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Summer of 1985 wrapup

As September 1985 began, summer movies were still in the public consciousness. Turn on the radio and you were likely to hear Pat Benetar’s “Invincible (Theme From The Legend of Billie Jean)” (#12 on the Biilboard charts), Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” (#4), John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” (#2) or Huey Lewis and the News’s “The Power of Love” (#1). August 30th had seen the release of AMERICAN NINJA, a culturally important b-movie and perfect bookend to a season that had started with GYMKATA. Unfortunately I really can’t get away with doing another review of it, because I’ve already done it twice; for my definitive take, read this review of THE 400 BLOWS and click through as I alternate between the five Antoine Doinels and the five AMERICAN NINJAs (a series I retroactively call The 400 Death Blows).

After AMERICAN NINJA, the summer movie season disappeared into the fall like a ninja into a puff of smoke. I know technically I could keep going until September 22nd, but I’m gonna guess nobody’s waiting for me to review PLENTY or SMOOTH TALK. So it’s time for a wrapup.

Pacman2.0 was kind enough to point me to the Siskel & Ebert “Worst Movies of the Summer” episode for evidence of contemporary opinions of the season. I don’t know if this was a representative view, but Gene Siskel says, with disgust, that it “happened to be one of the dullest, most juvenile, most homogenized summer movie seasons in recent memory… we just want to send this one message through this show to corporate Hollywood: no more of this junk, please.”

That’s funny because 35 years later it seems like such an amazing bounty of unusual entertainment! We could guess that just means movies have gotten much worse over the decades, but for comparison I looked at the previous couple of summers to see if they seemed more exciting, adult and diverse. It could be argued that ’84 was better for having grown up movies like THE NATURAL, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE to go with INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, STAR TREK III, GHOSTBUSTERS and GREMLINS, plus some interesting hip ones like STREETS OF FIRE and PURPLE RAIN. But Siskel gave thumbs down to ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and STREETS OF FIRE, so scratch those from the list.

He must’ve forgotten about ’83, though. RETURN OF THE JEDI is a bonafide blockbuster classic, and there was NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION and STRANGE BREW, but otherwise you had, like, OCTOPUSSY, SUPERMAN III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, PORKY’S II: THE NEXT DAY and TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. In their “Stinkers of 1983” special they listed the summer releases KRULL, STROKER ACE and JAWS 3-D, and Siskel said not to ever see a sequel or 3D movie unless someone you trust tells you it’s good. So clearly he wasn’t happy with that summer. If he was comparing it to ’82 (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, ROCKY III, POLTERGEIST, STAR TREK II, E.T., BLADE RUNNER, THE THING, THE SECRET OF NIMH, TRON, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, FRIDAY THE 13TH 3D, THE BEASTMASTER), he was setting himself up for disappointment, since it crushes any summer movie season ever.

For my tastes there’s a great variety of the good shit in ’85, so let me make the case. I was able to enjoy the mainstream family ones, both Spielberg produced (BACK TO THE FUTURE, GOONIES) and Spielberg inspired (COCOON, EXPLORERS). But I’m much more into MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME – a movie with a STAR WARS level of imagination and world building, several iconic characters and locations, an inventive new type of fight scene, a knockout chase scene, layers of meaning that I continue to decode to this day, and even two good Tina Turner songs! None of that is a given in any summer before or since.

I like this trend of kinda dark kid’s fantasy movies: RETURN TO OZ, THE BLACK CAULDRON, you could throw in WARRIORS OF THE WIND maybe. Shooting us with those gloomy early ‘80s magic sorcery beams. If you’re a little older and your standards are a little lower, RED SONJA gave you a decent Saturday afternoon matinee. Or maybe even THE BRIDE.

In the horror department ’85 is hard to deny. DAY OF THE DEAD and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD are, in my view, masterpieces. Also I still like THE STUFF and THE LIFT was at least unique. And there are other important ones I regrettably didn’t revisit (sorry). FRIGHT NIGHT is a classic. I love Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE. And apparently Dario Argento’s PHENOMENA came out in the U.S. in August (though it was the shortened version called CREEPERS).

