Tag Archives: Summer

The Summer of ’84: Red Dawn

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer moviegoing with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn Movie Poster

Release Date: August 10, 1984

Starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Powers Booth, Harry Dean Stanton, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, Doug Toby

Directed by John Milius; Screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius

John Milius’ 1984 action/war drama Red Dawn is a movie that I’ve enjoyed on many occasions since I first saw it on cable TV back in the mid-80’s.  I was too young to see it during its theatrical release, and I was probably more interested in the non-action films like Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that wonderful summer.  Despite missing it in theaters back in 1984, Red Dawn is one of those films that I stop and watch every time I come across it on TV regardless of how far into the movie it is.  Each screening leads to a new discovery for me, whether it’s the impact from a line of dialogue, a nuance of a performance or a hidden gag by director John Milius.  Many scenes in Red Dawn still stand out for me as some of my cinematic favorites, and the film ranks very high on my personal list of favorite war films.

It’s an peaceful small town morning in Calumet, Colorado.  Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops off his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen in his first film role) and friend Arturo (Doug Toby) at the local high school before heading off to his job at the town gas station.  History teacher Mr. Teasdale (Frank MacRae) gives a lecture on Genghis Khan (complete with a drawing of the Mongol overlord that is actually a caricature of director John Milius – a nod to his passion project to produce and direct a film on Genghis Khan), but his lesson is interrupted when paratroopers mysteriously drop in behind the school.  No sooner than he steps out of the building to find out what is going on, he is shot by a Russian soldier and it’s clear to everyone that Calumet is under attack.  Bullets rain on the school and RPGs blow up a school bus as the students try to escape.  Jed’s truck roars into the school parking lot and grabs Matt, Arturo and three other students Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Danny (Brad Savage) and Daryl (Darren Dalton) as the Soviet and Cuban armies take over the town.  They drive to Robert’s father’s sporting goods store and stock up on food, guns and supplies before hiding out in the mountains.

Their plan is to hold out in the mountains until it’s safe to return to Calumet.  After a month, the boys are low on food and have to take the risk of going back into town.  They walk through the aftermath of an American defeat and realize how desperate the situation has become.  Soviet tanks roam the streets, martial law has been imposed, books are burned, and Alexander Nevsky plays in the local cinema (with free admission).  They learn that Jed’s father and many other men of Calumet have been deemed too dangerous and have been sent to a re-education camp located at the town drive in where they are beaten and bombarded with Soviet propaganda.

On their way back to the mountains they stop at the home of Mr. Mason (played by Ben Johnson) and learn that Calumet is now part of Occupied Territory and that Robert’s father was killed for aiding them.  He gives them a radio and asks Jed to take his granddaughters Erika (Lea Thompson) and Toni (Jennifer Grey) with them.  But their mountain hideout is soon exposed when they kill three soldiers that found them by accident.  Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O’Neal) steps up activity in the mountains and orders retaliation.  The sight of their fathers death by firing squad forces the teenagers to take the offensive and use the invaders own weapons against them.  They start a guerrilla war against the Soviet and Cuban occupiers, and with each small victory they let their enemy know who they are: the Wolverines.  Downed Air Forced Lieutenant Colonel Tanner (in a great performance by Powers Booth) joins them and gets them up to speed on the state of the war:

Red Dawn shouldn’t be categorized as simply an action film.  I’ve always seen it as a war drama with a solid script and carried by a strong cast.  The action scenes are just as hard hitting today as they were 30 years ago, and the dramatic scenes are more emotionally powerful than I remembered from previous screenings, with Patrick Swayze’s performance standing out the most.  Milius and Reynolds crafted a story that stresses the importance of family bonds, members of a community sticking together in challenging times, and fighting to persevere.  Ric Waite’s cinematography captures the beauty of the heartland and the home the Wolverines are fighting for, and Basil Poledouris’ strong, emotionally uplifting score sets the tone throughout the film.

Over the last three decades, every screening of this film was always met with enthusiasm among me and my friends.  But  a recent screening of the fantastic documentary Milius opened my eyes to some of the harsh criticisms of  Red Dawn upon its release, and the effect it subsequently had on director John Milius’ career.  If anything, I have an even greater appreciation of Red Dawn and John Milius for bringing it to the screen.  Sure some of his messages might be a little less than subtle and the viewer needs a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that a group of teenagers can take on the Soviet and Cuban armies.  But at the end of the day, Red Dawn is a fun ride and a great “What If?” story of a dystopian America at the dawn of World War III.

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The Films of the Summer of 1984

For the last two years my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982 and 1983 allowed me to revisit some of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the 80’s and enjoy them on a new level as a 40 something.  In some cases I would approach a film with a sense of trepidation, wondering if you truly can go back and enjoy an old favorite on the same level 30 years later.  At the end of each series, I learned that many of these films withstand the test of time and sometimes you really can go back.

