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The Summer of ‘85: A Movie Season For The Ages

The Summer of ‘85: A Movie Season For The Ages:

The summers of your pre-adolescent years are generally very formative, influential, and memorable — especially if you’re a young movie geek. Between the age of 12 and 15, one starts to put away (some) childish things and (hopefully) starts to hone their skills in the departments of taste, discernment, and basic critical faculties. (Let’s be honest here: young kids generally don’t know a good movie from a bad one. I once knew a 7-year-old who was obsessed with The Cat in the Hat. The Mike Myers version. Enough said.)

That’s precisely where I was in the summer of 1985: still somewhat child-like in that my enthusiasm for mindless “popcorn” movies was still firing on all cylinders, but just old enough to start realizing that some movies were little more than three good sequences and a lot of hot air. And once you realize that some films are (plainly) made with more care and craftsmanship than others, well, that’s when you start feeling like a film critic. At least in your own head.

I was at the movies at least three times a week in the summer of 1985. I dragged my sister, my parents, my neighborhood pals, and/or my cousin Brian to just about every wide release that hit northeast Philadelphia. I was still a few years away from being confident enough to go see movies by myself — plus, my mom would have said no — but I had no trouble finding people to go see movies with. This was 1985, after all. You had a swimming pool, Atari, or movies. I usually opted for door #3, and while the VHS market was just kicking in (and boy, was that amazing for a young movie freak), there was (and still is) nothing quite like going to the movies — even if you were dragging along some wise-ass friends or a sister who would never admit to liking anything. Like mine did. And still does.

MAY 22, 1985
The summer movie season of 1985 kicked off with the massively successful Rambo: First Blood Part 2, which my grandmother was dying to see (she only liked action and horror movies!), but I was not. Cousin Brian and I ended up sneaking in to see it after we paid to see Brewster’s Millions, which we loved, and even as pre-teens we could tell that Rambo was written on a 4th grade level. We yawned during the set-up, we chuckled at the allegedly dramatic moments, and then we STFU right quick once all the non-stop carnage hit the screen. Even as an already seasoned horror fan, I was kinda shocked at how brutal First Blood Part 2 was.

Later that night my mom asked us how the movie was. We said something like “super gory,” and that’s how she knew we saw Rambo. Because Brewster’s Millions is a comedy. Dammit. Moms can be so crafty.

30 years later: Brewster’s Millions doesn’t hold up so well. It goes without saying that Richard Pryor and John Candy make for an amusing duo, but the film’s simply not that funny. (As a kid I had no idea that a “Walter Hill comedy” was a rare bird indeed.) As for Rambo: First Blood Part 2, I think I like it a little more as an adult than I did as a kid. It’s still paper-thin and aggressively plotless, but the action sequences are pretty damn epic, not to mention frequent.


MAY 24, 1985
I wasn’t a full-bore James Bond enthusiast during my 13th summer, but I was smart enough to appreciate Goldfinger and The Spy Who Loved Me, and so off we went to see A View to a Kill. The movie kinda bored me, and it still doesn’t hold up as one of the better Bond films (unless you’re counting only the Roger Moore entries) but I can tell you one thing: That damn Duran Duran theme song was absolutely everywhere that summer. You should probably listen to it while you read this article, just to get the full effect.


MAY 31, 1985
I grew up on Saturday Night Live. I was able to quote Caddyshack yet I couldn’t remember my multiplication tables. I’d seen Foul Play and Seems Like Old Times at least five times apiece. In other words, I was — and still am — a huge Chevy Chase fan. And this day a whole bunch of us were going to see Fletch. I think my crabby big sister even came along! My friends had already taken to quoting lines from the trailer (“Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.”), so we knew we were in for a blast.

Not only was Fletch just plain old funny, but for me it was also an education in clever comedy writing, crisp storytelling, and the importance of remembering names like Joe Don Baker, Tim Matheson, Geena Davis, M. Emmet Walsh, and Richard Libertini. Bolstered by Chevy’s best lead performance (although I would also accept the first or third Vacation), Fletch holds up just as well today as it did 30 years ago — although I never really thought the “water buffalo” line was all that funny.


