THEY LIVE (1988, Director John Carpenter)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987)—a story of unbridled corruption, greed, and arrogance in the finance industry—is often taken as the central cinematic statement of the worldview of America’s ruling class during the Reagan era. But one could argue that They Live, written[1] and directed by horror legend John Carpenter andreleased during the last year of the Reagan administration, does even more to capture the texture of life in Reagan’s America, because it extends beyond the ruling class (depicted here as a gang of hideous usurping aliens[2] who have infiltrated the upper echelons of American society and taken control of the country for their own dastardly purposes) to include an allegorical exposure of the ideological mechanisms through which the general population has been conditioned to do the bidding of their new masters. It’s a damning depiction of life in Reagan’s America, perhaps made a bit more palatable by the wittiness with which it is presented, producing a highly entertaining film that has become an important cult classic, even if its message seems largely to have been ignored by all but those who already understood what it is trying to tell us.

Though They Live is a low-budget effort, its success should come as no surprise, given that director Carpenter had already established a strong track record of making low-budget films that would ultimately be hailed as classics, cult or otherwise. His Halloween (1978), for example, is still regarded as perhaps the greatest of the spate of slasher films that would flood American theaters in the next decade or so, and it was certainly an important impetus for that flood. Escape from New York (1981), is a dystopian action film that anticipates the strongly satirical tone of They Live and that is now regarded as a cult classic. And The Thing (1982), a remake of the 1951 alien-invasion classic The Thing from Another World, is now widely regarded as one of the most important explorations of the potential of horror/science fiction hybrids. Ultimately, however, They Live might well be Carpenter’s greatest film, even if Halloween might always remain the best known, especially given that it founded a franchise that continues to produce new works to this day. They Live, in particular, is important not only because it produced such an effective distillation of the problems of Reaganite America, but also because those problems have only intensified in the more than thirty years since Reagan left office.

 They Live begins as its protagonist, Nada (played by former professional wrestler Roddy Piper), a down-on-his-luck workman, rides the rails into a dystopian Los Angeles from Denver, where deteriorating economic conditions had caused him to move on in search of work. Times are also hard in L.A., though, as Nada finds that he has arrived in a decaying world of few opportunities, with many of the locals living in squalid makeshift homeless camps. The film’s first moments thus already establish that we are looking at a bleak alternative version of America, with a failing economy and a crumbling infrastructure. They also introduce us to this somewhat unlikely protagonist, a manual worker who initially has no interest in politics or in changing the system. He isn’t looking for trouble—he just wants to survive. His very name, “Nada,” is the Spanish word for “nothing, suggesting that he is no one special, though the situation in which he finds himself will soon force him into action.[3]

Piper might also seem an unlikely choice to play this protagonist. He certainly looks the part, though, and his wrestler’s physique is appropriate to an action hero at a time when body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest action star in the world. But Piper had little in the way of acting credentials, his only substantial role prior to 1988 being as a professional wrestler in the 1986 comedy Body Slam. But Piper starred as Sam Hell in the offbeat postapocalyptic action film Hell Comes to Frogtown (released in January 1988), which has become something of a cult hit in its own right. And Piper acquits himself well in They Live, though it is difficult not to see his casting itself as a commentary on the state of American popular culture (and politics) at the time the film was made. With figures such as Schwarzenegger at the top of the box office and with a former B-grade Hollywood actor in the White House, it was becoming increasingly clear that both popular culture and politics were coming to be dominated more by spectacle than by substance, and Carpenter’s casting of Piper would appear to be a commentary on this trend.

In any case, Nada finally manages to get work as a construction laborer, which allows him to meet co-worker Frank (Keith David), who will ultimately become his main ally in the film. Meanwhile, Nada also accidentally stumbles onto the activities of an underground resistance group that is organizing opposition to the current power structure in America. He also quickly learns why they find this opposition necessary. In the crucial motif that enables all of the key action of the film, Nada discovers a pair of special sunglasses that have been developed by the underground. These sunglasses allow individuals to see the world as it truly is, which is valuable, because it turns out that the United States (the film doesn’t really explain what is going on in the rest of the world, though it implies that the aliens’ goal is world domination) has fallen under the control of alien invaders who now occupy most positions of power in American society—though they also have important human allies. Through some technology that is never specifically identified (but seems to have to do with signals broadcast through television), these aliens (who actually look something like a combination of skeletons and robots) are able to make themselves appear to be ordinary humans when viewed by actual humans. Just as importantly, they are able to use their technology to control the media and to inundate the human population with a never-ending barrage of subliminal messages designed to secure their cooperation and obedience.

