Skip to main content

"Red Dawn" (1984) Movie Review

"Red Dawn" film poster

"Red Dawn" film poster

"Red Dawn" (1984)

Directed by: John Milius

Starring: Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Powers Boothe

Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all of our ships at sea! Tonight we will be taking a look at 1984's controversial cult classic Red Dawn - the "Brat Pack" action film in which a virtual who's-who of '80s cinema (Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson) takes up arms to defend their small Colorado town against Communist invaders.

Depending on who you talk to, Red Dawn is either one of the greatest action movies of the 1980s, or an absurd, unintentionally hilarious, outdated piece of Cold War propaganda. Though it may seem over-the-top now, modern day viewers should remember that the Cold War was still in full swing when Red Dawn was released in August of 1984, which almost (note I said "almost ") makes the events of this film seem plausible.

A brief pre-title crawl informs the audience that Russia has suffered its worst wheat harvest in over 50 years, several nations have withdrawn from NATO, and that Mexico has fallen to a Communist uprising. The camera then takes us on a tour through the peaceful streets of Calumet, Colorado on a typical Autumn morning. All seems right with this small town as Jed Eckert (Swayze) drops his younger brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) off at school. Suddenly, Matt's first period history class is rudely interrupted by a squadron of paratroopers landing in the fields outside. When the intruders open fire on the school building, all hell well breaks loose.

World War III has landed on Calumet's doorstep, and Jed quickly speeds back to the school, grabs Matt and his friends, and they head off into the surrounding mountains (after a quick stop at the local hunting/fishing emporium to stock up on guns, ammo, food and supplies) to hide out from the invaders.



While Jed and the boys are holed up in the forest honing their survival skills, Calumet becomes Occupied Territory, controlled by a combination of Cuban and Russian forces. In a series of scenes designed to play on viewers' worst fears about the Red Threat, Communist soldiers march through the streets, Soviet tanks are stationed on every corner, and any citizens who owned guns or were otherwise deemed potentially dangerous (including Jed and Matt's Dad, played by Harry Dean Stanton) have been packed off to "re-education camps."

If "Red Dawn" had stayed on this track and became a treatise showing us what America might look like under Soviet rule, it could've been a much scarier film. However, this is an action flick, so they show just enough scenes of Americans bein' mistreated by the bad guys to get the audience good and mad, then we return to Jed and the gang -- who've formed a guerrilla fighting force (dubbed "The Wolverines" after their high school mascot), striking against the Commies by day and hiding in the hills by night. The Wolverines are a minor annoyance at first but soon develop into a serious threat to the Communists' control of the region. The local commandant, Colonel Bella (Ron O'Neal) eventually declares an all out war against the insurgency, leading to much gun fire, lotsa stuff blowin' up, and eventually, a much bleaker ending than viewers might anticipate.


Red Dawn was met with mixed reviews in 1984 but was a box office hit.

The performances from its then-young cast are suitably intense, especially Swayze as the troubled leader "Jed" and C. Thomas Howell as the amped-up "Robert," who seems to enjoy killing those Russkies a little too much. I'm not going to lie to you, it's also a load of sadistic fun watching Swayze, a pre-"Winning!" Charlie Sheen, "Dirty Dancing's" Jennifer Grey, and Lea "Back to the Future" Thompson gleefully killin' Commies for Mommy! The always-welcome Powers Boothe also drops in (literally) to lend some world-weary gravitas as a downed Air Force colonel who hooks up with the Wolverines and aids them in their cause.

On a side note, I was in high school when Red Dawn was released and my high school history teacher was obsessed with this film. Red Dawn was not just a movie to this guy, it was a how-to manual. We watched this film in his class and discussed it in depth. For the rest of the school year, if we wanted to get him to deviate from his lesson plan for a day, all someone had to do was bring up this movie and he'd be off and running.

One handy hint from Red Dawn that sticks with me to this day: if the radiator of your pickup truck catches a bullet, you can get back on the road again by plugging up the hole and then urinating into the radiator to replace the lost coolant. (thankfully I've never had to put that to the test, but it's good to know.)

