The Netflix hit ‘Stranger Things’ is built on nostalgia for late 70s and 80s pop culture, including the works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter and John Hughes. The first two seasons were loaded with nods to that era, but season 3, streaming now, tops them both, packed with references both obvious and subtle.
Below, we’ve rounded up as many of the big season 3 references from the era as we could find, most from film and television. (We left out King’s ‘It’ and Richard Donner’s ‘The Goonies,’ the influence of which has been well documented from the start.) We’re in 1985 now, so rev up the DeLorean, grab yourself a New Coke and read on.
The creature that gets in the face of Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) in episode 6 bears a striking resemblance to everyone’s favourite interstellar killing machine from the ‘Alien’ franchise. (Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien,’ from 1978, and James Cameron’s ‘Aliens,’ from 1986, have always been obvious influences, though the scene with Nancy more closely resembles a face-to-face from ‘Alien 3.’) This season’s subplot about human bodies used as hosts recalls the ‘Alien’ movies, as well, and the look of the Mind Flayer recalls the work of HR Giger, who designed the ‘Alien’ creature.
Back to the Future
Released on July 3, 1985 — the same holiday week in which ‘Stranger Things 3’ takes place — Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Back to the Future’ appears in episode 7 as several of our heroes watch the movie while hiding in a crowded theatre. It doesn’t seem coincidental that a lot of the action after that fateful screening takes place in a mall parking lot with speeding cars, even if none of the ‘Stranger’ kids vanish into trails of flaming asphalt.
The substance that oozes from rats and people, coming together to form the Mind Flayer is bound to remind anyone who loves monster movies of the various iterations of ‘The Blob,’ especially the underrated 1988 remake starring Kevin Dillon.
This 80s sitcom starring Ted Danson and is watched by Joyce (Winona Ryder) in the season 3 premiere, and then she flashes back to watching it with her former boyfriend, the doomed Bob Newby (Sean Astin), who was mauled to death by a demodog near the end of season 2.
King’s stories have been the template for all three seasons of ‘Stranger Things,’ so when a car seems suddenly to come alive in a shopping mall in episode 7, it’s impossible not to think of this 1983 adaptation by Carpenter about a demonically possessed killer car.
Day of the Dead
Season 3 opens with a crowded screening of George A. Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead,’ a film that clearly worked its way through the narrative planning of the season. Both ‘Day’ and ‘Stranger Things 3’ feature normal people turned into mindless zombies, and both have an underground compound setting. (The mall could also be a nod to the previous film in the ‘Dead’ series, ‘Dawn of the Dead.’)
The video store at which Robin (Maya Hawke) and Steve (Joe Keery) try to get a job at the end of the season allowed the series’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, a chance to plaster a set with posters, cardboard cutouts and VHS box art from some of their favourite movies. Out front, there are posters for ‘Sixteen Candles,’ ‘Scarface’ and the 1984 film ‘Firestarter,’ based on the King novel about a young girl with superpowers. Inside, there’s art for ‘Private School,’ ‘The Jerk,’ ‘The Outsiders’ and an obscure slasher flick starring Jack Palance and Martin Landau called ‘Alone in the Dark.’ The camera catches dozens of VHS boxes as well, including ones for ‘Mr Mom,’ ‘Zapped,’ ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House,’ ‘Trading Places,’ ‘Mad Max,’ ‘The Man With Two Brains’ and more.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
The Duffer Brothers have said openly that the 1982 comedy ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ is an influence on ‘Stranger Things 3.’ Elements of the film are sprinkled throughout the season: The Starcourt mall looks a lot like the one in ‘Fast Times’; Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) claims his girlfriend, Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo), looks like actress Phoebe Cates, who stars in ‘Fast Times’; the goofy sailor uniform worn by Steve for his job clearly mimics the pirate costume worn by Judge Reinhold at Captain Hook Fish & Chips; and Steve bumps into a life-size cutout of Cates at Family Video before saying that ‘Fast Times’ is one of his three favourite movies. Good call, Steve.
Perhaps the cleverest callback, however, comes when Billy (Dacre Montgomery) slo-mo walks by the pool in a red swimsuit to the tune of ‘Moving in Stereo’ by the Cars, an inversion of the famous poolside scene featuring Cates.
Will (Noah Schnapp) looks at a picture of his former gang together in their ‘Ghostbusters’ costumes from season 2 and gets emotional. There is also a brief shot of a poster in Dustin’s room in the season premiere. Finally, there are two versions of ‘Ghostbusters’-inspired cereal in the aisle at Bradley’s Big Buy when the kids stumble upon the firecrackers that feature so prominently in the finale. It’s near the Mr T cereal.
One of King’s early short stories, published in 1970, is about thousands of rats in an abandoned textile mill. The images of rats scurrying to Brimborn Steel Works in the season 3 premiere most likely mirrors that short story, especially considering how often King’s work has influenced the show otherwise. (The story was made into a feature film released in 1990.)
