A homeless drifter called Nada (Roddy Piper) comes to Los Angeles looking for work. On the street, he sees a preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) warning that “they” are using the rich and powerful to control humanity. He gets a job at a construction site and gets to know Frank Armitrage (Keith David), who invites him to live in a shantytown soup kitchen run by Gilbert (Peter Jason). That night, a hacker seizes control of TV broadcasts, telling the public that signals are enslaving the population in a dream-like state, and we must cut off the signal at its source. Nada follows Gilbert and the preacher into a church where they meet the hacker and others. There are boxes and scientific equipment around. Gilbert worries that the Hoffmann lenses won’t be enough. Discovered, Nada beats a hasty retreat.
The shantytown and church are destroyed in a police raid. The hacker and preacher are beaten up. The next day, Nada retrieves one of the boxes in the church and takes out a pair of sunglasses. It makes the world seem black and white, reads subliminal messages in the media that push consumerism and conformity, and shows that many people are aliens with skull-like faces.
When Nada mocks an alien working in a supermarket, she calls other aliens on her wristwatch. Nada is confronted by alien police. He kills them and steals their weapons. He sees more aliens in a bank, whom he kills with a shotgun and escapes, taking Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) hostage. She refuses to put on the glasses and pushes him down a hill and calls the cops. The next day, he returns to the alleyway and gets more sunglasses. Frank arrives to give him his paycheck but will not put on the sunglasses either and wants nothing to do with the violent Nada. Nada beats him in a long, brutal brawl and puts the glasses on him, and he sees aliens and a flying saucer. He joins up with Nada.
Frank and Nada find Gilbert, who takes them to an anti-alien meeting. They are given contact lenses that replace their sunglasses and are told that the aliens are using global warming to make Earth like their home planet, are depleting Earth’s resources, and turning powerful humans into collaborators. Holly arrives, the meeting is raided by police, and most are killed. Frank, Nada, and Holly escape into the night. Nada and Frank are cornered, but activating a wristwatch opens an escape portal to a spaceport.
A meeting of aliens and collaborators is taking place. A collaborating drifter gives them a tour to the basement of Cable 54, Holly’s employer, the source of the signal. They find Holly and fight their way to the roof, but Holly kills Frank, as she is a collaborator herself. Nada kills her and destroys the transmitter but is fatally wounded. With the transmitter destroyed, people all over Earth discover the aliens living with them.
The film was written and directed by John Carpenter, based on the 1963 short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight O’clock in the Morning.” It was well received, though lambasted by critics, and is now considered underrated. Street Art, particularly, has been influenced by it. The film was nominated for two Saturn Awards. The six-minute brawl between Frank and Nada has become famous among fight scenes. Carpenter sold the movie by insisting that Ronald Reagan and Reaganomics was an alien plot. Unfortunately, neo-Nazis have used the film as an allegory of Jewish control of the world, much to Carpenter’s disgust.
The story was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction and in the Alien Encounters Comics Anthology. Carpenter has said that he saw something like H. P. Lovecraft’s work in it. Nada means Nothing. Originally, he was supposed to be played by Kurt Russell, but Carpenter thought he had used him too much. He hired wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David for their roles because they seemed so real. The two of them worked out the knock down, drag out fight that is so admired. Real homeless people were hired, paid with money and food. The WWE didn’t want Piper to do the movie, so he quit. The most quoted line—“I have come to chew bubble-gum and kick ass and I’m all out of bubble-gum”—was ad-libbed by Piper.