Its portrait of Russia is dated. Its portrait of America is timely—and terrifying.
The middle Reagan years—the fingernail-gnawing, doomsday-clock-watching, pre-perestroika finale of the Cold War—were a dreadful time for movies in general, but they were the heyday of the Armageddon film. The mid-'80s gave us War Games, The Day After, Invasion USA, Testament, Amerika, and The Terminator, and they gave me nightmares. For much of my teens, I had a dream in which I was standing alone, minding my own business, when a huge helicopter gunship would appear from behind a building or a tree or a cliff and start shooting at me. This nightmare was, of course, a tribute to the feverish power of the World War III movie Red Dawn, whose most famous scene involved a Soviet Hind helicopter sneaking up on our American heroes, the "Wolverines," and unleashing a hellfire of bullets against them.
Except for The Terminator, none of the mid-'80s Armageddon movies has had as much enduring influence as 1984's Red Dawn.The film is beloved of American military types. In 2003, the Army named its operation to capture Saddam Hussein "Red Dawn" and dubbed the two Saddam safe houses it was raiding "Wolverine 1" and "Wolverine 2." Recognizing that we're again living in an age of existential dread, MGM recently announced plans to remake Red Dawn. With the Russian army having run rampant over Georgia and the Kremlin hissing over American plans to base a missile defense system in Poland, this seemed the right moment to revisit Red Dawn. I could think of no better way to recall the anxieties of the Cold War than to cheer on the Wolverines again. But Red Dawn did not conjure up the chest-swelling patriotism I felt as a 14-year-old. Instead, it turned out to be disturbing in an entirely unexpected way.
For those arugula-nibbling semi-Americans who've forgotten or never seen it, Red Dawn begins with a Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan paratrooper invasion of Calumet, Colo., a town in the foothills of the Rockies. World War III has begun! A few teenagers, mostly Calumet High football players, escape the initial assault in Patrick Swayze's truck and high-tail it to the mountains. Gradually, under the tutelage of Swayze, a slightly older kid who spent his childhood hunting and camping, they constitute themselves into the Wolverines, a band of guerillas who sabotage the Commie invaders, assassinate soldiers, ambush convoys, and blow up the "Soviet-American Friendship Center." At first, the Soviets retaliate by executing "America the Beautiful"-singing civilians; eventually, they send commando units after the Wolverines. In the incoherent climax, Swayze and his younger brother, played by Charlie Sheen, launch a kamikaze assault on the local Soviet headquarters, leaving exquisite corpses in the snow. Meanwhile, the only two surviving Wolverines escape across the Rockies into Free America.
Red Dawn embodies conservative nutterdom in a way few films not made by Mel Gibson have ever managed. If Ann Coulter made a movie, it would look like Red Dawn.This is thanks to director John Milius. Apocalypse Now screenwriter, Conan the Barbarian auteur, and former NRA board member, Milius is a military zealot, infatuated with the warrior code. Red Dawn is really a fetish movie, an ode to guns and blood. The 2007 Guinness Book of World Records judged Red Dawn the most violent movie in history. (Amazing it has not lost this title to a film of the Saw generation, isn't it?) The only extra worth the name on the 2007 collector's edition DVD is the "Carnage Counter," an on-screen census of RPG rounds fired, civilians executed, Soviets killed, and Wolverines martyred. Blood lust saturates the movie: The camera lingers on wounds and corpses; C. Thomas Howell becomes a man by drinking blood; a feral Harry Dean Stanton, playing a gun nut imprisoned by the Soviets, screams at his Wolverine sons, "Avenge me! Avenge me!"
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Clips from Red Dawn © 1984 MGM/UA Entertainment. All rights reserved.