Stranger Things is a show filled with references to ’80s pop culture and homages to the ’80s movies, TV shows, and books that inspired it. You don’t have to recognize all of them to enjoy the show, but a little context never hurt anyone’s appreciation of anything. With that in mind, here’s an episode-by-episode guide to Season 3’s key references, from Corey Hart songs to New Coke to Red Dawn.
Note: Light plot spoilers, and heavy cultural-reference spoilers, lie ahead.
The season’s opening moments pay homage to any number of Cold War thrillers, but none more directly than John Badham’s 1983 film WarGames, in which a hacker played by Matthew Broderick finds himself in contact with an automated missile system that could start World War III. In the film’s opening moments, a pair of soldiers are asked to turn a key in unison to launch a missile but lose their nerve. Here, the Russian scientists manning a similar system attempting to open the Upside Down don’t share their hesitation (though they obviously should).
“Never Surrender,” by Corey Hart
Canadian rocker Corey Hart’s 1985 hit accompanies Mike and El’s make-out session, and it proves so catchy that Mike has to interrupt the kissing to rock out a little bit. The young couple wasn’t alone in admiring “Never Surrender,” even if they were a little ahead of the curve. They’re kissing to it in June of 1985; the song would top out at No. 3 on the American charts, but not until August of that same summer. This would prove to be Hart’s biggest hit in the U.S., surpassing the new wave-inspired 1984 single “Sunglasses at Night.” Hart would continue to place hits on the American charts for the rest of the ‘80s and even longer in Canada, where he remains a popular concert draw. The presence of a tape by another Canadian rocker, Bryan Adams, on El’s shelf suggests she has a musical type.
Magnum P.I. (1980 - 1988)
Hopper is enjoying, sort of, an episode of Magnum P.I., a hit crime drama starring Tom Selleck as a Vietnam vet who takes a job as a private investigator in the employ of a never-seen novelist (voiced, in early episodes, by Orson Welles). With the help of sidekicks who include the prickly Brit Higgins (John Hillerman), Magnum solves crimes in Hawaii while wearing colorful tropical shirts and sporting an impressive mustache. It’s easy to see why Hopper admires him (an admiration even more evident in later episodes), though at this point the show had peaked as a cultural phenomenon. The following year it would go head-to-head on the schedule with NBC’s The Cosby Show, a match-up that seriously dented Magnum’s ratings. (A remake of the series currently airs on CBS.)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Home to Sam Goody, The Great Cookie, and other mall favorites, Starcourt Mall is essentially a dream of the perfect ’80s mall made reality. The series filmed its Starcourt scenes inside a re-dressed Georgia mall, but Starcourt most closely resembles Ridgemont Mall from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a bustling place filled with action and drama at all times. Also recalling Fast Times: the humiliating sailor costume Steve wears as his Scoops Ahoy uniform, a pretty direct homage to the pirate costume worn by Judge Reinhold’s Fast Times character while working at Captain Hook Fish & Chips.
Day of the Dead (1985)
The third entry in George Romero’s zombie series (following Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead), Day of the Dead takes place largely in an underground bunker where scientists and soldiers concoct sometimes-clashing strategies to turn back the zombie tide. The Hawkins blackout occurs as Mike, Will, Lucas, and Max are watching the film’s opening scene, a dream sequence in which Lori Cardille’s protagonist imagines a wall of grasping hands, one of the most memorable images in the film (which has a terrific beginning and ending, and a lot of tedium sandwiched in the middle). A later scene in the episode will provide another nod to Romero, shooting Hawkins’s neglected downtown in much the way Day of the Dead depicts the abandoned Florida city seen early in the film. As the sign outside the theater suggests, this is a preview screening — Day wouldn’t open widely until later in July.
“Open the Door” by Gentlemen Afterdark
Stranger Things usually isn’t subtle with its needle drops, but the song playing as Nancy and Jonathan frantically make their way to work is a deep, deep cut from the Arizona band Gentlemen Afterdark, a regional favorite that never quite broke big, despite an EP co-produced by Alice Cooper. Fans of American new wave that sounds like it came the U.K. should check them out. Before a reunion show in 2015, frontman Brian Smith recounted his “almost famous” experience for Tucson Weekly.
The Fog (1980) / Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) / Poltergeist (1982)
The moment in which Dustin is freaked out by his telepathically controlled toys draws from a number of similar famous scenes in films by John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, and Tobe Hooper. The creepy, cymbal-clapping monkey doubles as a reference to the Stephen King story “The Monkey,” found in the 1985 collection Skeleton Crew. Its original cover inspired many a mid-’80s nightmare.
