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Who Ya Gonna Call? A Ghostbusters Retrospective

November 18, 2021 8 min read

Who Ya Gonna Call? A Ghostbusters Retrospective

If it was 1984 and a comedian, albeit well-known and respected, pitched you a - a big-time Hollywood producer - a science fiction film about groups of intergalactic ghost hunters, set in the future, do you think you’d bite?

Well, as unbelievable as it sounds, that’s exactly how one of the most-beloved movies of the 1980s, Ghostbusters, was born!

Dan Akroyd, the aforementioned comedian, began developing Ghostbusters as a story treatment as early as 1982. He had written it based on his beliefs in the paranormal, which he was steeped in from a young age; his father was the author of “A History of Ghosts” and his great-grandfather was a famous spiritualist. Initially planned as a vehicle for himself and fellow Saturday Night Live castmates Eddie Murphy and John Belushi, things became bleak when Belushi was found dead of a drug overdose in his New York apartment. The show must go on, however, and by 1983 Bernie Brillstein was officially on to produce, SNL alumnus Bill Murray was set to star, and comedy director Ivan Reitman was also on board.

Brillstein made some suggestions to change the story, however. The film’s treatment, being very serious in tone, was re-tooled to lean into the humourous aspects of the story, and the film would now be set on Earth in the present day. Also, the Ghostbusters would no longer be intergalactic paranormal investigators, but a team of former University professors trying to make a buck. The film was initially estimated to require a $200M budget for all the big special effects required, but director Reitman made the deal with Columbia Pictures for $30M with the more down-to-earth script changes in mind. 

Now, what would they call their film? In 1975, Universal had produced a picture named The Ghost Busters, which followed an odd-ball team of paranormal investigators - one of which was a gorilla - and as such had rights to the name. Other titles were tested, like Ghoststoppers and Ghostbreakers (incidentally, The Ghost Breakers is the title of a Paramount film from 1941), but ultimately a deal was inked with Universal to sell Columbia the original title for $500K plus 1% of the box office gross - which we know now was a pretty good deal for Universal!

Ghostbusters is one of those good old comedies from the golden age, where top-tier comedians from SNL and SCTVwere producing pictures left and right. During the late-70s to ‘90s some of the best ever comedy films were made and Ghostbusters still manages to rise to the top.

The film starred Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis (who also helped Akroyd pen the script), and Sigourney Weaver with some help from Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, Wiliam Atherton, and the fourth Ghostbuster himself, Ernie Hudson. The main trio play Drs. Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler who are paranormal researchers based out of Columbia University. Due to the disbelief in their studies their funding is cut and they’re put out on the street, but smooth talker Venkman convinces Ray and Egon to go into business as a ghost detection and elimination service and with that the Ghostbusters are born.

The jobs take some time to roll in, but eventually, they do. Cellist Dana Barrett (Weaver) calls on the team to investigate strange events happening in her home. The team discovers that Barrett’s apartment building is a conduit being used to summon forth a demon called Gozer, and that she and neighbour Louis Tully (Moranis) are possessed by Zuul, the gatekeeper, and Vince Clortho, the keymaster. The pair manage to summon Gozer into New York City, but local officials and the NYPD prove to be incapable of doing anything about this mass paranormal disturbance. It’s up to the Ghostbusters to defeat Gozer's incarnation as a giant, evil manifestation of lovable mascot the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!

Being that the film was written by Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis, you know it’s going to be comedy gold, but Bill Murray’s performance in the film takes it to new heights. Peter Venkman is one of his best characters, and his bizarre portrayal of the silver-tongued scientist help set the film apart from other comedies of its time.

I’m tough on the comedy films of recent years. There are a few here and there that I think are great, but I would say that pretty much all of them fall into the same trappings over and over again. They go for shock value and, frankly, dick and fart jokes to get their laughs (granted, Ghostbusters does have that one "ghost fellatio" joke in there). That’s all well-and-good occasionally. I’m certainly not above that kind of humour. However, there was a time when a good comedy was sold on actual funny material - something Ghostbusters has in plentiful supply.

Ghostbusters isn’t just a great comedy film, but a great sci-fi film as well. It has a perfect blend of action, special effects and paranormal/scientific "technobabble". To this day the ghosts, like Slimer and the Librarian, still hold up and everyone knows what a proton stream looks like!

We can’t forget the great writing and characters. Ramis’ dead-pan Egon, Akroyd’s heart-on-his-sleeve Ray, Ernie Hudson's "everyman" Winston and Murray’s strange, but lovable Peter are all standout characters in the picture. Each has memorable quips and bowl-you-over laughs. And I have to mention Rick Moranis. He’s such a lovable loser in this film. Great characters in interesting situations always makes for a good flick!

Now, Ghostbusters is a wonderful film all on its own, but we can’t forget the theme song! Ray Parker, Jr. had a number one hit in 1984 with the film’s theme, which is equally as important as the movie, in terms of ubiquity. My kids haven’t seen the movies (yet), but they damn well know the theme song and ask for it regularly!

