"Red Dawn" (1984) Movie Review

original theatrical poster
original theatrical poster | Source

RED DAWN (1984) - Directed by John Milius

Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all of our ships at sea! It's time for yet another installment of IT CAME FROM THE BARGAIN BIN, the Hub series where we dissect some of the most affordable films ever found on DVD. Tonight your humble narrator will be taking on 1984's controversial cult classic RED DAWN - the anti-"Brat Pack" action film where a virtual who's-who of '80s teen cinema (Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson) takes up arms to defend their small Colorado town against Communist invaders. It had been years since I'd last seen this movie but when I found the DVD at a local thrift store for the price of one thin dollar (what a steal!) I simply couldn't resist.

A note before pressing "play" on this movie: depending on who you talk to, "Red Dawn" is either one of the most bad-ass action movies of the 1980s, or an outdated, utterly absurd piece of Cold War propaganda. After viewing it last night and taking into account the time period in which it was made, I'd say I land somewhere in the middle. Though "Red Dawn" seems hilariously over-the-top and paranoid now, one must keep in mind that the Cold War was still in full swing when it was released in 1984. In Hollywood and in real life, the U.S.S.R. was still the world's number one bad guy, which almost (note I said "almost ") makes the events of this film seem plausible. A brief pre-title crawl informs the audience that Russia has suffered its worst wheat harvest in over 50 years, several nations have withdrawn from NATO, and that Mexico has fallen to a Communist uprising. The camera then takes us on a tour through the Norman Rockwell-esque streets of Calumet, Colorado on a typical Autumn morning. Despite the bad vibes building around the world, all seems right with this small town. The sun is shining, birds are tweeting, and God is in his Heaven as Jed Eckert (Swayze) drops his younger brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) and several of their friends off at school. Suddenly, Matt's first period history class is rudely interrupted by a squadron of mysterious paratroopers landing in the field outside. When the intruders open fire on the school building, all hell well and truly breaks loose. World War III has landed on Calumet's doorstep, and Jed quickly speeds back to the school, grabs Matt and his pals, and they head off into the surrounding mountains (after a quick stop at the local outdoorsman's store to stock up on guns, food and supplies) to hide out from the invaders.




As Jed and the boys hole up in the forest honing their hunting-rifle and bow-and-arrow skills, Calumet becomes Occupied Territory, controlled by a combination of Cuban and Russian forces. In a series of scenes designed to play on viewers' worst fears about the Red Threat, we see Communist soldiers marching through the small town streets, Soviet tanks on every corner, and we learn that any citizens who owned guns or were otherwise deemed potentially dangerous (including Jed and Matt's Dad, played by Harry Dean Stanton) have been packed off to "re-education camps." If "Red Dawn" had stayed on this track and became a treatise showing us what America would be like under Soviet rule, it might've been a much scarier film. However, this is an action flick, so they show just enough scenes of red blooded Americans bein' mistreated by the bad guys to get everyone in the audience good and mad, then we return to the saga of Jed and his gang, who've formed a guerrilla fighting force (dubbed "The Wolverines" after their high school mascot) and are now going all Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos on the bad guys. Striking against the Commies by day and hiding in the hills by night, the Wolverines start out as a minor annoyance but eventually develop into a serious threat to the Communists' control of the region. The local commandant, Colonel Bella (Ron O'Neal) eventually declares an all out war against the insurgency, leading to much gun fire, lotsa stuff blowin' up, and eventually, a much bleaker ending than some viewers might anticipate.


"Red Dawn" was met with mixed critical reviews in 1984 but was a box office hit, earning $40 million against a budget of $4 million. As time wore on and changes to world history and current events made the film's story outdated, it became regarded as an interesting relic of the '80s, but maintained a strong cult following. The performances from its then-young cast are suitably intense (particularly Swayze as the troubled leader "Jed" and C. Thomas Howell as "Robert," an amped-up member of the Wolverines who seems to enjoy killing those Russkies a little too much) which fortunately elevates the movie's slight script. I'm not going to lie to you, it's also a load of sadistic fun watching Swayze, a pre-"Winning!" Charlie Sheen, "Dirty Dancing's" Jennifer Grey and Lea "Back to the Future" Thompson gleefully killin' Commies for Mommy! The always-welcome Powers Boothe also drops in (literally) to lend some world-weary gravitas as a downed Air Force colonel who hooks up with the Wolverines and aids them in their cause.