“Rock this Town,” by the Stray Cats
The Stray Cats’ 1981 hit helped make the ’80s safe for the ’50s, and helped give the ’50s revivalism of the ’70s (as seen in Grease, Happy Days, and elsewhere) its own new wave. Would Back to the Future have happened without it? Maybe. Maybe not.
Some of Hawkins’s sunbathers can be seen enjoying cans of New Coke, which debuted in April of 1985 with much fanfare and the promise of a sweeter, better Coca-Cola. It didn’t take, despite some initial signs of success. On July 11, 1985, Coca-Cola announced it would be reviving the old formula under the name Coca-Cola Classic. New Coke, later renamed Coke II, held on for a few years before fading into the sunset.
“Moving in Stereo,” by The Cars
The Hawkins moms lust over Billy to the tune of the Cars’ 1978 song “Moving in Stereo.” Never released as a single, it found a second life when it appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High over a Phoebe Cates scene that’s probably the most-paused moment of the VHS era. Here, the voyeurism gets a gender reversal.
“Workin’ for a Livin’,” Huey Lewis and the News
Huey Lewis and the News dominated mid-’80s airwaves thanks to the mammoth 1983 album Sports and the group’s contributions to Back to the Future. This is, by comparison, an oldie — albeit a thematically appropriate one given when it plays — from the 1982 album “Picture This.”
Dustin names his homemade HAM radio after Professor X’s mutant-finding device in the X-Men comics.
“She’s Got You,” by Patsy Cline
Also thematically appropriate: this classic country song of yearning that plays as Hopper tries to warm up his relationship with Joyce, to no avail. The gender is, once again, reversed here: If there’s anyone who has Joyce, it’s the late Bob Newby, whose memory she clings to.
“Hot Blooded,” by Foreigner
This hard-rocking hit from Foreigner peaked in September of 1978, but classic-rock radio played the hell out of it throughout the ’80s. It’s kind of an on-the-nose music cue as Billy ogles a swimming Mrs. Wheeler, but it also captures the way the American suburbs could feel perpetually mired in the ’70s thanks to the deathless popularity of some acts. Not that Foreigner itself was stuck in the past: The band caught a tremendous second wind thanks to the power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is” in 1984.
Poor Joyce finds herself thinking about Bob as she watches an episode of Cheers. Specifically, she recalls him commenting on the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic that charged the relationship between Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long). Stranger Things has its own will-they-or-won’t-they couple with Hopper and Joyce, but Joyce doesn’t seem to be making that connection here.
“Can’t Fight This Feeling,” by R.E.O. Speedwagon
R.E.O. Speedwagon figured out the value of a well-timed power ballad even sooner than Foreigner. The band’s 1980 hit “Keep on Loving You” didn’t invent the form, but it became the model to which many future power balladeers aspired. Speedwagon kept the lighters burning with this 1984 hit.
“(I Just) Died in Your Arms,” by Cutting Crew
While imagining the erotic delights that await her with Billy, Karen seems to have a vision of the future that summons this 1986 hit from Cutting Crew, by far the most popular song the English band ever released.
“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” by Jim Croce
We already knew Hopper loved this song, from Jim Croce’s breakthrough 1972 album of the same name, because it soundtracked a beloved season-two dancing scene. This is apparently Hopper’s go-to when he’s feeling good, whether that means teaching El what real music is or celebrating keeping her away from her boyfriend.
“Gunpoint Affection” by Black Market Baby
Stranger Things often goes for obvious soundtrack picks. (See below.) But sometimes it goes for obscurities, like the season premiere’s Gentlemen Afterdark track and this song from Black Market Baby, a staple of the early ’80s D.C. hardcore scene that never found much of an audience outside the District.
The Endless Summer (1966)
Hanging in Max’s room: a not-so-subtle reminder that Max comes from California via this poster for Bruce Brown’s documentary about the ’60s surf scene. Born in California, Brown traveled the world for the film, which helped spread the gospel of surf and immortalized the image of the fun-loving, easygoing surfer.
“My Bologna,” by “Weird Al” Yankovic
When Joyce goes to visit science teacher Mr. Clarke, he’s enjoying the breakthrough song of parodist extraordinaire “Weird Al” Yanokovic, a send-up of The Knack’s “My Sharona” recorded while Yankovic was still in college. Dr. Demento liked it and so did The Knack, and thus began a long, still-ongoing career mixing music, comedy, and accordions. (Look for a period-appropriate “Weird Al” shirt in an upcoming episode.)