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They Live and the Politics of the 1980s

Though They Live clearly functions as a general critique of the structural inequalities that are built into capitalism in general, it is also quite specifically designed as a response to the particular kind of capitalism that was dominant in America at the time the film was made. As Mark Decker puts it, the film is “a strident, emotional critique of the kind of capitalism pioneered in America during the Reagan years” (174). Carpenter himself, during an interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast in June 2016 has described They Live as “my rage at the Reagan Revolution, and yuppies, and the greed of the 80s. I couldn’t take it” [cited in Canavan 73]. Indeed, the film stands as a powerful and extremely clear condemnation of the basic ethos of Reaganism, with its emphasis on pursuing greater corporate profits at all costs and its relative lack of concern for the needs of the poor and the unfortunate. As Kendall Phillips notes, the film contains a number of specific references to the Reagan administration, such as one scene in which it lampoons Reagan’s optimistic style through the cheerful optimism displayed by an alien newscaster on television. More importantly, Phillips notes that the film responds to the “trickle-down economics” that drove most of Reagan’s domestic policies (156–57). The idea behind this now largely discredited theory (even George H. W. Bush, who ultimately became Reagan’s vice-president, called it “voodoo economics” while running against Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980) is that the government can best serve the country by pursuing policies that will benefit the rich, who will then invest their newly increased wealth in businesses and other activities that will create jobs and ultimately aid the entire population, allowing the benefits gained by the rich from government aid to “trickle down” to the less wealthy. They Live can be seen as a sharp rebuttal of trickle-down economics by presenting its alien overlords as selfishly pursuing their own interests with absolutely no concern for the human subjects who toil beneath them.

However, the aliens differ from the real upper classes of Reagan-era America in that they openly plan to ravage the earth for whatever wealth they can extract from it, then move on to the next planet, leaving a devastated earth behind. The film can thus be seen to critique trickle-down economics by criticizing the short-sightedness of the rich who would demonstrate from it, forgetting to take into account the fact that they and their children will be stuck with the earth they are devastating, because they, unlike the aliens of They Live, have no way to move on to a new planet once they have destroyed this one.

Among other things, this aspect of the film takes it into the realm of environmentalism, focusing not just on the exploitation of workers and consumers by capitalism but also on the destruction of the environment. The film also addresses the topic of homelessness through its representation of the sprawling homeless camp (called “Justiceville”) in which Nada takes refuge after arriving in Los Angeles. The name “Justiceville,” of course, has a political resonance, and Mike Davis has even argued that the camp anticipates the 2011 Occupy movement, noting that the film’s “huge third-world shantytown […] reflected across the Hollywood Freeway in the sinister mirror-glass of Bunker Hill’s corporate skyscrapers” resembles the relationship of New York’s Zuccotti Park with Wall Street. In truth, though, the occupants of Justiceville are far less political than those of Zuccotti Park. Despite the name, they are not particularly seeking justice; they are just trying to survive, accepting their fates quite passively (though we learn that they do so because of their indoctrination via alien signals). They Live thus takes on a variety of political issues, in addition to its obvious central concern with the manipulation and exploitation of the general population by the elite masters of consumer capitalism. At the same time, it does not really advocate viable alternatives, such as socialism. If the aliens really are running everything, what happens if they are vanquished?

