These Roger Corman’s Cult Classics are Two Sides of the Same Punk Coin

Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia begins and ends with the death of a child. In between, there’s a simulated gang rape, a sober punch-up at a funeral, and dead dogs enough to stack as high as a picnic table. Yep, the Roger Corman Cult Classics Collection has arrived!

For those who may not be familiar with Corman’s work, all you need to do is look up his credits on IMDB to get a sense of his aesthetics. His 389 producing credits extend to 1954 (Highway Dragnet) and include such titles as Chopping Mall, Stakeout on Dope Street, The Hot Box, A Very Unlucky Leprechaun, The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Water of the Great Sea Serpent, and his most recent offering, Sharktopus. He has worked with Oscar-winning directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Jonathan Demme, and now the Shout! Factory is treating Corman’s most celebrated works with the kind of austerity that is usually reserved for these industry-sanctioned artists.

Shout! Factory has new versions of Death Race 2000, Attack of the Crab Monsters, and Piranha in the works, but they are leading with two of Corman’s more rocking movies, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) and the aforementioned Suburbia (1983). The two movies are available separately, but Shout! Factory knows what they are doing by releasing them simultaneously, for taken together they represent two sides of the punk coin: Suburbia the self-serious, political, amateur tale of disenfranchised youth; Rock ‘n’ Roll High School the irreverent, juvenile, cartoon-ish spin on the familiar all-authority-is-fascism motif.

Suburbia is best viewed after you’ve checked your expectations about conventional moviemaking at the door. This is the stuff of a high-interest, no-fee credit card budget, food services by way of 7-11. That baby getting mauled by the dog is clearly a doll—like, clearly—and those actors seem less like actors and more like local kids for good reason: many of them are local kids, including a rat-infatuated hooligan billed as “Mike B the Flea”, who would go on to play bass for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Character names include “Joe Schmo” and “Jack Diddly”, and they spout such spot-on lines as “We’re sitting in the back here. Can’t you just ignore us?” Or, “College? Most of us couldn’t buy lunch in high school”.

Spheeris would go on to pay the bills with movies like Wayne’s World, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Little Rascals, and Black Sheep, among others, but in 1983, she was fresh off of The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary about American punk, which might explain her willingness to work with non-professionals. This connection to the punk scene serves her well in Suburbia as she weaves into the movie live performances by the Vandals, DI, and TSOL.

In fact, a live performance, a pair of bare breasts, and at least one death occurs with such regularity—there’s an instance of each every 30 minutes—that I couldn’t help but think that they were contractually mandated by Corman himself. Such cheap titillation and easy sensationalism make the movie rife for derision. If you walk through the room while someone else is watching it, chances are you’re going to crack wise. In this way, Suburbia mirrors the gang of kids that it takes as its subject—it’s flawed enough that you feel like you have the right to scoff; however, if you look at the movie with less judgmental eyes, you’ll see that it’s not without its substance.

The movie was originally titled the more Corman-esque “Rebel Streets” (several of the previews included on the among the disc’s excellent special features include this title). That “suburbia” ended up being on the marquee instead tells us a little about the film’s aspirations, as it clearly wants to be more than an exploitation picture. Early in the movie, two kids break down the definition of “suburbia”—part “suburbs”, part “Utopia”. The movie then spends the next 75-minutes debunking the “Utopia” part of this definition.

From Suburbia – image courtesy Shout! Factory and New Horizons pictures

The band of outcasts at the story’s core brand themselves “The Rejected”—literally, its burned onto their bodies when they commit to the tribe. Their communal style of living contrasts with the segmented lifestyle of the typical southern California neighborhood. The members of The Rejected hail from families that would appear to be functional to the outside eye, though clearly something is amiss that so many of their offspring must turn to each other for support.

The kids treat the suburbs the way they would a conquered people, driven from sight, would treat their occupiers: occasionally they make quick, terroristic strikes, stealing supplies from plush garages, the food so plentiful it must be stored in garages; even when they loiter outside the convenient store, they mind their own business in an antagonistic kind of way. At one point, a couple of members of The Rejected are at a garage sale. They pick up an automatic knife. I mean, an automatic knife. They break into a mall after hours and lounge on a rollout lawn.

Spheeris slyly relegates the social causes of all of this disenfranchisement to the movie’s background. The TV is always on, with such middle-class amenities as new couches being advertised, as if mint-condition furniture cures the problems wrought by the acid rain, the smog, the radiation, and the racial tension that permeates their young lives. Even the ostensible villains can’t escape the social forces of the day: the two men who pass the time harassing The Rejected and shooting feral dogs are saddled with the boredom of time only because they have recently been laid off from the local GM plant.

