Back in the early ‘80s, I was one of three kids in my high school who listened to Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys and the Bad Brains. We were just skinny, dorky kids who’d been declared weird from the get-go, and hardcore had come along at exactly the right time to accentuate that. We weren’t bad kids, really; just a little off. Lord knows we were smarter than the jocks and the metal heads, but much, much less popular. Something strange was happening across the rest of the country, though.
In those early days of Reagan and the Moral Majority, this whole punk rock business was taken to be a very tangible and terrifying threat, not only to the Young People, but their parents as well. Why did these kids dress that way? Why did they listen to such angry music full of all those curse words? Why do they hate the suburbs so much? What’s wrong with the suburbs? Cautionary prime time specials began cropping up on TV warning people about the threat posed by punk rock and daytime talk shows tried to tell parents what to do should their son or daughter come home with a mohawk.
These evil punk rockers see, had absolutely no respect for authority. They regularly carved up policemen, killed their parents, ate babies and dogs, and burned down churches. It seems punks like myself represented, as Penelope Spheeris put it in her wonderful but damnably impossible to find 1981 documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization. It was all pretty fucking hilarious. Reagan was in office and thuggish, Christian jocks were running the schools, but they thought WE were the threat? We were just GEEKS, for godsakes!
More hilarious still, punk villains began appearing on shows like CHiPs, Quincy., M.E. and Miami Vice, all of them clearly created by someone who had never met and possibly never even seen, a real punk. It was only a matter of time before low-budget filmmakers got in on the act, writing punk villains into their exploitation pictures.
Sure enough, after reading some statistics about the frightening rise in school violence, Mark Lester (Roller Boogie) set out to make an updated reboot of Blackboard Jungle and came up with 1982’s The Class of 1984. In an interesting way, it works as the flipside to ‘79’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, but told from the administration’s point of view and, as a result, is much less funny.
Andrew Norris (Perry King) is an idealistic, good-hearted high school music teacher who takes a new position at an inner city school and finds he has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. The kids pass through metal detectors as they enter the building, but the guards don’t care if a few of the little monsters sneak in with straight razors. The biology teacher Mr. Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) carries a gun and fills Norris in on all the ugliness he’s about to face. The school is run by a vicious punk rock gang led by Peter Stegman (the far too handsome Timothy Van Patten in silly punk rock gear) and the principal and cops are helpless to do anything about it because it’s too hard to convict juveniles.
Along with feeding a generally violent and chaotic atmosphere in the halls and the classrooms, Stegman’s gang (featuring members Barnyard and Drugstore) also controls all the narcotics traffic in the school as well as an adolescent prostitution ring. When Norris learns that Stegman is a brilliant pianist on top of all the maiming and drug peddling though, well, that complicates things a bit.
To illustrate how stone crazy these evil punk rockers are both in the film and in general, Stegman smashes his head repeatedly into a mirror, stage dives and says things like “Life is pain…Pain is everything…You, you will know.”
We get references to The Godfather and a scene in a punk rock club where for some reason the hardcore kids are slam dancing to a New Wave band. Corrigan teeters on the edge of a breakdown and Norris argues with the principal and the cops. Things take a turn when Stegman sells some goofballs to a kid in the bathroom and the exchange is witnessed by Michael J. Fox (playing the Michael J. Fox role in a very early screen appearance). When the whacked-out kid climbs the flagpole (very well, too, for someone whacked out on goofballs) and jumps, Norris confronts Fox about who was selling, but Fox won’t talk. Stegman’s gang, assuming that fresh-faced Fox did snitch, stabs him in the cafeteria.
In the film’s most memorable scene, after all of his lab animals are killed, Corrigan snaps and pulls a gun on his class. Funny thing is, holding a gun on his students while asking them biology questions, he finds he can actually get through to them. (When Norris bursts in and asks him what he’s doing, he responds calmly, “I’m teaching.”) Afterward Corrigan gets in his car and tries to run down a group of students on the street, cackling madly all the while. (As someone who spent a short while as a teacher I can fully empathize. And my students were good.)
Things escalate after that, culminating in the brutal gang rape of Norris’ pregnant wife and a final, 10-minute, bloody revenge spree.
Class of 1984 has a great, if underused soundtrack featuring Alice Cooper, Fear and Teenage Head. But my god it tries, or at least pretends to try, to take itself seriously. The opening and closing crawls about school violence tell you that much, but they’re about as believable as the crawls that open Public Enemy or Reefer Madness. To this day Mark Lester (have I mentioned that he was the man who directed Roller Boogie?) argues that it’s a film with a serious social and political message, a film designed to raise the public consciousness about what was happening in our schools. Yes, well, no it’s not. At least not unless you think Death Wish has a serious social and political message.
I mean, it ends with a teacher cutting off a student’s arm with a circular saw and setting another one on fire. It’s an exploitation, revenge cartoon with no sense of humor is what it is.
Not that it’s a bad one. The story may not be terribly original and sure we’ve seen all these moves before, but as exploitation, revenge cartoons go, it’s actually pretty good. It’s fast-paced, manipulative, bright and entertaining. It has a few memorable lines, some solid performances, it’s ridiculous as all hell and best of all it gave the punk rock kids in the audience back in ‘82 a new role model.
Because I’ll tell you, inspiring fear in everyone and running a high school prostitution ring looked a hell of a lot more fun than getting beat up by those fucking jocks again.