This article contains Ghostbusters: Afterlife spoilers.
“Hey flattop!” It’s a line we haven’t heard Bill Murray utter for nearly 40 years. Nevertheless, you could physically sense the waves of nostalgia it triggered throughout the audience of the Ghostbusters: Afterlife premiere earlier this week when those words were shouted again. Moments before it looked like Gozer—the Destructor Herself (or Himself. Gozer is whatever Gozer wants to be!)—had won.
She’d returned from a parallel dimension and had totally defeated the plan of young Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) to capture her essence in the giant ghost trap that Old Man Egon Spengler built beneath his farm. Instead the trap failed to go off, and poor Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) got possessed by one of the Zuul spirits, turning into a dog. All hope thus seemed lost. But that’s when the three surviving OG Ghostbusters—Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), and good ol’ Doc Venkman (Bill Murray)—appeared out of the proverbial cornfield ready to kick some ass.
“I love that sound,” Zeddemore happily enthuses when their proton packs are switched on and they attempt to show this prehistoric witch how they do things downtown.
The Choice of Including the Original Ghostbusters
The reveal of seeing all three of the surviving Ghostbusters stars on-screen and in the jumpsuits again is a surprise Sony has (mostly) tried to hide over the two years it took to release Ghostbusters: Afterlife. (Pandemic delays turned out to be far more powerful than even Gozer the Gozerian!) Even so, writer-director Jason Reitman told us last month that it was always his intent to bring back the original stars of his father’s 1984 classic.
“I would not have been interested in making this film if it did not have the original Ghostbusters,” Reitman says. While the filmmaker was adamant about making his own unique interpretation of ghostbusting, one that would focus on a family coming back together after discovering their late grandfather’s old secrets hidden in the American heartland, Reitman also wanted to use this approach as a slow burn. He’d slowly unfurl all those old fan favorites in piecemeal, building up to the original trio showing up in the climax.
“When we started breaking down how it might work, very early on did I think it would be wonderful [if this was] a film where we handed audiences back the PKE Meter, the trap, the car, the pack, and eventually the guys,” Reitman explains. “And it would feel like Christmas morning as you opened a gift after a gift, and found yourself back in the film that you loved.”
Indeed, it really does seem like Afterlife slowly morphs into the original Ghostbusters as the third act goes along. First, Zuul and the demon dogs’ possession game returns, then Gozer, and finally we’re back to Murray calling Gozer “flattop” and then riffing with a lot more jokes.
Of course audiences probably had a suspicion this was coming after Phoebe telephoned Ray Stantz’s occult bookshop earlier in the picture to get help—discovering from an old and embittered Ray that Egon stole most of their equipment when he ran off to Oklahoma and burned bridges. (This also explains how Ray and the guys knew where to go to help Egon’s granddaughter since she didn’t have time to say what town she was in.) Still, to actually see the trio there really was a holiday gift for the most diehard Ghostbusters fan.
But if each “gift” is intended to be bigger than the last, then there really was nothing bigger than the final reveal of the finale: three old timey Ghostbusters become four.
Bringing Back Harold Ramis’ Egon Spengler
When even the old trick of crossing the streams failed to stop Gozer this time—perhaps because they were aiming the proton packs at her instead of her inter-dimensional temple?—it takes Phoebe receiving a little extra help from an unlikely source to finally put the bad ghost god down. As Phoebe aims her proton pack at the Gozerian, the spectral visage of Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) returns on-screen to steady his grandchild’s hand and save the day. We then even get the surreal image of a ghostly Egon standing next to his three old partners one last time to do battle with Gozer.
It’s a major creative gamble, both in terms of technology and also tastefulness given that they’re recreating through digital trickery the face of a beloved actor who died in 2014. When we bring up the moment with Reitman, the director declines to get into the specific emotions of the scene. With that said, he does speak of how difficult it was to create this movie moment.
“I knew what the ending of the movie was very early,” Reitman says. “I knew it was going to be very hard to pull off. And I knew that the success of the film depended on one moment that was going to have to depend on technology that was on the bleeding edge. And frankly, it took us the entire length of the making of the movie to accomplish.”
And to their team’s credit, it was more convincing than similar digital resurrections of Peter Cushing in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). But maybe what makes it sit a little better is the off-screen dynamics acknowledged in this moment.
One of the key reasons we never got a Ghostbusters 3 in Ramis’ lifetime is the late talent’s estrangement from Murray. The two did some of the best work of their careers together: Ghostbusters, Stripes (1981), Caddyshack (1980), and perhaps most significantly Groundhog Day (1993). But it was over a creative disagreement on that last comedy classic that led to the pair not working together again, and making the already sequel-wary Murray even more reluctant to consider doing a Ghostbusters 3. Yet Murray has seemed more open to reassessing their legacy and relationship ever since making amends with Ramis while visiting him on his deathbed. Afterward, he eulogized Ramis at the following spring’s Academy Awards.
So just having Murray do an underplayed double take at seeing Ramis’ Egon standing by his side again, and then dryly remarking, “I had a feeling you’d show up,” felt like a nod to an old friendship that has survived into its own afterlife.
But for the fans, it’s just probably cool to see the foursome on-screen busting ghosts again. It also allows the actual main characters of Ghostbusters: Afterlife—Phoebe and her mother (Carrie Coon)—to make peace with the father/grandfather they never knew.
Still, it’s probably for the best that the film wisely didn’t have Ghost Egon speak any lines.