I wouldn’t mind more straight ahead action on the menu, but RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II is certainly not nothing, AMERICAN NINJA is something of a b-movie classic, CODE OF SILENCE is quite good, I kinda like THE PROTECTOR, GYMKATA gave us some laughs, and PALE RIDER and SILVERADO are good westerns. And then whatever YEAR OF THE DRAGON is – that’s certainly a memorable movie.

I already told you PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE is my favorite comedy of the ‘80s, and REAL GENIUS and BETTER OFF DEAD are worthwhile comedies as well. And we had a Godzilla movie and a Big Bird movie and some other stuff. I’m not the guy to judge what is and isn’t juvenile, but I absolutely don’t consider this selection here dull or homogenized. In an alternate dimension where the world didn’t get knocked on its ass by a virus and all the 2020 movies came out on schedule, I don’t think the new shit could’ve competed with all this. So I want to send this one message through this post to corporate Hollywood: Send. More. Junk. And thank you, Summer of 1985, for being there for me when I needed you.

Before we take off our 1985 Ray Bans and return to the wasteland of contemporary life, let’s honor a few of that summer’s special achievements.

Star of the summer:

Chevy Chase starring in FLETCH and NATIONAL LAMPOON’S EUROPEAN VACATION plus having a cameo in FOLLOW THAT BIRD makes him arguably the most prominent figure. Michael J. Fox and Tom Hanks both starred in two movies, minus the bonus cameo, and Fox got the most attention, being in the biggest hit of the year. But I gotta give it to John Candy for starring in SUMMER RENTAL, being a sidekick in both BREWSTER’S MILLIONS and VOLUNTEERS, and having his own cameo in FOLLOW THAT BIRD. I think overall he contributes more laughs even if none of his movies are as good as FLETCH.

Best FX movie:

I’m surprised there’s not more competition, but it’s definitely RETURN TO OZ. The combination of animatronics, suits and puppets used to create Tic Tock, the Gump, Henrietta, Jack Pumpkinhead, etc., plus the Claymation, makeup, stop motion and all that is unmatched. But I have to give honorable mention to the much lower budget RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (despite the worst efforts of that one guy) and DAY OF THE DEAD (Savini’s best zombie makeup). Special award for most impact in the shortest amount of screen time: the Large Marge shot in PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE.

Most influential movie:

I think it’s gotta be RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. I don’t think it’s very influential anymore, but it was the most popular action movie to imitate all around the world for the rest of the ’80s (eventually surpassed by DIE HARD). The name “Rambo” is still associated with heavily armed or survivalist type people, and the image of a shirtless person with a headband and/or machine gun is still associated with the name “Rambo.” If you had to pick one movie character most associated with the Reagan era, it would be Part-II-era Rambo, right? For better or worse.

Thanks for following along with this, everybody. It gave me a little bit of summer where there might not have been any, and gave me some weird obsessions (for example, I ended up buying the weird WARRIORS OF THE WIND poster where most of the characters depicted are not from the movie).

Below are links to the complete series for anyone who might’ve missed any.





LIFEFORCE (old review)


RED SONJA (old review)
SILVERADO (old review)


FRIGHT NIGHT (old review)
PHENOMENA (old review)
(flashback: FRANKENWEENIE)
AMERICAN NINJA (old review)

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020 at 5:12 pm and is filed under Blog Post (short for weblog). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Summer of 1985 wrapup”

  1. This was a great series. I always enjoy you “Summer Of” series and this one was no exception. I’m only sorry it’s ending. I’ll look forward to the next one.

  2. Always love these retrospectives, but in this Summer Without Movies it’s been especially refreshing to be able to revisit some real classics and find out about a couple I hadn’t heard of (*really* want track down YEAR OF THE DRAGON). Thanks for the work, Vern, it was nice to look forward to these.

