The 11 Most Important Pop Culture References in 'Stranger Things 3'
This post contains spoilers for Stranger Things 3.
Netflix had no idea when Stranger Things first premiered three years ago that it would have a global phenomenon on its hands. With the series' third season premiering on July 4, a whole new smattering of retro pop culture Easter eggs have revealed themselves to fans. Yes, there's a bit of Jaws in there this time around -- the Spielberg classic, and these new episodes, take place during Independence Day.
Our trip back to the Upside Down took us back down nostalgia lane, as expected. Season 3 proves itself to be a lot more fun and quite a bit darker than Stranger Things' previous outings. From Stephen Spielberg to Stephen King to George Romero to John Carpenter, there really is a lot of horror movie love packed into this eight-episode story. That only scratches the surface, really, and if we decided to pick through every little retro tidbit featured in here, this article would probably become a full-fledged novel.
Stranger Things 3 brings us back to the glory days of shopping mall culture (who remembers Sam Goody, Jazzercise and Waldenbooks?) but the show also delves deeper into its supernatural mythology, fleshing out its fictional world in new and exciting ways. The pop culture nods are not just the icing on the cake, either -- a handful of these '80s references pack some real narrative importance. From a classic teen comedy to an iconic zombie movie to the bar where everybody knows your name, let's dig into the most important pop culture references featured in Stranger Things 3.
Day of the Dead
It doesn't take long in the Season 3 premiere for things to move into referential territory. And it does so with a big hat tip to horror legend George Romero. The major focal point for this new Stranger Things story is the Starcourt Mall. The new shopping attraction -- remember, it's 1985 and shopping mall culture kicked off in a major way in the mid-'80s -- may have threatened the small businesses of Hawkins, Indiana, but it's definitely where all the action is happening. And for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink), that action is of the zombie variety.
Using Scoops Ahoy employee and Dustin's forever bestie, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), as their connection to sneak into the mall's movie theater, the kids walk right past a Back to the Future poster and into a sneak screening of Day of the Dead.
In Day of the Dead, the world is overrun with zombies. But a small sect of human survivors are living underground, working towards a solution to defeat the threat. While that's all well and good, the faulty mess of the survivors' communication skills cause any sort of progress to break down around them. And if ever there were an overarching theme that'd speak to Season 3 of Stranger Things, it'd be the concept of small town America being overrun by mind-controlled pod people with some shady Russian spies and a vengeful Mind Flayer secretly pulling the strings in the background.
9 to 5
For Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), their relationship in Season 3 continues to walk the line between normal romance and bizarre crime-fighting duo. And sure, the couple do end up following a lead regarding psychotic rats that reveal the Mind Flayer's sinister return to Hawkins, but their professional lives in the new season made us almost expect to see Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton make cameos.
Working at the small town's newspaper could be viewed as a big break for them both -- hell, Byers' position as photographer seemed pretty promising -- but this is 1985 and the all-male staff's treatment of Nancy is a stark reminder that the idea of gender equality was even more buried underneath the gross burden of toxic maleness of corporate America at the time.
It's pretty blatant that the Duffer Brothers were giving a nod to the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, which starred Tomlin and Parton as secretaries who abducted their chauvinist boss, Franklin M. Hart Jr., who was played by Dabney Coleman, only to run things in his absence. They may have only fantasized about murdering the man in the movie, but Byers and Wheeler actually put some hurting on both Bruce (Jake Busey) and Tom (Michael Park). The newsmen became "flayed," so hey, they totally deserved it.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
There sure is a bunch of Fast Times love in Season 3 of Stranger Things. We first see a nod to the Sean Penn-starring comedy in Episode 1 when fit lifeguard Billy (Dacre Montgomery) reports for duty. Walking by a group of Hawkins moms hanging by the pool -- this romance novel-reading bunch includes Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono), Mike's mom -- as "Moving In Stereo" by The Cars plays, it's clear this isn't just a scene to reintroduce fans to Max's older brother. The whole thing takes shape as a nod to the Phoebe Cates' dream sequence in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where her character, Linda Barrett, comes up out of a pool in a bathing suit the same color Karen is wearing, while the same track plays.
The Fast Times theme continues from there. Not only does Dustin insist his new girlfriend Suzie, whom he met at a summer science camp called Camp Know Where, was hotter than Phoebe Cates, we get a final homage to the flick when Steve, who attempts to get a job at Family Video, ends up knocking over a Phoebe Cates cardboard standee advertising the movie. Of course, Steve's Scoops Ahoy outfit brings to mind Brad Hamilton's (Judge Reinhold) pirate costume, the silly wardrobe he was forced to wear at his own mundane place of employment featured in Fast Times at Ridgemont High: the restaurant known as Captain Hook Fish and Chips.
