They Live

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

They Live
A close-up of a man's face. The man is wearing sunglasses, and the face of a skull-like alien is reflected in one of the lenses.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Carpenter
Screenplay byJohn Carpenter[a]
Based on"Eight O'Clock in the Morning"
by Ray Nelson
Produced byLarry Franco
CinematographyGary B. Kibbe
Edited by
  • Gib Jaffe
  • Frank E. Jimenez
Music by
Distributed by
Release date
  • November 4, 1988 (1988-11-04)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3 million
Box office$13.4 million (North America)[1]

They Live is a 1988 American science fiction action horror film[b] written and directed by John Carpenter, based on the 1963 short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson. Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster, the film follows an unnamed drifter[c] who discovers through special sunglasses that the ruling class are aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to consume, breed, and conform to the status quo via subliminal messages in mass media.

Having acquired the film rights to the Nelson-penned short story prior to the production of They Live, Carpenter used the story as the basis for the screenplay's structure, which he wrote under the pseudonym "Frank Armitage". Carpenter has stated that the themes of They Live stemmed from his dissatisfaction with the economic policies of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, as well as what Carpenter saw as increasing commercialization in both popular culture and politics.[8]

They Live was a minor success upon release, debuting at #1 at the North American box office. It initially received negative reviews from critics, who lambasted its social commentary, writing, and acting; however, it later gained a cult following and experienced a significantly more favorable critical reception. It is now regarded by many as one of Carpenter's best films.[9][2] The film has also entered the pop culture lexicon, notably having a lasting effect on street art (particularly that of Shepard Fairey).


A drifter comes to Los Angeles in search of a job. He sees a preacher warning that "they" have recruited the rich and powerful to control humanity. Nada finds employment at a site and is befriended by coworker Frank, who invites him to live in a kitchen led by a man named Gilbert.

A hacker takes over broadcasts and that the only way to stop it is to shut off the signal at its source. Those watching the broadcast complain of headaches. Nada follows Gilbert and the preacher into a church and discovers them meeting with a group that includes the hacker. He sees equipment and boxes inside. Nada is discovered by the preacher and escapes.

The shantytown and church are both destroyed in a raid in the same night, and the hacker and preacher are beaten by police. Nada retrieves one of the boxes from the church and takes a pair of sunglasses from it. Nada discovers that the sunglasses make the world appear monochrome, but also reveal messages in the media to consume and conform. The glasses also reveal that many people are aliens with faces.

She alerts other aliens via a device. Nada leaves but is confronted by two officers. He kills them and steals their weapons. Nada enters a bank, where he sees that several of the employees and customers are aliens. He kills several aliens with a shotgun and escapes by going to station and taking an employee Holly Thompson hostage. Nada tries to get her to try on the glasses, but she knocks him out of the window and down a hill and calls the police.

Nada returns to the alleyway and retrieves the sunglasses from a truck before Frank meets Nada to give him his paycheck. Frank resists Nada's attempts to put the glasses on him, and the two get into a brawl. He sees the aliens for himself and goes into hiding with Nada.

Frank and Nada run into Gilbert, who leads them to a meeting of the movement. They are given lenses to replace the sunglasses, and learn that the aliens are using warming to make Earth more like their own planet, and are depleting the Earth's resources for their own gain. They also learn that the aliens have been bribing humans to become collaborators. Holly arrives at the meeting. The meeting is raided by police and the majority of those present are killed, with the survivors scattering. Nada and Frank are cornered in an alley, but they activate an wristwatch.

The portal takes them to the aliens' spaceport, where they discover a meeting of aliens and collaborators celebrating the elimination of the "terrorists". They are approached by a drifter they met in the shantytown, who gives them a tour of the facility. He leads them to the basement of Cable 54, which is protected by guards. Nada and Frank find Holly and fight their way to the transmitter on top of the roof, but Holly kills Frank. Nada kills Holly and destroys the transmitter, but is wounded by a group of aliens in a helicopter. Nada gives the aliens the middle finger as he dies.

