of false-advertising I’ve ever seen in my life.
This is seriously some of the lines used in the trailer to describe this film:
“More action than Rambo!”
Bullshit, and loads of it!
“More terror than the Terminator!”
Well, I guess that depends on what sort of “terror” you’re looking for.
“More gut-wrenching violence than Commando!”
Uhhh… Ok, I’ll give it that, at least on the “gut-wrenching” aspect, since it’s not a fun kind of violence. This main aspect is seen during the film’s finale, when he “snaps.” Since it’s not worth sitting through the entire film (in my opinion) just to see the only moment that can get (combat) shocking, I’ll just spoil it and bring up the video of the ending here:
Fuck the trailer, and fuck the movie. And, *sigh*, fucking Forest Taylor of Slaughterfilm recommended this to me. I warned them that I would bash both the movie and them if they recommended a shitty movie, and a shitty movie this is (despite its serious intentions). But they did also request that I review They Live, which I know isn’t a shitty movie, so I guess 1 out of 2 ain’t bad.
Ah yes, this movie. The ultimate film on subliminal messaging. Something still relevant to this day. The Matrix (because The Thirteenth Floor wasn’t good enough) of the 80s.
The film opens with western-style music, something John Carpenter took theme-wise with his other film Escape From New York. Our western here is played not by Kurt Russel, but by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of WWF fame. He was a bit before my time when it came to me getting into professional wrestling (God I wish I got into it years before I actually did, I started in 2003 when I really should’ve started in the early 90s, when the attitude era was in high gear). He was one of the most entertaining manic talkers prior to when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stepped onto the scene. And like The Rock, he was a better talker than a wrestler, but he could still put on a decent wrestling performance.
One of those wrestlers that one would hope would enter onto the movie scene like Andre The Giant did with The Princess Bride, and like Hulk Hogan did with whatever piece of shit he decided to be in (although No Holds Barred is a film I consider to be one of the penultimate so-bad-it’s-good films), and what The Rock would eventually do. Aside from The Princess Bride and some of the films The Rock was in, this film pretty much stands as one of the best films ever made starring a WWF/WWE wrestler. His chiseled features and his energetic personality, it’s a big attraction for directors.
“One idea that crossed my mind was: As soon as they let us see the aliens, we’ll all get together, ’cause it’ll be us against them. And you need some sort of shock value like that. Either that or we’re going to self destruct. I think that in all cultures people are basically very good-hearted, it’s just that extremists are the ones running and pushing the buttons. I think they want one governmental force to govern the world. It’s just that everyone’s got their own agenda, you can’t get that done unless Ghandi’s around. We can’t get everyone on the same page.”
So Roddy plays a drifter, drifting from some other place where he used to have a solid blue-collar job, but recession and hard times caused him to lose that job. So off he goes, like a lone ranger in the wilderness, into the next temporary job in the city where he hopes to make a living again. The belief in the American dream drives him, as it does others. The dream shown on television, with images of Mount Rushmore, the American flag, the bald eagle, cowboys & indians, and a big big yard where white beer-drinking dudes can play football; all this being watched by a black man off the street.
“I believe in America. Everyone’s got their own hard times these days.”
Then the television gets interrupted by a pirate signal, with a man spouting off conspiracy theorist information.
We have been lulled into a trance.
Artificially induced state of consciousness.
We have been focused only on our own gain.
They have made us indifferent, to ourselves, to others.
They are dismantling the sleeping middle class.
We’ll do anything to be rich.
They want benign indifference.
They Live, We Sleep.
Soon afterwards a massive police raid happens in the middle of the night, with the police acting like robots and emotionless in their demeanor. Soon after that Roddy Piper gets a hold of one of these special sunglasses left behind after this raid, and then he realizes he’s stumbled upon a conspiracy greater than anything he’s ever dreamed of or imagined. And it’s quite fitting that Roddy Piper would be in this. In addition to being a natural fit in the role and doing a decent acting job, he also had legit beliefs as a person, not an actor, of NWO government “big brother is watching/controlling you” beliefs, some of which stemmed from the short film The Bronswik Affair, a mockumentary from the 70s warning against the dangers of consumerism, and showing clear influence on the film They Live (as was the short story 8 o’clock in the Morning by Ray Faraday, also known as Ray Nelson). Except that Roddy Piper believes that the stuff shown in The Bronswik Affair was real, and that They Live is a documentary in disguise. In other words he’s a conspiracy guy. Perfect!
So, as for who “They” are, they’re basically aliens from space who wish to dominate and control all beings on Earth. Why? Uh, I’ll let badass Keith David explain it:
Maybe they love it. Seeing us hate each other, watching us kill each other off, feeding on our own cold fucking hearts.
There’s the joy, then there’s the idea that they want humans to act in this way, ultimately causing the planet to become polluted and filled with CO2 so that climate change fanatics can be proven right and then the world gets destroyed, and they will move onto another planet to do the same. Hence why these aliens look like rotting corpses, resembling human corruption and decay. It’s not exactly taken all that seriously, and it shouldn’t, because this film, despite its serious themes, is clearly tongue-in-cheek, though not to the extent of Big Trouble in Little China.
