I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

High School Death Wish: Class of 1984

by Casey Dewey
Jan. 1, 2018

If there’s one thing my moldy, yellowing issues of Flipside and Maximum Rock N Roll can teach me, it’s that being a punk rocker wasn’t easy in the early 80s. It’s been reiterated in every book, podcast and documentary on the subject of Ye Olden Hardcore Punker. If you weren’t being harassed by passerby while walking down the street with yells of “HEY FAGGOT!” or “DEVO DEVO DEVO!!!!” your blue mohawk sportin’, dog collar wearin’ ass was being misinterpreted by the mass media when you slunked back to your suburban house at prime time. Caricatures of you and your friends were being brainwashed by music and stabbing each other on Quincy, then you’re stealing music equipment and beatin’ up pussy new wavers and giving Erik Estrada the finger on CHiPs. An hour later on 20/20 there you were upsetting your parents; mom and dad giving some good boo-hoo to Barbara Walters about “what happened to my beautiful son?” and “why is he doing this to us?”. And the movies? Fucking forget about the movies, they were even worse, at least until Repo Man came out. There were three things punk rockers were good for in early 80s cinema - maiming, mutilating, and killing. Punks were the problem. Punks were prime villainy. Shit, all you wanted to do was check out the TSOL show and bang that cute girl behind Oki-Dogs and, you know, be yourself. And maybe overthrow that fucking asshole Reagan whenever Jello Biafra gave the word.

Class of 1984 didn’t help. Class of 1984 was fuel on the fire. According to director Mark L. Lester (Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Roller Boogie) high schools across the country in the early 1980s were dangerous and baaaaaad. According to Lester, when he visited his old alma mater in the quaint and safe San Fernando Valley, he found out that there were no more happy days or leaving it to beaver. “When I’d gone there, it was one of the most academic high schools in the city of Los Angeles. Now they had no more debate classes...kids were roaming around the halls with no shirts on. Making all kinda noise. Kids with knives. Security guards were patrolling everywhere. Windows were all smashed. I couldn’t believe it.” After this visit he poured himself into research and found out the kids were in fact not all right, that this was happening all across the nation. He decided his next film would tackle this dilemma.

With his visit to the high school battlezone and the films Blackboard Jungle and A Clockwork Orange fresh on his mind, Lester and scribe Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child’s Play) gave birth to Class of 1984. Armed with a poppin’ script and a low budget, they headed to the Great White North confines of Toronto, where “Canuxploitation” films were thriving due to the lucrative tax shelter boom.

Whatever social commentary Lester and Holland may have wanted to expound upon involving teen violence in our schools was promptly thrown out the window the moment they put ink to paper. This is a straight-ahead revenge thriller that would make Charles Bronson crack a leathery smile. After a title card proclaiming some of these events are in fact true, a post-nightmare-inducing Alice Cooper opens the movie with the foreboding song “I Am the Future”, a slumming, dripping new wave piece set over a montage of bad kids doing bad things. A handsome, pre-Riptide Perry King plays our protagonist Andrew Norris, a transferred music teacher on his first day at a new school. He quickly makes friends with the not-so-paranoid, gun-in-briefcase-packing science teacher Terry Corrigan, brilliantly played by Cornelius himself, Roddy McDowell. Shocked by the metal-detectors in the hallways, Norris eyes the omnipresent graffiti covering the hallways and feels he may have gotten in over his head. Band class sets the scene, as it’s here Norris encounters The Problem. A motley crew of stereotypical punk rockers are running roughshod over the proceedings. There’s no way Norris is going to be able to conduct Camptown Races when these heathens are swearing, yelling, insulting the class and being otherwise unruly. There’s the fat menacing one. There’s the zonked out drugged up one. There’s the slick tough one. There’s the sexy seductive one, the Siouxsie Sioux siren. And then there’s the charismatic leader of the pack. These bad seeds aren't going to let Perry teach a class full of Styx shirt wearing suburbanites (including a baby-fat Michael J. Fox making his big screen debut) any do-re-mi’s anytime soon. From here on out it’s a cat and mouse tale, with the punks and Norris ratcheting up the violence every five minutes until it’s motherfuckin’ Death Wish time.

Timothy Van Patten plays Peter Stegman, the charming, intelligent sociopath who leads his band of nogoodniks through the high school halls like Alex leading his faithful Droogies through Korova Milk Bars. He’s the Darby Crash charging the path with his Circle One. His leather pants are almost bursting with pure nitroglycerine hate and bad deeds. These punks, with names like Barnyard, Fallon and Drugstore, are involved in so many crimes Jack Webb would turn in his badge and call it a day. Vandalism. Weapons. Drug dealing. Theft. Pimping. Racketeering. Assault. They fight in brawls with rival gangs that come off like deleted scenes from The Warriors. The run an office in a backroom at the local punk rock club like snotty Vito Corleones. Van Patten (and if you wanna geek out, he’s the uncle of Vincent Van Patten who starred in the punk rock good times Rock and Roll High School, the mirror opposite of Class of 1984) is a convincing deviant, taunting and manipulating Norris at every turn. His call of “teacha-teacha” won’t leave your head anytime soon. Same with Roddy McDowell. In the scene with the most tension, he holds up his class at gunpoint, forcing them to recollect his teachings. If they don’t answer his question correctly, will he pull the trigger?

Watching Class of 1984 today is still exhilarating and super entertaining. You never expect the depravity that actually unfolds, the violence is swift and shocking, and you also goof on the stereotypes that once existed. The mean punkers dress like Michael Jackson video extras. Stegman looks like a fashion model. Fallon looks like a mob enforcer with a bullet belt. Barnyard wears a Clash vest one day, and a swastika shirt the next. C’mon! Pop-punkers Teenage Head, the Toronto version of L.A.’s The Dickies, make an appearance at the punk venue playing the awesome track “Ain’t Got No Sense”. At one point, when I was seventeen and eating up any and all obscure punk rock music, that scene was worth seeking out this movie alone. For an early 80s revenge/thriller film, this is top notch. Fuck the Warped Tour. You wanna be punk? Pop open a brew, pop this flick on, and thank your elders you can walk down the streets without being of the slightest minor threat.



Casey Dewey resides in Tucson, Arizona. He's a film writer for the Tucson Weekly and host of "Deep Red Radio" , a radio show dedicated to film soundtracks on 91.3 KXCI FM. He enjoys tacos, cervezas and garlic in everything. He wakes up every morning to a fresh pot of black coffee and at least two hours of Dragnet on TV.