Every summer has a dominant blockbuster, but it’s not every year that the season’s biggest movie inspires a legitimate mania. Ghostbusters, which surrounded some of the funniest guys on the planet with expensive – though slightly cheesy – special effects, was a certifiable phenomenon. In 1984, your classmates, your teacher, your pen-pal in Nairobi, even your half-deaf grandmother knew the emphatic, enthusiastic chanted response to the winking question, “Who you gonna call?” Thirty years later, everyone still knows the answer.
Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis played the trio of disgraced parapsychologists who pick the perfect time to go into business as New York City’s only paranormal exterminators. See, the dead are rising, there are demon dogs hiding in a luxury skyrise, and some god named Gozer the Destroyer is unleashing a giant marshmallow man on Manhattan.
If that sounds ridiculous, you should’ve seen Aykroyd’s original script, which included outer space and time travel. Aykroyd wrote the screenplay with his Trading Places co-star Eddie Murphy and John Belushi in mind. Belushi tragically overdosed in 1982, Murray came aboard, and Stripes director Ivan Reitman got Aykroyd and Ramis to bring the story back down to earth, both figuratively and financially (the original space special effects were a deal-breaker). Still, Ghostbusters was a huge, expensive risk at the time, handing a healthy chunk of studio coin to the smart-ass upstarts who’d previously been trusted only with low-budget comedies like Animal House, Caddyshack, and Stripes.
Needless to say, Ghostbusters came, saw, and kicked some ass at the box office. Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song became a No. 1 hit and was the soundtrack of the summer. (It was part “Thriller,” part “Macarena.”) Murray’s quips were recited over and over and over between friends of all ages, and Ghostbusters toys, lunch boxes, and breakfast cereal flew off of shelves faster than spooked books at the New York City Public Library. But wait, there’s more:
Release Date: June 8, 1984
Box Office: $238.6 million domestic ($13.6 million opening weekend), $291.6 million global; $568.5 million domestic in 2014 dollars, adjusted for inflation. (All numbers from Box Office Mojo.)
The Competition: Ghostbusters knocked Star Trek III: The Search for Spock out of the top spot and barely edged Gremlins, which opened the same day, to win the weekend. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had opened two weeks earlier and finished in third place. Ghostbusters would eventually crush its summer competition, suffocating Rhinestone, Bachelor Party, Best Defense, Top Secret! and The Cannonball Run II, and certainly dampening the take of other hits, like The Karate Kid. It finished first for seven straight weeks, until Purple Rain temporarily displaced it.
What TIME said: “These spectacular confrontations are well handled by director Reitman, who always finds the time for the funny aside, the wittily telling detail. He and the visual-effects director, Richard Edlund, also have the sense to let the special effects look just a little tacky, so they provide a comic comment on all the ghoulie-ghostie movies we have been asked to suspend disbelief for in recent years. Whoever thought of having evil’s final manifestation take the form of a 100-ft. marshmallow deserves the rational mind’s eternal gratitude.” –Richard Schickel
Cultural Impact Then: Start with the sheer magnitude of its box-office run. Ghostbusters made more money and averaged more per screen in its second week of release than it did its first! Not only was it No. 1 for seven straight weeks, it won the weekend in its ninth and 15th week of release as well. Overall, it finished in the weekend top-3 for 16 straight weeks. It was still playing in theaters the following January. And in August of 1985, Columbia stuffed it back in theaters for some easy cash – and Ghostbusters still finished in the top 10. The film also broke the all-time record for highest-grossing comedy (a record it would own for just six months, until Beverly Hills Cop topped it). The video for Ray Parker’s hit song was a who’s-who of Hollywood comedy (see below), but the tune proved too popular for its own good. It also proved too similar to Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug,” which Reitman had used, not exactly coincidentally, as a temp score during editing and early screenings. In the fall of ‘84, Lewis sued and the parties settled. All three actors, plus Reitman, got giant boosts to their careers – but Murray, who was already a comedy god, became a full-fledged movie star after saving the world from otherworldly creatures and kissing the beautiful girl.
Cultural Staying Power: Ghostbusters yielded crappy cartoons and a crappy sequel in 1989 that doubled the original’s opening-weekend take but ultimately finished with half the total lifetime gross. The experience was so sour for Murray that he’s spent the last 25 years frustrating any attempts to get the Ghostbusters back together for a third film. But that’s not to say that he disagrees with the original’s millions of fans – or EW, which named Ghostbusters the funniest movie of the last 25 years in 2008. Murray had some fun with his Ghostbuster fame in Zombieland, and he even dressed as his character for the 2010 Scream Awards.
Harold Ramis passed away earlier this year, and Reitman has said he no longer plans to direct GBIII. Still, the first film remains a classic to people who know everything there is to know about ectoplasm, the danger of crossing the streams, and how you roast a Godzilla-size marshmallow man who steps on a church in your town.