The best scenes in the original 1978 Dawn of the Dead aren't the early bursts of urban confusion or the biker-zombie rumbles. They're the scenes where the four isolated survivors giddily run through an abandoned shopping mall, balling out with the artifacts of a just-dead culture. They use mannequins as target practice, they eat fancy dinners, they loot with impunity. And they seem happy. For at least a few scenes in the middle there, Dawn of the Dead is a lighthearted fantasy.

The original Red Dawn from 1984 is something similar. Writer and director John Milius might've meant it as some kind of cautionary tale about what the damn Commies will do if we let them, but you can tell, watching it, that he just wishes he had the chance to launch his own guerrilla attacks against Russian tank columns. And that fantasy element is what's kept the movie in Saturday-afternoon-cable rotation for decades. You can recognize that this is a perfectly ridiculous movie while still having fun imagining yourself firing rocket launchers at helicopters while screaming the name of your high school football team.

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In the 2013 documentary Milius (also streaming on Netflix, and worth a look if you're bored), various talking heads describe the ways that Red Dawn almost ended a whole lot of careers. The idea was that this was a fascistic, and possibly dangerous, example of delusional right-wing paranoia. Critics acted like it was their social responsibility to disembowel this movie. And sure, it's a ridiculous and deluded piece of work, but that's sort of what's great about it.

The movie makes a few half-hearted attempts at making its war-in-the-heartland story plausible, flashing text onscreen about how NATO had fallen, and giving one character the burden of explaining how the Russians and the Cubans managed to invade the USA. But its deep impossibility is part of what makes it so compelling. Even if all these Communist countries could get it together to launch an American land war, and even if they seriously decided to start with the Midwest, would they really focus so many resources on a random small California Colorado town? And if a ragtag band of high schoolers really did form an underground resistance force, wouldn't they all just immediately die? Are the Russians such bad shots that half a dozen American teenagers could wipe out entire battalions?

Instead, this is a movie that delights in pulse-heightening insanity from its very first scene, where Russian paratroopers interrupt a history teacher's lecture on Mongol battle tactics by machine-gunning the classroom windows.

Ten minutes later, C. Thomas Howell is drinking a tin cup of deer blood while Charlie Sheen solemnly tells him, "When you drink it, you'll be a real hunter." The kids in the movie have a lot of fun stiffly spitting out Milius's macho dialog, but other than ringleader Patrick Swayze, they don't get much chance to develop real personalities. Swayze gets to be the dictatorial cowboy leader who wills himself to stop crying, and Lea Thompson is allowed to project feral defiance, but the rest of the young cast is made to play broad war-movie archetypes: the stoic soldier, the kid who becomes a killer, the coward who becomes a traitor, the girl, the kid who dies before you remember his name. Still, the first time these fresh-faced youngsters take out a tank full of Russians, it's just straight-up euphoric filmmaking.

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As for the grown-up characters, Red Dawn holds up today as an absolute all-you-can-eat buffet of veteran character actors hamming it up. Powers Boothe drops into the movie, almost literally, as the hardbitten Texan fighter pilot who helps whip the kids into shape. Cowboy-movie lifer Ben Johnson throws leathery authority all over his few scenes. Ron O'Neal—motherfucking Priest from Super Fly—is dignified and rail-straight as the Cuban officer who endorses the unpopular opinion that the invading armies should stop randomly executing civilians. Harry Dean Stanton gets to yell, "Avenge me!" a bunch of times. These guys are all having fun.

Milius was having fun when he made it, too. As the sole swaggering gun-nut conservative from Hollywood's great early-'70s artistic renaissance, the man already had a reputation. He wrote Apocalypse Now for Francis Ford Coppola and Quint's ship-sinking Jaws monologue for Steven Spielberg. He was friends with Coppola and Spielberg and Scorsese and Bogdanovich, even though you get the sense that those guys were terrified of him. He took guns everywhere. The Coen Brothers based John Goodman's Big Lebowski character on him. Through the '70s, Milius made his living putting together two-fisted tales, either writing (Dirty Harry, Jeremiah Johnson) or directing (Dillinger, The Wind and the Lion). And in the '80s, he took a turn toward populist nonsense and somehow got arguably better: His Conan the Barbarian is the sort of awesome thing that can happen when a great filmmaker takes his head out of his ass and makes something fun for a change.

With Red Dawn, Milius was absolutely enjoying fucking with the world. I sincerely doubt that he lived in mortal fear of USSR tanks rolling down Colorado highways. Instead, the movie works as a morbid, exhilarating joke. Milius tips his hand early in the movie, zooming in on a bumper sticker that says, "You can have my gun when you take it out of my cold, dead fingers," and then pans over to a Russian troop taking someone's gun out of his cold, dead fingers.

But even if the movie is, on at least some level, a total troll move, you don't have to share its politics to get a base thrill from seeing these little motherfuckers tearing into hordes of invading troops. Red Dawn's battle scenes might get a big repetitive toward the end, but even after you've seen a few dozen explosions, there's still a certain charge in seeing the next wave of attacks. After all, Milius managed to make Americans his story's underdogs. He had to bend logic hundreds of ways to make it happen, but he still did it.

A couple of years ago, a Red Dawn remake came out, with a Hemsworth as a lead and an even-less-plausible plot about North Korean invaders. That one in streaming on Netflix, too, but I haven't seen it, mostly because nobody's ever told me that it's any good. But the original is great, and if you've ever spent a lazy day staring at TNT, you probably already know that. The political battles surrounding the movie have faded away in the 30 years since the movie came out, but the daffy sense of goofball joy remains.


Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice,GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.

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Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.

Previous installments: Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection |Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning |District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe |Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior |Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd| 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 |The Legend of Drunken Master