This teaser poster for the "Red Dawn" remake, was released when the bad guys were still Chinese and the film was supposed to be released in 2010.

This teaser poster for the "Red Dawn" remake, was released when the bad guys were still Chinese and the film was supposed to be released in 2010.

The Remake (ugh!)...

A big budget remake of Red Dawn -- starring Chris Hemsworth, Adrienne Palicki, Josh Hutcherson, and Josh Peck - was filmed in 2009 and was slated for a November 2010 release until the movie's post-production phase (in which the sound effects, editing, music scoring, etc. are added to the film) was halted by MGM's descent into bankruptcy.

As MGM slowly emerged from Chapter 11 they struck a deal with the independent studio FilmDistrict to complete Red Dawn, but its troubles weren't over yet. In early 2011 the movie underwent even more last minute re-tooling in response to controversy over the film's choice of villains. In the remake's original script, the invaders were Chinese, but after much political outcry (and doubtlessly, a realization that China now represents a sizable chunk of foreign box office receipts), the film was tweaked even further so that the bad guys were now North Korean.

Oddly enough, while Red Dawn sat on a shelf, two of its young stars became legit box office draws. Chris Hemsworth appeared in Thor and The Avengers, while Josh Hutcherson co-starred in the Hunger Games series. One almost has to wonder if the Red Dawn re-do would've ever been completed if these two cast members, who were nobodies when they made the film, hadn't become fast-rising stars.

After years of delays and false starts, the new Red Dawn was released to theaters on November 21, 2012. It received mostly negative reviews, performed poorly at the box office and faded quickly. I've seen both and without a doubt, the original 1984 film is still the superior version.

"Red Dawn" 2012 Remake Trailer:

Scroll to Continue

© 2012 Keith Abt


Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 30, 2015:

Yeah, it's funny how something like this movie seemed so realistic and scary at the time but all these years later it's actually kind of silly, haha. Still a great action/adventure flick tho!

kethdredd on July 30, 2015:

WOLVERINES! I still love this movie today, and I'm happy to report that I've passed it on to my son. The thing I was unable to describe to him was how the Cold War made it seem somehow plausible and real. It is difficult to describe.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on May 08, 2014:


Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on March 06, 2013:

Thanks for the comment, Asashii - I agree, for the time it was made, the flick was pretty believable.

Asashii on March 06, 2013:

yeah growing up in the 80's myself, i always hated that people did(don't) think that the Communist threat and war with russia wasn't real. it was real starting with the Cuban missle crysis in the 60's. i am not surprised about a bunch of Mountain kids picking up arms and going commando, i was breaking down guns and shotting when i was twelve, so its all reality to me. and what kid in the 80's( unless you were a shut in ) didn't know their neck of the woods like the back of their hand. well a country boy can survive. the movie as the timeline progressed so did the evolution of these characters. this movie is what movies just don't get right anymore and that's being EPIC!

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on March 05, 2013:

Updated with some info about the ill-fated "Red Dawn" remake, which hits DVD this week.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on September 14, 2012:

Always good to hear from you Cogerson. Glad you dug the Hub.

...and "Wwwwwoooollllveriiiiiiiiiiiines!" right back atcha!!

UltimateMovieRankings from Virginia on September 14, 2012:

Very well done...I like your bargain bin hubs.....I graduated from high school in Red Dawn was a very popular movie for me and my friends....I have probably seen this movie close to 100 times...thanks to it's many viewings on HBO back in the 1980s(I think it was in the contract that HBO was required to show Red Dawn every third movie back

Thanks for the new was the first time I have seen looks interesting....and the cast is now super hot with the success of Thor and Hunger Games.....and you get Tom Cruise Jr. as well.

Voted up and awesome...thanks for taking me down memory lane.


Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on August 18, 2012:

UPDATED with the new trailer for the long-delayed 2012 "Red Dawn" remake!!

