Every December, movie social media rings in the holiday season by debating the Yuletide merits of Die Hard (1988). From there, the conversation might segue into Lethal Weapon (1987). But predating both beloved action films is their contemporary that is almost always left out of the conversation, the Sylvester Stallone-starring shoot-’em-up spectacle, Cobra. Set in L.A. during Christmas, the film follows Marion Cobretti (Stallone), aka Cobra (see what they did there?), a gruff and hardened police detective with a penchant for taking on the dirtiest assignments and pacifying them with his own unorthodox methods. When a fashion model (Brigitte Nielsen) witnesses the aftermath of a brutal murder, Cobra is charged with protecting her from a chiseled serial killer, the Night Slasher (Brian Thompson), and a crime cult called the New World.
Unlike Die Hard, Cobra’s holiday setting was a complete fluke. The film’s production designer, Bill Kenney, recalls, “I went to [director George P. Cosmatos] and I said, ‘Listen, everywhere we go shoot I gotta tear down Christmas decorations. Why don’t we just put Christmas into the script and let it be Christmas?’” Prior to Cobra, Kenney worked with late director Cosmatos (Leviathan, Tombstone) on Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and subsequently designed a handful of other Stallone pictures including Rocky IV (1985), Rambo III (1988), Lock Up (1989), Tango & Cash (1989), and Oscar (1991).
Upon receiving my email for an interview about Cobra, Kenney didn’t understand why anyone would want to write about the film. “I didn’t think anybody ever saw it,” Kenney later told me, laughing. “I hadn’t even thought of that movie in 30 years.”
Cobra may have been considered a disappointment because it didn’t live up to the gargantuan receipts of Rambo: First Blood Part II, but plenty of people saw Cobra during its theatrical release. Opening wide on May 23, 1986, Cobra made over $49 million at the U.S. box office on an estimated $25 million budget even though it received mixed reviews. But who needs reviews when you have ‘80s Stallone and one of the greatest movie poster tag lines ever written? Crime is a disease. Meet the cure. Like many films of the ‘80s, home video and HBO audiences caught on to Cobra, too. Around the age of seven or eight, I saw it at a friend’s house where I also saw Aliens (1986) and other R-rated flicks I never could’ve watched under the radar at home. Afterwards, I had nightmares of the razor-sharp, crescent-shaped knife, spikes on its handle, brandished by the Night Slasher. It’s an image that is forever burned into my movie-going psyche.
Cosmatos creates a suffocating environment by taking advantage of the hazy, orange-tinged L.A. light indicative of the era, but Cobra was originally slated to shoot in Seattle.
“I think they liked the grey weather [of Seattle] for camera purposes,” says Kenney. “They liked that feeling of the muted sky.” The production scouted locations in Seattle, but a problem arose when the filmmakers wanted to tear down wires from the city’s streetcar system in order to fly a helicopter twenty feet off the ground of a major downtown street. Kenney says, “I went with [executive producer James Brubaker] to the City Council meeting. … They said, ‘Sorry, we can’t do that.’” The filmmakers returned to L.A. where they shot in multiple corners of the region from the freeways of Long Beach to the quiet streets of a small town just over the L.A.-Ventura County line.
“This film had a lot of uncomfortable locations,” says Cosmatos on the commentary track from the original-issue 1998 DVD.
To mark the 35th anniversary of the fan-favorite Cannon Films production, here’s a roundup of the main shooting locations from Cobra.
The Bad Guys’ Lair
Though Cobra is based on Paula Gosling’s 1974 novel A Running Duck, later retitled Fair Game, the film adaptation was almost completely rewritten by Stallone. It’s an action-packed vehicle built around its star, and the bad guys are somewhat garden-variety. All we really learn about them is that they’re hell-bent on ridding society of the so-called weak, information that isn’t disclosed until the last few minutes of the film. However, the crime organization’s grungy, abandoned headquarters was found in a location that was anything but generic in its heyday.
