Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (left), Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and Back To The Future
Photo: Sunset Boulevard (Getty Images), Universal Pictures/Handout (Getty Images), Screenshot: Hulu

Every season of Stranger Things depicts another chapter in the peculiar history of Hawkins, Indiana, the American heartland’s lightning rod for paranormal activity circa 1980-something. And whenever the forces of the Upside Down marshal anew, the question is raised: What fondly remembered pop culture from the era will they pull from this time? Following two previous seasons steeped in Spielbergian majesty and blockbuster sequel bluster, Stranger Things 3 sends Eleven and friends on a summer vacation with shades of the ’80s finest mall-dwelling teen comedies, pyrotechnic shoot-’em-ups, and practical-effects gross-outs. With that in mind, The A.V. Club dug into the video-store shelves to pick out 10 movies we felt reflected the tone, spirit, and motifs of this latest Stranger Things season. Not every movie in this list is necessarily a reference point for Stranger Things 3—think of them more as recommended mood-setters for the next eight episodes. (Or, if you’re a member of the anti-Hawkins camp, counterprogramming for the long weekend ahead.)

1. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)

Malls are an endangered species, and we’d challenge any child of the 80s to not get wistful while watching the opening minutes of 1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, wherein dolled-up teens suck down slices, rip tickets at the local cinema, and lock eyes on adjacent escalators. Fast Times, a feature adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s book about going undercover at a San Diego high school, is about much, much more than the mall, but the capitalist hub does operate as a sanctuary for the film’s deep ensemble, a gathering place uniting the story’s disparate cast of characters, from starry-eyed sophomores Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) to the unsavory likes of Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) and Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). You went to the mall to shop, sure, but you also went because it’s where people went. You never knew who you were going to find in the food court. [Randall Colburn]


2. Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

If Fast Times At Ridgemont High sparks nostalgia for the mall, George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead imbues it with a healthy dose of dread. Desolate yet fully stocked, the mall at the center of Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead sequel becomes a safe haven for the film’s leads, a supply-rich hideout from the lumbering zombie hordes outside. But the undead keep coming, determined as it were to return to the capitalist comforts they devoured in life. Romero’s commentary isn’t subtle, but why should it be? The consumer culture exemplified by the mall has the potential to zombify in its own way. It also, by creating its own manufactured, curated hub, serves to separate the locals from the larger community. Shiny as they might be, there’s a darkness beneath all the blinking lights. [Randall Colburn]

3. Halloween II (1981)

The second Halloween wasn’t the first slasher sequel—Friday The 13th Part II beat it to the theaters by six months in 1981—but it was the first of a particular type of slasher sequel, one in which the survivors of the previous film must contend with an evil that managed to prevail after the credits rolled. Picking things back up on the night of October 31, 1978, Halloween II moves the action from suburban streets to the hallways of Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, where masked killer Michael Myers continues his pursuit of a traumatized Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). While paling in comparison to its supremely taut predecessor, Halloween II introduces the notion that Laurie and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) will never fully be able to separate themselves from what they experienced that night, a theme that resonated all the way through Halloween’s 2018 relaunch (even if that film erases this one, and all other sequels, from the franchise’s continuity). [Erik Adams]


4. The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World (itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?) is foaming over with gorgeous grotesqueries, the likes of which unspool with practical effects that, nearly 40 years later, still manage to drop jaws. The story of American researchers in Antarctica who encounter a parasitic organism with a talent for imitation, The Thing breaks, mangles, and melts the human (and animal) body in ways as sickening as they are fascinating. The resulting paranoia spreading throughout the team is redolent of no shortage of American anxieties, the foremost of them being the U.S.’s penchant for post-war fearmongering of foreign assimilation. If one person is corrupted then everybody is corrupted. How does one ever know who’s actually themselves? [Randall Colburn]


5. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)

