In 1988, John Carpenter made They Live, an over-the-top science fiction movie set in a world which has been quietly invaded and conquered by an insidious alien race using mind control – and only those wearing specially made sunglasses can see the world as it really is.
Famed for giving the late wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper his first (and easily best) major film role, They Live has become a huge favourite with action fans, politically-charged media students, and paranoid conspiracy nuts alike. Let’s take a look back at this 80s gem with some facts about They Live you might not have known.
21. It’s partly based on a comic book
They Live is officially credited as an adaptation of Eight O’Clock In The Morning, a 1963 short story by science fiction writer Ray Nelson. However, not too long before Carpenter’s film hit screens in 1988, Nelson published a new take on his story in comic form. Entitled Nada, it was published in the comic book Alien Encounters in 1986.
There are plenty of significant differences between the story, the comic and the movie: for one, Nada doesn’t wear sunglasses in either of the earlier works, and is instead ‘woken’ by a stage hypnosis act. Nonetheless, John Carpenter has acknowledged that They Live owes as great a debt to the comic as it does the original short story.
20. John Carpenter wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym
As director, producer, screenwriter, editor and composer, John Carpenter has always worn a lot of hats on his movies. For this reason, he has often chosen to employ pseudonyms for certain roles on his films, usually in a way that nods to his key influences on that particular work.
While Carpenter was the screenwriter on They Live, he credits the script to Frank Armitage, in homage to the character Henry Armitage of H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Dunwich Horror. Carpenter explains, “Lovecraft wrote about the hidden world, the world underneath… (which) has a great deal to do with They Live.”
19. The lead character has no name
In Eight O’Clock In The Morning and Nada, the lead protagonist’s name is George Nada. The credits of They Live list Roddy Piper’s character simply as Nada – but this name is never used in the film. Piper never introduces himself to anyone, nor does anyone ask him his name at any point; even Keith David’s Frank, his closest friend in the film, refers to him simply as “man.”
It’s surely no coincidence that Nada literally translates as ‘nothing’ in Spanish. However, John Carpenter is also an outspoken lover of westerns, and it’s likely this is his way of paying homage to the classic ‘man with no name’ motif.
18. The poster tagline was unusually long
They Live is an offbeat blend of tough action movie, hard-edged science fiction and socially conscious political satire, so it presented a bit of a challenge to the marketing department. They came up with the cumbersome poster tagline, “You see them on the street. You watch them on TV. You might even vote for one this fall. You think they’re people just like you. You’re wrong. Dead wrong.”
Once the film was released in Britain and other territories, they opted for the more concise and enigmatic, “Who are they… and what do they want?” The film was even retitled in some territories: for one, it was released as Invasion Los Angeles in Canada.
17. Carpenter cast Piper after watching him at Wrestlemania
When it came to casting Nada, it’s thought that John Carpenter had written the role for his go-to leading man Kurt Russell, having worked with Russell on Elvis, Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. Exactly why Russell didn’t play Nada is unclear, but Carpenter was soon on the lookout for a rugged leading man.
After seeing Roddy Piper at WrestleMania III, Carpenter – a lifelong wrestling fan – knew that he had found his man. Rumour has it that other actors considered for Nada include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
16. WWF boss Vince McMahon did not approve of Piper making the film
Vince McMahon, owner of the WWF (as the WWE was then known), did not take kindly to Piper’s decision to take the lead role in They Live. McMahon tried hard to talk Piper out of it, offering to find him another movie role which would pay the same. When Piper refused, this resulted in him leaving the WWF for a time.
Piper stated years later that McMahon’s reaction was down to the WWF boss being “a control freak.” Piper also said that when he returned to the WWF in 1989, he was “twice as important as when I left,” attributing his increased popularity to They Live.
15. Carpenter wrote the role of Frank specifically for Keith David
John Carpenter gave Keith David his first major film role opposite Kurt Russell in 1982’s The Thing. Having been impressed with the actor, Carpenter wrote the character of Frank in They Live with David in mind. Much as with Piper’s casting as Nada, Carpenter was keen to get an actor who would truly convince as a tough guy.
