Pin It
GhostbustersColumbia Pictures

Ghostbusters at 30: zeitgeist poltergeists

In honour of its three-decade anniversary, we look back at how the slime-slinging classic captured 80s New York

Head to just about any university city, town or campus on a student night in the UK and you’ll likely see a number of young men dressed in variably authentic Ghostbusters gear: beige boiler suits, knee and elbow pads, cereal boxes for proton packs and some ‘laser guns’ for laser guns. At some point in the night, sandwiched between the Baywatch and Top Gun tunes, expect to hear Ray Parker, Jr.’s Ghostbusters theme song come thundering in. It’s less a dance classic than a children’s party anthem, but it’ll get a whole dance floor of young adults excitedly waiting to shout the eponymous refrain whenever they’re posed that eternal question: “Who ya gonna call?”

Ghostbusters first came out 30 years ago, and is reissued in cinemas and on DVD this week in good time for Halloween. Like Halloween itself, the film, along with its equally excellent 1989 sequel and the multimedia franchise that stemmed from both, has enjoyed an enduringly daft appeal. Daft is probably the right word here, for Ghostbusters, scripted by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, retains an unserious attitude to in-over-your-head tomfoolery that is increasingly refreshing in light of a film industry that in recent years has actively sought to give its blockbusters a spray-on realism and gloomy, issue-based seriousness. 

Indeed, Ghostbusters – which accounting for inflation ranks among the top 40 highest-grossing films of all time –has defiant silliness built into its very premise. Egon Spengler (Ramis), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), the three parapsychologists who decide to operate a poltergeist-popping service out of a disused fire station in Manhattan, are self-deprecatingly nerdy tech-heads grappling with their own curiosities. Their zero-to-hero progression into a monster-infested New York City is as unassuming as it is ad hoc. Our laughs are rooted in their vulnerability.

Aykroyd, an original cast member of the longstanding sketch show Saturday Night Live, initially conceived of Ghostbusters as a way of channelling his own curiosity for the supernatural. Given its casually effortless onscreen chemistries, it’s amusing to imagine how the film might have otherwise turned out. Named after the working title of a 1946 film starring The Bowery Boys – which was eventually released as Spook Busters – Aykroyd’s initial treatments included time travel, space travel, magic wands and uniforms that made the protagonists look more like a riot squad. One role was written specifically for Aykroyd’s fellow Blues Brother and Saturday Night Live member John Belushi, whose 1982 death caused major overhauls in the script. Rick Moranis was brought on when John Candy didn’t commit. Further changes were enforced by director Ivan Reitman, who felt Aykroyd’s ideas were financially unviable.

It isn’t just names like Candy, Belushi and now Ramis – who died aged 69 in February this year – that bind Ghostbusters to a seemingly bygone era. In many ways, it already was, in the same way that a sci-fi movie like Star Wars can feel nostalgic even when set in “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. Indeed, just as lightsabres provide glorified sword fights, there’s something inherently and ironically retro about four guys dressing up in boiler suits to blast proton rays at a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from the roof of a New York skyscraper.

So when the rumour circus returned to it again and again, there was something vaguely embarrassing about the notion of a third Ghostbusters film. Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis and Reitman have all been hounded on the subject over the years, but it wasn’t until this summer that Bridesmaids director Paul Feig was confirmed to direct an all-female reboot in 2015. Is that a gimmick atop a gimmick? The jury’s still out, though if they were going to do anything resembling a remake, why not go the full stretch? Bill Murray has at least given his approval.

At any rate, Ghostbusters is a Manhattan movie up there with the best of them. From that moment in which a suspiciously innocent ghost scares the living crap out of our partners in slime in New York City Public Library, the film boasts many comically terrifying scenes, and all of them are anchored to an otherwise realistic sense of place. In Ghostbusters, New York, New York isn’t such a wonderful town after all. Monsters pervade the domestic. When Sigourney Weaver’s character Dana Barrett returns to her small apartment with groceries, the last thing she expects is to open her fridge and see another world overseen by a demonic spirit named Zuul.

Such homely invasions are reflected to a greater extent in the second film – in which the monsters run even further amok, creating a kind of systemic supernaturalism that brings the city to a standstill. Its literal ghouls express the figurative fears of 1980s NYC: mayoral fraudulence, police corruption, a marginalising political system, a crack epidemic, AIDS, violence and vandalism on the city’s subway and a failing urban infrastructure. Like the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), these ostensibly throwaway comedies nevertheless chose the relatably embattled city as the natural setting for uncontrollable peril.

In the sequel, pink goo replaces the city’s water supply. It might make for a fun variation to Dana’s baby’s bath time, but that scene in which a pram-pushing demon floats down from the sky to snatch the infant away from a window ledge is an unspeakably horrible moment in a film ordinarily classified under comedy.

And that’s the final asset of a town like New York City: it can be hilarious, it can be horrific, and it is often both in the same instant. What better way to capture this zeitgeist than with Slimer, the loveably greedy ghoul that’s as scared as it is scary, floating yellow-eyed and aimless down a chaotic New York sidewalk?