“Material Girl,” by Madonna
As El and Mac go shopping, Stranger Things goes with the obvious choice of setting the moment to Madonna’s era-defining “Material Girl,” the second single from Madonna’s hit 1984 album Like a Virgin. And while this might not be the most creative choice, it’s also probably the song playing in the girls’ heads in the moment.
“Cold as Ice,” by Foreigner
This season is apparently Foreigner’s time to shine. The band returns to the soundtrack with this 1977 hit to put a button on El proclaiming “I dump your ass!” to Mike.
“Angel,” by Madonna
The third single from Like a Virgin has the odd distinction of following a Madonna single not from the album on the charts. Released in April of 1985, it made its debut while Madonna’s “Crazy for You,” from the Vision Quest soundtrack, was still getting a lot of airplay. Nonetheless, “Angel” continued the stream of Virgin smashes. The song has had a shorter afterlife than other Madonna hits, however. “Angel” didn’t make the cut of her bestselling greatest hits album The Immaculate Collection and Madonna hasn’t performed it since 1985. It’s a measure of what a force Madonna was in the ’80s that a song that might be another artist’s crowning achievement has become something like a throwaway.
Best known, then and now, as the star of 1984’s The Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio was a staple of magazines like Teen Beat in the years between Scott Baio and Kirk Cameron. Despite his youthful appearance, Macchio was already 21 when he first played the aspiring karate star Daniel LaRusso, a role he reprised in two sequels and the ongoing YouTube Premium series Cobra Kai. With its story of a transplant to a new culture learning to make his way in a strange, hostile world, The Karate Kid would probably appeal to El.
“Lovergirl” by Teena Marie
Teena Marie was only 28 when she had her biggest pop hit with “Lovergirl,” but she’d already seen her share of ups and downs in a career that dated back to her childhood. Her 1984 album Starchild was her first after an ugly split with Motown, which must have made its success all the more satisfying.
“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” by Wham!
The duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (but mostly George Michael) had already enjoyed success in the U.K. with hip-hop-flavored singles like “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do).” But it took this ’80s-shaded throwback to classic rock and roll to put them over in the States. It’s perfect Jazzercise music, the sort of Top 40 hit kids and moms could enjoy together.
Back to the Future (1985) / Invasion U.S.A. (1985)
Among the posters visible as our heroes sneak into Day of the Dead in the first episode: Back to the Future. The Robert Zemeckis classic probably needs no explanation here. Back to the Future will play a bigger role in a later episode, but here it supplies a plot point. As in Zemeckis’s film, Stranger Things 3 features bad guys who use a mall for their dirty deeds. An innocent American mall also serves as a battleground for evil communists — a mix of Latin American guerillas and Soviet operatives — in the insane Chuck Norris action film Invasion U.S.A., which Hawkins residents wouldn’t have had a chance to check out until September of 1985. Maybe they would have been better prepared if they’d seen it.
“American Pie,” by Don McClean
Don McClean’s cryptic, eight-minute-plus history of rock and roll had listeners puzzling over what it meant in 1972. (Who was the Jester? Who was Jack Flash?) Here it provides a creepy counterpoint to “Billy” and “Heather”’s family dinner.
Wonder Woman and Green Lantern
For reading material, Max offers El a couple of era-appropriate issues of DC Comics titles. For those curious, she holds up Green Lantern #185 and Wonder Woman #326. El opts for the latter, in which Wonder Woman ends up in the fictional Central American country of Tropidor.
Alien (1979) / Die Hard (1988)
When you’re stuck, why not try a vent? It worked in Alien and Die Hard, after all. (Okay, it didn’t really work in Alien, but at least they tried.)
Sure, the accent’s different, but the Russian super-soldier played by Ukrainian actor Andrey Ivchenko (and named “Grigori” in the credits) owes a lot to the sort of tireless, heavily muscled characters the Austrian born bodybuilder/actor/politician/recording artist played in the ’80s. (There’s more than a dash of Dolph Lundgren’s enhanced Russian boxer from Rocky IV in there, too.)
“Strike Zone,” by Loverboy
Todd, the unfortunate owner of the cool convertible commandeered by Hopper, is enjoying a deep cut from Loverboy’s 1983 album Keep It Up as he pulls into the gas station. (The album’s big hit: “Hot Girls in Love.”) Is this the sort of music douchebags listened to in real life in the ’80s? That answer might be lost in time. But it’s definitely the sort of music douchebags listened to in ’80s movies.
