Iconic Movie Scenes from the ’80s

You never know where inspiration is going to come from. Earlier in the month before he began contributing to the site, Michael Nazarewycz asked, “Is there a single movie scene more recognizable from the ’80s than Cusack holding that boom box over his head?” Gordon S. Miller responded with “How about Elliot and E.T. flying in front of the moon?” which elicited “Oooh! GOOD pick. That is definitely in the conversation.” When asked what was “the movie scene most recognizable from the ’80s,” this is what a few Sentries came up with.

Jack with an Axe from The Shining (1980) selected by Mule

On the burgeoning cusp of the ’80s we find The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. There are several memorable scenes due to the attention Kubrick pays to visual detail backed by a brilliant musical score and strong performances by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and the young Danny Lloyd.

For my Iconic ’80s scene I’m picking Jack with an axe. You know the one – Jack Torrance has finally snapped all the way and he’s taking a fire axe to the door of the room where his wife and son are locked in trying to stave him off. While he chops away, he quotes the tale of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, he says “Wendy, I’m home”, but more than either of those the line that stuck is of course “Heeere’s Johnny”, the catchphrase from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. No one does completely stark-raving crazy like Nicholson, but what makes this even more memorable is the way the the audience has been following Jack’s slow systematic decline. There is a hint of barely controlled violence lurking under the surface right from the first scene, finally culminating in Jack picking up the axe.

It is also a scene that has reverberations in popular culture, and it’s been richly referenced, quoted, pastiched, and homaged. Not to mention the fact that it’s still really, really unsettling to watch some thirty-odd years later.

Indy Goes for the Idol from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) selected by Mat Brewster

Cinema Sentries

Many years ago I made something of a mix-tape for movies. Between my roommates and myself, we had a few VCRs so I took my favorite scenes from all the movies we owned and dubbed them into a sort-of greatest hits collection. For my opening scene I took one of the greatest opening scenes in the history of film – the brilliant idol snatching, over a crevasse with your whip swinging, being chased by a giant bolder opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I’m too young to have seen it in the theatres when it came out, but I’ve watched it a million times since then and each viewing is just as thrilling as the first. As kids, me and my cousins used to reenact the scene over and over again in the nearby woods that we pretended was a jungle, swinging on vines instead of our whips, and with much smaller rocks assailing ourselves instead of that enormous boulder. I don’t reenact the scene anymore but I’m still mesmerized every time I watch it. From the moment the film opens in the jungle it immediately captures my attention and then steadily pushes down on the throttle, building and building the excitement until that boulder comes flying down ready to smash Indiana Jones like an ant, and I find myself compulsively sweating, biting my nails to their nubs, and listening to my heart go boom, boom, boom until its about to burst and then BAM he’s out into the jungle again, safe and sound. Until he’s not, and the tension builds again in another scene.

Creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made Raiders as a throwback to all the film serials from the 1930s and ’40s that featured non-stop action and numerous cliff-hangers. I never saw those movies either, but Raiders has kept me on the edge of my seat now for more than 20 years and its opening scene remains one of my favorite movie moments ever.

E.T. Goes Home from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) selected by Mil Peliculas

I think I’ve really narrowed down the most recognizable movie scene from the ’80s. It happened in 1982, and the movie was E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. When I was asked this question, the first image that came to mind was E.T.’s finger illuminating the wide-eyed Eliot’s face as E.T. heals the little guy’s cut finger. But after I thought more about the film, the scene that has the most emotional resonance for me is when E.T. is going home.

I watched the clip again recently and even in that short clip, it really packs a punch. E.T. is saying goodbye to his friend, he wants Eliot to come with him, Eliot wants him to stay, but what’s really going on is Eliot is saying goodbye to his childhood, feeling the first stinging pain of loss, “Ouch” he says, referring to his heart. Eliot will never be the same again. E.T. is himself a child, or at least is presented as very child-like, and when that finger lights up again, he puts it to Eliot’s head and says, “I’ll be right here.” As if to say Eliot will always remember him, but really to tell Eliot not to let that childlike wonder disappear. This is the motivating concept behind Steven Spielberg’s success, throughout the ’80s and beyond, and it really set the tone for so many other movies of the decade…and beyond.

Facing Down Mr. Stay Puft from Ghostbusters (1984) selected by Sombrero Grande

During their climactic battle with Gozer atop Dana Barret’s apartment building, the Ghostbusters are issued a challenge by the “prehistoric bitch:” to choose the form that Gozer the Traveler will take to bring about of their destruction. The guys try to empty their heads completely, assuming that if no one thinks of anything, the Traveler won’t be able to take form and nothing will happen. Unfortunately, for Ray, something “just pops in there.”

”I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us.”

The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the unholy love-child of the Pillsbury Dough Boy and Michelin Man, a conglomeration of all the happiest, most lovable, cheerful consumer product mascots of the time, slowly begins lumbering towards them. At first the audience is only given fleeting glimpses of Mr. Stay Puft between the New York City skyscrapers and water towers while his giant, marshmallow footsteps ominously boom in the distance. Then, as Ray reveals, “it’s the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man,” he steps into view, towering over a panicking populace like a puffy white Godzilla sporting a sailor’s hat and Bob’s Big Boy smile.

The hilarious contradiction between the lovable appearance of the Marshmallow Man and the terror that surrounds his presence soon disappears when his big eyes spy his four targets for destruction. This Marshmallow Man is a monster unleashed and the Ghostbusters, “terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought,” are unable to do anything other than lightly toast him with their proton packs as he undeterred still manages to climb up the apartment building. All this builds to the classic moment where Egon suggests that they do the previously unthinkable and “cross the streams” to blast Gozer out of their dimension once and for all.