Magnum P.I./Die Hard
Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) sure has come a long way from the "coffee and contemplation" police officer we originally met in Season 1. And it feels like everything he's gone through, all the struggles and successes, have led him to become the best version of himself in Season 3. Basically, he's like a badass mashup of Thomas Magnum and John McClane. And yet, he's still very much Jim Hopper.
While it would be another three years before Die Hard hit theaters, propelling Bruce Willis to action star status, Magnum P.I.'s popularity was still alive and kicking in 1985. The series, which starred Tom Selleck, followed our hero private eye as he fought crime all around Hawaii while looking slick in his well-maintained mustache and collection of aloha shirts.
As Hopper struggled with Eleven and Mike's burgeoning romance, demanding her door remain open three inches at all times, we watched him kick back in front of the TV to view the long-running CBS detective series. The fact that he, too, was sporting a rather thick mustache and invested in a Magnum-esque "cutting edge" Hawaiian shirt for his date with Joyce at Enzo's says a lot for his character's story arc this season.
It's a rare occasion when we see the Chief of Police outside of his work clothes, which gives our hero a more casual, rule-breaking persona this time around. This really comes into play one of the many times he faces off against the silent Terminator-style Russian henchmen played by Andrey Ivchenko. In one scene in particular, as Hopper puts a gun to the back of this new foe's head, threatening to put a bullet in his brain, the sheriff is met with disbelief and a laugh. "You won't do that," the henchman says. "You are policeman. Policemen have rules." And wouldn't you know, that's almost exactly what one of Hans Gruber's (Alan Rickman) men says to John McClane in Die Hard. Imagine that.
Jim Hopper really has a thing for Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder). But unfortunately for our hero Sheriff, Will's mom is still mourning the loss of her love, Bob Newby (Sean Astin). As you'll recall, Bob helped the gang escape Hawkins Lab in Season 2 only to be taken down by one of those nasty demodogs.
Throughout Season 3, we watch as Hopper tries his best to woo Joyce. Early on, his attempt to get her to meet him at Enzo's restaurant is shot down. She tells him she's busy -- which are plans for a night alone on the Byers couch as she eats leftover lasagna and watches an episode of Cheers.
This moment is important for two reasons: This scene provokes a flashback of her and Bob watching the long-running sitcom during a happier time. But what's more impactful here is the Sam and Diane conflict that played out on the show during the height of its popularity. The whole "will they, won't they" dynamic of Ted Danson and Shelley Long made the program much more engaging to watch. And it's that same sort of relationship element we see play out between Joyce and Jim in Season 3 of Stranger Things. Underneath all their bickering -- he's mad she stood him up, she's frustrated with his brutish mentality -- there's a mutual attraction, love, and respect.
It all comes to a heartbreaking end when Joyce and Hopper infiltrate the Russians' Starcourt facility and put an end to the Soviet plan to open the gate that leads to the Upside Down. But, as they absolutely saved the day, the closing of the gate ended up eviscerating a bunch of bad guys, alluding to the possibility that Hopper, too, had perished when Joyce flipped the two-fold kill switch.
Then again, if that post-credit scene has anything to say for itself, it's overwhelmingly possible that Sheriff Hopper is still alive. Could he be the American prisoner the Russians reference in their secret prison in Kamchatka? We'll have to wait for Season 4 for that answer, but something tells us the romance dream between these two isn't completely dead in the water.
It's Dustin who initially discovers the presence of a Russian threat in Hawkins. In Episode 1, he lures the rest of the gang to the top of a hill in town, which surely is the best place to get a signal for "Cerebro," the radio transmitter he built at Camp Know Where. He's there to communicate with his girlfriend Suzie, but she doesn't answer.
The group predictably loses interest and as he continues to radio his long-distance girlfriend, he picks up a peculiar message: "The week is long. The silver cat feeds when blue meets yellow in the west. A trip to China sounds nice, if you tread lightly." Where does he take this intel? To Scoops Ahoy, of course. And with the help of Steve Harrington and his ice cream-slinging coworker Robin (Maya Hawke), they not only crack the code, the kids realize that Russian operatives have been doing a bunch of enemy spy stuff right beneath their feet this entire time.
Dustin, Steve, and Robin may not know that Mayor Kline (Carey Elwes) is connected to this sinister plan, but it really doesn't matter, because once they discover that an innocent-looking storage room in the mall is actually a giant elevator in disguise, the group gets stuck in the underground facility with no clear way out. This is the real Starcourt Mall: A secret base operated by the Soviet government with the intention of using a giant magnetic field generator to open up the gate that separates our world from the Upside Down.
