‘Red Dawn’ Rising: 1984 Film About American Teens Fighting Russian Invasion Is Red Hot

Parrot Analytics data shows Patrick Swayze’s Wolverines are back in style against backdrop of Ukraine war

Red Dawn
Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell and Charlie Sheen in the 1984 film "Red Dawn."

It seems as far-fetched now as it did during the Cold War: Russia and its allies invading the American interior with nuclear bombs and paratroopers.

But these days, with relentless news images of regular Ukrainians suddenly engaged in a bloody resistance, “Red Dawn” is seeing a massive surge in popularity, according to data obtained by The Wrap. “Rocky IV,” featuring Rocky Balboa against the Russian monster-machine boxer Ivan Drago, also jumped in demand.

“Red Dawn,” starring a who’s-who of young talent from its time – Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey – followed a group of Colorado teens who hid out in the mountains and fought back against a coalition of Russian-led forces, guerilla-style. Critics were “meh” on the film when it came out in 1984, but it was a commercial success at more than $38 million and, over the years, became a cultural touchstone.

“Red Dawn” saw a 500% surge in popularity beginning on Feb. 24, the day Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine began, according to data compiled by Parrot Analytics. It also appeared as the top film in Amazon Prime’s “Popular on Prime Video Channels” queue this week.

Parrot uses a blend of factors including search, wiki sites, rating sites, social media and streaming platforms to determine its demand curve. Amazon declined to elaborate on its metrics for populating its “Popular” section – but the film was listed in the No. 2 position, behind only HBO television show “1883.”

(Photo by Josh Dickey/TheWrap)

The spike for “Red Dawn” (red line in the chart above) fell a bit after a week of surging popularity, but was still up 280% since its baseline before the invasion. “Rocky IV,” also with a strong U.S.-vs.-Russia theme, got a roughly 30% initial bounce, but lacks the staying power of “Red Dawn.”

For comparison, we also looked at “Inglourious Basterds,” which has no Russian forces to speak of – though is similarly wartime- and revenge-themed. But the highly popular Nazi-killing film from Quentin Tarantino saw no significant change as the invasion began.

The takeaway: U.S. audiences are seeking a good old-fashioned Red scare to stream.

Notable from the “Red Dawn” script is how troops from Russia, Cuba and Nicaragua came to attempt the bold invasion: In the film’s alternate ’80s timeline, the disbanding of NATO leads to America being strategically isolated, which coincides with the mass failure of wheat crop – in Ukraine, of all places. When a Communist coup d’é·tat befalls Mexico, it creates the perfect storm for invasion.

Director John Milius re-wrote “Red Dawn” from a script that had bounced around Hollywood studios for months upon months, and shot it on an $11 million budget that ballooned to somewhere between $17 million and $19 million. Milius, who had been Oscar-nominated for his “Apocalypse Now” script and made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star as the writer-director of “Conan the Barbarian,” had negotiated compensation for “Red Dawn” that included his choice of any firearm.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 12: John Milius arrives at the Premiere of Lionsgate’s “Apocalypse Now Final Cut” the at ArcLight Cinerama Dome on August 12, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The film – and its protagonist’s battle-cry of “Wolverines!” – was only a modest success for distributor MGM/United Artists, but eventually became a cult classic that, despite its age, is still referenced regularly in pop culture and elsewhere.

For instance, the U.S. Special Force that captured Saddam Hussein nicknamed their mission Operation Red Dawn, with their top two targets dubbed “Wolverine 1” and “Wolverine 2.” And a string of Trump administration emails detailing concerns about the government’s response to Covid-19 became known as the “Red Dawn emails.”

A 2012 remake by FilmDistrict starring Chris Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson was a flop that had its own issues when it was shot with Chinese invaders as villains. A last-minute decision was made to change the invading force to North Korea, a play to preserve a shot at the Chinese box office.

The postproduction magic was for naught, however, as neither version of “Red Dawn” was never shown there.