Humans all over the world are free from their state and discover the aliens hiding amongst them.



Carpenter has said that the film's political commentary derives from his dissatisfaction with then–U.S. President Ronald Reagan's economic policies—also known as Reaganomics—and what Carpenter viewed as increasing commercialization in both the popular culture and politics of the era.[8]

Upon the film's release, Carpenter remarked, "The picture's premise is that the 'Reagan Revolution' is run by aliens from another galaxy. Free enterprisers from outer space have taken over the world, and are exploiting Earth as if it's a third world planet. As soon as they exhaust all our resources, they'll move on to another world... I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something. ... It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money." To this end, Carpenter thought of sunglasses as being the tool to seeing the truth, which "is seen in black and white. It's as if the aliens have colonized us. That means, of course, that Ted Turner is really a monster from outer space."[d] The director commented on the alien threat in an interview: "They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, 'Where's the threat in that? We all sell out every day.' I ended up using that line in the film." The aliens were deliberately made to look like ghouls, according to Carpenter, who said "The creatures are corrupting us, so they, themselves, are corruptions of human beings."[10]

In 2017, in response to neo-Nazi interpretations of the film's themes, Carpenter further clarified that the film "is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism" and "has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world".[e]



The idea for They Live came from a short story called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning"[17] by Ray Nelson, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in November 1963, involving a protagonist, George Nada, and an alien invasion in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which Nelson, along with artist Bill Wray, adapted into a story called "Nada" published in the Alien Encounters comics anthology in April 1986.[10] John Carpenter describes Nelson's story as "... a D.O.A.-type of story, in which a man is put in a trance by a stage hypnotist. When he awakens, he realizes that the entire human race has been hypnotized, and that alien creatures are controlling humanity. He has only until eight o'clock in the morning to solve the problem."[10] Carpenter acquired the film rights to both the comic book and short story and wrote the screenplay, using Nelson's story as a basis for the film's structure.

Because the screenplay was the product of so many sources—a short story, a comic book, and input from cast and crew—Carpenter decided to use the pseudonym "Frank Armitage", an allusion to one of the filmmaker's favorite writers, H. P. Lovecraft (Henry Armitage is a character in Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror).[10] Carpenter has always felt a close kinship with Lovecraft's worldview, and according to the director "Lovecraft wrote about the hidden world, the 'world underneath'. His stories were about gods who are repressed, who were once on Earth and are now coming back. The world underneath has a great deal to do with They Live."[10]


For the role of Nada, the filmmaker cast professional wrestler Roddy Piper, whom he had met at WrestleMania III earlier in 1987. For Carpenter, it was an easy choice: "Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him."[10] Carpenter was impressed with Keith David's performance in The Thing and needed someone "who wouldn't be a traditional sidekick but could hold his own."[10] To this end, Carpenter wrote the role of Frank specifically for David.


They Live was shot in eight weeks during March and April 1988, principally on location in downtown Los Angeles, with a budget only slightly greater than $3 million.[10] One of the highlights of the film is a five-and-a-half-minute alley fight between Nada and Frank over a pair of the special sunglasses. Carpenter recalls that the fight took three weeks to rehearse: "It was an incredibly brutal and funny fight, along the lines of the slugfest between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man."[10]


Music for the film was composed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth.[18]


They Live was theatrically released in North America on November 4, 1988, and debuted at #1 at the box office, grossing $4.8 million during its opening weekend.[1][19] The film spent two weeks in the top ten.[20] The film's original release date, advertised in promotional material as October 21, 1988, had been pushed back two weeks to avoid direct competition with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.