  3. Hey, one suggestion. Have you ever thought about having links to your particular summer series or other great series like “Spielberg” and “Lucas Without Star Wars / Star Wars Without Lucas?” I Would totally start reading another, older summer retrospective but those reviews aren’t that easy to isolate in your search tool. You put “Summer” in the window and it fetches a few randomly but there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to go to square one in every particular summer or series of your choice. This is awesome content and it would be great to re-experience as originally published in sequence.

  4. And so ends another great series. Thanks for doing these, Vern, it’s always fun to read them, although I don’t really seem to have any deep connection to 1985. Even the movies that I like (BTTF, Pee-Wee, Fright Night, etc) aren’t a really big part of my life. Also I was only 3 years old, so there aren’t any memories of that time in general, although looking back at it, some of my earliest come from that time. That’s actually really fascinating, although most memories started in 1986. That’s a different topic though.

  5. Man it’s September already. We made it through a movie-less summer and relived 1985. Where does the time go, in both cases?

    I feel like I could just as easily relive ‘86 right now but likely I will also transition into fall or holiday memories. Even before COVID I’ve found myself the last few years reliving seasons of my past concurrently with the new ones.

    I’m not sure 1995 registered with me as significantly at the time but now I watch Goldeneye AND Home for the Holidays every year. And christmas seasons of course each have signpost memories.

    I’ve been dealing with this nostalgia thing for years now. Weirdly, the pandemic has given me more time to explore them, yet I also feel like there’s not enough time. The latter is probably the core of this lookback feeling.

  6. I have some vivid memories of the summer of 1985: Mikhail Gorbatsjov took over in the Soviet Union and gave us some hope after what seemed like a lifetime of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Live Aid proved that rock’n roll beats disco every time and they found the Titanic. But mostly I sat in my basement watching movies on VHS 24/7. Thanks for the reminders, Vern.

  7. Thanks for the suggestion, Ben. I wonder if I should make a page for that? For this one I thought to put a “Summer of 1985” tag so you could click to get all of them, but I haven’t always thought to do that.

  8. Hey, thanks for the shout out! Feel like a bit of a phony because I just found it in a Mental Floss article I happened to stumble upon, but it does provide some interesting context to the year.

    I’ve said this before, but I do think 1984 is the best ever year for “popcorn” films, just for the sheer number of original films, and even a couple of sequels, that have stayed in the pop culture consciousness. Good, bad, there’s a lot there you remember or have never seen but certainly know about.

  9. Thanks, Vern, this is a very fine body of work and the whole thing has been fascinating and a joy. CJ has done great work in pointing out those movies that didn’t gain much audience or cultural cache outside the US, but more than ever what I noticed this time around is how long we had to wait to see some of these things in Europe: this was not my summer of 1985.

    BTTF was a Christmas release in the UK, as was SILVERADO, PALE RIDER and MMBT opened in October, COCOON and FLETCH in September, and so on.

    I have a pretty clear memory of where I was in the summer of 1985 and the movies I can definitely place as having seen that summer were STREETS OF FIRE (which must have been a late night rep screening even then as BREWSTER’S MILLIONS was incoming), INTO THE NIGHT, WITNESS, BREWSTER’S MILLIONS and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (which just sneaked into summer with a 30 August release). Having had to wait, unusually, months in the UK to get to see PARASITE after it opened in the US and elsewhere, it feels like the general narrowing of the global opening window for movies has been a big gain in the last 35 years.

    Not that anything has really opened here, or there, for months, and a trip the cinema feels like a very big step. TENET anyone?

  10. Another great series. Thanks, Vern. And like The Kurgan says, even more this year – although more than just a Summer without Movies, it’s almost a Summer Without Summer.

    A sidenote: Siskel gave a thumbs down to the re-cut-into-chronological-order bastard version of “Once Upon A Time In America.” He considered the recovered edit to be one of the best films of the year, or the decade, I don’t remember which.

  11. Thank you again Vern for helping keep me sane this summer. Reading the Weird Science/Real Genius reviews brought me right back to a boardwalk movie theater they were playing at, where I was coincidentally mere miles from as I read it.