To fuel conspiracy theories spawned from and surrounding this film, an interesting little tidbit of information is, and I quote from a made-for-They-Live-dvd-documentary, “They Live opened at the #1 at the US box office, and disappeared from theaters soon afterwards.” Haven’t heard anything like that since The Warriors, except that one at least had the legitimate excuse of having gangs invade the theaters and get involved in gang fights and stuff.
And speaking of gang fights, John Carpenter was perfectly aware that Piper was a wrestler, and so allowed for some indulgence into that aspect to have a mini-WWF hardcore street brawl match in the middle of the film. A fight over putting on a pair of sunglasses. Honestly, there’s been many worse excuses than this to get in a fight in the WWF, or WCW. This portion of the film is particularly great to watch if you do so drunk, make some gay jokes, and do some commentary WWF style.
My favorite moment is between 3:24-3:31, just the growling at each other, it has me busting up every time I see it.
And the reason this fight is so long, aside from WWF fan indulgence, is, according to IMDB:
The big fight sequence was designed, rehearsed and choreographed in the back-yard of director John Carpenter’s production office. The fight between Nada (Roddy Piper) and Frank (Keith David) was only supposed to last twenty seconds, but Piper and David decided to fight it out for real, only faking the hits to the face and groin. They rehearsed the fight for three weeks. Carpenter was so impressed he kept the five minutes and twenty seconds scene intact.
But to put a serious thematic justification on top of all of this, it’s that this fight can be considered a metaphor for how difficult it is for someone who is aware of the subliminal advertising, of the brainwashing, to try and convince someone else who has been affected by this very thing. It’s something that can be clearly seen today, with the arguments people get into over politicians, over Marvel comics, SJWs, feminists, racial topics, what is taught in schools, among other things.
The brainwashing can drive people to a point where they would react violently to anything that endangers their current belief system rather than have a rational discussion about it. Then again, in the case of this film, it’s not like Roddy Piper’s character is any good at having reasonable discussions in the first place. This is the guy who invented Piper’s Pit after all, and we all (should) know how those usually turn out.
And then of course the consideration should be made that there are those who are perfectly aware of this subtle form of mind control, yet are ok with it. Those who are in league with the subliminal advertisers. There are a few individuals who are like this in the film, one of which is represented by Meg Foster (who’s acting I found to be a bit horrendous, and she tries to disguise this with her decent looks, that faraway look in her eyes, and this monotone face expression). The signs are there early on that she’s in league with “they,” with her seeing Roddy wearing the sunglasses, yet pretending “she didn’t know” when she sees him later. And there’s her claiming that the alien signal isn’t coming from this station she works at, when it’s shown later on that it is. Easy to pick up the clues that she isn’t all she seems.
And this movie actually makes a prediction. By 2025, “they” will have us all under their control. Well, here’s hoping that’s not going to be the case less than 8 years from the time of this post.
And there’s another group of people to consider. There’s the elite/authority who are in charge and causing the subliminal messaging in the first place. There’s the victims. There’s those who are aware and wish to fight against it. There’s those who are aware but on the side of the elite. And then there’s some in positions of authority who are also victims. In this case, police who are simply there doing their job, as opposed to the police who are aliens in disguise. A real-life situation like this could be considered soldiers who wish to defend their country, but end up getting involved in battles that aren’t what they signed up for. In the case of the era this film was released in, the Vietnam war comes to mind, and the upcoming war in the Middle East when George Bush Sr. would take over and end the Ronald Reagan era. And John Carpenter is definitely not a Reagan fan, and is on record stating that this film was “a vehicle to take on Reaganism.” Yet Roddy Piper was a Reagan fan. And Piper didn’t want to become outspoken of his beliefs mainly because of his green card status at the time, but also because he didn’t agree with the film politics of They Live. Interesting…
Roddy Piper on Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs? Good God do I wish I was more into this stuff than I was back in the day. I didn’t know how good I had it. The only thing that would’ve made this better is if the same thing happened again. Oh wait, it did, on Immortal Combat!
So when it comes to subliminal advertising, the film’s message is that those in power are pushing subliminal advertising aimed at making mass citizens to be mass consumers, wanting to marry and reproduce, obey orders, respect authority, submit, and not be capable of independent/creative thought. Today, that still tends to be the message being pushed, for the most part.
Consumerism will always be a thing, it’s just a matter of who’s in charge and what products they want you to buy.
Marry and reproduce? Not so much anymore, though you don’t need subliminal advertising for the “reproduce” part.