The Red Dawn connection mostly exists on a superficial level here. In John Milius' 1984 movie, a group of militant Soviets infiltrate a small Colorado town and it's left up to a group of renegade high school students -- played by Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey -- to outsmart these enemies. That whole "Russians getting outsmarted by kids" thing is in full effect in Stranger Things 3. And honestly, it's pretty dang glorious.
There is so much John Carpenter love in Stranger Things 3, our heads are still spinning from it. Aside from the awesome The Thing poster we've seen hanging on the wall in Mike's basement since the show's very first episode, there are many references to Carpenter's classic body horror flick throughout these new episodes. In Episode 4, our core group is fractured -- with Dustin, Steve, Maya, and Lucas' little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) dealing with that whole Starcourt mess -- leaving El, Mike, Max, Will, and Lucas to figure out a way to deal with the Mind Flayer… if he truly is back in Hawkins. (Spoiler: He is.)
Taking a page straight from MacReady's (Kurt Russell) playbook from The Thing, the group decides to trap Billy in the public pool's sauna, and slowly turn up the heat, to see if he really is being controlled by the Mind Flayer. You see, The Mind Flayer loves the cold -- we learned this in Season 2 when Will was the one possessed by the monster. It's also a similar plan of attack for MacReady who, when he learns that the Thing wants to sleep in the cold, to just wait it out for the rescue team to come, he sets fire to the damn base in an attempt to stop that from happening.
Then there's that odd moment in Episode 6 where Lucas compares the original version of The Thing to Carpenter's as his way of saying New Coke is far more superior to Coca-Cola. Blatant in-program advertising, Stranger Things has it. And while it's clear Lucas has some issues when it comes to taste -- and how he treats his girlfriend -- he's spot on in his assessment of Carpenter's classic.
And of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't briefly talk about the possessed people of Hawkins. "The Flayed," as the gang calls 'em, are all being controlled by the Mind Flayer and, when he needs them, these zombified citizens are activated to do his evil bidding. That character detail is quite reminiscent of Carpenter's 1982 movie as, on the surface, no one in the film is certain who is safe and who is compromised. And once they do learn who the enemies are, the gross nature of the monsters that exists under human skin becomes a discovery that's almost too much to bear.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers/The Blob
Facing his own shadow-y doppelganger in the street, Max's older brother begins to go through a disturbing change. At some points in his dark turn, we couldn't help but think of Jesse (Mark Patton) from A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. In the horror sequel, Freddy Krueger used the young man's body as a tool to surface into the real world to wreak some serious havoc. But Billy's struggle also had a very Michael from The Lost Boys vibe. Maybe it's the Jason Patric-style '80s mullet he was sporting, or his sudden sensitivity to sunlight, but there were a few vampiric callbacks to that horror classic, as well.
We should move on from Billy, though, because the real horror exists with the Mind Flayer and the new form he takes in Season 3. He's not just a shadow monster playing Will like a puppet anymore. This time around, his formation in Hawkins comes in a more grotesque, visceral manner.
Starting with the rats in town, which is probably a little shout out to Stephen King's Graveyard Shift, we see the Mind Flayer's presence stir the rodents into a frenzy before they fall over and explode. It's only later that we see the rat Mrs. Driscoll (Peggy Miley) caught -- only after Nancy and Jonathan leave her home to continue their own investigation -- burst into a pile of guts… with its gelatinous mess slowly moving through the cage bars in a way that's not too different from The Blob.
Be it the 1958 original or 1988 remake, the story of a slow-moving goo pile that destroys everything in its path, only to grow in size and become a formidable monster, is quite the movie to behold. The Duffer Brothers take that concept and mold it into something even more disgusting and scary. With each dead rat, and each new victim Billy brings to his Upside Down master, the Mind Flayer grows. And as Nancy and Jonathan end up facing their Hawkins Post counterparts at the hospital -- only to learn they'd been flayed -- we learn that when the pod people of Hawkins are killed, they become a pile of gooey guts… only to slither their way back to each other, and inevitably, the Mind Flayer, to create one hell of a messy big bad.
The Neverending Story
In the action-packed third act of Stranger Things 3's final episode, Dustin finally gets Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo) to respond to his call (proving to everyone she's real) and the duo end up singing the title track to Wolfgang Petersen's 1984 fantasy flick. Sure, Dustin would probably do anything for his girlfriend, but here, he agrees to sing with her in order to get the string of numbers known as Planck's constant -- this number, as it so happens, ends up being the combination to the safe that holds the keys Hopper and Joyce need to turn off the machine causing all of the town's problems.
The hit movie's title track, as performed by Limahl, proved in the '80s to be quite the earworm, hitting Billboard's Top 20 chart in America. Not only does its inclusion here leave us wondering just how many seasons Stranger Things will go -- could it be... neverending? -- it also acts as a firm reminder that getting "The Neverending Story" out of your head is a challenge unto itself. Move over, "Baby Shark."