The director explained he needed someone who “wouldn’t be a traditional sidekick, but could hold his own.” While Carpenter and David have not worked together since, the actor has racked up an impressive CV with over 300 screen credits.
14. Piper and David’s fight scene took a month to rehearse
If there’s one scene everyone remembers from They Live, it’s the epic back alley punch-up between Roddy Piper’s Nada and Keith David’s Frank. While the characters are friends, Nada is unable to convince Frank to take a look through the sunglasses that show the world as it really is – and so, a mighty battle ensues.
The fight lasts five minutes and twenty seconds, and is frequently named as one of the best scenes of its kind in cinema. Piper and David worked together for a month to get the fight just right, and the sequence took three days to film. While Piper obviously drew on his wrestling skills, David rather utilised his experience as a boxer and a dancer.
13. The sunglasses are named ‘Hoffman lenses’ after the inventor of LSD
The sunglasses which break the alien signal and allow the wearer to see the real world are referred to as Hoffman Lenses. This appears to be a nod to Dr Albert Hoffman, the Swiss scientist best known for creating the psychedelic drug LSD. Piper’s Nada likens the experience of wearing the glasses to taking a drug: “wearing these glasses makes you high, but boy, you come down hard.”
While Carpenter has never directly confirmed that this is a deliberate reference to Dr Hoffman, it seems unlikely that the filmmaker – who lived and studied in California at the height of the hippy era – would not be aware of the LSD creator. It has also been rumoured that Carpenter’s first film Dark Star contains footage of an actor who was under the influence of LSD at the time.
12. Carpenter is mentioned by name in the film
At the climax of They Live, when – SPOILER WARNING – the alien signal has been broken, all the aliens are exposed in their true form. During this darkly comedic ending, we see numerous figures on television revealed as aliens, among them a movie critic. The alien critic is condemning movie violence, remarking to a second critic whose face isn’t shown, “filmmakers like George A. Romero and John Carpenter have to show some restraint.”
This was Carpenter’s way of getting his own back against the critics of the time, who tended to give his work a hard time. From their appearance, it’s likely the critics on-screen are meant to be Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the most influential critics of the day.
11. The aliens were designed to resemble ‘corrupted’ human corpses
In the original short story Eight O’Clock In The Morning, the aliens secretly controlling our world are many-eyed snake monsters called Fascinators; whilst in the comic strip Nada, they’re hideous masses of claws and tentacles. However, Carpenter didn’t want his aliens to resemble high-tech creatures of other science fiction films, but to look like humanity as if it had been corrupted.
Carpenter says the “metallic skull-like” look of They Live’s aliens was designed by Sandy King, also an associate producer and script supervisor on the film. Carpenter and King would later marry, and she has produced most of the director’s subsequent films.
10. Roddy Piper thought the movie was inspired by a real incident
They Live heavily satirises mass media, playing on the idea that media industries manipulate the minds of the general public. While it clearly presents an extremely exaggerated and fantastical take on these fears, leading man Roddy Piper thought it may have been closer to reality. He stated at the time of release that the movie was based on a 1950s incident when a manufacturer sent subliminal messages through TVs to encourage women to make extravagant purchases.
However, the incident to which Piper was referring was the premise of L’affaire Bronswik, a 1978 spoof short film which it would seem the actor had somehow mistaken for a genuine documentary.
9. Piper and Carpenter had political differences over the film’s anti-Reagan agenda
From the start of the project, Carpenter was outspoken in declaring They Live to be an attack on economic practices in the Reagan era. Piper stated years later that the director had been keen for him to discuss this whilst promoting the film, but the actor was reticent to do so.
For one, Piper was not an American citizen, hailing from Canada (and not Scotland, as was claimed of his wrestling persona), so he didn’t feel it was his place to debate American politics. More to the point, Piper was himself actually a supporter of President Reagan.
8. The film’s release was deliberately timed to coincide with the presidential election
Carpenter had high hopes that They Live could be a vehicle for real change in the American political landscape. To this end, the film was released theatrically in the US on November 4 1988 – just four days before that year’s presidential election. This was a change to They Live’s originally scheduled release date of October 21st – which was also the release date of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.
