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11 Movies from the 1980s About Urban Decay


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’80’s movies were caught at the intersection of Reaganomics fueling an upwardly mobile American middle-class, and the crack epidemic that was ravaging inner-cities, while ‘white flight’ had already created vacuums in the socioeconomic and civic landscape in major cities.

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The result was a cadre of ’80s films at once exploding into yuppie commercialism — while simultaneously attempting to account for the everyday struggles of a wider audience. The use of practical locations was common during that decade, showing the wrong side of the tracks in Northeastern metropolises like New York City and Philadelphia. This unique juxtaposition produced an era of films more cognizant of urban decay than any previous decade.

A raft of ’80s films showing inner-city strife and resultant creative blooms arose by the middle of the decade, with directors ranging from studio-friendly helmers like John Landis to completely rebellious indie auteurs like Abel Ferrara.

On both ends, directors were incorporating urban decay into the design of their films, and class-based themes became prominent in the plots of studio films like Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs., and lesser-appreciated works like Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die. Here are 11 films from the ’80s that shined a light on urban decay.

11 Downtown 81 (2000)

Jean-Michel Basquiat walks the burnt out streets of the Lower East Side in Downtown 81
Miramax

A roman-a-clef slice-of-life film exhibiting downtown Manhattan in the early-1980’s, Downtown 81 caught Andy Warhol’s protegé-turned-successor Jean-Michel Basquiat in his early days as a graffiti writer and scenester at the genesis of Hip-Hop culture, entering the world of blue chip art galleries and Manhattan loft parties.

The backdrop for the film is the burnt-out streets of the Lower East Side which, at that point, was so deeply plagued by crime, crippling poverty, drugs, and abandoned buildings, that it is almost impossible to believe that the neighborhood would become one of the most sought-after zip codes 30 years later.

Downtown 81’s Cultural Importance Can’t Be Understated

Catching the genesis of Fab 5 Freddy, graffiti genius Lee Quiñones, and Basquiat at one of the most important cultural blossomings in the history of New York City locates this incredible film closer to America’s creative heart than any other film from the early-’80s — while simultaneously putting the city’s urban decay, and the legacy of Robert Moses, on brutal display for a world often ignorant of it. Unfortunately, the film’s cultural import wasn’t recognized back then — Downtown 81 wouldn’t be released until after Y2K.

10 To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

William Peterson plays Secret Service agent Richard Chance in To Live and Die in L.A.
MGM/UA Entertainment

William Friedkin’s career was something of a Haley’s Comet, burning brightly in the American consciousness for a sustained period, before exiting our awareness and never truly returning. Still, Friedkin’s fearlessness in placing his camera right in the middle of decaying American cities like New York and Los Angeles at the height of their apocalyptic-’70’s-’80s depths is precisely what separated him as a filmmaker. To Live and Die in L.A. was possibly his bleakest offering.

Related: The Exorcist: How William Friedkin Created a Cultural Phenomenon That Changed Horror

Friedkin Never Truly Advanced Past His ’70s-’80s Heyday

Friedkin made some of the 1970s’ indisputably-greatest films, including The Exorcist, The French Connection and Sorcerer, but his ’80s films started off dubiously. He may have been redeemed, critically, by To Live and Die in L.A., which didn’t earn much but maintains an impressive 89% RT rating thanks to its high-intensity chases through the decaying streets of ’80s downtown Los Angeles.

9 King of New York (1990)

Christopher Walken as mob boss Frank White in King of New York
New Line Cinema

One of Christopher Walken’s few memorable roles between playing Nic Chevotarevich in Michael Cimino’s 1978 film The Deer Hunter (for which Walken won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) and his ’90s career-resurgence (thanks to recognition from directors like Quentin Tarantino) was mob boss Frank White. The chilling role of the drug kingpin was one of Walken’s best of his career.