The second cinematic adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers likewise updated a classic of Red Scare paranoia for an era of new dread and improved special-effects technology, channeling the spirit of post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers in its depiction of an American metropolis besieged by alien pod people. Their emotionless hordes leave an indelible impression, as do the shadows director Philip Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman throw across the streets of San Francisco and the cast’s faces. It’s a familiar version of the world as it existed near the end of the 1970s, shattered in terrifyingly unfamiliar ways, from the shriek emitted by the duplicates to one harrowing example of body snatching gone awry. The Thing gives you a reason to distrust a handful of people; Kaufman moves his stars through whole city blocks of strangers who look dead-eyed and suspicious even before they start pitching the protagonists on giving up and giving in to the space spores. [Erik Adams]


6. The Blob (1988)

One more from the goopy ranks of updated drive-in fare that began with Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, slithered its way through The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and wound up absorbing the 1958 creature feature that pits Steve McQueen against the most deadly jelly in the universe. The 1988 version of The Blob isn’t nearly as good as any of those other films, but it is a marvel of visual effects, the titular goo blown up into a writhing pink mass that has a tendency for giving its next victims a preview of a suffocated fate where their limbs melt and their faces slide right off their skulls. There’s an attempt by the government to get the oozing terror under control, but they’re no match for a leather-jacketed Kevin Dillon, sporting a coiffure that could inspire envy in Steve Harrington and Billy Hargrove alike. [Erik Adams]


7. Back To The Future (1985)

Released on July 3, 1985, Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future knotted up science fiction, adventure, comedy, and teen angst in ways that prove irresistible to this day. Marty McFly’s accidental journey back in time more or less terrorizes the future in which he exists, especially once he manages to ensure his parents never actually fall in love. There’s something perverse about the film—Marty’s mom falls in love with him instead—but it’s exactly that willingness to toy with taboo that makes the stakes as high as they are. Balancing it all out, though, are the film’s cartoonish qualities, which encompass Christopher Lloyd’s eccentric performance, the over-the-top villainy of bully Biff Tannen, and the mere concept of a time-traveling Delorean that runs on precarious tubes of plutonium. Oh, and let us not forget those goddamned Libyans. [Randall Colburn]


8. Dead And Buried (1981)

Something is very wrong in Potter’s Bluff, and Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) is the last one to know about it in Gary Sherman’s 1981 paranoid Gothic chiller Dead And Buried. Although by day, everything seems normal in this seaside tourist town, at night, both visitors and locals alike are dying and coming back… changed. Gillis’ investigation leads him into a web of conspiracy and black magic, led by a very creepy mortician who seems to have the whole town under his spell. More atmospheric and eerie than your average B-horror movie, Dead And Buried was co-written by Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and boasts effects makeup by the legendary Stan Winston. [Katie Rife]


9. Night Of The Comet (1984)

Is Night Of The Comet a post-apocalyptic movie with a mall in it, or a mall movie with an apocalypse in it? Either way, after realizing that they appear to be the only survivors of a mysterious comet that wiped out most of humanity the night before, sisters Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Sam (Kelli Maroney) do what most Southern California teenagers would do in 1984: They go to the mall. That decision soon puts Reggie and Sam in conflict with a gang of fellow survivors, but for a little while, at least, they get to enjoy a shopping spree with no credit card required. They do bring along automatic weaponry in case of emergency, however, a detail that ultimately tips the cinematic scales in favor of the “post-apocalyptic” label. [Katie Rife]


10. Just One Of The Guys (1985)

Although the poster for Lisa Gottlieb’s gender-bending 1985 teen comedy Just One Of The Guys shows our protagonist Terry (Joyce Hyper) holding two football helmets in front of her chest, in the film Terry is hardly a jock. In fact, she’s more of an A/V club type—specifically, an aspiring newspaper reporter who’s convinced that no one takes her seriously because she’s just too gosh darned pretty. (A problem we’ve all had at some point, we’re sure.) After being passed over for her dream internship, Terry radically reinvents herself and enrolls in a rival high school as a guy—also named Terry—convinced that her new identity will finally get her the respect she deserves as a writer. We won’t give away whether that turns out to be true, but we will note that the subsequent deconstruction of gender identity and the teen trans experience that Gottlieb smuggles into this otherwise campy ’80s artifact is a story worth reporting in itself. [Katie Rife]


Managing editor, The A.V. Club

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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