It seems like just another day in a small town in the American Midwest, even as war looms on the horizon. Communists have taken hold across the world, and Central America has armed itself as the U.S.A. stands alone as the last bastion of freedom. For Jed (Patrick Swayze), life goes on as he drops his kid brother and his friend off at their high school; their first lesson is history, all about Genghis Khan, but while the teacher talks he notices parachutists falling from the sky and into the fields. Various staff and pupils go out to investigate and are brutally gunned down - these aren't friendly troops, they are Communists and the U.S.A. is being invaded. World War Three has begun.
Surely any self-respecting survivalist's favourite film, Red Dawn was scripted by Kevin Reynolds and its director, John Milius, and caused a stir on its release with some worried that it would be taken too seriously. However, most supposedly malleable minds saw it for another gung ho action movie of the type that would be popular during this decade rather than a call to arms. Watching it now, it's difficult to credit the film with any propaganda value other than the usual them and us, they'll come and get you if you're not careful type of thing, and here is, perhaps, the most contentious aspect which is a warning that if we don't attack them they'll attack us first.
Jed drives back to the school and piles as many teenagers, including brother Matt (Charlie Sheen), into the back of his truck as he can. Then he races off into the countryside as the bullets fly and bombs explode, wondering where he can find shelter. He stops at a gas station where the owner gives them supplies and tells them to seek refuge in the mountains, and off they go, relying on tinned food and what they can hunt to eat - they secured guns and bows and arrows during their flight (they do seem to find a lot of handy stuff considering their situation). Although all youngsters, this new way of life makes men of them, even the mayor's son who wanted to go back and face the music.
And so it continues, with half of the U.S.A. occupied by the Soviets and their allies, the half where Jed and company, now calling themselves the Wolverines after the local football team, begin to draw up plans to fight back against their oppressors. Why the most powerful country in the world would want to entertain fantasies of being invaded and reduced acts of terrorism to combat the occupiers is an interesting one. It's as if the filmmakers are saying that America should be ever vigilant because as we know, Reagan's America was just filled with dangerously left wing pinko bleeding heart liberals who would be bending over for the Soviets given half the chance.
Or not. But if a country defines itself by its enemies, then this one believed itself besieged on all sides and not even Western Europe will lend a hand (apart from "England", apparently). Returning to the action, the Wolverines find out that the Soviets have the country under an iron fist, complete with prison camps and mass executions for insurgents. Jed and Matt's father (Harry Dean Stanton) gets one of the silliest moments when he yells, "Avenge me!" to his sons from behind the fence. You can imagine Milius seeing himself as such a self-righteous character, and more than that, that such an invasion would be great fun, giving his fellow Americans the very excuse they need to start killing Reds indiscriminately. The whole story is a kid's idea of conflict, designed to appeal to the younger generation who would be going off to fight; imagine the uproar in the U.S. if Soviet Russia had made a film about being invaded by them. There's not even a proper ending. Music by Basil Poledouris.