On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 86% based on 73 reviews, and an average rating of 7.30/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "A politically subversive blend of horror and sci fi, They Live is an underrated genre film from John Carpenter."[7] Metacritic gives the film a weighted average rating of 55 out of 100 based on 22 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[21]

In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "Carpenter's wit and storytelling craft make this fun and watchable, although the script takes a number of unfortunate shortcuts, and the possibilities inherent in the movie's central concept are explored only cursorily."[22] Jay Carr, writing for The Boston Globe, said "[o]nce Carpenter delivers his throwback-to-the-'50s visuals, complete with plump little B-movie flying saucers, and makes his point that the rich are fascist fiends, They Live starts running low on imagination and inventiveness", but felt that "as sci-fi horror comedy, They Live, with its wake-up call to the world, is in a class with Terminator and RoboCop, even though its hero doesn't sport bionic biceps".[6]

In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Since Mr. Carpenter seems to be trying to make a real point here, the flatness of They Live is doubly disappointing. So is its crazy inconsistency, since the film stops trying to abide even by its own game plan after a while."[23] Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post, "it's just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate. In fact, the whole thing is so preposterous it makes V look like Masterpiece Theatre."[24] Rick Groen, in The Globe and Mail, wrote, "the movie never gets beyond the pop Orwell premise. The social commentary wipes clean with a dry towelette – it's not intrusive and not pedantic, just lighter-than-air."[25]

The 2012 documentary film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, presented by the Slovene philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, begins with an analysis of They Live. Žižek uses the film's concept of wearing special sunglasses that reveal truth to explain his definition of ideology. Žižek states:

They Live is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. … The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on. … When you put the sunglasses on, you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom.[26]


They Live was ranked #18 on Entertainment Weekly magazine's "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83" list in 2008.[27]

Rotten Tomatoes ranked the fight scene between Roddy Piper's character, Nada, and Keith David's character, Frank Armitage, seventh on their list of "The 20 Greatest Fight Scenes Ever".[28] The fight scene influenced The Wrestler, whose director, Darren Aronofsky, interpreted the scene as a spoof.[29] The fight scene was parodied by the TV show South Park in the episode "Cripple Fight." Shepard Fairey credits the film as a major source of inspiration, sharing a similar logo to his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" campaign. "They Live was…the basis for my use of the word 'obey'," Fairey said. "The movie has a very strong message about the power of commercialism and the way that people are manipulated by advertising."[30]

Novelist Jonathan Lethem called They Live one of his "favorite movies of the eighties, hands down". He said, "It's a great movie...Look at what it does to people, look at how it emboldens and provokes...It's disturbing and ridiculous and outrageous and uncomfortable, but I think it's the kind of great movie that doesn't really need defense, it just needs to be given the air." Lethem wrote a book-length homage to the movie for the Soft Skull Press Deep Focus series.[31]

The 2013 video game Saints Row IV features an extended parody of They Live, with Roddy Piper and Keith David voicing fictionalized versions of themselves in a recreation of the fight scene between Nada and Armitage.[32]

Rock band Green Day paid homage to They Live in their music video for "Back in the USA" from the album Greatest Hits: God's Favorite Band.[33] Similarly, punk band Anti-Flag used the film as inspiration for their 2020 music video, "The Disease". David Banner and 9th Wonder also used the film as the influence behind their 2010 video for "Slow Down".[34]

Minnesota-based alternative hip-hop artist P.O.S. used scenes from the film interspersed with clips of himself for the song, "Roddy Piper" off his 2017 album, Chill, Dummy.[citation needed]

In July 2018, the film was selected to be screened in the Venice Classics section at the 75th Venice International Film Festival.[35]

The film is noted for a popularly quoted line spoken by Nada: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."[36]

The main character Duke Nukem in the video game Duke Nukem 3D was made to be a mix of 80's and 90's action movie stars, including Roddy Piper, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Kurt Russell and Bruce Campbell. His look was partially based on Nada's appearance, sporting a similar sunglasses and quoting many lines from the movie.