On a side note, I was in high school when the film was released and had a history teacher who was obsessed with this film. To him, "Red Dawn" was not just a movie, it was a cautionary tale of what could be, and an instruction manual to '80s youth on what we'd have to do to survive! We watched this film in class and for the rest of the school year, we knew that if we wanted to get him to deviate from his lesson plan for a day, all we had to do was mention this movie and he'd be off and running. One tip from "Red Dawn" that sticks with me to this day is this: if the radiator of your pickup truck catches a bullet, you can get back on the road again by plugging up the hole and then urinating into the radiator to replace the lost coolant. (Thankfully I've never had to put that tip to the acid test, but it's good to know.)

Teaser poster for the "Red Dawn" remake, when the bad guys were still Chinese and the film was still supposed to be released in 2010.
Teaser poster for the "Red Dawn" remake, when the bad guys were still Chinese and the film was still supposed to be released in 2010. | Source

"Red Dawn" remake on DVD


Which "Red Dawn" did you like better?

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So what's the deal with the remake?

A big budget remake of "Red Dawn" was supposed to hit theatres in 2010, but the updated film encountered numerous stumbling blocks on its way to the multiplex. The bulk of the highly anticipated remake - starring Chris Hemsworth, Adrienne Palicki, Josh Hutcherson, and Josh Peck - was filmed in 2009 and was slated for a November 2010 release until the movie's post-production phase (in which the sound effects, editing, music scoring, etc. are added to the film) was halted by MGM's descent into bankruptcy. As MGM slowly emerged from Chapter 11 they struck a deal with the independent studio FilmDistrict to complete "Red Dawn," but its troubles weren't over yet. In early 2011 the movie underwent even more last minute editing and re-tooling in response to controversy over the film's choice of villains. In the original script, "Red Dawn's" invaders were Chinese, but after much political outcry (and doubtlessly a realization that China now represents a rather large chunk of Hollywood's foreign box office), the film was tweaked even further so that the bad guys were now North Korean. Interestingly enough, during "Red Dawn's" down time, two of its young stars - who were nobodies when they made the film - have gone on to become legitimate box office draws. Chris Hemsworth has appeared in "Thor" and "The Avengers," while Josh Hutcherson starred in the 2012 box office smash "The Hunger Games." One has to wonder if the film would've ever been completed if these two cast members hadn't suddenly become fast-rising stars.

After years of delays and false starts, the new "Red Dawn" was finally released to theaters on November 21, 2012. It received mostly negative reviews, performed poorly at the box office and faded quickly from movie screens. The "Red Dawn" remake is now available on DVD/Blu-Ray so curious fans who missed out on its brief theatrical run can decide for themselves which film they prefer. I haven't seen the remake yet but I'm fairly confident that the original 1984 film, which is easily obtainable from your nearest local Bargain Bin, will still be the superior version of the story.

"Red Dawn" 2012 Remake Trailer:

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Comments 19 comments

Joe Cogan 5 years ago

Awesome! The only premise I can think of that's sillier than Russians paratrooping into Colorado would be a North Korean invasion of the US. Hope that gets released soon!

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FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx Joe! I'm wondering if the death of Kim Jong Il is going to set back the production/release of the remake any further. They'll probably have to replace any images of him with those of his son via CGI. The producers must be going "@#$%!!!" Haha.

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MorkTheMighty 5 years ago from The land down under

There's something Roger Ebert said in his review of another Milius movie, Flight of the Intruder, which sums up my thoughts on Red Dawn perfectly. I quote:

“Something tells me there's a story behind the filming and editing of "Flight of the Intruder." Why is it smart at some times and dumb at others? Why are such large lapses of consistency allowed in the characters? Why are some scenes tough and others corny? Why does the editing seem so distracting at times? The movie feels like a project that was pulled one way during the filming, and another way during post-production. The result is some good stuff surrounded by a mess.”

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FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx for your comment, Mork. As always, Ebert has a way of cutting through the B.S.

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BWD316 5 years ago from Connecticut

great review, although Red Dawn came out a few years before i was born i still found it interesting and have been waiting for the remake to come out since i heard about it in 2010! When i first saw the movie when i was young, i told my mom about it and she knew about it and told me that when it first came out it scared her lol which means the propaganda worked! Thanks for the update on the remake I always thought the use of China as the new bad guy in the remake would be walking on eggshells, although an invasion by North Korea won't step on anyone's toes it's a little less believable.

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FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx for stopping by, BWD.