Such engagement with the world elevates Suburbia above the status of cult curiosity. all it a cheap B-movie, and I can’t argue with the facts of that statement. However, so too is it a snapshot of the underbelly of Regan-era American, and for that attention must be paid.

Whereas Suburbia captures a country at a moment in time, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, directed by Allan Arkush, captures a band. That band, of course, is the Ramones, and it’s one of the great questions of B-movie history to consider what the movie would have been if it had stayed true to its original title of “Disco High School”. All of that denim replaced with spandex; those sneakers with roller skates. At the very least, the explosions at the end would have been much more glittery.

Even more tantalizing, though, what if the “rock ‘n’ roll” part of the story would have been filled by one of the earlier candidates, a band like Devo or Van Halen? I can’t help but smile at the thought of Diamond Dave prancing down the hall of the school while Eddie soloed with a buxom blonde draped over each arm, but the “Hot for Teacher” video scratches that itch, so it’s hard to feel that loss too much. No, maybe they were an afterthought, but history tells us that there was no other choice: the Ramones rule this school.

from Rock ‘n’ Roll high School – image courtesy Shout! Factory

Remember, this is 1979, when the Ramones were at the height of their Ramones-ness. Music Television was still two years away, and, in any case, MTV, was never much for heralding underground bands, anyway. Consequently, the three (you might as well call them) videos and the four-song set that trumps even the movie’s climax feel more like important pop-cultural relics than they feel like musical interludes that string together a pretty flimsy plot.

The band’s acting chops make the kids from Suburbia look like the cast of Gosford Park, but this sense that the boys are just goofing off in front of the camera only adds to their charm. That three of the four members of the band are so recently departed does lend a sense of poignancy to the movie that it had previously lacked. If you are the wistful type, consider yourself warned.

The obvious cinematic lineage here traces back to movies like Jailhouse Rock and A Hard Day’s Night, and, indeed, Rock ‘N’ Roll High School riffs on that soundtrack-driven genre in an appropriately punk-ish kind of way (the lead character is actually named “Riff Randell”). The less obvious cinematic lineage—less obvious if you haven’t actually seen the movie, that is—is the Marx Brothers. I realize that the line between true wit and groan-inducing puns is a fine one, but I, for one, am a sucker for a line that references a math book and then says, “”I only use it for special equations”. Or this about the terminally dull hero: “Tom Roberts is so boring his brother is an only child”. Or a line such as this that could have been penned by Woody Allen: “I’m allergic to violence. I break out in blood”.

OK, so the Native-American “scalper” in line for the concert is a little too Naked Gun 33 1/3 for me, and I won’t even go into the running gag that revolves around a six-foot rat (or said rat’s mother who dons a “I hate mouse work” apron). Instead, let’s just applaud the screenwriters—there are three credited—for crafting jokes that are juvenile without being scatological, a combination as rare anymore as it is refreshing.

For all of its frivolity, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School does tackle some time-worn if not overly ambitious themes. Screamin’ Steve Stevens—played by real-life DJ Don Steele—sums up the movie’s theme as the battle between “mindless authority and the rebellious nature of youth”. He offers this summary only minutes before the school blows up, which indicates on which side of the debate the movie lands. There is a fair amount of taking the piss out of conventional idols going on here.

Contrary to what the front of the DVD says, the school is not, in fact, called “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”. Rather, the students attend Vince Lombardi High School, so named in honor of the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, who once said “Winning isn’t the most important thing… it’s the only thing”. Beethoven—yes, that one—also endures a little skewering, as his #1 Fan is wearing a Ramones shirt by the movie’s end.

I can’t say that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School suffers by sharing a release date with Suburbia—it really is one damn fun ride—but I’m also having a hard time agreeing with the general consensus that it’s the “better” movie. Whereas Suburbia’s topicality enables it to transcend its own limitations, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’s historical significance stems from it accidentally casting what would become one of the most revered bands in rock ‘n’ roll.

Why must I make myself choose? That “two sides of the same coin” idea is instructive, after all. Flip it on a Friday night, and you can’t go wrong.

I’ve spent some time in recent reviews bashing what passes as Special Features anymore, so I’m pleased to say that Shout! Factory is positioning itself as the poor man’s Criterion with these releases. The supplemental viewing options only enhance the overall experience. Both movies come with multiple audio commentaries, and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School includes retrospectives and interviews and even the original audio from the Ramones show at the Roxy that was used in the film (they overdubbed for the final cut).

In addition, the video transfer is almost too good. The scratches on several of the previews seemed more appropriate, but to say that too much care was taken is hardly a valid criticism, and at under $20 a pop, these suckers are priced to move.

So what are you waiting for? Dust off your skateboard, pick up a case of beer, pop some popcorn (or load a bowl), sit back, relax, wait for the clock to strike 12, and press “Play”.