Calum Waddell is the author of RoboCop: The Definitive History (Titan, 2014). He runs High Rising Productions and has produced and directed numerous documentaries and Value Added Material for DVD and Blu-ray releases. He was a producer on American Grindhouse (2010) and the director of Slice and Dice: The Slasher Film Forever (2012). His other books include Minds of Fear: A Dialogue with 30 Modern Masters of Horror! (Luminary, 2005), Tattoo Breakers: 18 Films That Courted Controversy and Created a Legend (Telos, 2008), Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, Film by Film (McFarland, 2008), and Cannibal Holocaust (Devil’s Advocates series, Columbia, 2016). He has also written numerous articles that have appeared in Dreamwatch, Fangoria, Impact and Neo.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way should RoboCop be remembered on its 30th anniversary?
Calum Waddell: I think it should be remembered as a classic piece of sci-fi cinema and a very astute critique of neo-liberalism during the era of Reagan and Thatcher. It is also a wonderful and amusing look at America’s place in the world during a time when it was clear, I think, that the hard power of the White House had lost its ability to influence world politics — and, prophetically, the Berlin Wall fell less just two and a half years later without any input from the United States — but domestic politics were obviously becoming strained between the very rich and the very poor. Of all the sci-fi films made during the 1980s, RoboCop is undoubtedly the smartest, most satiric and most socio-political of all of the big blockbusters to come from the Hollywood studio system. It remains a masterpiece — it is Frankenstein for a new generation and really powerful, hilarious and quite gut-wrenching stuff.
Coate: When did you first see RoboCop and what did you think of it?
Waddell: I saw it as a kid, far too young to understand what it was even speaking about. The techno-phobic aspect of it sort of registered with me but, really, it was just a movie with lots of violence and cool stuff. It’s a film that caught on with the wrong market — as a child I invested in the comic books too, and then the rubbish 1990 sequel, but that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? It was a film that was actually quite adult but it just took off with the young ’uns!
Coate: Where do you think RoboCop ranks among Paul Verhoeven’s body of work?
Waddell: It’s my favorite of his films by a country mile. Verhoeven is a very singular and intelligent filmmaker, obviously not without some fuck-ups — such as Showgirls — but when he is on form he is really quite excellent. I think RoboCop has been his best attempt at bringing his original art house style, which is quite cold and clinical, to the American mainstream.
Coate: How effective or memorable a hero was Peter Weller’s Murphy/RoboCop and where do you think that performance ranks among Weller’s body of work?
Waddell: He is a hero in the narrative but, of course, he is programmed to be a fascist. The influence of Judge Dredd is there. RoboCop is, and try not to forget this, a literal puppet for the state — he is programmed to brutally arrest and violate the physical rights of suspects. I don’t think he is a hero — he is portrayed as one but it is our job to remind ourselves “this is really fucked up.” In terms of performance, Weller has never been better.
Coate: How memorable a villain was Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones (and/or Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence J. Boddicker)?
Waddell: The entire cast is brilliant and you left out Nancy Allen, who is a really underrated actress. She makes the film work because she offers a ray of light and normalcy.
Coate: Can you compare and contrast the original RoboCop with its sequels, spin-offs and remake?
Waddell: The first sequel begins well and then half way through loses its sense of satire, politics and direction. It’s a moral clusterfuck of a film but with an arch right winger like Frank Miller on screenwriting duties, it was probably never going to end well. The less said about the third film the better — although I do think Fred Dekker is an excellent director, witness Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad, and he was on to a bum deal from the start. The lower production values and kid friendly ideology really sinks the film. The remake was about as good as anyone could have hoped for but, yes, of course, that still does not mean it was any good — I never felt the desire to watch it again. I thought the original TV series was fun for what it was. Prime Directives is actually fairly interesting — it is not a great effort by any means but it gets a few things right that the sequels and remake did not and it at least honors the original politics of the first film.
Coate: What is the legacy of RoboCop?
Waddell: RoboCop will never die and probably continue to inspire remakes and sequels to remakes and spin-off ideas for a long time to come!
Coate: Thank you, Calum, for sharing your thoughts on RoboCop on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its release.
Selected images copyright/courtesy The Criterion Collection, MGM Home Entertainment, Orion Pictures.
The primary references for this project were regional newspaper coverage and trade reports published in Billboard, Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.
Don Beelik, John Hazelton, Bobby Henderson, Doug Keesey, Mary Schaff and Calum Waddell, and to the San Francisco Public Library and Washington State Library.
- Daniel O’Herlihy (“The Old Man”), 1919-2005
- Basil Poledouris (Music), 1945-2006
- Robert DoQui (“Sergeant Warren Reed”), 1934-2008
- Spencer Prokop (“Gas Station Attendant”), 1957-2009
- Jerry Haynes (“Dr. McNamara”), 1927-2011
- Mario Machado (“Casey Wong”), 1935-2013
- Miguel Ferrer (“Bob Morton”), 1955-2017
- Michael Coate