The Pacific Coast Club, an opulent athletic club built in the form of a storybook castle overlooking the beach, opened in 1926 to great fanfare in the city of Long Beach. Though the historic social club survived earthquakes and bankruptcy over the decades, it eventually fell into disrepair by the late 1970s and shuttered. Preservationists’ efforts to save the building failed, and the once-grand Pacific Coast Club, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places, was demolished in 1988. Today, a condo building stands in it place.
The filmmakers were already planning to shoot on Long Beach’s then-unfinished freeways for a car chase that is arguably amongst cinema’s greatest automobile pursuits. Kenney says that the production needed to fill in a day while shooting in Long Beach, and it was necessary to find a location in the area for the bad guys’ lair. After scouting the shuttered Pacific Coast Club, Kenney suggested using its empty Olympic-sized swimming pool.
“My first impression was that it was eerie because it was dark and there were little high windows all around the pool that would give great cross light shining in,” says Kenney. “It wasn’t called a pool in the script, but I talked George into doing it in a pool because it was different, it wasn’t just an empty warehouse,” says Kenney, whose team painted graffiti all over the pool and hung cheesecloth in front of the camera so it looked “old and scary.”
850 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach (demolished).
The King Market
In a scene that is eerily reminiscent of today’s plague of mass shootings, the film opens with a lone gunman taking hostages and killing one victim inside a supermarket. SWAT surrounds the building, snipers are positioned on the shopping center’s roof, but Captain Sears (Art LaFleur) can think of only one cop to confront the shooter while also keeping the hostages safe. He calls in the Cobra.
Kenney says they needed a grocery store with a big parking lot, but it was access that landed them at a supermarket on the border of Lawndale and Redondo Beach. “It was one supermarket that would let us shoot and close it for a couple of days,” says Kenney. The production designer doesn’t think that the content of the scene negatively affected the prospects of finding a supermarket location, but you have to imagine that it crossed the minds of grocery store managers.
“We got an OK to film there, but we couldn’t use the real name,” says Kenney. After researching existing grocery store names, Kenney picked King Market, so he could incorporate a crown into the sign. “It was a big, arched sign because it had to cover their real sign,” says Kenney. According to an advertisement in the East Whittier Review, the location opened as the Boys Market in 1962. Upon watching the film you can see that Kenney’s sign perfectly covers up the word Boys. It remained a grocery store until shortly after Cobra filmed there.
Kenney’s set decorator erected a Christmas tree lot in front of the store; painted signs in the store windows set up the film’s Christmas theme.
2701 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach.
At the end of a hard day’s night of neutralizing bad guys, Cobra returns home to a penthouse apartment overlooking Venice Beach. It might seem like an extravagant choice for a no-frills cop who works the Zombie Squad, but context is everything. In the 1980s, violent street gangs were prevalent in Venice Beach, so for a character that eats, sleeps and breathes criminals it actually makes sense that Cobra would live where he feels most comfortable watching over things. If you look closely at his one-room apartment, there’s even a telescope pointing out the window. Kenney likens Cobra’s choice of apartment to the “cool” factor of the character.
The production designer could have easily built the apartment as a set, as he did for police station and hospital room interiors, but Kenney says it wouldn’t have had that view. That view was from the top of the 1915 Waldorf apartment building, today the Venice V Hotel, once a home of Charlie Chaplin.
“I think it said a lot about the character,” says Kenney. “It was kind of a low-rent district; he didn’t even have a garage; he had to walk up some outside stairs. There were neon signs on the roof. … It was kind of a crummy place.”
You can also see the Waldorf apartments in The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) and Nora Ephron’s Christmas-set comedy Mixed Nuts (1994).
5 Westminster Ave., Venice Beach.
Late at night, the camera cranes down from the florescent-lit sign of Mugs Up, a small, freestanding coffee shop located beneath the 10 freeway in downtown L.A. The sign reads “Xmas Day – Free Coffe [sic] With Meal.” A dark blue, 1970 Ford Econoline van comes into frame and pulls around the corner of the coffee shop as a waitress locks up for the night. Upon noticing the menacing van, she rushes to her car, but it’s too late. Members of the New World ferociously smash up her AMC Pacer, and the Night Slasher takes his next victim. Kenney says that the actress, who also played one of the leads in 1980’s camp-horror classic Motel Hell, was hesitant to return for pickup shots, as she hadn’t recovered from the intensity of the scene.