The move was in part to avoid competition from the sequel to Carpenter’s earlier film (in which the filmmaker had no involvement), but also in the hopes of making a political statement. The message didn’t get across as Carpenter had hoped, though, as George HW Bush succeeded Reagan to the White House – whilst Halloween 4 was a (slightly) bigger hit than They Live.
7. Roddy Piper had been homeless in real life
Roddy Piper might not have shared Carpenter’s political convictions, but he could relate directly to the struggles of his character. The film sees Nada come to town looking for work, only to wind up sleeping rough on the streets. Piper admitted that he too had lived under those conditions earlier in his life.
The actor reportedly found these scenes difficult to film, but was impressed that Carpenter cast real homeless people as extras, who were paid and fed. Carpenter stated that he was aware that Piper “had been in that situation long ago, but the character was not based on him.”
6. The ‘bubble gum’ line was written by Roddy Piper
One line in They Live has become legendary: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick a*s, and I’m all out of bubble gum.” This was not in Carpenter’s script, and in fact came straight from Roddy Piper. When work was underway on the film, Piper told Carpenter some trash-talk lines he’d been working on for use in his wrestling career, which he thought might fit the movie.
Both men agreed the bubble gum line was a winner – and indeed, Piper went on to use it again as a wrestler. Another Piper ad-lib comes when Nada tells Keith David’s Frank: “brother, life’s a b***h and she’s back in heat!”
5. Male stunt legend Jeff Imada portrays several of the female aliens
They Live features both male and female aliens, but most of those seen in close-up were portrayed by the same person: Jeff Imada. A seasoned martial artist and stunt co-ordinator, They Live was the third time Imada had worked with Carpenter, following Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness. Imada’s drag performances are listed under ‘Michelle Costello’ in the end credits.
Carpenter said Imada took these parts purely because he was the right size for the costumes, though one suspects they were having some fun. Imada went on to co-ordinate the stunts on most of Carpenter’s later films, up to and including 2001’s Ghosts of Mars.
4. It was a box office flop – even though it opened at #1
On release, They Live seemed to be a smash hit, as it went straight to number one at the US box office. Its opening weekend takings were $4.8 million, more than recouping its low budget of $3 million. However, two weeks later the film disappeared from the box office top ten, and – with final domestic takings of $13 million – it was deemed a flop.
Carpenter lamented at the time, “(people) who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don’t want to be enlightened.” Nonetheless, They Live found its audience on VHS, and became a cult favourite soon after its home video debut.
3. The film put John Carpenter into a career hiatus
John Carpenter barely stopped working in the 1980s, directing a new release almost every year that decade (and, arguably, there’s not one bad film among them). However, after 1988’s They Live, Carpenter would not release another film for four years, the longest gap in his career up to that point.
Carpenter attributed this to “sheer creative fatigue,” stating that it had been “hideously exhausting” making so many films back-to-back. Carpenter’s next feature would be 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man with Chevy Chase, which he later expressed regret about.
2. John Carpenter has refuted claims the film is antisemitic
The legacy of They Live is a troubled one, as the film has proved highly popular among far-right fanatics and conspiracy theorists. One particularly unsavoury interpretation of the film comes from neo-Nazis, who say the film’s aliens are an allegory for Jews. In 2017, Carpenter took to Twitter to angrily dismiss this antisemitic interpretation of his movie.
The director flatly declared, “THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie.” Carpenter has also denied suggestions the film is pro-Marxist, stating he does not believe in Marxism.
1. A remake has been trapped in development hell since 2011
As is sadly inevitable these days, They Live is yet another old cult favourite lined up to get a remake. However, progress on the project has been so slow, it’s possible we might never see it. Strike Entertainment, the production company behind the remake of Carpenter’s The Thing, announced plans to shoot what they declared to be a new take on short story Eight O’Clock In The Morning.
Matt Reeves was hired to write and direct in 2011, envisaging a “psychological science fiction thriller” without the action elements of Carpenter’s film. However, Reeves soon moved on to the Planet of the Apes movies and The Batman, and nothing seems to have come of the project since.