While John Hughes and Stephen Spielberg might corner the dime store nostalgia market for the 1980s, an unfettered look at Reagan-era America will show something much more toxic lurking underfoot.
The ’80s saw the discovery of AIDS, holes in the O-zone layer, personal computers, the Challenger explosion, home video, the slaughter at Tiananmen Square, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the officiation of DNA testing, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and – most importantly – the second wave of punk rock. While some like to wax romantic about the New Wave generation and the dawn of MTV, the ’80s wash down about as easy as the 100ml rations of vodka handed out to the Chernobyl clean-up crews.
While nuclear events and toxic waters were incubators for B-movie monsters and half-beings from the 1940s through the end of the Vietnam war, it wasn’t until the 1980s that these fears materialized as science fact. The realization of these ‘creatures’ was only exacerbated by latent Cold War anxieties which had been brooding under the surface for the preceding three decades. If ingested, potent side effects include nihilism, feelings of powerlessness, and hopeless in the name of Technological Progress.
In response to its better nature, there was a cultural shift towards ‘political correctness’ which didn’t mesh well with this new breed of generational self-loathing. While many people swung violently to the Left (or the Right) others found a new antidote for this depressive noise: irony, low budgets and punk rock.
The following seven movies give you a version of the ’80s you won’t catch on a Saturday-afternoon VH1 marathon. Common themes include New Jersey, toxic waste, punk rock, booze, topless women, and New Jersey. If Footloose and Sixteen Candles are like an after-school milkshake, think of these as 40oz. benders in the back alley.
7. Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986)
You didn’t think I would say ‘boobs’ and not give you any payoff, did you? This movie plays like a Lloyd Kaufman daymare (If you don’t know who that is, stop reading now and go to www.troma.com). The high school, Nuke ‘Em High, is located in Tromaville, New Jersey, right next to a Nuclear power plant, which is leaking waste. The toxins affect the locally grown marijuana, which is sold to high schoolers by a gang of punks called ‘The Cretins.’ Lots of multi-colored vomit, foul language and horrible acting.
6. Suburbia (1984)
This is an early Penelope Spheeris number, and what it lacks in toxic waste it makes up for in heart. The movie begins with a head-sick dog mauling a baby along a California highway. The rest of the follows like a sequence of punk rock non-sequiturs, as it follows a wayward gang of non-professional-actor punk rockers from concerts (with bands like D.I., TSOL and The Vandals) to garbage houses to parking-lot round-ups from 5-0. Also features Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame (not punk).
5. Robocop I, II & III (1987, 1990, 1993)
Though technically not ’80s movies, the Robocop ‘series’ is explicitly informed by the same set of toxic ethos, and it shows what the genre can do when it gets a high-budget Verhoeven treatment. Punks routinely play the anonymous evil-doers, and the Robocop is the ultimate man-machine, not only equipped with weapons, but a pre-programmed sense of right and wrong. The eponymous ’80s hero?
4. Repo Man (1984)
In the John Hughes version of the 1980s, Emilio Estevez is a tight-lipped jock from the rich side of town. In the Alex Cox version of the same period, Estevez plays Otto, the smart-mouthed, hard-drinking, alleyway-brawling punk rocker from Southern California. Unwittingly looped into the repo man racket, Otto stumbles upon a stolen car and an alien conspiracy. Meanwhile, he mumbles Black Flag lyrics to himself and waxes extra-terrestrial with Tracey Walter.
3. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
This is Lloyd Kaufman/Troma’s crown jewel. The Toxic Avenger, 90lb.-wuss-turned-toxic-superhero-bully-killer-from-New-Jersey, was even turned into a small cult enterprise for the then-nascent Troma Productions. ‘Toxie,’ as he is known in dedicated circuits, frequents the midnight movies and empowers emaciated young men with the wish that they too might fall into a tub of toxic waste and score a hot blonde supermodel (who is also ‘blind’). Lots of breasts in this one.
2. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Zombies are very much ‘in vogue’ these days, but they lack their ironic punchiness from decades past. In this film, you have a toxic smoke spilling over a backwoods graveyard. Punks with clever names like ‘Trash’ and ‘Suicide’ get drunk on top of mausoleums, and a few clean-cut kids get wound up in the mess. Return is an unsung ’80s party-horror classic, and features extensive and totally unncessary fully-nude dancing from cult-horror icon Linnea Quigley. Inevitably your parents will walk into the room when she’s on screen. “But mom, it’s from the ’80s!”
1. Street Trash (1987)
Street Trash is easily one of the most offensive movies you will ever see, and you’ll probably have to do some digging to find a watchable version. If the ’80s were marked by rhetorical progressivism and multiculturalism, this film is a ‘fuck that, we’re gonna drink!’ Homeless people are melting into Crayola-colored viscera after a cheap liquor store owner unearths ‘Viper’ from the annals of his cellar. There is a plot somewhere, but this movie is mostly about ‘being there.’ While the homeless endure the exploitative brunt of the jokes – worry not – director J. Michael Muro is an equal-opportunity offender. This film is polychromatic gold.
By Benjamin Van Loon 9/27/2011