One of the key elements of the politics of They Live is its working-class protagonists, who highlight this notion of manipulation and exploitation by exposing and battling against it, dramatizing class conflict in the struggles of Nada and Frank as they literally wage war against their alien upper-class oppressors. The presence of these proletarian heroes can also can be taken to highlight, by contrast, the relative lack of such protagonists in mainstream American film. Indeed, the scene early in the film in which Nada is shown working at his new job, digging with a shovel, is striking, simply because such scenes showing the protagonist of a film doing actual physical work are so rare.[4] And, though they are killed in the process, Nada and Frank do strike important blows against the mechanisms through which the alien overlords maintain their power. The end of the film is open, but it is certainly possible to imagine that the damage done by the two heroes will allow subjugated humans to realize the true nature of the system that enslaves them and then successfully to rise up against it. Mark Decker acknowledges the importance of They Live’s working-class protagonists, though he argues that the film is not quite so simply cast in terms of a radical class-based revolution as it might first appear. Instead, he places the film within a broader tradition of populist narratives that arise from a variety of political perspectives. For him,

“placing the film in the larger context of tales designed to channel working-class rage at the indignities heaped upon them by the transition to an urban economy reveals that the film is more than a leftist gesture because the cultural material it reappropriates comes from a populist tradition that is politically overdetermined” (194).

That Nada does not seem very politically aware until the events of the film would seem to support Decker’s thesis. Nada is no communist, or even socialist; he is merely a regular working-class guy, a man who carries everything he owns (including his set of worker’s tools) in his large hiker’s backpack. But he is also a union member, suggesting that he has at least some awareness of the necessity of collective action on the part of workers in order to secure fair treatment.

They Live as Ideology Critique

Almost all critics of They Live have commented on the fact that the ways in which the aliens use subtle signals transmitted through television and other media to control the thoughts of their human subjects quite transparently resemble the workings of bourgeois ideology in capitalist society. Indeed, They Live functions primarily as a work of ideology critique, very much in the tradition of Marxist thought, going back to Marx’s own declaration, in The German Ideology, that

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”

A number of theorists following Marx developed this insight further, generally with an emphasis on the notion of ideology as “false consciousness,” i.e., on the notion that the ruling class is able to promulgate a false vision of reality that furthers its own ends. Later Marxist theorists have, however, refined this view. Particularly important is the work of the French structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser, for whom the cultural sphere provided an especially transparent example of the kind of “Ideological State Apparatus” through which individual subjects were literally brought into being by bourgeois ideology. Althusser expanded the concept of ideology beyond the traditional Marxist one of ideology as false consciousnessthat distorts the way individual subjects perceive and interpret the world. In the traditional Marxist view, ideology is conceived as the opposite of science, which is designed to provide an unmediated and unbiased view of reality.[5] In Althusser’s more general and more nuanced view, however, ideology is everywhere and all interpretations of reality are ideological: even science is ideological. [6] Ideology, then, is not a network of illusions that disguise reality, but instead “represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (109). Individual subjects are not duped by ideology, but literally produced by it, in the process he refers to as interpellation. In a very real sense, ideology is not something that hides reality, but the very texture of reality itself.

That said, bourgeois ideology—the ideology of capitalism’s ruling bourgeois class—is particularly nefarious in that it operates in a constant mode of deception and disguise, attempting to declare its tenets as scientific truths and as simple “common sense,” rather than as politically motivated interpretations. In so doing, it is able to manipulate the majority of people into accepting views that are advantageous only to the minority bourgeoisie. For example, a central element of bourgeois ideology is its emphasis on individualism and its declaration that each individual is special and important, capable of becoming an effective agent of history. Within this ideology, however, no real individualism is possible and each individual subject in fact obeys the commands of the capitalist system quite strictly, such obedience being necessary in order for such a complex economic system to operate effectively. The capitalist system, meanwhile, is declared the only logical system possible, individualism thus becoming simply another name for a division of labor that disguises and obfuscates the unfairness of that division and of the economic inequality it fosters. Again, however, this constant operation of hiding exploitation within a rhetoric of individual liberty and equality, does not simply disguise reality: in the capitalist system this sort of disguise is reality.

Critics of They Live have often been enthusiastic about the sophistication with which the film takes down the bourgeois ideology of capitalism. Christos Kefalis, calling the film “perhaps the Marxist movie par excellence,” suggests that the film’s criticism of capitalism is so trenchant that it remains just as relevant more than twenty years after the film was initially released:

“Although it appeared about 20 years ago, in 1988, the movie remains timely and relevant as one of the most devastating and sharp criticisms of American imperialism ever made. And it also reads as prophesy of what later crystallized to be the embodiment of its most brutal features, the corrupt and cynical Bush administration, now leaving the scene.”

