When Dan Aykroyd wrote the first draft of Ghostbusters, he set it in outerspace. Hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales, a cartoon series, a line of action figures, and one sequel later, this may be hard for fans to believe. Few mainstream films have used New York City quite so well as both dramatic and comic inspiration. This week, as Ghostbusters briefly hits movie screens again in honor of its thirtieth birthday, many viewers will rediscover the movie’s famed dead-pan dialogue: droll, half-written, half-improvised, funny forever. But what still makes the movie a cinematic feat is not its script but its setting: Ghostbusters was always clearly a New York movie, and now, three decades later, it strikes me that Ghostbusters is easily one of the best New York movies of its era. In the intervening years, it has become only more apparent how perfectly it captured the attitude and anxieties of the city in the early 1980s. Filmmakers like Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, even Nora Ephron may more readily come to mind when thinking of New York films from the 1970s and 80s. But Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, shot from a final script by Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, deftly brings together all the fear, joy, and romance of the era into one perfect sci-fi comedy hit.
New York is built into the movie’s infrastructure from the get-go: excised from their jobs at Columbia (though it is never called that by name), the three heroes Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) purchase an enormous fixer-upper for their headquarters—a firehouse downtown. It was a moment many old and new New Yorkers—artists and writers especially—were moving downtown, to Soho and the East Village and Alphabet City. Egon compares the neighborhood to “a demilitarized zone,” and he might not have been too far off. As George J. Lankevich explains in New York City: A Short History, Manhattan had largely recovered from fiscal crisis by the beginning of the 80s, but poverty and violence were actually on the rise, with growing heroin use downtown and over eighteen hundred murders in 1981– the same year John Carpenter’s Escape From New York imagined the city as a maximum-security prison. As Luc Sante recalls in his memoir Low Life, “If you told people almost anywhere in the country that you lived in New York, they tended to look at you as if you had boasted of dining on wormwood and gall.” Ghosts and ancient Sumerian gods probably didn’t seem like such a stretch.
Yet Ghostbusters is also a tale of two New Yorks — the downtown world of the Ghostbusters, and the upper west side of Dana Barrett, played with perfect primness by Sigourney Weaver. One of the great twists of the film is to portray its heroes as working class, like firemen or exterminators, right down to their drab gray jumpsuits. When a hotel guest asks them, “What are you supposed to be, some kind of a cosmonaut?”, Peter replies, “No, we’re exterminators. Someone saw a cockroach on the twelfth floor.” Peter (not to mention Bill Murray) refuses to take anything too seriously, mouthing off to authorities from the hotel manager to the EPA.
Dana Barrett, on the other hand, is a smart, serious, upper-class artist right out of a Woody Allen movie, Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters (Weaver’s first film role was, after all, a blink-and-you-miss-it spot in Annie Hall.) She lives on Central Park West and plays cello at Lincoln Center. When she eventually ventures downtown to the Ghostbusters headquarters, she steps through the main doors tentatively in wide shot, looking entirely out-of-place. Her seriousness, of course, only makes it more fun when she’s finally possessed by the ferocious, sexual spirit of Zuul, standing in the doorway in a wild red dress, asking Peter, “Are you the keymaster?”
Like Harold Ramis’s earlier films, Caddyshack and Animal House, best analyzed by Tad Friend in his 2004 New Yorker profile, Ghostbusters finds its humor in the convergence of high and low, the serious and the silly. These specters don’t haunt old attics and abandoned houses, they prefer the New York Public Library, the swanky Sedgewick Hotel, and Dana Barrett’s refrigerator. It’s as though New York’s dark side had finally found its way uptown – like the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man stampeding through Columbus Circle with a smile on his face.
Even as the city narrowly escapes the apocalypse, the movie manages to end on a deliriously high note—Winston Zeddemore, the newest recruit (and the only black character, played by Ernie Hudson), shouts, “I love this town!” over the rooftops of the city, to the rising sounds of orchestral music. The line may not be in the final shooting script but it epitomizes the real (and lasting) romance of the movie—not the one between Peter and Dana, but that between the city and the filmmakers. Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, already stars from Saturday Night Live, certainly provide some of the movie’s New York pride (and chauvinism) – “Nobody steps on a church in my town,” Peter says to Mr. Stay Puft. The crowd scenes in Ghostbusters, too,are like few others, bringing together a euphorically diverse cross-section of the city– blacks, whites, Hasidic Jews, priests, and punks.
It is the opposite of a movie like Taxi Driver, where Travis Bickle awaits a hard rain to “wash all this scum off the streets” – “Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal.” Even Annie Hall has a scene where Alvy just sits on a bench in Central Park making fun of everyone around him. Ghostbusters is earnestly inclusive in a way neither of those movies are, and very few New York movies have been, a love letter that embraces the entire city, all with Ray Parker’s Ghostbusters theme playing in the background. Taxi Driver and Annie Hall presented rarefied visions of Manhattan – a disintegrating hell-hole on the one hand, a bourgeois playground on the other. Ghostbusters combined the two (crossing the streams, so to speak), and created a new vision of New York in the process—a city with its share of problems but no less pride because of it.
Stephen Vider: crosses the streams.