Greed and glitter: a journey through 1980s cinema, in 25 films. (Part III)

Rampaging monsters, glowing kung fu masters and an out-of-control freight train hitch a ride on our journey through 1980s cinema.

Greed and glitter: a journey through 1980s cinema, in 25 films. (Part III)

This is the third part of my series exploring the unique cinema of the 1980s, and how it reflected many of the cultural values and conversations that were going on during that remarkable time. Far from being an era known primarily for kitschy nostalgia, there was a lot going on in the ’80s, and its movies reflected it. This is not a “best-of” list or even a “my favorites” list, and I’ve deliberately tried to select films that might not appear on any of those sorts of lists. Part I, examining films from 1980 and 1981, is herePart II, covering 1982 and 1983, is here. This installment covers the middle of the decade, 1984 and 1985.

Revenge of the Nerds (1984; Jeff Kanew, Director)

Revenge of the Nerds is essentially the definition of a film that has not aged well. You simply could not make a picture like this today. Its raunchy lowbrow humor is common enough in our time, but in the 2020s a movie depicting college as a light-hearted laugh riot–where many of the punchlines involve binge drinking, homophobic hazing rituals and date rape–would be pretty disturbing, especially given how colleges and universities have become deeply contested spaces in the last 40 years. But Revenge of the Nerds is perfectly in line with 1980s cultural assumptions: that people, especially young people, are defined primarily by the stereotypical social group they fall into, and that upward mobility in a social sense is a universal aspiration. Almost every 1980s film that depicts young people plays on these basic assumptions.

The film centers around a group of “nerds”–bookish, socially awkward young men–who come to the fictional Adams College and immediately come into conflict with another group, the boorish “jocks” (athletes). The conflict and one-upmanship between these groups drives the whole plot. There are some genuinely funny bits, and the “musical showdown” number at the end is a copious binge of ’80s tropes from break-dancing to cheesy techno-pop music. But the amount of paint-blistering cringe on display in this film is virtually overwhelming. There are racial subtexts--the mostly white nerds join a traditionally all-Black fraternity, essentially to leverage the benefits--and a great deal of homophobia, despite the film attempting to portray gay characters in a positive way. The true deal killer here, though, is a sequence involving Robert Carradine in a Darth Vader mask, date-raping a cheerleader through mistaken identity. This is difficult to watch today. In 1984 it was (supposedly) innocent fun. Of the films on this list that demonstrate how different a time the 1980s were compared to today, Revenge of the Nerds does that in probably the starkest terms.