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Good Road Movies (1980-85): Into the Void

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Michael Taylor itcherThe road movies of the 80s flirted with violence, nihilism, coming of age and midlife crisis, especially in films like ‘Fandango’, ‘Lost in America’ and ‘The Sure Thing’. ~ Michael Taylor

Soul Searching on the Open Road

The dawn of the 80s were paved with daunting changes – thanks to Reaganism – a hollow focus on materialism, and the fear of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union.

But there were tradeoffs: a shedding of 70s cynicism, escapist cinema, video games and new styles of music offered thrills and distractions to the trouble of the day.

Car culture was also alive in well in America, and films honed in on our love for the open road, and all the adventure that entails, be it hormonal, financial or adrenaline thrills.

But cinema of the era also acknowledged the risks of escaping one’s comfort zone with box office hits like ‘The Road Warrior’, ‘Paris, Texas’, ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ and ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’.

Now, let’s look at some other good road movies from the 80s that are also worth mentioning.


Riveting Road Movie Recommendations

‘Used Cars’ (Robert Zemeckis, 1980)

“Manuel, this is a picture of 250 cars. I can’t make a deal on a picture. Take these around back and I’ll think of something.”

In this directorial debut from Zemeckis (‘Back to the Future’, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’), Kurt Russell stars as Rudy Russo, a shady car salesman with political ambitions.

He works at a dealership run by his amiable – if floundering – boss Luke (Jack Warden). But after Luke’s mysterious death, Rudy is threatened by a rival dealership, run by Luke’s cutthroat twin brother.

Facing an uphill battle for financial survival, Rudy comes up with scheme after outrageous scheme to compete and honor Luke’s memory.

This culminates in an elaborate plan involving getting 250 cars from Mexico to Phoenix Arizona, resulting in a madcap car chase to make the deadline.

‘Used Cars’ launched the career of Zemeckis, while giving Russell a chance to transition from child star to leading man. The end result is an endearing cult classic.

‘Road Games’ (Richard Franklin, 1981)

“It makes a lot of difference. I think in order to play the game properly we have to know what he thinks of women.”

This tense cat-and-mouse thriller stars Stacey Keach as Patrick Quid, an American trucker driving a big rig in the land down under.

But his trip across the Australian Outback goes off course when he becomes obsessed with stopping a serial killer who is always elusively one step ahead.

But things turn personal when the killer abducts hitchhiker Pamela Rushworth (Jamie Lee Curtis), who Quid befriended a few days prior.

Soon, Quid is falsely accused by the authorities of being the killer, leaving Pamela’s fate in jeopardy. Can he clear his name and reach her before she becomes the next victim?

Australian cinema has become renown for its Ozploitation car chase films thanks to ‘Mad Max’, and while ‘Road Games’ is lesser-known, it’s well worth seeking out.

‘Fandango’ (Kevin Reynolds, 1985)

“There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere, son. It’s a privilege of youth.”

Gardner Barnes (Kevin Costner) is a recent University of Texas college graduate, unsure and aimless about his future in the turbulent early 1970s.

To celebrate this rite of passage, he travels to the Rio Grande with his friends (played by Judd Nelson and Sam Robards), for a weekend full of skydiving, train chasing and romantic flings. And drinking. Lots of drinking.

But the journey is bittersweet: between belly laughs and drunken misadventures, the group (known as “The Groovers”) must confront their transition to adulthood and fears of being drafted to Vietnam.

‘Fandango’ is a thoughtful coming -of-age film sprinkled with gentle humor that launched Costner’s career. While it was a box office flop, its laconic philosophical tone has inspired a devoted cult following.

‘The Sure Thing’ (Rob Reiner, 1985)

“Three thousand miles just to get laid. I really respect that.”

Gib (John Cusack) is a college freshman in New England who keeps striking out with the opposite sex. His buddy at UCLA invites him to visit, explaining that he knows an attractive coed (Nicolette Sheridan) who would be a “sure thing” and end his losing streak.

He sets out on a road trip, California bound, joined by Allison (Daphne Zuniga) a fellow student traveling to UCLA to see her boyfriend. The two have a contentious journey, constantly pushing each other’s buttons, making a long trip feel even longer.

But after arriving at their destination, both start to wonder if opposites attract, and perhaps they’re the ones who belong together.

‘The Sure Thing’ is Rob Reiner’s most underrated film. While not considered as iconic as ‘Stand by Me’, or ‘The Princes Bride’, it’s one of the most engaging teen rom-coms of the 80s.

‘Lost in America’ (Albert Brooks, 1985)

“No more “responsible David”. I’m free! I was responsibly blind, honey. I was a dead man.”

David and Linda Howard (Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty) are disillusioned yuppies who abandon their cushy lifestyle in an attempt to live off the grid.

But traveling cross-country in their RV looking for adventure doesn’t get them very far after they lose their nest egg on a Las Vegas roulette wheel.

In desperate straits, the couple camp out in a nearby Arizona town, trying in vain to get jobs for the lifestyle they’re accustomed to, but can only find minimum wage work. Is the American dream a bummer, and was their old life so bad in comparison?

Despite glowing reviews, ‘Lost’ was only a modest box office success. Perhaps Brooks’ scathing commentary on how baby boomers morphed from radical hippies to uptight yuppies struck too close to home.


Going My Way?

As my film selections illustrate, road movies were an integral component to 1980s cinema, crossing many sub-genres and generations. From comedies to horror and all things in-between, it proved to illuminate the dreams, nightmares and moral dilemmas of the era.

As the decade hit the mid-level mark, there would be even more celluloid highway journeys, which I’ll be covering in my next installment of good road movies from 1985-1990.

But first, I want to hear from you! What underrated 1980s road films do you recall fondly? Be sure to tell me in the comments.

And don’t forget to check out my lists of good road movies from 1970-1975 and 1975-1980, for even recommendations, along with several honorable mentions below.

Honorable Mentions: ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’, ‘Paris, Texas’, ‘The Cannonball Run’, ‘The Road Warrior’, ‘Raising Arizona’, ‘Children of the Corn’, ‘Out of the Blue’, ‘The Loveless’, ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’, ‘Christine’, ‘Starman’, ‘Stranger Than Paradise’.

My name is Michael Taylor and I′m your go-to source for finding the best in Alternative rock in all its various genres, such as Goth, Grunge, Post-punk, Shoegaze, Britpop and Electronica, with some metal thrown in for good measure. Film-wise, I′m all about sci-fi and horror, comic book movies, and cult classics. I love checking out all the best concerts and film events in my hometown of Austin, TX. I′ve written for sites such as Cracked, and I cover all my various pop culture obsessions on my site
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