Kefalis also spends a considerable amount of time responding to critics of the film, whose complaints he generally finds “reactionary and misconceived.” For example, the film’s central female character is one Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), a human yuppie who works in the television industry and who sides with the aliens; she betrays and attempts to undermine Nada, and even kills Frank. In response, Nada blows her away near the end of the film, just before he himself is killed. Holly is not a well-developed character and has little direct function in the film except to serve as its central example of a human who is in league with the aliens. A critic focusing on gender might see her portrayal (and her eventual demise) as at least partly misogynistic[7], but Kefalis sees it otherwise, arguing that she has an important allegorical role in the film:

“The expressive and attractive Holly is in fact the embodiment of the American dream, of the hero’s illusions that he can satisfy his human needs within the capitalist system. Only after killing her, thus liberating himself from illusion, he will therefore be able to accomplish his mission. And his loss immediately after this displays a tough but authentic realism. The vanguard sacrifices itself, bearing the difficulties of the struggle, but due to its efforts and self-sacrifice it becomes possible to open the eyes of the people.”

In any case, it should be noted that Holly and Nada never become romantically involved and that the film does not suggest that she is particularly prone to betraying her fellow humans because she is a woman. The issue here, as elsewhere in the film, is class, not gender, and the film clearly suggests that Holly sides with the aliens because it is in her own interest as a young, upwardly mobile professional who can thereby secure special career opportunities and rewards. The system, as currently constituted, works for her, even as it oppresses other humans. So, like so many in the real world of Reagan-era America, she has callously opted to side with the system in order to further her own goals.

They Live as Pop Culture

The well-known contemporary Marxist theorist Slavoj Žižek, while granting that the staging of ideology in They Live is somewhat “naïve,” calls the film“one of the neglected masterpieces of the Hollywood Left.” Moreover, Žižek, who specializes in theories of ideology, sees the film as “a true lesson in critique of ideology.” His comment about the naïve nature of the film’s representation of the workings of ideology is not meant as a criticism so much as an indication of the simplified way in which the film seeks to get across its message. This simplicity, of course, also comes through in the basic B-movie texture of the film. Novelist Jonathan Lethem, in a highly entertaining book-length study of the film[8], argues that “In fact, this tension between the film’s simplicity and its strangeness, between its thunderous stolidity and its abject porousness, is probably what compels me most. No offense, but They Live is probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject. It’s also probably the most fun” (7).

The most famous scene in They Live is a particularly brutal fistfight between Nada and Frank that lasts roughly ten minutes, beginning nearly two-thirds of the way through the film. Some critics have been very critical of this extended outbreak of violence, pointing out that it seems gratuitous and isn’t necessary to the plot. Moreover, the fight doesn’t really make sense at all: Nada and Frank are already to some extent friends, if uneasy ones, and there is nothing in the scene that would seemingly motivate the high level of violent animosity that ensues. Thus, Mike Clark of USA Today gives the entire film a scathing review, but singles out this fight scene for special obloquy: “They Live dies around the time Carpenter allows 10 minutes of gratuitous Piper-David eye-gouging, an apparent bone to wrestling fans. Forget the amusing premise; a full crate of magic glasses couldn’t make this a bearable movie.”

One could certainly see this fight scene (which has gained near legendary status during the ascent of the film to cult classic status) simply as a sop to fans who enjoy seeing violent fight scenes in movies. On the other hand, the excessive and unmotivated nature of the scene could also potentially be seen as a critique of the extent to which such scenes had become integral to Hollywood movies in the 1980s heyday of Schwarzenegger and Stallone and Van Damme. More importantly, though, I would argue that the scene actually does have a function and is not simply an unmotivated spectacle of violence. First, as Žižek has noted, Frank’s seemingly irrational resistance to putting on the sunglasses suggests that he (and, by extension, the general population) simply does not want to see the truth—because then he might have to do something about it. Second, this scene can be read a critique of the excessive and irrational way in which the individual members of the working class have traditionally fought against each other rather than banding together more effectively to oppose their capitalist bosses. Thus, Nada and Frank continue punching and gouging each other to no avail, while even a moment’s reflection would have revealed to them the pointlessness of such in-fighting. The fight thus echoes Frank’s speech to Nada early on in which he philosophizes on the dog-eat-dog nature of the capitalist system, in which “everyone’s out for themselves and looking to do you in at the same time. … You do what you can, but remember, I’m gonna do my best to blow your ass away.”

