Films about teen rebellion are nothing new in Hollywood. From films like High School Confidential (1958) to Wild in The Streets (1968) to The Breakfast Club (1985), teens in conflict with parents/authority is like a low hanging fruit of narrative devices. The sub-genre has produced some real gems, though. Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia (1983) and Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge (1979) being great examples. In 1982, a US/Canadian co-production called Class of 1984 hit the market. Like Suburbia, it took inspiration from the burgeoning punk scene, more specifically America’s horrified view of the punk scene. Godless, degenerate, dope fiends that were coming to rape and pillage the land of milk and honey. Bonehead teens in scary eye make-up, weird haircuts, and leather jackets had been showing up in sitcoms and dramas on TV for a couple of years and making a few movie appearances, often as much as joke fodder as actual threatening figures. Writers Tom Holland (Psycho 2) and John Saxton (Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS) and director Mark Lester (Firestarter, Commando) took every horrific thing about teenage punks and threw it into high school dystopia flick — that was set two years in the future.
The film takes place in an inner city high school, where every inch of the building is covered in graffiti, there are metal detectors at the entrances, race fights after school, and the teachers arm themselves against the school bullies that run a strip club and control the local drug trade, Mr. Norris (Perry King) has just transferred to this hell hole with his wife, Diane (Merrie Lynn Ross), at home. He’s the new music teacher and completely unaccustomed to such a hell-scape in the hallowed halls of academia. On his way in, he meets Mr. Corrigan (Roddy McDowall), who’s carrying a pistol, and witnesses a kid get a knife past both the metal detectors and the security guard. In his first class, Norris runs into the ring leader of our main antagonistic gang, Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), and his crew. We also meet a young Michael J Fox as a good kid who gives Norris hope that he can make a difference in the lives of the kids that want to learn. Norris and Stegman are quickly set up as enemies and their sparring escalates to Stegman beating himself up and framing Norris, while Norris steals and smashes up Stegman’s car. I wonder if Wes Anderson was inspired by this for Rushmore (1998) at all? Through the course of the film we see Stegman and company engage in many anti-social activities, culminating in their gang rape and kidnap of Norris’ wife. This triggers a climax that is a reverse slasher film where the good Norris stalks and kills the gang one by one through the school. Class of 1984 is as pure an exploitation film as one could ask for. It’s gritty, nihilistic, messy, hopeless, and doesn’t give a fuck.
There are great performances here. Perry King and Roddy McDowall are wonderful. Michael J Fox was just on the cusp of his big break out role on Family Ties (1982-1989). Timothy Van Patten is believable in his layered role as a doted on, spoiled kid with all the intelligence and potential to grow up to be whatever he wanted, but instead gives into his absolute darkest impulses and leads his compatriots on a path of destruction. As good as a director as Mark Lester is, this film could easily have been just another forgettable throw away flick without Tom Holland’s script. The characters all have real depth, the dialogue is above average for these films, and the lengths the film goes in terms of violence certainly edges it up ahead of the pack as well.
Amusingly, there’s a scene in a punk club where Stegman and company come in and start slam dancing. The scene looks plenty authentic, like they went out and found real punks to fill the scene, but where the filmmakers perhaps show their age or maybe their disconnect from the world of punk is that they used Canada’s Teenage Head for the band. And Teenage Head is a fine band, but I think a more hardcore group would have made more sense, like D.I. in Suburbia. The coup de grace for the soundtrack, though, is the use of Alice Cooper’s ominous ballad of discontent and rebellion “I Am the Future.” It was my introduction to Alice and remains one of my favorite songs of his whole catalogue.
Growing up on late night TV, I used to see Class of 1984 often and would have to watch it every time it aired — the same with The Warriors (1979). Both movies were just so amazing to me and a huge influence on me as a kid trying to become a writer. I was writing a series of superhero comics at the time and the world and the villains were heavily inspired by both movies. In fact, I wrote a 48 page mini-graphic novel that pretty much ripped off The Warriors beat for beat, with a street level X-Men riff fighting their way through a Detroit filled with powered up punk gangs.