Obey orders and respect authority, well that’s not quite the same now. I’d even argue how big that was back when this was made. I mean, yeah, obviously they told people to respect authority. But authority figures were far from immune to scrutiny in films, satire or otherwise, even back then. Maniac Cop went on the idea that authority couldn’t always be trusted because some cops are maniacs, so many films released about corporate corruption, the films about Vietnam scrutinizing soldiers and/or the leaders who ordered them, just about everything regarding Nixon. Nowadays, the opposite message seems to be pushed, even subliminally (and bluntly). The pro-war on cops, pro-black lives matter, pro-illegal immigration, pro-diversity. From the commercials advertised during the previous Superbowl, to celebrities at the Oscars and Emmy’s, subliminal or blunt, it seems as if an anti-authority message is pushed nowadays. Don’t trust cops, ICE and president Trump are the enemy, all Republicans are cocksuckers and all Democrats are sinless angels, Milo is the spawn of Satan’s sperm, Samantha Bee is funny, John Oliver and CNN and MSNBC are the best and only reliable source of news information, etc. Google is better than Bing and DuckDuckGo. You know, that sort of thing.
Submit. Always applies to who holds the most power. For Carpenter, that was Reagan and his cabinet and supporters. Today, they would like you to think that’s Trump and his cabinet and supporters, rather than a mixture of corrupt Democrats and Republicans on both sides, let alone Hollywood itself when it comes to the entertainment business. And Disney/Marvel, Google/Facebook/Youtube, Verizon, AT&T, Spectrum, and Amazon, and Vince McMahon.
No independent/creative thought. Oh, that’s definitely still a thing, more-so than ever. Can’t even have a reasonable debate on a college campus anymore without some protesters showing up and ruining everything. Don’t even need a robotic brain-dead police force to show up and ruin that anymore.
Subliminal messaging changes over the years. And the only other movie I’ve seen that addresses this concept is Josie and the Pussycats (which I guess you could say is the chick flick equivalent of this movie, minus the sci-fi). They mention subliminal advertising through music, but by the end the military comes in and says audio CDs are outdated, now they use television to push their subliminal messaging. Nowadays, it’s the Internet and smartphones (along with the television). And subliminal messaging in of itself isn’t always a bad thing. Subliminal messaging of calling for peace not war, independence, being a reasonable individual, and supporting the porn industry. But most of the time, subliminal messaging is for devious purposes, such as the pushing of politically correct language, class warfare, selfishness, anything to keep people divided so the national peace (let alone world peace) will continue to be unacheivable, so that we’ll be too focused fighting against anyone but the elite, or at least those causing the division in the first place. The scary thing is, it’s still working, big time. My main worry is that subliminal messaging corrupts to the point where it no longer needs to be subliminal.
But anyway, that’s my opinion on subliminal messaging. As for my opinion on this movie, it’s low budget, but 80s Carpenter knew how to work within a budget, and he can make masterpieces regardless of budget. And the film, well, I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece by my personal standards, but it’s a fun cult classic for sure that deserves to be watched at least once by everyone. Entertaining, made well enough, acted well enough, and one of the few great films out there that stars a wrestler. The main thing that gets this film to hold up overtime, aside from the famous improv line that Duke Nukem stole, “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum,” is the theme of the film. Subliminal messaging, ever since the 30s, is something that is likely to remain in our society, permanently. The important thing is to be aware of it, whether you agree with it or not. For instance, even this film has subliminal messaging. “Ronald Reagan is bad, Reaganomics is the work of the devil, capitalism is evil, etc.” Whether you agree with some, all, or none of the messages is your own opinion, but it’s best to be aware of it. At least then you won’t be a mindless robot a slave to such messages coming out of films. Many films have this element to them, it’s just the message that differs.
Hell, even the poster practically spells out that you should vote Democrat in the fall election. “You might even vote for one this fall.”:
Of course, there is the danger that both the subliminal messaging and the main point of the film flies over the heads of the viewer and it ends up being viewed entirely different from what the director and all parties involved had in mind. Fun fact, courtesy of IMDB:
However, over the years, several neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups co-opted the movie for their own purpose, spreading rumors that it is really an allegory for Jews controlling the world. This forced Carpenter to respond on Twitter in 2017 by stating “They Live is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world”.
Oh the potential for a sequel or something. Not that I’m saying this film needs one, just that it’s fun to imagine.
PS: Oh, right, interestingly enough, there is something about They Live that can actually tie in to that Combat Shock film. Fun IMDB trivia fact:
After finishing the film, John Carpenter was going to direct an action horror film Shadow Company sometime around 1989. Written by Shane Black and Fred Dekker, movie was to be produced by Walter Hill (who also co-wrote some of the script) with Kurt Russell in the main role. The script was about group of US Special Forces soldiers who died during the Vietnam War. Years later, after their bodies are brought back, the soldiers, who were members of an Army project involving dark experiments, rise up from their graves, raid the armory from nearby Army base, and attack the town in which they were buried, killing everyone in it and wiping it off the ground during Christmas night. Due to some problems in pre-production, the movie was never made, although original script has gained cult following from fans of Carpenter, Black and Dekker.
Why couldn’t we also get that movie!?