In any case, the violence of this scene is then ratcheted up several notches in the remainder of the film, as Nada and Frank take arms against the alien overlords and run up an impressive body count on the way to finally destroying the alien signal transmitter[9]. Actually, though, the body count begins even before the fight between Nada and Frank, when Nada is confronted by two alien cops, whose presence in the film reminds us that those who enforce the power of consumer capitalism need not themselves be the rich who benefit from it. In the resultant confrontation, Nada shoots and kills both of the cops, verifying at least that they can be killed with ordinary earthly weapons. He then makes off with a handgun and a shotgun taken from the cops, then heads directly into a bank—perhaps the single most symbolic institution of capitalist power. There, confronted by a crowd of employees and customers composed largely of aliens (but also including a number of affluent-looking humans, Nada delivers the film’s most famous single line: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass—and I’m all out of bubble gum.” Then he immediately starts blasting the aliens in the bank, killing several of them. Leaving the bank, he then blasts a surveillance drone (perhaps the film’s most prescient piece of science fiction hardware, given the growing prevalence of drones in our own world), but spares a human cop who confronts him, before conscripting Holly and her fancy BMW, a favorite yuppie vehicle, and forcing her at gunpoint to drive him from the scene.

This sequence, from the killing of the first cop to the kidnapping of Holly, lasts only about four minutes, which perhaps makes the later fight with Frank seem even more protracted in comparison. In some ways, though, this sequence is even more problematic than the famous fight scene. Acting on relatively little information, Nada has quickly concluded that it is acceptable to kill aliens on sight, though he still tries to avoid killing humans, even when those humans are working in league with the aliens. Partly, of course, this aspect of the film is simply a reflection of its simple allegorical structure, which is largely built on a strict good vs. evil polar opposition between humans and aliens, despite the fact that some humans work hand-in-hand with the aliens. This is not a film designed to be morally ambiguous or nuanced in its message, even if that message is, in fact, a bit more complex than might be immediate obvious to the casual viewer.

Much of the violence of They Live, of course,has to do with the conventions of its genre. As Gerry Canavan has aptly noted, the film is largely an “ultraviolent revenge fantasy”:

“By transforming financial and cultural elites into uncanny alien monsters, who cannot be reasoned or negotiated with and who can thus only be killed, They Live radically shifts the terms of class struggle from a dispute among humans to a life-and-death battle between separate and incommensurate species. But the moral clarity of this violence turns out, quite unexpectedly, to be precisely what is most utopian about the film: the prospect of having a clear, implacable enemy who one might directly fight” (73).

Canavan goes on to cite Evan Calder Williams, who has noted that, to a large extent, the revelation of a world ruled by hideous alien invaders is possibly more dream than nightmare. It produces a simple, black-and-white world with clearly-defined evil enemies who can be opposed and possibly vanquished. But, as Fredric Jameson has so eloquently outlined, the real nature of the postmodern, late-capitalist world is one of immense complexity and obfuscation. Thus, one of the greatest difficulties in today’s world is simply to get one’s bearings, to perform the kind of “cognitive mapping” that is necessary to begin to get an idea of just how the multifarious global capitalist system works and just how we fit into it. They Live presents a fantasy of a simpler world that draws not only upon the film genre of the revenge fantasy but also on the legacy of the Cold War, looking back almost nostalgically to the vision of communist monsters lurking in disguise and attempting to undermine capitalism, then reversing that vision and converting it into one of capitalist monsters surreptitiously working to undermine us all.

There is, clearly, something comforting about having well-defined, completely evil enemies who deserve to die. They Live, however, is not designed to be comforting. Nor is the film’s opposition between good humans and evil aliens quite as simple as it might appear to be. For one thing, as I suggested above, the general human population, while it is being held in thrall by high-tech devices, also bears part of the blame. The alien signals might prevent them from seeing the truth, but it is also patently the case that they do not want to see the truth—thus the difficulty Nada has in convincing Frank (or anyone else) to look through the magic sunglasses. In addition, Carpenter’s decision to include humans who knowingly and willingly work with the aliens further complicates the moral dynamics of the film. Canavan, in fact, sees this element of the film as being quite crucial. For him,

“by the end the political and ethical centre of the film is not what to do with the aliens, but rather what to do with the human traitors, with the ones who have chosen to obey not as the result of subliminal programming but rather as the con- sequence of a freely made and informed choice. The most loathed enemy becomes not so much the millionaires and billionaires who run everything but rather the careerists and the strivers who eagerly seek to join their ranks—the yuppies” (73).