King of New York Paced the Indie-Driven ’90s

Long before Quentin Tarantino became the decade’s preeminent writer-director and reflected the era’s cinephile-driven qualities of filmmaking, Abel Ferrara established himself as New York City’s most effed-up ’80s crime director. Those efforts included Bad Lieutenant, a truly perverted film, and King of New York, which placed the gravity of The Godfather into the warzone known as the ’80s crack epidemic. Though released in 1990, the film captures the urban decay of 1980s New York City in a harrowing portrayal.

8 8 Million Ways to Die (1986)

Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette in 8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
Tri-Star Pictures

Hal Ashby is maybe the most undersung directing talent in 20th Century film history, thanks to an early death, and his hard-to-categorize films like 8 Million Ways to Die. Ashby utilized an Oliver Stone script for this, his last film, casting Jeff Bridges in a role that took a warts-and-all approach to Los Angeles’ criminal underbelly.

Why This Film Resounds — Even When Compared to Ashby’s Other Incredible Movies

8 Million Ways to Die caught Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette at seminal moments in their respective careers, acting as a precursor to the mid-’90’s great indie films. The film is watched with a certain amount of melancholy, as it portends to all the heights that Ashby’s late-career could have reached, had he not died of cancer at 59.

7 Cruising (1980)

Al Pacino as Detective Steve Burns in an underground gay club in the '80s crime thriller Cruising
United Artists

Al Pacino had one of the weirdest ’80s of any Oscar-winning ’70s actors, at one point taking a 4-year hiatus in favor of stage work when he wasn’t vibing with Hollywood. Long before that, however, Pacino was experimenting — namely in the 1980 film Cruising, where the actor played an undercover cop who penetrates the underground New York City gay scene, searching for a killer thought to be embedded in that rarely-exposed universe.

Another William Friedkin Swing For the Fences

Cruising received merciless reviews from early-’80s film critics — leading, in part, to a serious career downturn for Friedkin. It would take a few decades before the film was appreciated for the risks it took, rather than the sensibilities it offended.

6 The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984)

The Pope of Greenwich Village Eric Roberts Mickey Rourke and Daryl Hannah
MGM

Believe it or not, there was a time when Eric Roberts was considered a serious actor. One of the few films that helped make his case was the NYC epic, The Pope of Greenwich Village. The 1984 film caught Roberts ascending to actorly heights not yet achieved by his sister, Julia Roberts, as it would be another 4 years before Mystic Pizza would put her on a map to the stars.

The Pope of Greenwich Village Was an ’80s NYC Slice-of-Life

Between Roberts’ performance, appearances by NYC icons like Burt Young, and Mickey Rourke’s stirring acting talent, The Pope of Greenwich Village could have been a phenomenon — but the film catered more to the sensibilities of ’70s New Hollywood audiences than the ’80 era of its release. In lieu of being a major hit, the film found an enormous cult following in subsequent decades.

5 Barfly (1987)

Fay Dunaway as Wanda and Mickey Rourke as Hank Chinaski in the Barbet Schroeder film Barfly, from the works of Charles Bukowski
The Cannon Group, Inc.

Even if they wound up hating each other, Mickey Rourke and Charles Bukowski are two of 1980s Los Angeles’ most notorious drinkers. Bukowski took exception to the artistic license Rourke acquiesced while playing the bar-friendly writer in Barfly. Which was too bad — the film may not have pleased critics, but it became one of the greatest documents of a Los Angeles slipping through the fingers of an upwardly-mobile 1980s, filmed in down-and-out drinking holes like the Smog Cutter in Silverlake.

Faye Dunaway’s Performance Illuminated This Tale of Civic Detritus

Despite Bukowski’s hatred of Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of his protagonist Hank Chinaski, the film had incredible moments, mainly thanks to the artistic cooperation between Rourke and Faye Dunaway, who was a far cry from the latent glamour she showed in Chinatown.

