They Live

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They Live
A skull-like alien's face is reflected in a man's sunglasses
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Carpenter
Produced by Larry Franco
Screenplay by Frank Armitage
Based on "Eight O'Clock in the Morning"
by Ray Nelson
Music by
Cinematography Gary B. Kibbe
Edited by
  • Gib Jaffe
  • Frank E. Jimenez
  • Alive Films
  • Larry Franco Productions
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date
  • November 4, 1988 (1988-11-04)
Running time
94 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3 million
Box office $13 million[1]

They Live is a 1988 American science fiction horror film written and directed by John Carpenter. The film stars Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster. It follows an unnamed drifter (referred to as "John Nada" in the film's credits) who discovers that the ruling class are in fact aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed, and accept the status quo with subliminal messages in mass media. It is based on the 1963 short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson.

At release it was number one in the box office, but sales soon suffered, though the film was nominated for two Saturn Awards. They Live has since become a cult film. The film has had a lasting impact on street art, particularly that of Shepard Fairey; its quotations have entered the popular culture, and it makes appearances on all-time lists for best fight scenes.


Drifter "John Nada" (Roddy Piper) finds construction work in Los Angeles and befriends fellow construction worker Frank Armitage (Keith David), who leads him to a local shantytown soup kitchen. There, Nada encounters strange activity around the church: a blind preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) loudly chastising others to wake up, a police helicopter hovers overhead, and a drifter (George Buck Flower) complains that his TV signal is continually interrupted by a man warning everyone about those in power. Nada discovers the nearby church is a front. The choir heard outside is an audio recording and the building is filled with scientific equipment and cardboard boxes. Nada finds a box hidden in the wall, but flees when the preacher notices him. That night, the police attack and bulldoze the shantytown. Nada returns in the morning to find the church empty, but with the hidden boxes still in the wall. He takes one of the boxes and in an alley, he opens the box and finds it filled with sunglasses. Taking a pair, he hides the box in a garbage can.

Nada quickly discovers the sunglasses have unique properties: they reduce the colors of the world around him to black and white and allow him to see that media and advertising hide omnipresent subliminal commands to obey, consume, reproduce, and conform. They also make clear that many people in positions of wealth and power are actually humanoid aliens with skull-like faces.

In a grocery store, Nada confronts an alien woman who then speaks into her wristwatch, notifying others about him. Two alien police officers try to apprehend Nada, but he kills them and takes their guns. He goes on a shooting spree, killing several aliens that he encounters in a nearby bank. He sees one vanish using its wristwatch. Nada escapes, destroying a small, flying saucer-like alien surveillance drone and taking a Cable 54 assistant director named Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) hostage. At her luxurious hill-top home, Nada tries to convince her of the truth. He also begins suffering migraine headaches as a result of using the glasses. Holly finds his story absurd, and catching him unaware, knocks him through a window and calls the police. Nada tumbles down a steep hillside and escapes, leaving his sunglasses behind.

Now a fugitive, Nada returns to the alley where he finds the garbage can that held the other glasses is empty. However, he retrieves the box from a nearby garbage truck. Frank meets Nada, who is now a wanted fugitive, to give him his paycheck. Though Nada tells his story, Frank does not believe him and tells Nada he wants nothing further to do with him. Nada engages in an extended street fight with Frank, trying to force him to put on a pair of sunglasses. Finally after gaining the upper hand, Nada places the glasses on Frank who now understands. The two rent a hotel room to discuss their predicament. Gilbert (Peter Jason), a member of the shantytown, discovers them and notifies them about a secret meeting with other activists.