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Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

Red Dawn was a very good movie. Who can forget the opening scenes. The late Mr. Swayze was good in it too. As far as being over the top, some think that's what's happening to America now- Red Dawn in slo-mo that is.

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FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

You may be onto somethin' there, Alastar. Thanx for visiting, as always.

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mannyalice 5 years ago

This movie was given to me a couple of Christmas's ago, and never once wanted to see it, did not see it back when it was new nor when it was aired a half thousand times on cable and thanks to blog I finally cracked it open and I have to say the movie was a hoot.

FF, I have no idea who your high school professor was, the fact that he took this movie's 'political message' so serious, tells me that Professor Moonbeam did one too many acid trips or spent too much time with the flat earth society.

The charm of the movie is its silly plot, and that who ever directed this flick, does not seem to take the message of the movie all that serious, the film opens to sort of give you a give feel for the characters and minutes later the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!!!

Some scenes in the movie left me scratching, my head, where the Russians stop and I guess dropped a box of grocery in the middle of the road, and why not only does Jennifer Grey sent to retrieve it but immediately starts eating what the Russkies left behind, maybe its just me, but I would be afraid its poisoned!!!

Powers Boothe was fun as he is always is, and Swayze never was a big fan of his but the dude is good at amping up the intensity.

Like you said it is a relic and fun time capsule that now seems like a hundred years ago, of time when the cold war was on TV news everyday, ABC Network made the 'Day After' about what would happen with a nuclear bomb blew up middle America and President Reagan told the Russkies to tear down that wall.

A fun film, that in a strange way, despite the killings, etc, this action film comes off as almost innocent and naïve. A cool little film and thank you FF for inspiring to take a look at this movie, that I have ignored and would have continued to ignore if it was not for this blog.

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FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx for your post, Manny. I had a similar thought while watching the scene when the Russians left that box of groceries in the road - either that it could've bee poisoned, or at the very least, "Come on guys, don't you know BAIT when you see it?" Haha.

It's been years since I've seen "The Day After" (the "other" big World War III themed movie of the '80s)but if memory serves it was way more depressing than "Red Dawn," which went more for the flag waving, butt kicking "Kill A Commie For Mommy" direction.

Neither film is great, but each captures a moment in time.

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FatFreddysCat 4 years ago from The Garden State Author

UPDATED with the new trailer for the long-delayed 2012 "Red Dawn" remake!!

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Cogerson 4 years ago from Virginia

Very well done...I like your bargain bin hubs.....I graduated from high school in 1985.....so Red Dawn was a very popular movie for me and my friends....I have probably seen this movie close to 100 times...thanks to it's many viewings on HBO back in the 1980s(I think it was in the contract that HBO was required to show Red Dawn every third movie back then...lol).

Thanks for the new trailer....it was the first time I have seen it.....it looks interesting....and the cast is now super hot with the success of Thor and Hunger Games.....and you get Tom Cruise Jr. as well.

Voted up and awesome...thanks for taking me down memory lane.


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FatFreddysCat 4 years ago from The Garden State Author

Always good to hear from you Cogerson. Glad you dug the Hub.

...and "Wwwwwoooollllveriiiiiiiiiiiines!" right back atcha!!

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FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Updated with some info about the ill-fated "Red Dawn" remake, which hits DVD this week.

Asashii 3 years ago

yeah growing up in the 80's myself, i always hated that people did(don't) think that the Communist threat and war with russia wasn't real. it was real starting with the Cuban missle crysis in the 60's. i am not surprised about a bunch of Mountain kids picking up arms and going commando, i was breaking down guns and shotting when i was twelve, so its all reality to me. and what kid in the 80's( unless you were a shut in ) didn't know their neck of the woods like the back of their hand. well a country boy can survive. the movie as the timeline progressed so did the evolution of these characters. this movie is what movies just don't get right anymore and that's being EPIC!

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FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanks for the comment, Asashii - I agree, for the time it was made, the flick was pretty believable.

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FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author


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kethdredd 19 months ago

WOLVERINES! I still love this movie today, and I'm happy to report that I've passed it on to my son. The thing I was unable to describe to him was how the Cold War made it seem somehow plausible and real. It is difficult to describe.

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FatFreddysCat 19 months ago from The Garden State Author

Yeah, it's funny how something like this movie seemed so realistic and scary at the time but all these years later it's actually kind of silly, haha. Still a great action/adventure flick tho!

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