Home media[edit]

They Live was released on VHS by MCA Home Video in 1989.[37][38] It was later released on DVD by Universal Home Entertainment on October 17, 2000.[39]

On March 2, 2012, the film was released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal.[40] On November 6, 2012, Shout! Factory released a "Collector's Edition" of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray.[41]

In 2014, Universal Pictures released They Live on DVD along with The Thing, Village of the Damned, and Virus as part of the 4 Movie Midnight Marathon Pack: Aliens.[42]

On January 19, 2021, Shout! Factory released the "Collector's Edition" of the film on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.[43][44]

Awards and honors[edit]

Award Category Subject Result
Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Award Best Film John Carpenter Nominated
Saturn Award Best Science Fiction Film They Live Nominated
Best Music John Carpenter and Alan Howarth Nominated


In 2010, a remake movie was stated as being in development with Carpenter in a producing role. In 2011, Matt Reeves signed on to direct and write the screenplay. The project eventually shifted away from being a direct remake of They Live, to a re-adaptation of "8 O'Clock in the Morning" with intents of abandoning the satirical and political elements of the original movie.[45] By October 2023, producer Sandy King stated that a modern audience could see similarities with events of the movie going on in a real-world context, while stating that an expansion from They Live would be announced shortly; while acknowledging the possibility of a sequel becoming a reality.[46]


  1. ^ For the screenplay, Carpenter was credited by the pseudonym "Frank Armitage".
  2. ^ Attributed to multiple references:[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]
  3. ^ The character is referred to as "Nada" in the film's credits, which is Spanish for "Nothing"; in the original short story, the name of the character is George Nada. "Nada" is also the name of a short comic book published in Alien Encounters in 1986, which was adapted from the same short story as They Live.
  4. ^ Turner had received some bad press in the 1980s for colorizing classic black-and-white movies.
  5. ^ [11][12][13][14][15][16]