The film grossed $280M at the box office during its theatrical run and was for many years the highest grossing comedy of all time. It was a phenomenon in the same way Batman was in 1989. Everybody wanted to see Ghostbusters and every kid wanted to be a Ghostbuster.

It wouldn’t be long before they’d get the chance! A sequel to the film, oddly enough, wasn’t released until 1989, but in 1986 The Real Ghostbusters cartoon series hit the airwaves to unbelievable success, spawning its very own media franchise. It followed the same characters from the film, but on whacky, Saturday morning-styled adventures.

And with the cartoon came the toys. There were over-the-top action figures, playsets, vehicles, slime, and - probably most importantly - role-playing toys. I can’t stress enough the seriousness of actually being able to run around with your own Proton Pack strapped to your back and a Ghost Trap in your hand to a five year old kid.

But what about the video game? With a media franchise as big as Ghostbusters, you just know that someone wanted to produce a game, and - of course - they did!

After seeing the hit they had on their hands, John Dolgen, the VP of Business Development for Columbia Pictures, reached out to Activision to produce a video game based on the film. The only stipulation was that it was released as quickly as possible in order to capitalize on the media frenzy.

This sort of thing almost always happens with film-to-game adaptations, which typically results in bad video games being made. It’s not always the case, but more often than not, it’s the rule.

In order to act fast, Activision decided to take a concept they had been working on for an original game and use that as the backbone for Ghostbusters, cutting down the development time significantly. Activision was able to release the game on Commodore 64 and other platforms by Christmas of that year.

The game they chose? It was originally called Car Wars(if you've played early versions of the Ghostbusters game, you're already aware of what an apt title that was).

 

In the game, players are tasked with saving New York City from ghosts (shocking). The player takes control of the three Ghostbusters (sorry, no Winston), who have to raise money by capturing said ghosts in order to buy new equipment and eventually stop Gozer and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

It mostly takes place in a top-down view as the players drive the Ecto-1 around the city, trying to dodge obstacles and capture spooks - which sounds a lot like how a game called Car Wars would probably play, doesn’t it? Eventually you’ll reach a building (marked red on the map) that is being beset by ghosts and you’ll take control of the Ghostbusters themselves. You’ll have to try and catch the wayward spirits in the proton streams and capture them in a trap in order to make money.

The ultimate goal of the game should be to rid the town of ghosts, right? Nope! In true Ghostbuster fashion, the real checkmate is to make $10,000 in capital. That’s the amount you’ll need in your account to take down the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. If you can’t make 10,000 smackeroos you won’t have enough money to face the final boss. If you do manage to capture all the other ghosts and demons around the city, you’ll get an additional $5000 for your troubles.

Interestingly, Ghostbusters was one of the first video games with a password feature. If the player could win the game, they would be given an account number, which allowed them to start off with their final balance from the completed run. The goal in subsequent playthroughs was to make more money than you had when you started.

The bottom line, however, is that this version of Ghostbusters was actually a fun game for its time. The initial release was intended for home computers, and it shows in the game play. If it was 1984 and you had a copy of Ghostbusters for your Commodore 64, you'd be one happy kid.

The game was ported to many home consoles, including the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System. These consoles were my first taste of the game and I have to say, I wasn’t blown away. There were sections added where the Ghostbusters had to sneak around on staircases when they entered a building, but it didn’t add that much to the fun. In a way, it just made it more difficult. Interestingly enough, in the Sega Master System version you can actually shoot the ghosts in the staircase scenes, making the game much more enjoyable.

If you were a kid, what kind of game would you like to play? One where you drive around in a car, occasionally battling a ghost or two as a tiny, indescribable sprite, in order to make money? Or would you want to play as your favourite Ghostbuster from the film, running and jumping around NYC blasting ghosts? I think you’d say the latter! Unfortunately, that game didn’t get made until 1990's Ghostbusters II, which is a story for another time.

In the end, Ghostbusters endures as not only one of the best comedies, but also one of the best sci-fi films of our era. It is a media giant, with cartoons, toys, video games, and comic books, but it all started with one odd-ball film. Oddly enough, after all these years there have only been three other Ghostbusters films. As I mentioned, it took a full five years to release the sequel, Ghostbusters II, to theatres and then an additional 27 years before the reboot Ghostbusters: Answer The Call was released in 2016.

The latter two films were both met with mixed reactions - particularly Ghostbusters: Answer The Call - and the fate of the franchise certainly seemed to be up in the air. Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which ignores the 2016 reboot and continues the story set into canon by the first two films, looks to steer the franchise back on course (and also cash in on that sweet nostalgia we can't get enough of). Here’s hoping it's of the same calibre as the first movie, and that many years from now, future generations of kids will still be running around their houses wearing jumpsuits and sporting plastic Proton Packs.

Ryan Hollohan is a husband and father of three based out of Nova Scotia, Canada. In his free time, he's a freelance writer for Pixel Elixir and creator of the nostalgia site RetroDef.ca. You can find him on Twitter at @RyHoMagnifico.