The Warriors hit theaters in 1979 and it’s interesting how much older it seems than Class of 1984 when there’s only three years separating them. As dark and violent as it is, The Warriors feels a bit more funk and disco, helped considerably by it’s darkly funky soundtrack with songs like “Nowhere to Run” and the excellent Joe Walsh hit “In The City.” The closest The Warriors comes to referencing punk is in the gang The Rogues (and I guess maybe The Turnbull A.C.’s), who look like they probably dig The Ramones and their leader, Luther (David Patrick Kelly) could almost pass for The Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris. I find it surprising that we don’t see a heavier punk influence in the film as New York City had such a big and important scene. It doesn’t matter much, just a minor thing I’d always wondered about.
Walter Hill directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with David Shaber, based on the Sol Yurick novel of the same name. The book itself was based on the Greek history Anabasis or The March of the Ten Thousand by Xenophon, a Greek soldier, about a group of mercenaries following Cyrus into Persia to take control of the throne, but Cyrus is killed and Xenophon is elected to the lead the army back to Greece through harsh conditions. The basic skeleton of the book was adapted for the film, but pretty much every character and gang name was changed for the movie. Wisely, Hill also dropped two gang rape scenes perpetrated by The Warriors analogue, The Dominators. Though I haven’t read the book, in the research I have done, I’m not impressed and have no desire to do so. The Dominators aren’t framed for killing the leader of the Delancey Thrones, Ismael; instead they just lose their leader in the midst of Ismael’s murder and have to make it back to Coney Island without him. They still have scuffles and misadventures on the way home, but the tension the film creates with The Warriors having to fight their way through a gauntlet of pissed off gangs and cops is gone. Also, two gang rapes perpetrated by our protagonists? Pass.
In Hill’s film, it’s Cyrus of the Gramercy Riffs that calls all the gangs together for a truce and a plea for unity. Pointing out how the gangs outnumber the cops and working together they could take over the whole city. On the one hand, this plot point borders on something approaching Escape From New York (1981), but then again, New York City at the time was broke and crime-ridden. It was an extremely dangerous place that had suffered race riots in ’68 and a city wide blackout in ’75 that led to mass looting and burned buildings. Many parts of the city were filled with abandoned buildings. Times Square was full of pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers. Googling photos of New York in the ‘70s results in images that could be from a war-torn third world country. You can compare The Warriors with other films from that era of New York, both more or less realistic, like The French Connection (1971), Across 110th Street (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Driller Killer (1979), or Basket Case (1982) and get cohesive aesthetic that gives you a Big Apple that’s purely rotten. Even Saturday Night Live, in the ‘80s opened with: “Live from the most dangerous city in the world!”
While Cyrus makes his pleas to the many gangs who have come to hear what he has to say, The Rogues, who are the main rivals of The Warriors, have snuck a .38 snub nose revolver into the meeting despite the strict rule of ‘no guns.’ The Rogues’ leader, Luther, assassinates Cyrus and the meeting dissolves into chaos with the arrival of several cops. Everyone is fighting for their lives to escape. The Warriors are framed for the murder and their leader, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), is beaten to death and his unaware crew escape and hide in a graveyard. There they assess the situation, with Swan (Michael Beck) and Ajax (James Remar) briefly arguing who’d step up as war chief. Then they speculate if the truce has between the gangs is now off, because if it is, they have thirty miles of enemy territory to fight through to get home to Coney Island. Meanwhile, The Riffs put a hit on The Warriors through a DJ, who gets the word out city-wide.
Unlike Class of 1984, which has deep roots in out of control youth films, The Warriors has more in common with war films, where you have a lone platoon deep behind enemy lines fighting for their lives on a suicide mission. So, while The Warriors is still a dire look at the lives of young people in a crumbling society, it has more in common with The Dirty Dozen than The Wild One. Where the two films find common ground, though, is in the overblown representation of the gangs. Unlike Class, where the filmmakers seemed more familiar with punks on TV than punks in real life, the gangs in The Warriors were far more colorful and cartoonish than real gangs. But it wasn’t that Hill wasn’t hip: he intentionally wanted to make the gangs less realistic and more fantastical. Using realistic depictions of gangs could incite violence at theaters, which it did anyway; that’s why we have gangs that dress like baseball players, or mimes, or roller skate. In less steady hands, The Warriors could have been a disastrous film, a joke, but Hill creates a tense, immersive thrill ride, that may be thin on plot but carries us on our sympathy for a group of heroes who did nothing wrong and just want to go home.