Speaking of DC Comics, this reference to Victor Stone, a.k.a. Cyborg, would have been more obscure in 1985 than in 2019, when Cyborg has shown up in Justice League and makes regular appearances on the hit animated series Teen Titans Go! In 1985, you’d have to seek out Stone’s adventures in issues of The New Teen Titans, then going head-to-head with The X-Men with a combination of superheroics and soap operatics after a reinvention at the hands of writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez.
Red Dawn (1984)
Confronted with Russians on American soil, Dustin’s mind immediately goes to John Milius’s action-thriller Red Dawn, which imagined teens resisting their new communist overlords in the wake of a Russian invasion. (Among the teens: Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, and others.) Released in the summer of 1984, it was the first film to bear the PG-13 rating.
Halloween II (1981)
The creepy hospital scenes owe a bit to the first Halloween sequel, which largely takes place in an understaffed, under-lit medical facility. The early ’80s also saw the release of the hospital-set Canadian slasher hit Visiting Hours, a 1982 film starring the once-in-a-lifetime cast of Lee Grant, William Shatner, and Michael Ironside.
“Smirnoff,” Hopper’s derisive nickname for Alexei, likely refers to Yakov Smirnoff, a Ukraine-born comedian who immigrated to the United States in the ’70s and enjoyed success in the ’80s making jokes at the Soviet Union’s expense. Smirnoff later had a long, successful career in Branson, Missouri, and recently earned his doctorate in psychology. It’s also possible Hopper is simply referring to the famed Russian vodka brand of the same name, but it seems unlikely — Hopper’s definitely more of a scotch kind of guy.
First introduced in 1983, the Gravitron quickly became a fixture of fairs and carnivals of the ’80s and ’90s, with a few dozen of the rides still in operation today. The space-themed spinning ride, also sometimes going by “Starship 3000,” subjects its victims, er, riders to four Gs of centrifugal force, along with a flashy light and music show, pinning them to the ride as they “float” up the walls. Neither Mayor Kline here, nor Hopper and Joyce in a later episode, seem especially enamored of the ride’s stomach-churning effects.
Created in 1940 by former Warner Bros. animators Walter Lantz and Ben Hardaway, this mischievous Woodpecker was inescapable on ’80s television thanks to the wide (and presumably cheap) syndication of his old cartoons, which Alexei takes in at Murray’s place. (Woody makes another, much more tragic appearance alongside Alexei later in the season.) Woody’s still around, recently appearing in a 2017 film aimed mostly at the Brazilian market, where he remains quite popular.
“Neutron Dance,” by The Pointer Sisters
Though included on a 1983 album, this Pointer Sisters song didn’t become a hit until it appeared on the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop in 1984. The lyric doesn’t really have much to do with nuclear energy, but the neutron reference still sounded topical ’80s, and fits into the Cold War atmosphere of this season.
My Little Pony
Revealing himself to be a proto-Brony, Dustin recounts the plot of a recent episode of My Little Pony. But where 21st-century fans enjoy the (pretty great) My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Dustin and Erica seem to be discussing the ’80s TV series. This gets a bit fuzzy, however, since the regular series wouldn’t debut until 1986, though some animated specials preceded it.
“R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” by John Mellencamp
Subtitled “A Salute to ’60s Rock,” this stirring song from John Mellencamp’s 1985 album Scarecrow (released under the name John Cougar Mellencamp) pays tribute to scrappy ’60s kids with musical dreams and namechecks James Brown, Martha Reeves, Jackie Wilson, and others. Remarkably, this seems to be the first time a song by Mellencamp, an Indiana native and state hero, has appeared in Stranger Things. In a more realistic depiction of ’80s Indiana, his music would be blaring out of cars in every scene.
The mid-’80s were a kind of golden age, if that’s the right term, for licensed cereals. A trip to the grocery store could mean taking home cereal bearing the images of Gremlins or Ewoks — or, in this case, the Ghostbusters or Mr. T, whose cereal also pops up in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) / Cocoon (1985) / Fletch (1985) / Return to Oz (1985) / The Stuff (1985)
In fact, visitors to the Starcourt Mall would have the chance to check out Pee-wee’s Big Adventure alongside a bunch of other memorable 1985 titles advertised on the theater’s marquee. Most of these need no further explanation, but you might not have heard of Return to Oz, a Wizard of Oz sequel directed by famed editor Walter Murch. A flop in its time, it’s since picked up a cult following. Even more relevant: The Stuff, a Larry Cohen horror-comedy about a yogurt-like product that devours consumers. The Stranger Things kids would doubtlessly love it if they could sneak into a show.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Hop’s showdown in the Fun Fair’s Hall of Mirrors pays homage to Orson Welles’s 1947 suspense film The Lady from Shanghai, which features a similar scene. So many films and TV shows have borrowed from the scene — from Enter the Dragon to John Wick: Chapter 2 — that it’s hard to tell exactly which this episode is referencing.