    Most summers I get out to see a lot of flicks i. The theater. Last summer I saw 5 in theaters. This, obviously none. (Which really bummed me put because i finally got my daughter into the theatrical experience). I hope things can return to normalcy next summer. (In all aspects, obviously). But for what it’s worth, this made me feel like I was part of something resembling that experience. Thank you sir

  12. Really enjoyed this series, Vern, thanks for all the great work.

  13. This series was a bright spot in the middle of a real downer of a summer. It’s impressive how much you wrote and how much effort you put into each of these. Just know that it’s appreciated.

    Also, since Star Trek came up when you were discussing the summers of ’84 and ’82, have you ever thought about reviewing the ones with the original cast? I know you’ve already reviewed four, but they’re interesting reflections of their eras. And even the bad ones are strange enough to be worthwhile (although that’s debatable when it comes to the fifth movie). But also, follow your muse. I don’t want to impose on your long term plans or anything.

  14. Y’know, the mention of Star Trek caught my eye as well. I didn’t mention it because I hate to be demanding, but I’m a big ol’ Star Trek nerd and I agree with RBatty024, a runthrough of the movies from an outsider (I guess? Maybe Vern was secretly a huge Sisko fan all along) perspective would be something I’d be really interested in reading.

  15. Just joining the chorus of voices on here to say “Thanks” for this excellent series. Speaking as an old, this was the Summer when I truly came into my full identity as a teenage Shemp – and I can’t tell you how important movies like REAL GENIUS, BETTER OFF DEAD, and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD were and continue to be in my life. Of course, it will ALWAYS be a shame when folks be throwing away a perfectly good white boy like that.

    And if any of you reading this right now are NOT chipping in to Vern’s Patreon, isn’t this an excellent time to start? What better way to say “Thanks for providing us with so much great stuff, Vern” than be setting up a recurring donation to Vern so he can spend time giving us great reviews of movies like GODZILLA ’85 instead of slaving away for The Man in his day job.

    HECK, if enough of us throw cash Vern’s way, he could eventually kick his bosses’ door in, toss his gun and badge on that bastard’s desk, punch him full in the jaw, roundhouse kick out his glass door, and then give a giant, consenting smooch to that sweet secretary that kinda looks like Phoebe Cates on his way outta the building while the music swells in the background and a bunch of kids jump and pump their fists in the air, FREEZE FRAME. CREDITS.

  16. That’s a good idea, RBatty. I genuinely am Star Trek ignorant. I did watch the entire first season of Picard (long story) but otherwise have only seen random episodes here and there. The thing scaring me off is that I’ve watched WRATH OF KHAN a couple times and, although it’s fine, it’s one of those widely loved classics that I just don’t get people falling head over heels for. However, I did really dig watching the whale one, so I like the idea of checking them out in order. I’ll keep it in mind for a time when it feels right.

  17. Awesome, Vern. I didn’t want to push because I’m along for the ride no matter what.

    I’d like to second Shemp’s encouragement to support Vern’s writing if you have the money. I know that everyone’s budget is different, but I’ve been contributing since the Patreon went up, and it’s a great deal when you think about it. I’m always impressed that Vern’s able to get four reviews up every week. And it did seem like there was even more research behind the writing for this series, which must have been incredibly time consuming.

  18. Hmf, interesting and surprising that Vern is a little cool on Wrath of Khan. I can take or leave Star Trek, but I do think that’s a great movie and head and shoulders above any other Star Trek production in any media ever. That’s Kirk at his wiliest best, Spock in his definitive appearance, and Ricardo Montobaln STILL stealing the movie from both of them as a classic, brilliant obsessive. Outsider Nicholas Meyer (who was not a Trekkie but is a very interesting dude) came in and did Trek better than anyone before or since.

    The whale one (part IV) is my second favorite because by then they were out of sci-fi ideas and said fuck it, let’s do a funny one, and it worked. I can’t think of any deep-in-series sequel that broke its own formula quite like that and still pleased everybody. But I still give Wrath of Khan the higher marks because it’s just such a good iteration of that series in its basic form. WORTH ANOTHER LOOK.

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