At the meeting, Nada and Frank are given special contact lenses to replace their sunglasses. They learn from the bearded man's broadcast that the aliens control Earth as their third world, depleting its resources and causing global warming before moving on to other planets. The aliens use a subliminal signal broadcast into people's brains to camouflage themselves. Destroying its source will allow everyone on Earth to see their true form. Frank is given a stolen alien wristwatch which functions as a communications and teleportation device. Holly arrives joining the cause before apologizing to Nada. However, the police suddenly attack the meeting, killing everyone while Nada and Frank manage to fight their way out. After being cornered in an alley, Frank accidentally opens a temporary portal by throwing the watch, through which the two jump into a network of underground passages.

The two find the aliens in a grand hall celebrating with their elite human collaborators. The same homeless drifter that Nada and Frank met earlier appears as a collaborator and believes the two to be collaborators as well. He takes them on a tour of the passages, revealed to link the alien society including a space travel port. A further passage leads to the basement of the Cable 54 station, the source of the aliens' signal. The two then launch an attack, killing many alien soldiers. Nada and Frank fight their way through the building to find the broadcaster on the roof before meeting Holly and taking her along. As Nada climbs up a staircase to the signal broadcaster disguised as a satellite dish, Holly suddenly shoots and kills Frank off-screen, finally revealing herself to also be a human collaborator.

Holly takes aim at Nada and persuades him to stop as an alien-manned police helicopter hovers overhead. Nada complies by dropping his weapon, but then retrieves a hidden pistol from his sleeve and kills her. He then shoots and destroys the broadcaster before being fatally wounded by the aliens in their helicopter. Before he dies, Nada gives them "the finger" as his last defiant gesture now that he scored the final victory over the aliens. With the signal destroyed, humans all over the world discover the aliens in their midst and the film suddenly ends.




The idea for They Live came from a short story called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in November 1963, involving 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 comic book anthology (cover date: April 1986).[2] 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."[2] 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.

The more political elements of the film are derived from Carpenter's growing distaste with the ever-increasing commercialization of 1980s popular culture and politics, particularly the influence of Reaganomics, the economic policies promoted by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.[3] He remarked, "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 colorized us. That means, of course, that Ted Turner is really a monster from outer space." (Turner had received some bad press in the 1980s for colorizing classic black-and-white movies.) 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."[2]

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).[2] 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."[2]


For the crucial role of Nada the filmmaker cast professional wrestler Roddy Piper, whom he 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."[2] 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."[2] To this end, Carpenter wrote the role of Frank specifically for Keith David.


They Live was shot in eight weeks during March and April 1988, principally on location in downtown L.A., with a budget only slightly greater than $3 million.[2] One of the highlights of the film is a five-and-a-half minute alley fight between David and Piper 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."[2]


The film opened on November 4, 1988 and debuted at #1 at the North American box office grossing $4.8 million during its opening weekend.[1][4] The film spent two weeks in the top ten.[5] The film had a total domestic gross of $13,008,928.[1] Carpenter is on record as attributing the film's initial commercial failure to the hypothesis that those "who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don't want to be enlightened".[2] The film's original release date, advertised in promotional material as October 21, 1988, was pushed back two weeks to avoid direct competition with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.

Home video[edit]

StudioCanal released a Blu-ray on March 2, 2012.[6]

On November 6, 2012, Shout! Factory released a Collector's Edition of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray.

In 2014, Universal Studios released it on DVD along with The Thing, Village of the Damned, and Virus as part of the 4 Movie Midnight Marathon Pack: Aliens.[7]


Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an approval rating of 83% based on 48 reviews; the average rating is 7.2/10. The critical consensus reads: "A politically subversive blend of horror and sci fi, They Live is an underrated genre film from John Carpenter."[8] Metacritic, an aggregator of film critics' ratings and reviews, gave the film a rating average of 52 out of 100.[9]

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 conceit are explored only cursorily."[10] 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".[11] Allmovie contributor Paul Brenner gave the film three and a half out of five stars.[12]

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."[13] 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."[14] 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."[15]

The 2012 documentary film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology presented by Slovene philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek starts with an analysis of the film They Live: Žižek uses the main trope of the film, the wearing of the special sun-glasses reveals the truth of that which is perceived, 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.[16]