Unlike the supermarket, the coffee shop was actually called Mugs Up back in the ‘80s according to a 1987 L.A. phonebook. It’s still standing today, operating as Steven’s Deli.
“It was close to another location, that’s how we ended up with it, and it worked for us. There was nobody around; it was kind of private all around the outside; no other businesses were open,” says Kenney. “The freeways are always interesting background, it’s not just a house sitting on a street.”
2232 Enterprise St., downtown.
The Downtown Murder
When a woman is tailed into the subterranean streets of downtown L.A., the Night Slasher’s van rear-ends her in a ploy to have her pull over. There, the victim suffers a fate similar to the waitress at Mugs Up. When Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) drives by and witnesses the bloody aftermath, she unknowingly becomes the Night Slasher’s next target.
The location had to be somewhat isolated, says Kenney, so the filmmakers chose lower Grand Avenue. “That place, we could block both ends of it and nobody could drive through except us. It was interesting being in a tunnel rather than just out on the street.”
Lower Grand Avenue is a popular location not only for filming—The Terminator (1984) and Austin Powers: Goldmember (2002) have used it—but photo shoots as well. When combined with the wide, one thousand foot stretch of road, the pools of natural light and Brutalist architecture create a stylish, modern aesthetic.
Kenney’s team built four statues of onlookers who appear to be witnessing the crime scene from the sidewalk of lower Grand. “George wanted it to look like there was no one around except for those statues, and that they could have seen what happened,” says Kenney.
Though it’s one location where Christmas isn’t present, Kenney says that Cosmatos wanted to incorporate the holiday into lower Grand. “He said, ‘I’m going to have Santa Claus there. We’ll kill Santa Claus.’ I said, ‘George, you can’t kill Santa Claus. … Everybody will be pissed off.’ I talked him out of shooting Santa Claus,” says Kenney.
Lower Grand Avenue between 3rd St. and 4th St., downtown.
Los Angeles Central Hospital
One of the toughest spots to determine on the hunt for the filming locations of Cobra was the exterior of the fictitious Los Angeles Central Hospital, where Ingrid is admitted after being attacked by the Night Slasher. When Cosmatos revealed on the DVD commentary that the building was an insurance company, a quick Google image search led to the mid-century Occidental Center, once home to the Occidental Life Insurance Company, in downtown. The 32-story building, today called the South Park Center, opened in 1965 and was designed by notable architect William Pereira, who also designed CBS Television City and the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. In 1964, the Los Angeles Times called the 437-foot-tall office building the “highest structure of its kind in Southern California.”
The hospital corridors were filmed in a real hospital in Newhall, and hospital rooms were built as sets at the Culver Studios, where the production was based.
The Occidental Center is also the home of the ENCOM computer corporation in Tron (1982).
1150 S. Olive St., downtown.
The Car Chase
“There’s two or three musts in a film that need to be a certain kind of place. So once you get those two or three key places figured out, then, for the schedule, you take all the little stuff and try to build it close by,” says Kenney, whose non-Stallone credits include Body Heat (1981), Under Siege (1992), Eraser (1996), and Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997). This cost and timesaving strategy is what landed the filmmakers in Long Beach for a good portion of a four-minute car chase.
At one point, we see Stallone driving his customized 1950 Mercury Coupe backwards at high speed on the Terminal Island freeway while firing a submachine gun at the oncoming vehicle. The scene was most certainly an inspiration for the chase scene in Drive (2011) in which Ryan Gosling is seen driving in reverse.
The car chase was shot in downtown Long Beach before the big-box stores and restaurants moved in. The 1925 Imperial Theater on Ocean Boulevard appears shortly before it was razed to make way for a hotel complex. Cars race down the sidewalk of Ocean Boulevard outside the old 14-story Long Beach City Hall. Currently uninhabited and awaiting demolition, the old city hall, which opened in 1976, also stands in as the exterior of the Metropolitan Police headquarters.