JUNE 7, 1985
Oh, man. This was a big one. We were finally going to see it! John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect! Nah, just kidding. That wholly ridiculous “gymnasium exposed” melodrama actually did open on this day, but come on. Even I had no interest in that movie. No, today was all about…The Goonies!

I feel like I should explain how big of an impact the name “Steven Spielberg” had among young movie nerds of the mid-1980s, and so I will. (Ahem.) This man was a god to us. He’d already given us Jaws, Close Encounters, 1941 — which I love, thankyouverymuch — Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Temple of Doom. And while we knew there was a difference between a “Spielberg film” and a “Spielberg production,” the man had such a magical touch throughout the 1980s that we were more than happy to trust his name. (As a producer he’d given us stuff like Used Cars, Poltergeist, and Gremlins, after all.) To say that The Goonies was tailor-made for kids like me and my friends would be an understatement on par with “Spielberg is a decent filmmaker.”

We absolutely went ballistic for The Goonies. (Brian and I ended up seeing it three times that summer.) Yeah, we knew it was little more than an Indiana Jones spin-off, only with kids instead of grown-ups, but that didn’t matter one whit. The Goonies just has so much fun stuff in it. And while the film comes off as kinda editorially sloppy (and more than a little unnecessarily loud!) to these grown-up eyes, this movie will always hold a special place in my heart, simply because it reminds me of sincere enthusiasm for movies, of good ol’ matinee adventure movies and, of course, of Cyndi Lauper.


JUNE 14, 1985
I was a few years too young to fully appreciate the arrival of Prizzi’s Honor, and for some reason we never got around to checking out Secret Admirer (one of the cleverer “teen sex comedies” out there), but I distinctly recall going to see an earnest little sci-fi family flick called D.A.R.Y.L. — and falling fast asleep. Hey, not every weekend was a five-star affair. I did have a life outside the theater, you know. (Not really.)

I’ll bet I went to see The Goonies again.


JUNE 21, 1985
Friday night was Cocoon, with the whole family. Yes, even my miserable sister. Just about every big-budget genre director was shooting for the Spielberg vibe by 1985, and it’d be a rotten lie to say that Ron Howard didn’t pull it off remarkably well with this tale of lovable old people and mysterious space aliens. Cocoon doesn’t seem to generate a whole lot of nostalgia chat on the blogs and the twitters and whatnot, but it still ranks as one of Howard’s best, if it’s me you’re asking. (Avoid the 1988 sequel like it’s made of plague.)

On Saturday afternoon it was a walk to the local theater (less than two blocks away!) to check out Return to Oz, and since my oh-so-cool neighborhood pals had no interest in seeing a kids’ movie, cousin Brian was enlisted to join me. (I always paid, so he never cared.) For my own part, I was dying to see what a sequel to The Wizard of Oz would look like. Frankly I was mystified and annoyed by Return to Oz, and while my opinion of this wacky flick has gone up (if just a little) in the past three decades, it’s really tough to figure out what the filmmakers were going for here. (At the time I had no idea who Walter Murch was. Now that I do, the movie seems even more bizarre.)

So we didn’t love Return to Oz, but the day was about to get a whole lot better. Why? Because Brian and ducked into another theater. And you know what was playing there?

Lifeforce.

Even at 13, I was already a big fan of horror movies. I’d go see anything (obviously) but the new horror flick was usually the first choice. But since the old ladies in the box office wouldn’t sell us tickets to R-rated movies, we’d usually pull this trick. And it always worked.

Anyway, if you’re a young male on the cusp of full puberty, you could do a whole lot worse with two hours than watch Tobe Hooper’s certifiably insane Lifeforce. Not only is it a horror flick about space vampires, viruses, zombies, and the end of the world… but it also features one of the most amazing (and amazingly naked) females you’ll ever see in a sci-fi flick. Her name is Mathilda May, and I do believe she turned thousands of geeky boys into very nerdy men.

Best of all, Lifeforce still holds up (really well!) as sort of a “kitchen sink”-style amalgam of horror, science fiction, apocalyptic fantasy, and, well, jiggle. It’s not my fault the leading lady is buck naked for 45 minutes straight.