  1. ^ a b c "They Live". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Archived from the original on April 4, 2016. Retrieved April 28, 2016.
  2. ^ a b "Every John Carpenter Movie, Ranked".
  3. ^ Firsching, Robot. "They Live". AllMovie. Retrieved March 6, 2024.
  4. ^ "They Live". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved March 6, 2024.
  5. ^ "Catalog - They Live". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved March 6, 2024.
  6. ^ a b Carr, Jay (November 4, 1988). "What if we're cattle for aliens?". The Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners. Archived from the original on February 10, 2015. Retrieved July 3, 2018.
  7. ^ a b "They Live (1988)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on November 15, 2022. Retrieved October 17, 2023.
  8. ^ a b Clark, Noelene (May 11, 2013). "John Carpenter: 'They Live' was about 'giving the finger to Reagan'". Hero Complex. Tribune Publishing. Archived from the original on September 18, 2015. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  9. ^ "The 13 best John Carpenter movies, ranked". Entertainment Weekly.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i Swires, Steve (November 1988). "John Carpenter and the Invasion of the Yuppie Snatchers". Starlog. pp. 37–40, 43.
  11. ^ John Carpenter [@TheHorrorMaster] (January 4, 2017). "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" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  12. ^ Acevedo, Yoselin (January 4, 2017). "John Carpenter Wants Internet Nazis to Stop Misinterpreting 'They Live'". IndieWire. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  13. ^ Brill, Karen (January 4, 2017). "John Carpenter Denies Neo-Nazi Reading of They Live As Jewish Supremacy Takedown". Vulture. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  14. ^ Patterson, John (January 9, 2017). "They Live: John Carpenter's action flick needs to be saved from neo-Nazis". The Guardian. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  15. ^ White, Adam (January 4, 2017). "John Carpenter condemns neo-Nazis who have co-opted his cult 1988 satire They Live". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on January 8, 2017. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  16. ^ Raftery, Brian (January 4, 2017). "Bigots Are Trying to Ruin the Movie They Live, Because of Course They Are". Wired. Condé Nast. Archived from the original on January 8, 2017. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  17. ^ Nelson, Ray. "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" (PDF). weebly. Retrieved June 6, 2023.
  18. ^ "They Live Soundtrack". 2017. Archived from the original on January 25, 2021. Retrieved May 21, 2020.
  19. ^ "'They Live' tops the weekend's box office". Sun Journal. Associated Press. November 9, 1988. Retrieved July 3, 2018 – via Google News.
  20. ^ "They Live: Weekly". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Archived from the original on July 4, 2018. Retrieved July 3, 2018.
  21. ^ "They Live Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Archived from the original on June 29, 2021. Retrieved June 29, 2021.
  22. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "They Live". Chicago Reader. Archived from the original on July 28, 2011. Retrieved May 12, 2009.
  23. ^ Maslin, Janet (November 4, 1988). "A Pair of Sunglasses Reveals a World of Evil". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 1, 2010. Retrieved May 12, 2009.
  24. ^ Harrington, Richard (November 5, 1988). "'They Live': (R)". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on November 11, 2012. Retrieved May 12, 2009.
  25. ^ Groen, Rick (November 5, 1988). "They Live". The Globe and Mail.
  26. ^ "The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (15)". British Board of Film Classification. June 19, 2013. Archived from the original on October 5, 2013. Retrieved June 19, 2013.
  27. ^ EW Staff (August 27, 2008). "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83". Entertainment Weekly. Time. Archived from the original on July 13, 2016. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  28. ^ Ryan, Tim (April 17, 2008). "Total Recall: The 20 Greatest Fights Scenes Ever". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on February 19, 2020. Retrieved December 14, 2016.
  29. ^ Frannich, Darren (July 31, 2015). "Remembering Roddy Piper's rowdy film career". Entertainment Weekly. Time. Archived from the original on June 3, 2016. Retrieved June 1, 2016.
  30. ^ Lussier, Germain (June 9, 2011). "Cool Stuff: Shepard Fairey's 'They Live' Mondo Poster". /Film. Archived from the original on May 17, 2013. Retrieved March 8, 2013.
  31. ^ Kachka, Boris (October 28, 2010). "Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter's They Live and His Own Move to California". Vulture. New York Media. Archived from the original on October 29, 2013. Retrieved July 29, 2012.
  32. ^ Walker, John (August 27, 2021). "The New Saints Row Rings The Death Knell For Silly Games". Kotaku. Retrieved December 27, 2021. A game in which they hired Roddy Piper and Keith David to recreate their famous fight scene from They Live.
  33. ^ Kreps, Daniel (November 17, 2017). "See Green Day's 'They Live'-Inspired 'Back in the USA' Video". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on December 14, 2017. Retrieved December 13, 2017.
  34. ^ Wallace, Emanuel. "DAVID BANNER & 9TH WONDER :: DEATH OF A POP STAR". Rap Reviews. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  35. ^ "Biennale Cinema 2018, Venice Classics". July 13, 2018. Archived from the original on July 23, 2018. Retrieved July 22, 2018.
  36. ^ "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum". Sovereign Man. August 3, 2015. Archived from the original on March 2, 2019. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  37. ^ Variety's Complete Home Video Directory. R. R. Bowker. 1989. p. 121.
  38. ^ Bleiler, David, ed. (1999). TLA Film and Video Guide 2000–2001: The Discerning Film Lover's Guide. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p. 573. ISBN 0-312-24330-8.
  39. ^ Gross, G. Noel (March 8, 2000). "They Live". DVD Talk. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  40. ^ "They Live". StudioCanal UK. Archived from the original on July 5, 2018. Retrieved July 3, 2018.
  41. ^ Miller III, Randy (October 16, 2012). "They Live: Collector's Edition". DVD Talk. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  42. ^ 4 Movie Midnight Marathon Pack: Aliens (DVD). Universal Studios. 2014. Stock #61142800.
  43. ^ "They Live". Shout! Factory. Retrieved July 12, 2021.
  44. ^ Squires, John (September 8, 2020). "Scream Factory Bringing 'They Live' to 4K Ultra HD With Limited Edition Keith David Action Figure!". Bloody Disgusting. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  45. ^ O'Neal, Sean (April 11, 2011). "'They Live' Remake is No Longer Technically a Remake". The A.V. Club. The Onion. Archived from the original on July 2, 2018. Retrieved July 3, 2018.
  46. ^ Cavanaugh, Patrick (October 4, 2023). "They Live Producer Offers Unexpected Tease on Story's Future (Exclusive)". Retrieved October 4, 2023.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]