Dancing Together in the Library from The Breakfast Club (1985) selected by Kit O’Toole

Let’s face it: you can’t discuss 1980s films without mentioning John Hughes. His movies combining humor with teenage angst have become synonymous with the decade, from Sixteen Candles to Pretty in Pink. No other flick may have represented Hughes and the height of the ’80s “Brat Pack” era better than 1985’s The Breakfast Club, a film which chronicles a Saturday detention in high school. Sure, the characters function as stereotypes: the pretty, popular girl; the jock; the brain; the burnout; and the strange, awkward girl. Yet the smart script, which used gritty but realistic language, somehow made these figures believable and even relatable. While many Breakfast Club scenes are memorable, a particular image lingers: the five teens dancing wildly in the library.

Flash back to the scene: the five vastly different students have begun bonding after sharing their deepest secrets, each demonstrating that their home lives aren’t nearly as rosy as others would assume. Gradually the characters look past easy labels and stereotypes to discover that they hold more in common than they previously thought. In celebration of their new (albeit fragile) friendships, they dance in the library. Of course the song comments directly on the action, which is obvious even in the title: “We Are Not Alone,” sung by Karla DeVito (co-written with her husband, actor Robbie Benson). As they move to the synthesized strains of the tune, the characters express themselves through their moves, which range from strange to smooth, angry to aggressive to just plain weird. Eventually the teens dance side by side, symbolizing their uniting over shared experiences and emotions.

The image of Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, and Judd Nelson stepping forward and backward in perfect synchronization became a staple of TV commercials and theatrical trailers for the film. While it certainly illustrated the lighthearted side of the film, it also encapsulates, without dialog, how individuals can find common ground while still maintaining their identities. The Breakfast Club and the dancing scene helped solidify the Brat Pack’s power and made the actors into bonafide stars. Now, the scene functions as both an ’80s time capsule and a still relevant representation of the thrill and agony of just being a teenager.

The Parade from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) selected by Mary K. Williams

The parade scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is such a perfect slice of ’80s movie making. Of course, with the iconic John Hughes writing and directing, it’s off to a good start. For those of you who don’t recall, or horrors upon horrors, have never seen FBDO, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick: The Producers, The Lion King, Tower Heist) is a high school kid with a severe case of senioritis. (Evidently he has recurring bouts, as his attendance record indicates). He wakes up on a beautiful spring morning and decides he’s not going to school that day. He fakes sick and persuades his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck: Spin City, Persons Unknown, Greek) to join him. They also get Ferris’s girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara: Timecop, Birds of Prey) out of school and they are off in Cameron’s father’s “choice” Ferrari headed for the city.

After spending time at celebrated Chicago locations like Wrigley Field, The Art Institute, and The Sears Tower, the trio find themselves on Dearborn Street in the midst of a huge parade. Suddenly Ferris disappears and while Sloane and Cameron search for him in the crowd, his voice is heard over a PA system. “I want to dedicate [this tune] to a young man who doesn’t’ think he’s ‘seen anything good today’.” And Ferris is now on a float filled with young beauties dressed in German costumes, lip-syncing Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen.”

This scene works so well to represent the 80’s decade. Hughes’ script allows us to see real teen anxieties via Cameron’s angst-riddled musings on his future. Cameron’s pessimism contrasts well with Ferris’s optimism and ballsy but well-mannered demeanor. But neither display the teen snarkiness found in more current films. In addition you’ve got the genius of an early flash-mob (with a nod to MJ), the “Thriller” choreography is set to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.” And Ferris is still dancing and singing on the float, clearly in command of the moment. It all comes together in a glorious mix of madcap goodwill as it seems as if all of downtown Chicago (including Ferris’s clueless father watching from his skyscraper office window) revels in the magic of impetuous youth and a beautiful day.

Lloyd with Boom-Box from Say Anything… (1989) selected by Michael Nazarewycz

I’ve seen a lot of ’80s movies in my life – most of which I watched during the actual 1980s. So trust me when I say that from the ’80s, ET is an iconic movie, “I’m Alright” from Caddyshack is an iconic song, and “Yippee ki-yay …” well, you know – is an iconic quote. But when it comes to an iconic scene – one moment in one film that not only represents the film but defines the cinematic decade – nothing can beat that scene from Say Anything …; you know, the onewhere John Cusack stands outside Ione Skye’s house and holds a boom-box over his head.

(And I’m pretty sure you don’t need me to tell you that Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” blares from the speakers.)

Making it more than memorable … making it iconic … are a few key factors:

The scene is culturally relevant. It isn’t only instantly recognizable in the context of the movie, it has been the subject of homage and parody by professionals and YouTube denizens alike.

You can describe the scene in three three small words: John Cusack Boom-Box. Do that, and everyone not only knows what you’re talking about, they can envision it. And this isn’t just some exercise in being clever with words, either. It’s indicative of just how recognizable the scene is, that you mention the actor’s name and a prop and it elicits a passionate, visceral response.

The scene works with no sound. This is critical, because a scene is all about the visual. If a scene relies on a clever quote, then it’s the quote that makes the moment iconic, not the scene. The image of Cusack holding that boom-box over his head works very well with no sound; so well, in fact, the image is used on the cover of the DVD case to sell the movie.

Other scenes from 1980s films are memorable. But only one is iconic. Don’t say anything else. Say Anything …

Was your iconic ’80s scene selected? If not, tells us what it is below.

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