Two years before President Reagan’s famous challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” our country was at odds with Russia and the tension was palpable. In 1985, talks of nuclear attacks were fairly common despite the fact that the Cold War seemed to be coming to an end. Being just 13 years old, it’s surprising how conscious I was of world events, I mean it must have been friggin’ scary for the grownups of the time. If Fox News existed back then we would all have been hiding in our converted bomb shelters, hugging our knees and praying for our salvation!
Anyway, the point is that Russia was not our friend, and everyone knew it. Hollywood certainly knew it, and did its best to profit from the rivalry with movies like Red Dawn and Rambo. Then along comes the latest movie in the Rocky franchise, Rocky IV. Being the fourth movie in the series, it was obviously a big deal, but the really BIG deal was that Rocky wasn’t taking on a local chump like Clubber Lang, oh no, this time he was going for the throat of Mother Russia herself.
I must have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of movies as a teenager, and have forgotten just about all of them. But one Saturday afternoon in late November, I climbed into the car with four of my friends and my mom drove us to Fair City Mall’s movie theater in downtown Fairfax, Virginia. These were the days before the megaplexes, and this theater would be tiny by today’s standards. The theater was (and still is) attached to a small shopping center with maybe a dozen stores like Kemp Mill Records and the Pants Corral. If you’ve ever seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High you’ll know what an 80’s mall movie theater was all about — big hair, freaks and geeks, sunglasses at night, and doors propped open for your friends.
We were pumped to see the matinee showing of Rocky IV. Luckily, we got there early, because the theater was already nearly full, and more kids were streaming in from the lobby (and the propped open doors). We saw some kids from our school that we knew, and some that we didn’t. Of course, the only way to get their attention was with a well aimed Mike and Ike. Obviously, we also had to hit the backs of the heads of the cute, big-haired valley girls, and act like it was the jerks behind us. (Seriously, cleaning up after a matinee had to have been the worst job in the world.) More and more people filed in, and since there were no more seats the aisles started filling up with kids — not a parent in sight — until the theater managers finally decided that they might as well start the show, fire hazards be damned.
The theater was loud, and not a line of dialogue would go by without some hoser making a rude noise or stupid joke. It was great! Oh look, here comes Apollo Creed making a mockery of the boxing match devised to promote goodwill between our country and thosee Russkies. Booo! Ivan Drago!
Man that guy (who I much later learned was James Brown) can sing and dance — of course there was singing and dancing in the theater as well — Living in America! Wooohooo!
What is happening here? Stop! Stop the fight! No!
All our acne-covered jaws dropped and tears were shed. No one was releasing armpit farts now. We were pissed.
The whole mood of the place shifted on such a dynamic scale, it felt like Drago’s steroid-induced 2,200-psi punch had hit each and every one of us squarely in the gut. The theater turned angry, and when the final bout between Rocky and Drago finally arrived on the screen, we were bloodthirsty. Ivan was going down. We were on our feet, many of us even standing on the seats, slinging fists in sync with every punch Rocky threw, and when the big Russian hit the canvas, the place erupted. Hugs and high fives all around. USA! USA! USA! Yo Adrien!
This is what it was like to go the movies before the internet went and spoiled everything. We had no idea what was coming, and when it did, it was a force to be reckoned with.
We made new friends with the girl sitting behind us and went out for pizza afterwards, talking about world events, politics, and the latest episode of G.I. Joe. I had to borrow a quarter to call my mom and tell her the movie was over. Phone numbers were written on sweaty palms with sincere promises to meet at a party next weekend, good-natured jabs were hurled at one another, and slap fights were held to impress our new friends until I saw my mom’s Dodge Caravan pull up to the curb. Awkward hugs were exchanged and I’m sure we never saw those girls again — but you can bet I’ve seen the Italian Stallion dozens of times since that day.
If you ask most people what their most memorable movie going experience was, you’ll hear a lot of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the like, but for me, it will always be Rocky IV.
Cool story, bro.
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So jealous that you got to see Rocky 4 in the theater. I missed out on seeing so many great 80’s movies in the theater due to my age at the time (0-6). I love the internet but boy does it really ruin the surprise of most TV shows and movies.
Yeah, you can’t even see a mvid on its opening day without it being spoiled anymore. I keep thinking about the scene in the Avengers where Hulk slides down the building and catches iron man — totally, totally ruined by the trailer. That would have been incredible to see for the first time in the theater.
Wow. You just described a half-dozen different movie nights of mine back in the 80s/90s. The single-screen theater attached to the mall, check! Back door entry, check! Girls… excuse me… cute girls with big hair, check! Very cool.
It was fun, wasn’t it. 😉
Erik Johnson Illustrator says
Sounds like it was a regular party at the theater. I imagine it must have been the social hub of the pre-internet world. Although I can’t picture 80s girls without thinking of them wearing workout spandex and leg warmers.
Not too long ago some of the guys in my neighborhood wanted to have a “Guy’s Night” to watch “the most testosterone soaked movie we could find”. Knowing that many of my peers barely remember the 90s, I gathered up as many 80s movies as I had in my collection so as to show them just how much action you could put into single a movie. Much to my own surprise, they were much more interested in seeing titles like Aliens, Terminator or The Thing than the other guy’s more contemporary offerings such as The Dark Knight.
You have some smart friends. 😉
The mall was always the hot spot and when it closed for the night, we relocated to the McDonald’s parking lot.
Dex1138 (@Dex1138) says
Younger people will never be able to understand what the nuke and Red threats were like in the 80s.Red Dawn didn’t scare me, per se but as a young teen, it made me think “what if this really happens?” And The Day After? Whoa!
When “The Day After” came out, I was stationed on a military base 30 miles from North Korea. That movie had everyone on edge.
(The early scene in Red Dawn where the paratroopers land by the school always gives me chills.)
Erik Johnson Illustrator says
I remember renting the original”Red Dawn” a few years ago “Russians invading America. Oh this is going to be live action cartoon!”
Two hours later I was staring at the TV screen awestruck saying “Wow. That was actually… good.” I was impressed at just how well it held up and how seriously they treated the material which could have just been cheap exploitation. They knew just how to sucker punch you without being corny and how the enemy was portrayed as frightening instead of clownish stereotypes.
For you it was the paratroopers, for me, when those kids were out in the woods just trying to survive, that had me on edge.
Rich - Nerd Nook says
Really enjoyed this post! Kinda crazy when you think of us kids being off the grid. Parents today would have panic attacks! We managed tho 😉
It’s amazing we survived! 😉
James Watson says
I’ve been a fan of your website for a while and can’t wait to see your yard sale finds this year. It’s always good to hear how once upon time people were able to leave the house and enjoy so many experiences together. Since history tends to repeat itself. I wonder if a magical time like the 80’s will happen again, or is it gone forever ?
I think we’re all destined to become hermits and reside in a virtual world like the one seen in “Ready Player One.” 😉