I truly thought each “Summer Of” retrospective would be the last.  After The Summer of ’82 I didn’t think there could be another lineup of summer films that could compare to Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Poltergeist, The Thing, TRON and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial.  It was a magical summer for fans of fantasy and sci-fi films and there hasn’t been another like it.  But I had enjoyed writing that retrospective so much that I had gone through withdrawal and for the next year hoped for another opportunity to revisit a summer’s worth of films.  That void was filled with my retrospective on The Summer of ’83 which included a lineup of films that have been personal favorites of mine for over 30 years.  Even as I closed out that series, I didn’t think I would have an opportunity to write another “Summer Of.”

Then I saw the lineup for the films of the Summer of ’84 and realized another retrospective was possible.

The Summer of ’82 was about a lineup of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the decade (Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian).  The Summer of ’83 was about a lineup of my personal favorites (WarGames, Fire and Ice).  The Summer of 1984 was still heavy on the adventure and sci-fi films, including some of the most crowd pleasing films of the decade as well as a few cult favorites:

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (5/23/84)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (6/1/84)
Ghostbusters (6/8/84)
Gremlins (6/8/84)
Conan the Destroyer (6/29/84)
The Last Starfighter (7/13/84)
Red Dawn (8/10/84)

Once I saw this list, I knew I had to revisit them again.

I’m taking these retrospectives year by year, but if the films of the Summer of ’85 etc. bring out the same sense of nostalgia for my original movie-going experiences, I’ll keep them coming.



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The Summer of ’83: National Lampoon’s Vacation

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.

National Lampoon’s Vacation

National Lampoons Vacation Movie Poster

Release Date: July 29, 1983

Directed by Harold Ramis; Screenplay by John Hughes based on his short story Vacation ’58

Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, Jane Krakowski, John Candy, Christie Brinkley

National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of the films that I looked forward to the most going into this retrospective.  Even though I tend to concentrate on fantasy, sci-fi and comic book films I have to include a classic comedy now and then.  There are movies that you enjoy, there are movies that you watch many times over, but every so often there’s that one movie that you just seem to empathize with.  National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of those movies, and 30 years later it still gets an audience to laugh at its classic scenes and cringe at the memories they bring back of our own summer family vacations.  I’m sure most folks over the age of 40 hear a few bars of Lindsay Buckingham’s Holiday Roads on a long distance drive.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) plans a cross country drive from Chicago to California with wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and teenage kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron).  He’s convinced himself (but not his family) that a road trip to Wally World (a theme park based on Disney World) will allow them to experience the bonding and quality time they wouldn’t experience by flying.  The trip starts on the wrong foot when the Antarctica Blue Sport Wagon they ordered from the car dealership hasn’t arrived and the only car available for them is the frumpy, olive green, wood paneled, eight headlighted Road Queen Family Truckster.  Along the way their car is vandalized in St. Louis, they’re stuck with Ellen’s annoying Aunt Edna in the back seat, money runs out and a wrong turn totals their car.  But, as the ever patient Ellen says, “With every day there’s new hope.”

The film has great cast led by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, but it’s the supporting actors in their cameos that add the extra layers of humor that keep the laughs going: James Keach as the highway patrol officer that goes from threatening to crying in a scene that is both hilarious and just wrong at the same time, John Candy as the Wally World security guard dragged into Clark’s breakdown, and Randy Quaid as Ellen’s ne’er-do-well cousin Eddie that suckers them into driving Aunt Edna from Kansas to Phoenix.  It was a treat to see comedic icon Imogene Coca as Aunt Edna in Vacation, but her role provided only a fraction of the comedic gold she brought to TV viewers on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950’s and I wish there was a little more written for her.  But the scene stealer throughout the film is Clark’s muse of the road played by Christie Brinkley.  Is there anything more 80’s than Christie Brinkley and a red Ferrari?

In under two hours, director Harold Ramis is able to pack in urban plight, teenage drug use, underage drinking, animal cruelty, death and a midlife crisis on the Griswold family’s road trip to Wally World.  John Hughes’ screenplay was based on his short story Vacation ’58, and soon after his career as a director would explode with 80’s teen classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The running gag in the subsequent three Vacation films (European Vacation, Christmas Vacation and Vegas Vacation) was the casting of different actors to play Rusty and Audrey.  Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron will always be the Rusty and Audrey movie fans will remember, and it would have been fun to see them reprise their roles in European Vacation.  Barron was supposed to return as Audrey in the second film, but when Anthony Michael Hall had a conflict starring in Weird Science (also directed by John Hughes), the role of Audrey was re-cast as well.