 Indeed, Carpenter, in his own comments, has made it clear that much of his ire in The Live is directed at the yuppie class—the young, upwardly-mobile professionals—who arose during the Reagan years and sought to take maximum advantage of the “greed is good” ethos of the 1980s. They, of course, cannot succeed in the film without the opportunities offered by their alien bosses, just as the yuppies of the real 1980s were taking advantage of opportunities offered by the policies of the Reagan administration and the economic might of its ultra-rich corporate overlords. The exact nature of the relationship between these human collaborators and their alien masters is never spelled out in the film, but we get the point.

After the alien signal has been knocked out, everyone can see the aliens for what they are. Thus, newscasters on TV are revealed to be aliens, while a pair of pundits who appear on a television movie review show (Lethem has likened them to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the famous on-air film reviewers[10]), are shown delivering a moralizing critique of certain kinds of films. One of the pundits (identified by Lethem as Siskel) declares, “All the sex and violence on the screen has gone too far for me. I’m fed up with it. Filmmakers like George Romero and John Carpenter have to show some restraint.” It’s a comic moment—and one in which Carpenter declares his solidarity with Romero, another horror-film legend whose films have been critical of the capitalist powers-that-be. Of course, this is a film that has had no sex in it whatsoever, so Carpenter follows this moment with one quick, absolutely gratuitous sex scene, in which a naked human woman, in mid-coitus, suddenly sees that her partner has now been revealed to be an alien. She stares at him in horror, as he responds, “Hey, what’s wrong, baby?” Carpenter thus ends his film by giving the finger to moralizing conservative critics of contemporary film, just as Nada had ended his life giving the finger to the alien forces that shot him down as he was destroying their transmitter. Whether either Nada or Carpenter has struck a telling blow remains to be seen.

They Live and the Alien-Invasion Tradition

They Live, while gesturing toward Lovecraftian horror,obviously looks back more directly on a long tradition of alien-invasion films in which the invading aliens and/or their enthralled human minions are able (by one means or another) to disguise themselves as humans and thus move undetected among the general human population. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) can be regarded as the locus classicus of such films, though there are many others, including Carpenter’s own The Thing (1982), in which a shape-shifting alien can take virtually any form, including that of a human. The critique of capitalism and consumerism that is embedded in They Live can also be found in a number of science fiction films. A classic case is the Weyland-Yutani Corporation of the Alien films, which is willing to sacrifice its own employees and even endanger the entire earth in order to investigate the possibility of breeding dangerous aliens for use as weapons.The “Weyland” Corporation, presumably a predecessor, also features in the otherwise unrelated Death Race 2 (2010), in which it runs a corrupt private prison.Similarly ruthless is the Omni Consumer Products Corporation of the Robocopfilms, again presented satirically as willing to endanger the general population (and to brutally exploit specific individuals) in its efforts to develop better and more profitable killer cyborgs for police and military applications.

