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The films of the mid-late 80s were defined in many ways by the generation gap. Movies reflected the conflicted emotions of both Baby Boomers and Generation X, dealing with issues of identity and conformity in a decade fueled by empty consumerism and a fractured family unit.
Road films scratched that existential itch in films as varied as ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’ ‘Midnight Run,’ ‘Rainman’ and ‘Near Dark.’
But there were other good road movies that went off the beaten path, be it of dystopian, horror or odd couple variety.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most noteworthy examples.
This Ozploitation curiosity shows a future dystopia where juvenile delinquents are placed into concentration camps that resemble Drive-In theatres.
Satiated by numbing drugs, exploitation films, New Wave music and a fattening diet, they become lethargic captives of the state.
Its latest prisoners are Jimmy ‘Crabs’ and Carmen, a young couple who mistook the camp for a make-out spot. Soon, their own relationship crumbles, as Carmen falls in line, becoming just as lazy and racist as her fellow captives.
Jimmy realizes if he’s to escape this fascist nightmare, it will have to be on his own, and a perilous journey ensues.
‘Dead End Drive-In’ is clearly indebted to its Australian predecessor, ‘The Road Warrior’, mixing dark comedy and political commentary into its post-apocalyptic aesthetic.
“Do you got any idea how much blood jets out of a guy’s neck when his throat’s been slit?”
Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) has a simple task – deliver a car from Chicago to San Diego. But as he reaches the West Texas desert, he stops to pick up hitchhiker, Ryder (Rutger Hauer), who he learns is a serial murderer.
After successfully ejecting Ryder from his vehicle, Halsey thinks he’s given him the slip, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t escape Ryder’s wrath and the trail of bodies he leaves by the roadside.
Soon, he’s blamed for Ryder’s crimes and must evade the authorities while trying to stop his murderous rampage for good.
‘The Hitcher’ was critically reviled for its stylized violence and nihilistic tone. But horror fans knew better and appreciated it for the thrilling genre exercise that it is.
“Maybe tomorrow it will be our world again.”
The sole directorial effort by horror novelist, Stephen King, has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst reviewed films of its era, but it’s a guilty pleasure nonetheless.
When a comet flies close to the Earth, its radioactive fallout causes machines to turn against their owners, including automobiles.
This leads into a deadly showdown at a North Carolina truck stop, where a local cook (Emilio Estevez) must band together with a group of truckers to stop killer big rigs from wiping them out by vehicular homicide.
King has distanced himself from the film, blaming its flaws on his former drug addiction that impaired his judgment (borne by a lawsuit for unsafe work practices.)
Be that as it may, ‘Maximum Overdrive’ has a sense of inspired lunacy that thrills despite its flaws, with some impressively inspired car chase carnage.
“Remember, no matter what, it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”
Lulu (Melanie Griffith) is a free-spirited eccentric drawn towards Charles, a straight-laced banker played by Jeff Daniels.
Soon, they become inseparable, embarking on a roller-caster romance, engaging in petty crime and vehicular mayhem on a madcap road trip.
Charles plays along when Lulu asks him to pretend he’s her husband at her high school reunion, but he panics after discovering her real husband, a volatile ex-con (Ray Liotta), will not go away without a fight.
‘Wild’ is a Reagan-era update on 1930s screwball comedies, a mix of big laughs and fast action that would define Demme’s style until his 1991 smash, ‘Silence of the Lambs.’
“There’s the cash register. And right up there’s the television camera. And there’s a nice full face shot. How ’bout a profile?”
This film (scripted by John Carpenter) stars Tommy Lee Jones as Quint, a thief hired by the FBI to steal a data disk from a company under investigation for corruption charges.
But after his act of corporate espionage is put in jeopardy, he hides the tape inside the “Black Moon”, a car prototype capable of reaching speeds of 325 miles per hour (and runs on tap water).
But things grow complicated after the car is stolen by Nina (Linda Hamilton), a professional burglar working for the head of a crime syndicate (Robert Vaughn).
After Quint is pursued by a rogue federal agent and a corporate crony, he has no choice but to steal back the car and the precious cargo inside, no matter the risk.
‘Black Moon Rising’ rises above its lean plot thanks to Jones’s wiseacre performance and some thrilling car chase stunts, making it a must for John Carpenter fanatics and seekers of forgotten B-movies.
“It’s a man’s world, right? But a man will be nothing without a woman.”
Billy Regis (Chris Mulkey) is a crass sexist, caught in a dilemma: his girlfriend Patti (Karen Landry) is pregnant. But he’s also married.
So he sets out on a overnight road trip to convince her to not have the child. On the way he picks up his droll buddy Eddie (John Jenkins) to engage in a night of debauchery and conversations that skirt the line between inflated sexual bragaddacio and stark confessional.
But things truly come to a head when Patti confronts Billy about his skewed views on the opposite sex, forcing him to face some hard truths he’s been ignoring for far too long.
‘Patti Rocks’ is one of the most unfairly forgotten films of the 80s, full of machine gun banter that is equally horrible and hilarious. But its echoes are felt in the works of Kevin Smith, as well as the 2004 hit comedy, ‘Sideways.’
As the 80s came to a close, the road movie showed no signs of slowing down. The romantic and soul searching element of a travelogue held immense appeal, especially with generation X, most of whom were of driving age.
This would feed into the films of the 90s, when youth culture seized the zeitgeist, leading into many memorable highway adventures, which I’ll examine in my next installment when I cover good road movies from 1990 to 1995.
But now, I’ll let you take the wheel. What 80s road movies do you feel deserve more acclaim? Be sure and tell me in the comments.
And for even more road movie recommendations, check out my articles covering good road movies from 1970-1975, 1975-1980, and 1980-1985, along with the honorable mentions listed below.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Max: Beyond Thunderdome’, ‘The Wraith’, ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’, ‘Stand by Me’, ‘Down by Law’, ‘Freeway’, ‘Midnight Run’, ‘Candy Mountain’, ‘Near Dark’, ‘Rainman’, ‘Crossroads’.