Take a look at the cinema calendar for this summer. It’s a groan-inducing spread of popcorn offerings that largely consists of remakes, reboots, and “selective” sequels. If you plan to escape the heat in the air-conditioned sanctuary of a multiplex, chances are your choices include rebooted superheroes, a reset of time-traveling cyborgs, and a genetically-modified dinosaur romp. The whiff of astronomical box office takings from the likes of the latter — the breaker of every record, Jurassic World — suggests that we’re in for more of the same over the coming years.
Thirty years ago, the summer season hatched a ton of solid options. While there’s a clutch of sequels on its docket, there’s barely any caught up in the “we must recycle EVERYTHING” craze Hollywood is currently courting (while puffing on a Cuban and bathing in the tears of those whose childhoods have been ruined). 1985 doesn’t receive the same praise as other seminal years in movie history — 1999, for example — but its sunshine months absolutely should. Here’s a rundown of some of the films released that season whose legacies still ring out across the cultural chatter today.
It’s illegal for anyone who saw The Goonies as a kid not to defend it loyally. It appeals to the adventurous tyke in all of us. The part of our youthful spirit that’s not yet faced the daunting reality of Adult Responsibilities.
The plot shakes out when a bunch of kids stumble upon a treasure map and seek out the long-lost haul of a pirate named One-Eyed Willy. That swashbuckler’s suggestive monicker slipped past the film’s intended audience, who instead fell in love with the idea of a true adventure. This last month saw tons of Goonies aficionados flock to Astoria, Oregon to commemorate its anniversary. Apparently parking was a bitch.
‘Better Off Dead’
John Cusack currently stars in every straight-to-Netflix release out there. Back in the fledgling stages of his career however, he was the cool, suave cat of the ‘80s teen movie. Think Miles Teller minus the unbridled arrogance.
Better Off Dead hosts one of Cusack’s best performances, as recently-dumped teen Lane Meyer. His girlfriend throws him over in favor of the captain of the ski team — the not-so-subtly named Stalin — sending Meyer into a downward spiral. Much like Heathers accomplished a few years later, the film’s approach to suicide is the blackest type of comedy that successfully marries pathos and humor.
‘Back To The Future’
Need we say anything at all about the Robert Zemeckis’ time travel-teen-sci-fi movie? Probably not, but we’re going to anyway. Back To The Future’s impact on popular culture can be summed up by the recurring Internet meme that saturates the web every year or so. The tale of a teenage boy and his ostracized-from-society mad scientist friend still matters.
What marks BttF as a standout from the year is not just its lasting impression on every cinephile and sci-fi fan, but the fact that… shhhh…. it’s not yet been remade. It did spawn two sequels — shot back-to-back — and has since remained off Hollywood’s hit-list for reinvention.
‘Day of The Dead’ / ‘The Return Of The Living Dead’
These two are an interesting pair. The original Night Of The Living Dead from 1968 was directed by George A. Romero and produced by John A. Russo. When their creative pairing split up, they each held onto certain elements of the property. Romero went on to deliver social commentary via mall murder in the genre-defining Dawn of the Dead, which led to Day of the Dead. A played-straight zombie film with a militarized bent, which treads a similar cautionary path to its predecessor.
Russo however retained usage of the term “living dead” (fun fact: hence its absence in all of Romero’s films) and upped the schlock for Return of the Living Dead, which is based on his novel and story and directed by Dan O’Bannon. Termed a ‘splatstick’ horror, gone is the social awareness of Romero’s work, instead replaced by a gore-soaked, nudity-filled spot of ‘80s excess.
‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome’
The third part of George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy. The law of diminishing returns doesn’t necessarily apply here, depending on your personal thoughts on the franchise. But what’s not to love? Mel Gibson, a bleach blonde Tina Turner and loads of scrappy kids thematically transplanted from Lord of the Flies.
This year’s most ambitious, technically-inventive and story-rich movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, is the three-decades-late sequel to Thunderdome. Proof that tempus will always fugit, but it’s no barrier to Miller’s brand of sun-scorched action.