The Warriors maintains a steady pace, opening with the gathering of the gangs and the tension that comes with that, then ramps up the chaos when Cyrus is assassinated and maintains a tense gallop, right up to the very end when Luther’s treachery is revealed and The Riffs drag him off for punishment, leaving The Warriors beaten but safe on the beach of their Coney Island. Comparatively, Class has a bit more Peckinpah in it, as a slow burn that explodes into carnage. Lester shows far less restraint in graphic violence than Hill. In fact, Class still deserves its R rating for violent and lewd content, but there’s no way The Warriors would still be rated R by today’s standards. Not to say it isn’t a dark tragedy, but there’s nothing there sex or violence wise to justify anything harsher than a PG-13.
Both films have a common thread of the street urchin trying to rise up and claim Olympus from absent gods, only to be severely punished and knocked back down. The difference is in scale. One is a high school and one is a city. For Stegman’s crew, their rebellion is rebuked by an avenging angel sent from a faceless administration, who tries to first appeal to their humanity, but when none is found, turns their rage and hate back on them tenfold. For the Warriors, after they get a glimpse of a possible new dawn for the disenfranchised, they’re thrown into chaos and have to survive a series of brutal trials for having the arrogance to dare hope for a better tomorrow. The gang, Street Thunder, in John Carpenter’s 1976 Assault on Precinct 13 similarly over-reach their station when they when they steal a large number of assault rifles and pistols. Their punishment comes much quicker as they are swiftly ambushed by the LAPD and lose six members of their gang. Unlike Stegman’s crew, who are all dead, or The Warriors, who are just happy to be home, Street Thunder start prowling the streets looking for people to kill as they seek revenge against the cops.
At the same time all that is going on, Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) has been assigned to close down a decommissioned precinct in a sparsely populated neighborhood. Then a prison bus arrives seeking emergency medical aid for one of their prisoners. Meanwhile an ice cream man and a little girl are shot dead in cold blood by members of Street Thunder. The girl’s father kills their leader and is chased to the defunct precinct. As darkness falls, Street Thunder gathers forces outside, cutting phone lines and using silencers to mask their assault. Bishop is forced to turn to the prisoners for help to repel the attackers, who keep coming in waves, eventually cutting the electricity.
While Assault has a kinship with Class and Warriors, it also has its roots in a different genre: the western. Specifically, Howard Hawkes’ Rio Bravo (1959) starring John Wayne, or any number of westerns where “savage Indians” besiege some fort or outpost. Like the other two, it plays up urban anxiety, poverty, out of control youth, and inept authority. As for shock and violence Assault perfectly splits the difference between the two films. While all three films have firm roots in older Hollywood and literary tropes, in the hands of these directors they become original and vital film art by virtue of craft and creativity. That also elevates them above other films of this ilk.
Assault is certainly not Carpenter’s most accomplished film, but for a second feature to be such a tight, dark, and scary action film, I’d put it on the same level as Warriors. I think Carpenter made some ballsier, more progressive choices, though. For one thing, it’s the only one of the three films where women actually have agency and join in the fight. Hill does give us a glimpse of that when the Warriors have a run in with the Lizzies, who act as sirens, luring the boys in with their sexuality before breaking out their instruments of death. I think it’s a missed opportunity that Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) didn’t get more of a character arc besides trading up from the Orphans to the Warriors. Watching Carpenter’s control of narrative in Assault, how he carefully layers a thin plot with tried and true tropes, building an action/horror/western into a cult classic, we really see one of America’s most interesting directors emerging.
Getting back to the music, all three films are well known for their scores/soundtracks. Carpenter’s ominous, thudding synth score, Arnold McCuller’s “Nowhere to Run,” and Alice Cooper’s “I am The Future” are the first things I think about whenever these films come up. Carpenter’s scores are so important to his film work that he’s currently enjoying a second career as a rock star in his 70s, touring with a full band playing his movie themes and newer original music (I caught him in November, and my Lord, it was amazing). Barry Devorzon’s score has a funk rock vibe washed in synths and electric piano — not a far cry from Curtis Mayfield’s or Bobby Womack’s respective scores for Super Fly (1972) and Across 110th Street, but it’s those needle drops on the aforementioned “Nowhere to Run” and “In the City” that really cement it as a classic soundtrack (Waxwork Records double vinyl reissue is a must own, certainly one of the best records I’ve ever bought). And while I find Teenage Head a questionable choice, “I Am the Future” is unimpeachable — that song with the blood red title scrawled across the screen has been seared into my brain since I was eleven.