JUNE 28, 1985
I must have spent this weekend knee-deep in VHS tapes and/or Atari cartridges. I didn’t go see Pale Rider because I was stupid and didn’t discover the beauty of westerns until my early 20s. And I sure as hell didn’t go see St. Elmo’s Fire, despite being a huge “Brat Pack” fan. It just looked kinda boring. I caught St. Elmo’s Fire about a year later on HBO, and my suspicions were confirmed: It is boring.

Pale Rider, on the other hand, still holds up as one of Clint Eastwood’s coolest westerns. It’s not exactly Unforgiven, but it does have a great cast, a nasty disposition, and some kick-ass gunfights, and that’s really all we demand from a decent western.


JULY 3, 1985
And then, the summer of 1985 exploded.

Back to the Future. Yeah. This movie lit a fire under everyone. Little kids, wise-ass adolescents like me, moms and dads. Even my cranky sister loved it, and she only loves a movie every three or four years. Audiences went nuts; critics were enraptured, and Universal was elated. It wasn’t just a hit. Back to the Future was a pop-culture sensation for at least a month. And the best part? The movie really deserved it. This wasn’t an empty-headed adaptation or a simple sequel that people were going nuts for. It’s a funny, sharp, smart, energetic, and wholly adorable blockbuster.

Say what you will about the sequels — I think they’re both rather charming in their own style — but being there for the birth of Back to the Future was pretty awesome.


JULY 5, 1985
For some reason, Fox decided to release (or dump) Red Sonja, starring Brigitte Nielsen and a contractually obligated Arnold Schwarzenegger, into theaters only two days after the arrival of Back to the Future. “For some reason,” that is, until you actually watch it… which I did… with my angry sister… who would not let me live it down for at least a month. Any time I’d say, “Hey, this movie looks good,” she’d respond with, “Oh, really? As good as Red Sonja?” And she’d pronounce it sone-jah, just to annoy me. I deserved it though. Red Sonja is remarkably bad. And my sister, even at 15, had no freaking patience for bad movies.

Note of mild interest: John Boorman’s quite good The Emerald Forest also opened on this day, but I didn’t see it until a whole lot later.


JULY 12, 1985
You’d think that after The Goonies, Back to the Future, and (especially) Lifeforce, we couldn’t possibly reach a higher quotient of movie geekdom. But this was another very special “three-movie weekend,” and I remember where I was for all three.

Friday night: cousin Brian and I were front and center for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which we both enjoyed but agreed was considerably less bad-ass than The Road Warrior (we didn’t call it Mad Max 2 at that point; we were young), thanks mainly to the over-reliance on all those annoying kids. Kids have no place in a Mad Max movie. Unless they’re watching one, I mean.

On Saturday I tried to make amends with my sister by dragging her to see Joe Dante’s Explorers, which I found to be very enjoyable, but my sister rudely dismissed as “wimpy kid stuff,” or something similarly hurtful. Unfortunately, most moviegoers seemed to agree with my sister: Explorers didn’t do all that well, but I still think it’s a sweet, funny, and admirably silly piece of matinee adventure stuff. I think I should call my sister and make her watch this one again. She’ll probably like it but refuse to admit it.

And then Sunday was a pleasant surprise: My DAD wanted to go see a movie! My dad generally never wanted to go to the movies unless my mom gave him the stink-eye from across the dinner table, thereby decreeing that a family movie night was going to happen, case closed. Or if it was Star Wars. My dad was always down for a Star Wars movie. What was my dad so psyched to see?

Silverado! To this day I’m not sure why my dad wanted to see Silverado yet never expressed interest in Pale Rider, but I was more than happy to play along — and I’m glad I did. Not only is Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado a fantastic “throwback” western full of great actors, it also works as a great gateway flick for those who think they don’t like westerns. Call it a cliche-laden, scrubbed-up, all-star Hollywood western if you like, but it’s still a great flick.


day of the dead poster

JULY 19, 1985
It took a whole lot of fancy footwork to get into George Romero’s Day of the Dead, but good ol’ cousin Brian and I were able to pull it off with a masterful plan. (We snuck in, basically.) And you know what? I didn’t like it. I was shocked! I thought there was too much damn yapping (most of it yelling) by some pretty bad actors. Clearly I was hoping for something more like Dawn of the Dead, and Day just wasn’t cutting it. I left angry.

My sister and I kinda made up this weekend, and all it took was me dragging her to see the goofy but effective youth empowerment flick known as The Legend of Billie Jean. Hey, fair is fair.