At Bradley’s Big Buy, the kids treat Eleven’s injury as she sits in the middle of an aisle. Behind her, you can spot boxes of Ziploc bags featuring Gizmo from ‘Gremlins.’ Sure, ‘Gremlins’ came out a year earlier, in summer 1984, but one gets the impression that retail turnover at Bradley’s may not be that high.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The gold standard when it comes to movies about possessed townspeople will always be ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of the 1956 sci-fi film by Don Siegel. The first half of season 3 — particularly in scenes featuring possessed characters like Billy and Heather (Francesca Reale) — offers variations on the concept of pod people: normal-looking folk who aren’t quite in complete command of their own actions. Both cinematic versions could be influences, but Kaufman’s visceral, terrifying take on alien assimilation seems the most apparent.
The influence of Spielberg’s movies are all over ‘Stranger Things,’ perhaps none more than ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial.’ But for season 3, the Duffer Brothers harked back to a Spielberg film from 1975: Both ‘Jaws’ and ‘Stranger Things 3’ feature plots that spin around the Fourth of July, and both feature incompetent mayors named Larry, who don’t seem to care much about the well-being of their constituents.
The Karate Kid
Max (Sadie Sink) is excited when Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) takes an interest in ‘Karate Kid’ star Ralph Macchio in the centrefold of a teen magazine. The martial arts-inspired outfit worn by Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) for the bulk of the season might also be a nod to that movie, which the kids in Hawkins — like so many American kids in 1984 — probably saw multiple times. Sweep the leg, Lucas.
Jim Hopper (David Harbour) was watching this long-running CBS detective drama in the season premiere. The Hawaiian-chic threads of its hero, played by Tom Selleck, seem later to inspire the “cutting edge” outfit Hopper wears for most of the season. Selleck would be proud.
Todd (Dan Triandiflou), the fashionable gentleman whose car is commandeered by Hopper in episode 5, seems to be inspired by the hit crime series ‘Miami Vice’ based on his pastel shirt and hideous sport coat. And Hopper directly references the show in the season finale: Joyce asks him out on a date, and Hopper says that he watches ‘Miami Vice’ with El on Friday nights.
My Little Pony
Dustin proves that Erica (Priah Ferguson) is a nerd in episode 6 by going into detail about her fandom of this popular Hasbro toy line and cartoon series. In doing so, he reveals that he, too, is a fan ... and also a nerd (not news).
National Lampoon’s Vacation
Dustin refers to his friends stuck back in the Starcourt mall as ‘Griswold Family,’ and there’s an advertisement for this 1983 comedy from Harold Ramis on the counter at Family Video in the season finale.
The Neverending Story
This 1984 fantasy film from Wolfgang Petersen becomes a major part of the climax of ‘Stranger Things 3’ when Suzie forces Dustin to sing the theme song before she gives him Planck’s constant, a figure in quantum physics that Hopper needs in order to access the Russian compound and destroy the machine causing most of this season’s havoc. The title track of the film, by Limahl, was a major hit at the time, cracking the Top 20 singles chart in the United States and doing even better abroad. And now it will forever be associated with the Netflix hit, too. Good luck getting it out of your head.
Alexei calls Hopper ‘Fat Rambo’ in the sixth episode. It’s almost a compliment.
This 1984 Cold War action movie from John Milius, about a Russian invasion of Middle America, seems like an obvious thematic influence on season 3 given the Russian subplot. Dustin name-checks the movie when they get to the underground bunker in episode 5, muttering simply, ‘Red Dawn,’ under his breath.
Larry Cohen’s bizarre satirical horror film ‘The Stuff’ debuted in 1985 and features a substance that oozes and turns normal people into zombielike creatures. Sound familiar? The film is name-checked on the marquee at the Starcourt Mall in episode 7 along with ‘Back to the Future’ and four more 1985 gems: ‘D.A.R.Y.L.,’ ‘Return to Oz,’ ‘Cocoon,’ and ‘Fletch.’
The Russian enforcer on the motorcycle who keeps coming for Hopper like a silent killing machine (Andrey Ivchenko) bears a striking resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi action thriller, ‘The Terminator.’ The supernatural goop that slides through the bars of the rat cage in episode 2 and under the door in episode 6 could be a nod to ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day,’ but that could also be coincidence: The Duffers seem to mostly reference films and TV shows from before or during the era in which the show is set; ‘Terminator 2’ didn’t arrive until 1991.
We know Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is a fan: The poster for this 1982 horror masterpiece from John Carpenter — a remake of ‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951) — has been hanging in his basement since season 1. But the movie is also referenced by Lucas when the gang is in Bradley’s Big Buy. (Much to the dismay of his friends with better taste, Lucas compares it favourably to New Coke.) Billy and others are taken over by a force not unlike the alien of ‘The Thing,’ and the Mind Flayer bears a striking resemblance to that alien as well, not least because of its spider-like legs.
Max introduces El to ‘Wonder Woman’ comic books at the start of episode 4, telling her about Princess Diana and her life in a place filled with only Amazon warrior women. Perhaps the comics helped give El the confidence she needed for her own heroism in the final episodes.
Dustin calls his high-powered machine Cerebro, a name-check to the device used by Professor X in this Marvel Comics series to find mutants around the world. The device first appeared in the comic books in 1964 and is still a major part of the X-Men mythology, playing a role in recent print editions and feature films.
Don't miss it!
'Stranger Things' Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.