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on January 15, 2012:

Thanx for your post, Manny. I had a similar thought while watching the scene when the Russians left that box of groceries in the road - either that it could've bee poisoned, or at the very least, "Come on guys, don't you know BAIT when you see it?" Haha.

It's been years since I've seen "The Day After" (the "other" big World War III themed movie of the '80s)but if memory serves it was way more depressing than "Red Dawn," which went more for the flag waving, butt kicking "Kill A Commie For Mommy" direction.

Neither film is great, but each captures a moment in time.

mannyalice on January 15, 2012:

This movie was given to me a couple of Christmas's ago, and never once wanted to see it, did not see it back when it was new nor when it was aired a half thousand times on cable and thanks to blog I finally cracked it open and I have to say the movie was a hoot.

FF, I have no idea who your high school professor was, the fact that he took this movie's 'political message' so serious, tells me that Professor Moonbeam did one too many acid trips or spent too much time with the flat earth society.

The charm of the movie is its silly plot, and that who ever directed this flick, does not seem to take the message of the movie all that serious, the film opens to sort of give you a give feel for the characters and minutes later the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!!!

Some scenes in the movie left me scratching, my head, where the Russians stop and I guess dropped a box of grocery in the middle of the road, and why not only does Jennifer Grey sent to retrieve it but immediately starts eating what the Russkies left behind, maybe its just me, but I would be afraid its poisoned!!!

Powers Boothe was fun as he is always is, and Swayze never was a big fan of his but the dude is good at amping up the intensity.

Like you said it is a relic and fun time capsule that now seems like a hundred years ago, of time when the cold war was on TV news everyday, ABC Network made the 'Day After' about what would happen with a nuclear bomb blew up middle America and President Reagan told the Russkies to tear down that wall.

A fun film, that in a strange way, despite the killings, etc, this action film comes off as almost innocent and naïve. A cool little film and thank you FF for inspiring to take a look at this movie, that I have ignored and would have continued to ignore if it was not for this blog.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on January 05, 2012:

You may be onto somethin' there, Alastar. Thanx for visiting, as always.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on January 05, 2012:

Red Dawn was a very good movie. Who can forget the opening scenes. The late Mr. Swayze was good in it too. As far as being over the top, some think that's what's happening to America now- Red Dawn in slo-mo that is.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on January 05, 2012:

Thanx for stopping by, BWD.

Brian Dooling from Connecticut on January 05, 2012:

great review, although Red Dawn came out a few years before i was born i still found it interesting and have been waiting for the remake to come out since i heard about it in 2010! When i first saw the movie when i was young, i told my mom about it and she knew about it and told me that when it first came out it scared her lol which means the propaganda worked! Thanks for the update on the remake I always thought the use of China as the new bad guy in the remake would be walking on eggshells, although an invasion by North Korea won't step on anyone's toes it's a little less believable.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on January 04, 2012:

Thanx for your comment, Mork. As always, Ebert has a way of cutting through the B.S.

MorkTheMighty from The land down under on January 04, 2012:

There's something Roger Ebert said in his review of another Milius movie, Flight of the Intruder, which sums up my thoughts on Red Dawn perfectly. I quote:

“Something tells me there's a story behind the filming and editing of "Flight of the Intruder." Why is it smart at some times and dumb at others? Why are such large lapses of consistency allowed in the characters? Why are some scenes tough and others corny? Why does the editing seem so distracting at times? The movie feels like a project that was pulled one way during the filming, and another way during post-production. The result is some good stuff surrounded by a mess.”

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on January 04, 2012:

Thanx Joe! I'm wondering if the death of Kim Jong Il is going to set back the production/release of the remake any further. They'll probably have to replace any images of him with those of his son via CGI. The producers must be going "@#$%!!!" Haha.

Joe Cogan on January 04, 2012:

Awesome! The only premise I can think of that's sillier than Russians paratrooping into Colorado would be a North Korean invasion of the US. Hope that gets released soon!

Related Articles