I also remember dragging my mom to see The Man with One Red Shoe, mainly because she had a huge crush on Tom Hanks (still does), and all I had to do was mention his name and she was in. (I also had to promise her it wasn’t as raunchy as Bachelor Party.) Unfortunately, this was no Splash. Hell, this wasn’t even Bosom Buddies. It’s a mess of an aimless remake of French film, full of good actors but no laughs. We left the theater confused. When the next Tom Hanks flick showed up a few months later (Volunteers), my mom just said “pass,” which was a good call because that movie also kinda stunk.

Bonus! This weekend also marked the 1985 re-release of E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial. Yes, this sort of re-release was pretty common back then.


JULY 26, 1985
You probably won’t find a weirder weekend than this one. For the grown-ups: Kiss of the Spider Woman, which wasn’t actually about Marvel’s Spider-Woman, and therefore I had no interest. For the kids, Disney released The Black Cauldron, which may still stand as the studio’s most egregiously underrated feature.

For everyone else? Chevy Chase’s second outing as Clark Griswold in European Vacation. Yeah. It’s the kind of movie that you probably shouldn’t revisit if you have some fond memories, simply because it’s just not all that funny. A few good bits here and there (“Big Ben! Parliament!”) but mostly it’s a simplistic retread of the original, only in slightly cooler locations.

And just to prove that I’d see just about anything then: Today also marked the release of The Heavenly Kid, which I paid to see. Ever heard of it? No? Keep it that way.


AUGUST 2, 1985
Another wildly eclectic weekend at the 1985 multiplexes! Got little kids? You go see Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird, which is almost as good as a high-end Muppet movie, and that’s pretty high praise.

Got a date? You’d take him or her to see Fright Night, a low-key horror cult classic that combines Rear Window and vampire lore to consistently entertaining effect. There’s a reason that Tom Holland’s Fright Night is still well-regarded after three decades and is (at least) popular enough to warrant a not-bad remake: It’s because it’s both funny and scary, plus it features some great work from folks like Chris Sarandon and the late, great Roddy McDowall.

Don’t have a date? You might prefer John Hughes’ Weird Science, in which two dopey nerds create a beautiful woman with a computer! Yes! In 1985! We can’t even do that now, and it’s 30 years later! I was probably a bit too young to fully appreciate the flick’s salacious premise, but as the title suggests, there’s also a lot of weird stuff going on here. Although not as highly regarded as Mr. Hughes’ more straight-faced teen classics, you’ll still find a whole lot of Weird Science fans out there, which is pretty amazing when you realize it never got a sequel or a remake. Yet.


AUGUST 9, 1985
This is the day we got three movies I really liked — and one movie that probably changed my life.

My Science Project is virtually forgotten these days, but it’s noteworthy in that A) it’s a fairly entertaining flick about two nerdy kids who accidentally fracture time with their science project, and B) it marked the big comeback of Dennis Hopper, and C) it was playing on a double feature with the brand-new Real Genius — and that was the one we really wanted to see.

Starring Val Kilmer at his most youthful and sarcastic self, Real Genius is about a gang of college brainiacs who wage war against their wildly conniving dean. And for a kid who’d seen Top Secret! three times, Kilmer was pretty much the epitome of cool. I actually didn’t like Real Genius way back then (I was expecting it to be a broad satire of college movies, which it isn’t), but thanks to a witty script and a great ensemble, it holds up surprisingly well today.

For some reason it was my mom who brought up going to see Summer Rental. I think she probably loved Splash so damn much that she’d now see anything starring Tom Hanks and/or John Candy. Even as a kid I could tell that Summer Rental was a paper-thin vehicle for the always-charming Candy, but the movie is so light and amiable I just didn’t care. It’s not much more than another “vacation from hell” feature-length sitcom, and I don’t know if it ever made me laugh out loud, but there’s always something to be said for a light comedy that you can watch with your mom and not worry about non-stop vulgarity. (Like what happened when my parents took me to see Bachelor Party the year before. Good lord was that embarrassing.)

So that sounds like a pretty solid trio of movies for one weekend, right? Wrong.

