The end of April is upon us and May brings with it a milestone that’s already making me wistful for one long-gone summer when sold-out matinees were the norm and pure popcorn magic was in the air. Oh, and the price of admission? You could buy two tickets with a $10 and still get change back.
The looming milestone is the 40th anniversary of the Best Movie Summer Ever, also known as the Summer of 1982. That season boasted a celluloid parade of future classics that marched through theaters in such short span of time it was dizzying to behold in real time, especially for fans of sci-fi and fantasy (such as myself).
In 1982, I was an 11-year-old kid in South Florida with a passion for comic books and movies. The weather was a factor in these choices: When it was too hot outside (which was most of the time) I stayed in to read comics. When it was too hot to stay in (which was all summer, since the house wasn't air conditioned) my Mom would take me to one of the movie theaters in the nearby town of Hollywood, Florida, which, just going by the name, certainly sounds like a logical place to find movie theaters. The auditorium was dark and as cold as a carbonite catnap.
I think I saw 8 movies that summer and I knew I was missing out on plenty more, partly because I was too young to get into some of the R-rated fare on my own. I tried to talk her into John Carpenter's The Thing but she wanted nothing to do with its alien autopsies and scorched corpses in the snow. Later that year, in October 1982, I persuaded her to take me to see the gritty 48 Hrs with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte and, wow, was that was an uncomfortable matinee for both of us.
Ah, memories. It was four decades ago but, if you were there, let me remind you what that summer was like. If you weren’t there, try to imagine the extra urgency that would surround a feature film’s theatrical release if there were zero movie streaming and download options, no home video sales or rental, and basic cable was so basic it was barely cable.
Here, take a look at May 1982 releases, which were the opening salvo of a barrage that would set the Summer of 1982 apart from the years before and after it. The May releases were ramping up to the bigger titles that were waiting to square off in June.
May 1982: Rocky III, Annie, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.
The hits began the second week in May with the release of Conan the Barbarian, directed by John Milius and written by Milius and Oliver Stone. A brawny newcomer from the bodybuilding world named Arnold Schwarzenegger was the man swinging the sword in this adventure that can be thought of as a Game of Thrones for the Atari era -- and yes that's a good thing. The result was an international cult classic, a sequel, a remake and, oh, plenty more work for the weight lifter guy.
Speaking of screen muscle, Sly Stallone pulled out all the stops for Rocky III with two new foes (Mr T and Hulk Hogan) plus a knockout theme song that dominated the summer and won an Oscar: Eye of the Tiger by Survivor. See? Now, just like that, it's stuck in your head.
The Road Warrior, the George Miller classic, became an enduring template for post-apocalyptic filmmaking and may have exerted even greater influence on music videos, advertising, and video games. There’s nothing sci-fi about a musical rags-to-riches story set in a Depression Era orphanage, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the songs of Annie still echo in the ears of every generation since the film’s release.
June 1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, The Thing, Firefox, Grease 2, Author! Author!, Megaforce.
What a month! It’s hard to get bigger than Steven Spielberg’s biggest film, which is exactly what E.T. became when it brought its unique magic to the screen with a melding of sci-fi thrills and a bittersweet coming-of-age tale. Beyond the box office records, E.T. flipped the script on traditional Hollywood portrayals of alien life, and spawned a wide array of tie-in successes, including a heart-lit hit by Neil Diamond and a yummy candy craze from Reese’s.
For millions of devoted fans around the world, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains the untouchable flagship among all of Starfleet’s silver screen missions. The Nicholas Meyer film delivers on action, draws directly on canon from the original series, and also contains the single biggest on-screen shock in the history of the Star Trek brand, which (so far) encompasses 13 feature films and 10 television series spread across seven different decades. I’m not spoiling that big emotional moment…not the way Entertainment Tonight ruined it for me and anyone else watching their summer film preview back in 1982.
John Carpenter’s The Thing was far from beloved when it was released and its gory tale of an alien arrival on Earth's Antarctic was the polar opposite of the benevolent E.T., which had a two-week jump on The Thing. The passing years have been much kinder to Carpenter's taut and unnerving horror film, which shares its source material with the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World.
Blade Runner was another sci-fi casualty caught in the colossal wake of Spielberg’s E.T. But the Ridley Scott film’s captivating vision of a futuristic Los Angeles and the film’s layered noir tale of human replicants on an existential rampage have elevated the stylized movie to the stature of a Citizen Kane for sci-fi, which brought Harrison Ford back for the well-regarded 2017 sequel.
Two simple words: “They’re here…” Poltergeist brought the scares in a big way in 1982 and created unforgettable images and scenes are still resonating in the public imagination (and earned the film two sequels in the 1980s and a 2015 remake, as well as countless parodies).
July 1982: Tron, Night Shift, An Officer and a Gentleman, The World According to Garp, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy, The Secret of NIMH, Six Pack, Young Doctors in Love, Zapped!
Tron was a Disney film like no other and a pioneer effort in using computer-generated images in Hollywood filmmaking. It’s another movie that has grown in credibility and acclaim over the years, resulting in an eventual big-budget sequel and influence that can be seen like a lingering glow across film, anime, video games, and the digital arts.
The temperature turned up in a different way in July 1982, too, with the arrival of sexed-up comedies (which were following in ribald footsteps of Porky’s, a March release) and memorable character-driven films, like Night Shift (which established newcomer Michael Keaton) and World According to Garp (which earned Oscar nominations for Glenn Close and John Lithgow) and An Officer and a Gentleman (which earned Louis Gossett Jr. an Oscar).
August 1982: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Friday the 13th Part III, Things are Tough all Over, The Beastmaster, The Pirate Movie, Homework.
The final volley of Summer 1982 popcorn hits has Beastmaster and a Friday the 13th sequel as pure guilty pleasure options, but clearly the class of the month is the classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which was based on a Rolling Stone article by the great Cameron Crowe while he was in his High Fidelity mode as teen reporter covering the antics in a real-world high school. Jeff Spicoli and Mr. Hand were real people. Maybe this means E.T. is real too?
But wait, there's more. Also in theaters in Summer of 1982: The re-release of Disney’s Bambi (1942), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980), all major successes in extended duty as second-chance theatrical offerings. I saw all three of these that summer and the theater was crowded in each instance.
In the final analysis, the Summer of 1982 seems like a million years ago but it also feels like yesterday. I can be transported back easily, too, by the alluring smell of popcorn or the evocative swell of a John Williams score, each an irresistible force of its own in a darkened theater.
Spielberg thoroughly dominated the cineplexes throughout the sublime 1982 season when you consider the historic run by E.T. and the Raiders of the Lost Ark re-release, as well as the success of the Spielberg-produced horror hit Poltergeist. Now, that's the kind of summer you phone home about.