In the realm of horror, Romero’s zombie films contain much of the satirical impulse that animates They Live. However, the film that most closely resembles They Live in spirit is probably Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985), which is also generally regarded as a horror film, though it has strong science fictional elements. Here, in a film also tellingly released in the midst of the Reagn administration, a mysterious, white, foamy substance is discovered bubbling up from beneath the earth. When it turns out to be very tasty, it is quickly converted into a dessert food known as “The Stuff,” then heavily marketed, despite the fact that it seems to be highly addictive and to turn its consumers into virtual zombies, taking over their brains (and even their bodies, which become highly brittle, their blood apparently literally replaced with pure stuff.) The film is, in this sense, reminiscent of paranoid works from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to They Live. In any case, the satire of consumerism being pretty clear. The product is so successful that the company selling the product also starts taking over other companies (such as Chocolate Chip Charlie’s Cookie franchise, an obvious stand-in for Famous Amos), just so they can use their distribution chains. Disgraced former FBI agent Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) is hired by a competing company to investigate. Along the way he is joined by Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), an ad exec with the agency charged with hawking The Stuff; as well as Chocolate Chip Charlie himself (Garrett Morris, in an absolutely ridiculous role). They are also joined by young Jason (Scott Bloom), a boy whose family has been mesmerized by The Stuff, leaving him alone to confront the menace, much in the mode of the boy in Invaders from Mars. Rutherford quickly realizes how sinister The Stuff is and moves to put a stop to its distribution, aided by an almost slapstick assist from a U.S. Army unit headed by the paranoid Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino), who seems to have escaped from Dr. Strangelove. The corporate forces behind The Stuff (now joined by Rutherford’s employers) simply switch gears and prepare to start marketing an alternative known as The Taste, with the same active ingredient. When Rutherford also shuts that down, the product goes underground and starts to be sold by drug dealers, here represented as an alternative  corporate supply chain.


Canavan, Gerry. “Obey Consume: Class Struggle as Revenge Fantasy in They Live.” Film International 77/78 (2016): 72–84.

Davis, Mike. “No More Bubblegum.” Los Angeles Review of Books (21 October, 2011). Accessed September 15, 2019.

Decker, Mark. “The Mysteries of Los Angeles; or, They Live, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” City Mysteries, and the Apotheosis of the Mechanic Hero.” Extrapolation 55.2 (2014): 173–97.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Kefalis, Christos. “When Science Fiction Meets Marxism: John Carpenter’s They Live.” Dissident Voice 21 (Feb. 21, 2009). Accessed Sept. 14, 2019.

Lethem, Jonathan. They Live. Soft Skull Press, 2010.

Mannheim, Karl. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Mariner Books, 1955.

McLellan, David. Ideology. Open University Press, 1986.

Phillips, Kendall. Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film . Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.

Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, 2011.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Denial: The Liberal Utopia.” Lacan.Com (2009), Accessed September 12, 2019.


[1] The film’s opening credits identify its screenwriter as “Frank Armitage,” which is the name of a character in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” used here by Carpenter as a pseudonym.

[2] Virtually all critics of They Live have regarded these inhuman overlords as aliens, though the film never specifically identifies them as such. In his book-length study of the film, Jonathan Lethem prefers to regard them simply as “ghouls,” though their exact nature does not seem particularly important. The fact that they have access to a number of advanced technological devices, though, makes them appear more like science fictional aliens than like Lovecraftian ghouls.

[3] The name “Nada” appears only in the credits and is not used in the film itself. It was not Carpenter’s invention; it was taken directly from the 1963 Ray Nelson short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” on which the film is based. There, the character’s name is “George Nada.”

[4] There are, of course, many scenes in American film showing protagonists doing their jobs, but the persons doing these jobs are usually scientists, doctors, lawyers, detectives, policeman, and the like, whose jobs are themselves integral to the plot of the film. The scene with Nada, however, is important because it suggests that his work is itself worthy of representation, even if it has nothing to do with the plot of the film in itself.

[5] For a succinct review of theories of ideology from Marx through Althusser, see McLellan.

[6] Althusser here continues a trend toward broadening the concept of ideology that was begun with the work of Mannheim. Of course, Marx himself already treated ideology in a far more nuanced way than did most of the Marxist thinkers who came immediately after him.

[7] It might also be noted, as does Lethem, that Nada seems to harbor a special animosity toward “older female ghouls” (23). In one scene, for example, he observes an older female alien arranging her hair, using a storefront window as a mirror. “It’s like putting perfume on a pig,” he snarls.

[8] Among other things, Lethem’s book presents a scene-by-scene reading of the film that is, by and large, quite insightful.

[9] This signal transmitter appears, to those under its influence, to be an ordinary satellite dish. But Nada (now wearing magic contact lenses, rather than sunglasses) sees it for what it is.

[10] Ebert and (especially) Siskel could be a bit moralizing, though they were by no means on the extreme fringe in this regard. Both, for example, gave positive reviews to Carpenter’s Halloween in their newspaper columns in the years before their review show began to air on television in 1986.