Ethan Hawke and the late River Phoenix both made their film debuts in Joe Dante’s pint-sized explorer movie, which follows a precocious schoolboy whose love of all things extraterrestrial inspires him to create a spacecraft. So he can go and visit with aliens. The obvious parallel to E.T. warrants a mention, especially as Spielberg is credited as nabbing the kids riding bikes concept from Eric Luke’s first draft.
And while Explorers would eventually drop that visual, it did harness an aspect of movie culture that’s still a large component of popular cinema today. The film is littered with easter eggs, those sly winks and references filmmakers sprinkle throughout their movies. Hawke and Phoenix’s characters steer their spacecraft over a drive-in movie theater playing a movie starring Luke Starkiller. Which was George Lucas’ first suggestion for Luke Skywalker’s surname.
Before Twilight undid all of the glorious vampiric groundwork lain in the ‘80s, movies such as Fright Night catered to the bloodsucker crowd. The film follows an excitable teen whose snooping reveals his next-door neighbor is actually a vampire. Vice versa, the vamp next door discovers his snotty punk neighbor has uncovered his true form and all hell breaks loose.
Colin Farrell and David Tennant gothed up for the glossy 2011 remake, but nothing beats Chris Sarandon’s leering vampire, who went by the utterly terrifying name of Jerry Dandrige.
A true eighties gem, Weird Science might pander to some shaky moral reasoning — use whatever means necessary to get what you want, it doesn’t matter if you inadvertently conjure up a nuclear warhead! — but its heart is in the right place. Along with Kelly LeBrock’s skimpy outfits, barely covering her sizeable assets.
Part wish-fulfilment and part-reality check for its two leads, Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), John Hughes manages to sidestep the bawdy avenues it could have traversed and chooses to tell a sweet tale of growing up, as was his chosen modus operandi. What’s still so damned appealing about Weird Science is the strength of its supporting cast; Robert Downey Jr. is a preppy tool, and Bill Paxton wins hands-down as Wyatt’s army brat brother Chet.
Two college kids, one of whom is played by a spiky-coiffed Val Kilmer, are targeted by a money-hungry professor to design a laser for the CIA. Far-fetched? No doubt about it. The eighties were ripe with stretched plots and dubious casting decisions, and Real Genius dips its toes into both briefly before stomping out on its own. Ultimately, the humor, story, and characters avoid typical campus-set tropes that are still prevalent in most college comedies.
Come for the height of Kilmer’s hair. Stay for the show-stopping ‘house full of laser-popped popcorn’ finale.
1985 was Michael J. Fox’s year — Back to the Future and Teen Wolf arrived in theaters six weeks apart. The latter follows a different type of journey for this titular teen, who discovers all the men in his family turn into self-absorbed werewolves when puberty hits. As he’s a bit of a wet blanket, this is one transformation he welcomes with open paws.
Before long, he’s swanning about school with the braggadocio of a star athlete, and obviously ignores his cool-as-fuck best friend for the typically dull popular girl. The metaphoric message is a little heavy-handed — you might notice some changes to your body, and begin to have feelings you might not understand — but does that really matter when we get to watch a werewolf surfing on top of a truck?
‘Return To Oz’
It’s hard to believe that the mindfuck follow-up to The Wizard of Oz holds a PG rating. It’s terrifying. It will give you nightmares of the brown-pants variety. Like many of the films on this list, it suffered from a poor turnout upon release and like many of the films on this list went on to become a total cult classic. Its thinly-veiled horror leanings eventually took root with genre fans, who welcomed the horrific sights behind Oz’s sweet facade.
Fairuza Balk stars as Dorothy, who starts her journey in an institution receiving electric shock therapy. Nice, eh? She’s transported to Oz when a lightning storm hits and so begins the endless stream of hideous villains standing in her way to restoring the now-decrepit land of Oz. The Wheelers and the Nome King are creepy enough, but it’s Princess Mombi who’s the real evil. One scene in particular has her headless body grasping for Dorothy as the poor girl legs it down a corridor lined with the screaming heads of women Mombi had butchered. It’s not very Disney, is it?