by: Michael Shields
Rowdy Roddy Piper’s influence extended far beyond the confines of the wrestling ring….
They influence our decisions without us knowing it. They numb our senses without us feeling it. They control our lives without us realizing it. THEY LIVE.
When the news of Rowdy Roddy Piper’s1 death of a heart attack at age 61 found me, it felt for a moment as if a piece of me had passed with him. A fragment of my youth spent sitting cross-legged on a brown shag carpet no more than a few feet from an immense tube television set ached from the loss. From that vantage point, I watched as brawny, thunderous muscle-men clad in colorful tights roared and clawed at each other. The World Wrestling Federation, as it was known at the time, was a mainstay in my home. While figurines of the athletic behemoths littered the floor around me, wrestlers such as Big John Studd, The Junkyard Dog, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Bob Backlund, and Rowdy Roddy Piper hurled themselves at each other with reckless abandon on the television before me. But while my fondness for the WWF, and Piper’s Pit came to mind as I felt nostalgia for the cherished memories I owe to Rowdy Roddy Piper, my thoughts kept drifting to John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi action satire, They Live, in which Piper excels in the starring role.
They Live finds Rowdy Rider Piper starring as a hapless drifter, John Nada, living on the fringes in Los Angeles. Early in the film his downtrodden character comes upon a pair of sunglasses that reveals the truth about the world around him. Through these glasses, he comes to the realization that there are aliens living amongst humans, and all of the media and advertisements that blanket the city have been manipulated by the humanoid aliens with subliminal commands to obey and conform. They Live was a campy yet riveting action film, one that was on the surface a hell of a ride. But below the surface, there were more weighty matters at play.
It was unique to see the way in which the alien invaders chose to conquer the human race in They Live. Instead of confronting us in combat head on, they chose to dig in, and use stealth media attacks and subliminal messaging to lull us into submission. Through unwittingly convincing humans to spend their money, accept the status quo, breed, and sheepishly obey what they are told, the aliens were entrenched in a savvy brand of class warfare aimed at achieving totalitarian conformity. They Live wasn’t simply about an alien takeover, but about deception, and the means authoritative regimes will go to gain and maintain their grip on the masses2. It was a film about where society was headed in general, and the more novel ways in which power, once gained, could be abused. In hindsight, by evaluating the plentiful ways in which corporations manipulate consumer’s wallets, They Live all but proves the poignant cultural warnings of its message were more menacing than we could have imagined. Although They Live’s satirical target was the policies and deceptive nature of Reaganomics, the film’s message resonates deeply to this very day.
It is impossible to talk about They Live without discussing one of the greatest improvised lines in any action film ever made, where Nada saunters into a bank declaring, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” Carpenter has freely declared that the line was not scripted and it was Piper who birthed it on the spot. Although Arnold and Stallone have dropped their share of unforgettable one-liners over the years, none of them can hold a candle to this beauty.
When discussing the grandeur of They Live, it is also imperative to call attention to the fight scene at the heart of the film. Besides the deeper underlying subtext of They Live, the film was enjoyable within the frame of a campy action-comedy alone. This idea is highlighted by the inclusion of one of the more famous fight scenes in film history, where Piper’s Nada scuffled relentlessly for well over five minutes with Keith David’s character Frank. Before filming began, John Carpenter implored Piper to watch The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. At that time, The Quiet Man contained the longest fight scene in Cinema’s lengthy history. Carpenter aimed to change that, but he wanted his take to be different. In The Quiet Man, the fight took place between two sworn enemies, but in They Live, Nada and Frank were friends, heightening the intrigue of their scuffle3. Enhancing They Live’s extended throw-down was the fact that one of the participants was a world class wrestler – one of the finest ever to come off the the top ropes. The legendary fight scene included countless sucker-punches, crotch-shots, a standing leg-drop, a mean series of head-butts, and a suplex to ultimately end the iconic fight.
They Live impacted me deeply. I cannot honestly proclaim that in my initial viewing, being far too young to even be in the theater without adult supervision, that I understood the social commentary being presented. It wasn’t until years later when I longed to revisit the film that I was slapped across the face with an A-Ha moment I won’t soon forget. From that moment forward, They Live sent me down a path towards questioning everything, and the desire to root out the motives of those in positions of power. The sunglasses in They Live acted as a window into truths about our world, that when opened allows us to see the real messages behind advertisements and mixed-media propaganda. While They Live wasn’t the first work of science fiction to highlight society’s ills and the looming threat of governments and corporations with far too much power and a craving for complete control, it was one of the most assertive, delving into the concept of a need to acknowledge the invisible order which supports our apparent freedoms, and in this way the Carpenter’s film functioned as a wake up call to the world.
They Live was just one of John Carpenter’s many masterful works, and the credit for the premise lands directly at his feet. But Rowdy Roddy Piper will forevermore be associated with it in the way Sigourney Weaver is with Ridley Scott’s brilliant Alien films, or Arnold Schwarzenegger is with Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. He was the hero at the core of the film, unearthing deceit and awakening a world ignorant to the forces around them influencing their behavior. They Live still resonates today as Big Brother increasingly follows our every step, and we have Carpenter and Piper to thank for helping us come to terms with this reality, so many years ago.
RIP Rowdy Roddy Piper. Thank you.
- Rowdy Roddy Piper’s real name is Roderick Toombs. [↩]
- Shepard Fairey’s famed “OBEY” campaign was based on They Live. “The movie has a very strong message about the power of commercialism and the way that people are manipulated by advertising,” Fairey said about the film. [↩]
- John Nada just wanted Frank to try out the glasses he found – and Frank didn’t want to indulge him. This, too, is a poignant anecdote, as it depicts the resistance so many people have to facing the truth. [↩]