Last week, the world lost a bona-fide icon when professional wrestler/action star Roderick George Toombs, better known as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, died of cardiac arrest at the age of 61. Inside the ring, the fan-favorite Piper was primarily a villain in the WWF (later the WWE) and WCW, but on the screen, he was a hero. By far, Roddy Piper’s biggest cinematic legacy is the 1988 John Carpenter science-fiction horror film They Live.
In They Live, Roddy Piper stars as Nada (although, he is never referred to by name in the film, only in the closing credits), an unemployed drifter who lands in Los Angeles, broke and homeless. Nada is able to find a construction job where he meets Frank (The Thing’s Keith David), a fellow worker who leads Nada to a shantytown homeless encampment where he can hole up for a while. At the church across the street, Nada finds a bunch of boxes of sunglasses. When he puts a pair on, Nada can see subliminal messages in the billboards and magazines around the city, messages that include commands like “CONSUME” and “OBEY.” Nada also discovers that many of the citizens of the city are aliens, appearing to him as skeletal ghouls through the lenses of his specs. As he keeps investigating, Nada learns that many of the aliens hold positions of authority within the city, occupying political offices as well as jobs within the police force. A group of activists that oppose the aliens is based in the church where he got the sunglasses, and Nada soon finds himself trapped in a war between the aliens and the resistance. With the help of a cable television director named Holly Thompson (Meg Foster from The Lords of Salem), Nada and Frank must find a way to stop the aliens from carrying out their devious plan for world domination.
By 1988, John Carpenter was already a horror legend, having been behind a string of hits like Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. Under the pen name Frank Armitage, Carpenter adapted the screenplay for They Live himself from a short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.” Carpenter was at a point in his career where he could do no wrong; he could make basically any movie and his fans would go and see it, so They Live is unlike anything that he (or anyone else) had ever done before. And, to this day, They Live remains a classic of both the science fiction and horror genres.
It’s no secret that professional wrestlers are as much actors as they are athletes. However, there are only certain types of roles that bigger-than-life figures like them can play. That being said, Roddy Piper was an absolutely perfect choice for the role of Nada in They Live. His performance combined just about every single skill that he had honed through his years in the wrestling ring. The action scenes were physically demanding, yet Piper’s character also had a tough nuance about him – he wore the face of a man who had seen it all, and still not lost hope in the system that was continuously failing him. Piper’s sports entertainment background also helped him bring an attitude to his character that resulted in one of the greatest moments in the film; in the scene, Piper walks into a bank full of aliens and ad-libs the line “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubble gum,” spouting the quip exactly as if he were in a WWF interview with commentator Mean Gene Okerlund. It’s pure genius, and there isn’t another person on the planet, wrestler or actor, who could have spoken that line better.
Besides the bubble gum line, the most memorable scene in They Live is an almost six-minute fight scene at the midway point of the film that results from Frank’s refusal of Nada’s request to put the sunglasses on and see the truth. The scene is a complete homage to Roddy Piper’s wrestling career, with he and Keith David starting off with some trash talk, moving on to an exchange of blows, eventually graduating to full-contact suplexes, eye-gouging, and body slams. The fight was only supposed to last about thirty seconds, but when John Carpenter saw the scene that Piper and David had meticulously choreographed and rehearsed, he decided to leave the whole thing in. The length of the scene is almost ludicrous, with the pointless fight going on seemingly forever, winking at the viewer every so often to let them know that they’re in on the joke. The kicker is that the fight ends with Nada physically putting the glasses on Frank’s face and Frank seeing that he is right – the whole fight could have been avoided. Luckily for the audience, it wasn’t, and the fight scene in They Live is one of the most awesome combat sequences in cinematic history.
As with many of John Carpenter’s movies, there’s a socio-political message to They Live. The citizens of Los Angeles are constantly watching television or reading magazines, seemingly obsessed with the content that they’re absorbing. This sets up Carpenter’s harsh criticism of consumerism and the frightening effectiveness of advertising, with the hidden messages ingraining the desire and necessity of the public to follow instructions and partake in capitalism. They Live can also be read as a paper-thin analogy for Los Angeles’ treatment of its homeless, with the city repeatedly destroying the shantytowns and taking away what little the poor unfortunates have to begin with. John Carpenter has a reputation for being critical of the police, and They Live follows suit in that way as well; the cops in the film are shown beating up the lower class citizens repeatedly, and the fact that most of the officers are aliens just reinforces the us-against-them class warfare motif of the rest of the movie. John Carpenter has never shied away from making a statement, but They Live just might be his most overtly political film to date.
Also typical of John Carpenter’s movies, They Live features a score that was composed by the director himself (with help from his frequent musical collaborator Alan Howarth, who also co-wrote the soundtracks to Escape from New York, Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, and many others). The music for They Live isn’t typical of a Carpenter score, or even a horror movie score for that matter, but it does serve the film well. The score is full of bluesy groove-oriented pieces, packed with harmonicas and guitars, and including lots of “Bad to the Bone” style bass riffs. The electric down-home porch-swing blues jams accurately represent the poor and downtrodden lower-class denizens of the Los Angeles shantytown, but it also gives the film an adrenaline-soaked shot of attitude – in a word, the soundtrack to They Live is just cool.
Roddy Piper continued to dabble in acting when he wasn’t wrestling, and there are a handful of recent movies in post-production in which he appeared that will continue to trickle out into theaters in the months after his death. But, to wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike, he will always be known on the big screen as Nada, the nameless vagabond from They Live.