Yesterday sci-fi icon (and ex-pro WWE Hall of Fame wrestler) Roddy Piper died at age 61 of a heart attack in his sleep, a great loss to his family, friends, and fans around the world. For me, and undoubtedly thousands of others throughout this weekend, that meant my own tribute: dropping in to revisit the Blu-ray of John Carpenter’s They Live when I arrived home, the classic sci-fi masterwork starring Piper as a modern Sergio Leone-inspired drifter whose curiosity reveals the hero within. And it means queueing up Carpenter’s soundtrack to that film in the car for the next week, including that immensely cool theme that followed Piper around that film. Carpenter said yesterday about Piper, “Devastated to hear the news of my friend Roddy Piper’s passing today. He was a great wrestler, a masterful entertainer and a good friend.”
I barely knew who “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was when I went to the opening of They Live back in November 1988. When the name Roddy Piper appeared on the screen in all caps I made no connection that this was the same guy as the wrestler in the red kilt. The trailer for They Live appeared to be typical B-movie sci-fi horror fare, yet it revealed that the film had some subliminal message concept that was intriguing. For years my friends and family would watch the ads between movies at the Drive-In theater and wait for the furtively inserted single frames that would state in red and white “BUY” and similar sneaky words, presumably to create zombies of us all as we stumbled unwittingly to the concession stand to spend all our dollars on fresh popcorn from O’Dell’s. So the concept was certainly worthy of a cool flick. The movie? It blew me away and I remember talking about it for days. It has remained a standout among cult classics, and if I can proclaim any cult classic as worthy of repeated watching, They Live is #1.
If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s no better time than now. Piper, in an incredibly underplayed performance, stars as a loner trying to keep to himself. He is thrown into the middle of a waking-up-to-reality by a group of grassroots rebels who discover that the wealthier elements of society (plucked right out of the Reagan years) are actually hideous aliens in cloaked bodies, attempting to keep us asleep through subliminal messages in our advertising. When our hero discovers special sunglasses and later contact lenses that show the true world, we soon learn the secret behind the plot and why this is a classic sci-fi film. They Live also has the best of Carpenter’s soundtracks–including the repetitive theme of our hero, following him and leading us through Piper’s dark discoveries. And just like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt is known for its famous San Francisco car chase, here They Live has a standout best fight scene, a hilariously choreographed, iconic, hand-to-hand fight scene between Piper and co-star Keith David that stretches in excess of 15 screen minutes.
Speaking of Steve McQueen, if you ever want to create a list of the coolest performances to ever appear on film, you’d be remiss not to include Piper in They Live in your deliberations. And as cool celebrities go, it goes without saying that the fact Piper wore a kilt already makes him surpass in coolness anyone else around who hasn’t worn one.