The filmmakers set up a massive oil tanker explosion at the intersection of Shoreline Drive and Linden Avenue. “I tell you, you try and do that anywhere and people won’t let you because you’ll ruin the street. So, I learned a little trick on that one: I covered that whole freeway with drywall and painted the white lines down it and everything,” says Kenney.
Additionally, Cobra drives his hot rod off the top deck of a two-story parking garage along Seaside Way. Kenney credits veteran stunt coordinator Terry Leonard with finding that parking garage and shooting the scene. Kenney also says that it was Leonard’s idea to have Cobra chasing the bad guys through the Venice canals, launching over the bridges along Dell Avenue.
The chase eventually ends in San Pedro. Kenney says, “Sly was the one that wanted to run into a boat down there on the dock, so we found an old boat and bought it and shot it where we could lift the boat up onto shore and let him run into it. We actually wrecked one car, one of those Mercury’s.”
Kenney says that after principal photography wrapped there was a desire for more action in the car chase. The filmmakers shot additional footage in a nearby alley off of Washington Boulevard and Higuera Street in Culver City.
333 E Ocean Blvd.; Pine Ave. and W. Seaside Way; 501 W. Seaside Way; Linden Ave. and E. Shoreline Dr., Long Beach; Dell Ave. at the Venice Canals; 3940 Higuera St. Culver City.
The Rock Store
Ed and Vern’s Rock Store in Cornell is the quintessential rustic pit stop location for filmmakers in the L.A. region. For Cobra, it was turned into an operating gas station where Ingrid, Cobra and his partner (Reni Santoni) stop on their way to a safe house. Kenney says that the location served a purpose in that it was surrounded by the barren roads and mountains needed for making the transition out of L.A.
Opened as a grocery store in 1961, the Rock Store quickly became a popular biker hangout due to its ideal position on Mulholland Highway between Agoura Hills and Malibu. Dozens of television shows including Charlie’s Angels, The Wonder Years, and Twin Peaks have used the location. Also see the Rock Store Panic in Year Zero! (1962), Greased Lightening (1977), and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985).
30354 Mulholland Hwy., Cornell.
Cross Roads Motor Court
Kenney found the perfect practical motel on an island off of Seattle for the film’s no-holds-barred shootout, but when the filmmakers returned to L.A. they had to scramble to figure out a motel location. They chose an empty plot of land in the small agriculture town of Piru, which became the foundry town of San Remos, population 123. Piru is recognized as part of the 30-mile studio zone even though it falls just outside the 30-mile radius boundary. Its Small Town, USA, vibe and single “Main Street” have made it attractive for films like Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1993), Big Momma’s House (2000), and War of the Worlds (2005).
Kenney built the Cross Roads Motor Court directly across the street from Eddie’s Service Station, the site of Rod Stewart’s Hot Legs music video. The motel was one of the biggest builds in the film. “I wanted it to look like a motel built in the ‘20s or the ’30,” says Kenney. “They did bungalows in those days and you could park in between each place. It worked out nice for us because then we could separate the actors.”
Center St. and Via Fustero, Piru.
The Steel Foundry
The film’s fiery finale takes place in a steel foundry that wasn’t written into the screenplay. According to Kenney, who kept his script from Cobra, the end of the film was written to take place in a warehouse. Kenney says that the previous Rambo films inspired the idea to shoot in a factory. “He’d jump out from nowhere and kill somebody, and the audience loved it,” says Kenney. “I said, ‘Let’s do it in this picture.’”
Part of the foundry was shot in a working steel mill in City of Industry, says Cosmatos on the DVD commentary. The bulk of the foundry, however, was shot at the Thatcher Glass manufacturing plant in Saugus, which dated to the mid-1950s, but was bankrupt and shuttered when Cobra shot there. It was demolished a few years later.
25655 Springbrook Ave., Saugus (demolished).
Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.
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