Because this was the weekend that Pee Wee’s Big Adventure came out — and everyone I know went nuts for that movie. We had no idea that director Tim Burton would turn into the filmmaking giant he is today, but we could definitely tell that this was a strange, novel, and very special little movie. I’ve seen it at least ten times since 1985 and, frankly speaking, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure simply never gets old.


AUGUST 16, 1985
You could search through every single Friday of the 1980s and not find a wackier multiple-release day than 8/16/85:

American Flyers — If you love bicycle racing, then you’ve probably already seen 1979’s Breaking Away at least ten times, but screenwriter Steve Tesich (and consistently solid 1980s director John Badham) returned to the sport one more time with this great little relic from 1985. Breaking Away might be the better film overall, but this is the one I saw in a theater, and I remember my pals clapping and cheering during the final race. And we didn’t even know who the lead actor was. (It was Kevin Costner, whom I only knew from Silverado at that point. He went on to have a rather prolific career.)

Year of the Dragon — I didn’t see it. Looked like something my dad would have enjoyed (aka boring), and I was too young to know who Michael Cimino was back then. Plus Mickey Rourke was pretty creepy. (I saw the film several years later. I didn’t like it.)

The Bride — I actually dragged my mom to see this bizarre Bride of Frankenstein rendition in which Sting creates Jennifer Beals in a lab. I didn’t think much of the movie (aside from a subplot involving the escaped creature and his new dwarf pal), but my mother actually loved the thing. So I kept my mouth shut and let her enjoy it. Which wasn’t easy for me.

Volunteers – I wasn’t about to ask my parents if I could see another R-rated Tom Hanks movie after the humiliating Bachelor Party fiasco, so cousin Brian and I snuck into see this flick on one boring weeknight. We were not entertained. Volunteers was touted as the big reunion for Splash stars Hanks and Candy, but this “peace corps farce/loose riff on David Lean epics” clearly wasn’t made for geeky 13-year-olds. Or anyone else, really.

Return of the Living Dead — Hoo boy. What a blast. Me, cousin Brian, two school pals, and one little brother (age 7) bought tickets for something else and casually waltzed into this theater like the world’s coolest criminals. (Actually we were probably loud dorks about it.) All we knew for sure was that it was a non-Romero zombie movie — and the trailer was amazing. Suffice to say that Return of the Living Dead was tailor-made for adolescents of our particular variety, and we enjoyed every gory bite of this insane horror/comedy. (Also it had explicit female nudity, which was always a big plus in our book.) My friend’s 7-year-old brother was both elated and terrified. If you’re a big fan of contemporary zombie cinema, I cannot recommend this one strongly enough.


AUGUST 23, 1985
With the summer movie season winding down, it was time for a Ghostbusters re-release! Sure, it had only come out the previous summer, but this was the dawn of the VHS era, which meant that theatrical re-releases were still pretty exciting.

Oh, yeah. We also got the werewolf farce known as Teen Wolf and the upbeat suicide comedy Better Off Dead on this date. Bet you’re a little jealous of that double feature. Both films have gone on to become cult classics, although I’ve never been all that fan of the silly *Teen Wolf. Better Off Dead, on the other hand, remains a wonderfully strange and endlessly quotable piece of mid-‘80s teen movie lunacy.

But wait! There’s more! Anyone remember Godzilla 1985? No? Good. Keep it that way. That came out today, as did Warning Sign, a virtually forgotten sci-fi/horror/disaster/sorta-zombie movie starring Sam Waterston and Kathleen Quinlan. Not surprisingly, cousin Brian and I loved this one too.


AUGUST 30, 1985
The summer movie season of 1985 winds to a close with a few colorful tidbits, such as the enjoyably absurd American Ninja (which I loved), the “outrageous” sex farce Compromising Positions (which I did not understand), a very welcome re-release of Gremlins, and a fantastically nasty Paul Verhoeven film called Flesh + Blood, which I’ve seen at least five times since 1985.

In September we all had to go back to school, which sucked, but we were already looking ahead to Christmas break. We were really curious about movies called Spies Like Us, Young Sherlock Holmes, and Clue. Oooh, and Rocky 4!


Scott Weinberg is a film critic of 15-plus years for FEARnet, Cinematical, Nerdist, The Horror Show, Geek Nation, and others. He tweets at @scotteweinberg.

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