In 1984’s Red Dawn, the United States is strategically isolated after several European nations withdraw from NATO. The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact partners use this as an opportunity to expand their influence. Elsewhere, the Ukrainian wheat harvest fails as a communist coup d’etat takes over Mexico.
On a lovely September morning, in the town of Calumet, Colorado, a local high school teacher spots Soviet paratroopers landing in a nearby field. The paratroopers open fire on the teacher. Chaos ensues as people flee the invasion. Downtown, Cuban and Soviet troops try to restore order for their occupation.
The Cuban Colonel named Bella orders the KGB to retrieve the local sporting good’s store records of gun sales on the ATF’s Form 4473. It lists which citizens have purchased what firearms, and where they live.
Jed and Matt Eckert, their friends Robert Morris, Danny and Daryl Bates, and Arturo “Aardvark” Morgan, equip themselves with survival supplies from the sporting goods store Robert’s father owns. They then go and hide in the forest.
On the way up the mountains, they run are stopped at a Soviet roadblock, but a U.S. Army UH-1 helicopter gunship attacks and saves them. They spend a few weeks in the forest, until they sneak back down into town. Jed and Matt spot their father at a re-education camp where they visit him. He says their mother is already dead, and he tells his boys to avenge her death…and his inevitable one.
When the kids visit the Masons, they hear for the first time that they are behind enemy lines in a now occupied America. Robert’s father was executed for the missing inventory from his store. The Masons ask Jed and Matt to take care of their two granddaughters, Toni and Erica.
The group kills some Soviet soldiers in the woods, and they begin an armed resistance against their occupiers; calling themselves the Wolverines. The occupation forces initially execute groups of civilians as revenge for every Wolverine attack. They kill Jed, Matt, and Aardvark’s fathers during one such execution. Daryl’s father, Mayor Bates, collaborates with the occupiers, and does his best to appease the new authorities. However, even with the revenge killings, the occupation forces get nowhere near stopping the Wolverines.
The Wolverines stumble upon an American pilot named Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner. He tells them that nuclear strikes destroyed several American cities, including Washington, D.C. Cuban saboteurs also crippled The Strategic Air Commands, and paratroopers fell from fake commercial airliners to seize key positions in preparation for further invasion from Mexico and Alaska.
They have taken control of all middle America, but U.S. counterattacks have halted Soviet advances along the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. Our only remaining allies, the UK and People’s Republic of China, are militarily crippled due to concerned over nuclear fallout, and both sides are currently refraining from the further use of nuclear weapons.
Tanner joins the Wolverines to organize several raids against the Soviets. When they all a visit the front line, Tanner and Aardvark die from crossfire in a tank battle. The Soviets catch Daryl after his father collaborates with them, and turns him in.
KGB officers force Daryl to swallow a tracking device, then release him to rejoin the Wolverines. Spetsnaz go into the mountains with portable triangulation equipment, but the Wolverines ambush them first. They trace the source of the signal to Daryl, who confesses that he’s carrying the transmitter. He pleads for them not to kill him, but Robert executes him and a captured Soviet soldier anyway.
When Mi-24 helicopter gunships ambush the remaining Wolverines, they kill Robert and Toni. Jed and Matt attack the new Soviet headquarters in Calumet to give Danny and Erica time to escape. The plan works, but Jed and Matt wind up mortally wounded. When Colonel Bella comes across the brothers, he’s not able to kill them out of respect for them, and he lets them go. The brothers reach a bench in the park they grew up in. They hold each other as they die. Danny and Erica are able to reach the frontier of Free America.
In the closing scene, a plaque is engraved with an American flag flying nearby. The plaque reads:
… In the early days of World War III, guerrillas – mostly children – placed the names of their lost upon this rock. They fought here alone and gave up their lives, so “that this nation shall not perish from the earth.”