I wasn’t able to see National Lampoon’s Vacation in the theater back in 1983 due to its R rating (although the film is very tame by today’s standards), but it’s a film I watched on many a Saturday night with my friends and cousins throughout the mid-80’s.  Back then we appreciated the humor at face value, but 30 years later we now approach the film with a sense of empathy.  Back then, the farthest my family ever drove on our vacations was Montreal, with most of our summer trips taking place in Lake George, NY.  Our version of the Road Queen Family Truckster was a midnight blue 1977 Ford Granada with burgundy pleather interior.  But as fun as those trips were, without fail, just before putting the car in gear for the drive back home, my father would end the trip with, “Next year, I’m taking a vacation by myself!”

This year, my faithful sidekick and I flew out to Colorado and spent a week and a half driving through Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska before flying back to New York.  It was my first time in that part of the country, and the most surreal part of the trip was the lack of cars on the road compared to the Northeast.  Highlights of our trip included Devils Tower, Custer National Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands with a few roadside attractions along the way like the giant Campbell’s Soup Can in Colorado, Dinosaur Park in South Dakota and a giant coffee pot in Wyoming.  This was our first real road trip together, and after 30 years of watching Clark Griswold experience everything short of locusts in National Lampoon’s Vacation I couldn’t help but wonder what lay ahead of us on the road.  But along the way, a miracle happened: nothing.  No broken down car, no bad weather, no short fuses (okay, there was that one time I missed a turn and went nuclear a la Clark in the classic “Can we go home” scene).  But it went as smooth as can be and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.  Coincidentally, next up is a road trip in Europe…

Overall National Lampoon’s Vacation was as I remembered it, although the pace felt a little slower this time around.  And while each scene made me laugh and gain a greater appreciation for the Ramis and Hughes’ style of humor, my older self began to see Clark in a different light.  He was no longer just that nerdy dad who’s best intentions tend  to make everything worse.  At the end of the day, Clark goes through each of those great lengths, much to the chagrin of his family, just to bring them all closer together and have them experience a little bit of fun that they might remember when they’re older.  And watching National Lampoon’s Vacation again 30 years later, I simply smiled and looked forward to the day I’d be behind the wheel of my own version of the Family Truckster, family in tow, on a quest for fun.

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The Summer of ’82: Conan the Barbarian

Fante’s Inferno is revisiting the summer of 1982, considered to be the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian
Copyright 1982 – Universal Pictures

Release date: 5/14/82

Directed by John Milius; Screenplay by John Milius and Oliver Stone (Based on the works of Robert E. Howard)

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan), James Earl Jones (Thulsa Doom), Sandahl Bergman (Valeria)

Famous quote:  When asked “What is best in life?”  Conan responds: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.”

The film begins with a blacksmith forging a sword…

I always loved that opening sequence.  The art of creating the weapon got me hooked on the story at age 10, and watching it this week at age 40 reminded me why.  At that point in my young life I was feeding myself a steady diet of fantasy books, Dungeons & Dragons, and Frank Frazetta’s artwork.

This isn’t a review, per se.  One thing I can’t bring myself to do with this film, or most others I enjoyed in my youth, is look at them with the jaded snarkiness that most other people would approach the film with in 2012.  I won’t judge the film by the primitive effects by today’s standards, the acting ability of Arnold at that point in his career, or whether or not I outgrew the film/genre as I got older.  For me, it comes down to these points:

1. Does watching it now remind me of why I enjoyed it back then?
2. Does the story still hold up for me?
3. Does the film reinforce what I like about the genre?

And so, how did it hold up for me when I watched it 30 years later?  Much better than I thought.  Although the special effects (or lack of special effects) would come across as dated by today’s standards, I actually enjoyed it more for that reason.  I prefer the old school approach on 35mm over today’s CGI overload.  If done today, the number of Thulsa Doom’s attackers in the opening raid of Conan’s village might ave been multiplied by 100 and the “real” actors might have been filmed against a green screen.  While I appreciate the progress that has been made with CGI (I’m not a luddite), and a filmmaker’s desire to create a landscape with these tools, regardless of how well it’s done it’s still a distraction to me as a viewer (although one CGI film that I thoroughly enjoyed was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).  I will always have an appreciation for the lost art of the matte painting.

If there was anything I would criticize about Conan the Barbarian, it would be the slow pace of the film.  Clocking in at 2 hours and 7 minutes, a half an hour could have been cut just by picking up the pace in many of the scenes.

One thing I didn’t realize was how little dialogue Arnold had throughout the film, unless you count the 87 times he said AAAGHaaghAAAGHaaAGH!!!! when tortured or beaten.

Seeing the final shot of an older, wiser, King Conan on his throne at the end of the film and reading the final lines on the screen reminded me of how I couldn’t wait for the sequel back then.  Two years later my childhood friend Kevin and I saw Conan the Destroyer in the theater.  Even at age 12, the fantasy/D&D fan in me didn’t take the story as seriously as Conan the Barbarian.

This film was like an old Dungeons & Dragons campaign on celluloid.  Two swords up.

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