Carpenter has rejected neo-Nazi claims that the film "is an allegory for Jewish control of the world," instead noting the film "is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism."[17][18]


The film was ranked #18 on Entertainment Weekly magazine's "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83" list.[19] Rotten Tomatoes ranked the fight scene between Roddy Piper's character, John Nada, and Keith David's character, Frank Armitage, seventh on their list of "The 20 Greatest Fights [sic] Scenes Ever".[20]

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."[21]

The film has been referenced in multiple forms of media. The fight scene influenced The Wrestler, whose director, Darren Aronofsky, interpreted They Live's scene as a spoof.[22]

Jonathan Lethem called They Live one of his "favorite movies of the eighties, hands down" and wrote a book-length homage to it for the Soft Skull Press Deep Focus series.[23]

Rock band Green Day paid homage to They Live in their music video for "Back in the USA", off of their album Greatest Hits: God's Favorite Band.[24]

Awards and honors[edit]

Award Category Subject Result
Saturn Awards Best Science Fiction Film Larry Franco Nominated
Best Music John Carpenter Nominated
Alan Howarth Nominated
Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Award Best Film John Carpenter Nominated

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:



  1. ^ a b c "They Live". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 28, 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Swires, Steve (November 1988). "John Carpenter and the Invasion of the Yuppie Snatchers". Starlog. pp. 37–40; 43. 
  3. ^ Clark, Noelene (May 11, 2013). John Carpenter: ‘They Live’ was about ‘giving the finger to Reagan’. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  4. ^ "'They Live' tops the weekend's box office". Sun Journal. 9 November 1988. 
  5. ^ Box Office Mojo - They Love weekly box office data
  6. ^ "They Live". 
  7. ^ 4 Movie Midnight Marathon Pack: Aliens, (2014) Universal Studios, stock# 61142800
  8. ^ "They Live". 4 November 1988. 
  9. ^ They Live (1988) Movie Reviews - Metacritic. Accessed on 2 September 2012
  10. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "They Live". Chicago Reader. Retrieved May 12, 2009. 
  11. ^ Carr, Jay (November 4, 1988). "What if we're cattle for aliens?". Boston Globe. 
  12. ^ Brenner, Paul. "They Live". Allmovie. Retrieved 13 December 2010. 
  13. ^ Maslin, Janet (November 4, 1988). "A Pair of Sunglasses Reveals a World of Evil". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2009. 
  14. ^ Harrington, Richard (November 5, 1988). "They Live". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 12, 2009. 
  15. ^ Groen, Rick (November 5, 1988). "They Live". Globe and Mail. 
  16. ^ "The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 19 June 2013. Archived from the original on October 5, 2013. Retrieved 19 June 2013. 
  17. ^ Adam White (2017-01-04). "John Carpenter condemns neo-Nazis who have co-opted his cult 1988 satire They Live". Retrieved 2017-01-08. 
  18. ^ gear (2017-01-04). "Bigots Are Trying to Ruin the Movie They Live, Because of Course They Are". Wired. Retrieved 2017-01-08. 
  19. ^ "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83". Entertainment Weekly. September 13, 2008. Retrieved 2016-08-16. 
  20. ^ Ryan, Tim. "Total Recall: The 20 Greatest Fights Scenes Ever". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2016-12-14. 
  21. ^ "Cool Stuff: Shepard Fairey's 'They Live' Mondo Poster | /Film". 2011-06-09. Retrieved 2013-03-08. 
  22. ^ Frannich, Darren (2015-07-31). "Remembering Roddy Piper's rowdy film career". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2016-06-01. 
  23. ^ Kachka, Boris. "Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter's They Live and His Own Move to California". Vulture. Retrieved 2012-07-29. 
  24. ^ "See Green Day's 'They Live'-Inspired 'Back in the USA' Video". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2017-12-13. 
  25. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-30. 

External links[edit]