4 48 Hrs. (1982)

Nick Nolte as Jack Cates and Eddie Murphy as Reggie Hammond in the Walter Hill film 48 Hrs.
Paramount Pictures

Action film guru Walter Hill made his most-memorable foray into the morally-vacant ’80s with his film 48 Hrs., which caught Nick Nolte at his peak and a burgeoning Eddie Murphy on the verge of superstardom. The result was the original and best buddy cop movie, with Murphy earning especially high marks as Reggie Hammond.

How 48 Hrs. Used a California Prison Stay to Set the Stage

When Reggie Hammond is unexpectedly released from prison, he dons an early Walkman to celebrate, showing off his best James Brown scat moves, before San Francisco police inspector Jack Cates (Nolte) has the unenviable task of reigning Hammond in. The result is an unexpected chemistry between two polar-opposite actors, a dynamic that drove the film’s enormous popularity.

3 Escape From New York (1981)

Escape From New York may have been a sci-fi film about the future, but it was the near future — and it was highly relevant. Why? Because the conceit of an American city being held hostage by crime wasn’t a far-fetched idea in the ’80s. Too realistic to be a post-apocalyptic film that might be considered cyberpunk, John Carpenter’s film still set standards for how a dystopian future in a metropolis like New York City might look. The result was a groundbreaking action film.

Related: John Carpenter’s 10 Best Movie Characters

How John Carpenter Set the Standard for ’80s Dystopian Films

Carpenter was one of the ’70s directors who laid the groundwork for the 1980s’ violent tenor of filmmaking, and helped bring into fashion apocalyptic cityscapes as the backdrops for all his films, whether they were horror or straight action.

2 Blow Out (1981)

Jack Terry (John Travolta) stands in front of an American flag in Blow Out (1981)
Filmways Pictures

A refashioning of Michelangelo Antonioni’s indulgent 1966 film Blowup, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out cast John Travolta in a neo-noir mystery thriller — changing out Antonioni’s London for a ravaged Philadelphia. De Palma’s vision diverged heavily from the decidedly-bourgeoisie Blowup, opting instead for a view of urban dysfunction embodied by a movie soundman who stumbles upon a plot to assassinate a presidential hopeful.

Why the Film Made Waves

De Palma was still riding high on the success of Carrie in 1981 when he sought to distance himself from the studio system with this remake of Blowup, which attempted to Americanize the Italian film with Travolta’s star power and a much more climactic plot. Principal in that transition was De Palma’s bleak view of ’80s Philadelphia, providing a near post-apocalyptic stage for this psychological thriller.

1 Coming to America (1988)

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Coming to America

Coming to America
Specifications

Release Date
1988-06-29
Director
John Landis (Person)
Cast
Eddie Murphy (Person), Arsenio Hall (Person), James Earl Jones (Person), John Amos (Person), Madge Sinclair (Person), Shari Headley (Person)
Rating
R
Runtime
116

In the middle of the stratospheric rise of Eddie Murphy to the heights of the 1980s’ highest-grossing actor, he and friend/collaborator John Landis conceived of a comedy for the ages. The two crafted a plot borne from Murphy’s outer-borough upbringing for Coming to America, when Prince Akeem takes Queens by storm armed with nothing more than a princely ponytail and a New York Mets jacket with a ton of ‘flare.’

Along the way we saw Queens, New York in all its gritty glory, from the attempted Samuel L. Jackson robbery of the McDonald’s knockoff to the less-than-neighborly greetings Akeem receives on his fire escape.

Why the Sequel to Coming to America Could Never Duplicate the Context

Coming to America 2 seemed inevitable, but the cultural context of the original is what made it a landmark film, incorporating all the earmarks of a decade where the United States’ major cities were slipping into criminal oblivion. Recreating the must-see nature of Murphy’s ’80s could never be duplicated, nor could the decaying landscape of urban America that helped the films illuminate culture-clash, and the reality of life in New York City in the ’80s.

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