“(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” by Jackie Wilson
As Steve drives everyone to Cerebro, this soul hit by Jackie Wilson, referenced in “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” plays.
Miami Vice (1984-1989)
Executive-produced by Michael Mann, this cop drama starring Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas introduced an MTV-influenced style to network TV, mixing cool visuals with a radio-friendly soundtrack that featured songs by Phil Collins, Glenn Frey, and others. Miami Vice became a huge influence on subsequent network TV shows, and on fashion, with its heavy use of pastels and its leads’ fondness for wearing T-shirts under expensive suits. While Hopper still takes his fashion cues from Magnum P.I., the unfortunate Toddfather has clearly moved on to more cutting-edge crime stories for his wardrobe choices. In its early seasons, the series ran on Fridays at 10 p.m., which would have allowed Hop time to get home from his 7 p.m. date to watch it with El, if he’d been able to make it.
The Thing (1982) / Christine (1983) / Big Trouble in Little China (1986) / Prince of Darkness (1987)
This season leans on John Carpenter even more heavily than previous seasons, particularly with the gross Mind Flayer effects inspired by Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing (a film referenced by characters in this season and in previous seasons, almost as if the Duffers were trying to tell us they liked it). But it’s another Carpenter classic that influences the scenes of a possessed Billy menacing the others while behind the wheel of a car: Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Christine, about an evil Plymouth Fury. It’s rarely mentioned as one of Carpenter’s best, but it’s worth checking out. When Billy hits the mall, he’s dressed much like Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China and the appearance and behavior of the Flayed, particularly when we see them in the Upside Down, owes a debt to Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Basically, Stranger Things 3 is just a big ol’ valentine to Carpenter, even more than previous seasons.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
After splitting off into smaller groups, the squad pinned down in the Starcourt food court lands the name “the Griswold Family,” inspired by the Harold Ramis-directed, John Hughes-scripted comedy starring Chevy Chase. As is the case for a lot of kids their age, it likely gave the Hawkins gang one of their first glimpses of naughty grown-up humor (and nudity).
The Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
Before being interrupted by Dustin, Suzie spends her evening reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic fantasy novel The Wizard of Earthsea, the first of what would go on to be a six-book cycle set in the kingdom of Earthsea. A coming-of-age story about a boy who discovers he possesses magical powers (sound familiar?), it’s become one of the most influential novels of the fantasy genre and an ideal introduction to Le Guin’s rich, probing work.
The NeverEnding Story (1984) / “The NeverEnding Story,” by Limahl
To coax Suzie into helping him, Dustin sings her the theme song to the 1984 fantasy film The NeverEnding Story. The first English-language film by Das Boot director Wolfgang Petersen, the film adapts a fantasy novel in which a boy named Atreyu must restore the health of an ailing empress. It’s notable for its striking visuals, its dog-like dragon, and an extremely traumatic scene involving a horse. The NeverEnding Story also spun off a hit single in the form of its theme song performed by the English singer Limahl, previously the frontman of Kajagoogoo, and band best known for the 1983 hit “Too Shy.”
Earlier this year, Captain Marvel stirred nostalgia by including a scene at a Blockbuster Video. Yet in 2019 Midwesterners still have Family Video, the last video store chain still in existence. In a season filled with relics like New Coke, this institution, however unexpectedly, is one that still stands.
The Apartment (1960) / The Hidden Fortress (1958) / Children of Paradise (1945)
Asked to name her three favorite films, Robin reels off three great titles without having to think twice. The Apartment is one of Billy Wilder’s finest movies, a romantic comedy with dark undertones about two lonely people who make each other’s lives better in an often dehumanizing world. The Hidden Fortress is a great samurai adventure film directed by Akira Kurosawa that George Lucas frequently cites as one of the many inspirations for Star Wars. And Children of Paradise is a landmark two-part French romantic epic directed by Marcel Carné and produced under seemingly impossible conditions during World War II. If you haven’t seen them, do yourself a favor. (Steve, on the other hand, has a much tougher time producing a list.)
“Heroes,” by Peter Gabriel
This Peter Gabriel cover of the David Bowie classic comes from his 2010 covers album Scratch My Back. If it sounds familiar, that might be because it showed up in a first-season episode of Stranger Things. Apparently in Hawkins you can be heroes just for one day more than once.