To every generation, there comes a teenagers-gone-wild movie. From the drive-in beginnings of The Blackboard Jungle to the art house narcissism of Kids, filmmakers just can’t resist warning us about those lousy young punks ruining everything for everyone. Class of 1984 is just one in a long line, benefitting mostly from its Reagan-era fashion sense and a buggy-eyed performance from a slumming Roddy McDowell. It applies the same feverish paranoia about the young that other movies of its ilk do; it simply pushes the hot buttons a little harder than most.
In this post-Columbine era, it looks positively quaint, but back in the day a couple dozen countries actually banned it from screens for its sex and violence. Its gaggle of punks sieg heil their new teacher, engage in copious drug use, rape their way through underground clubs, and generally act like the evil little bastards the poster promises. Against them stand an array of terrified teachers, held virtual hostage at their inner city high school while their supposed charges run roughshod over Mom and apple pie.
Into this trap steps Andrew Norris (Perry King), one of those bright-eyed young teachers dedicated to making a difference. He soon crosses swords with the school’s drug kingpin (Timothy Van Patten), who exists primarily to remind us just how much we can hate and loathe a movie character. He and his gang rule the school with an iron fist – and indeed seem to be the only real no-goodniks in the vicinity. The film plays the basic revenge card as we watch them engage in increasingly brutal acts of depravity while Norris responds with understanding and tolerance until even he has to face them on their own terms.
The plot holes pile up almost too fast to count – notably when Van Patten and his thugs commit overt acts of assault, and yet no one thinks to simply call the cops on them. Like a lot of teenagers-gone-wild movies, Class of 1984 exists in its own self-contained universe, where good and evil do contrived battle without any pesky interference from reality. McDowell makes the most of it during a scene when his biology teacher holds his class hostage with a pistol. But other gleeful guilty pleasures litter the landscape, such as the brutalization of a pre-star Michael J. Fox (playing one of the school’s good kids) or a gangland rumble that has more in common with West Side Story than any actual street violence. Alice Cooper puts a cherry on top with his wonderfully awful theme song, turning this supposed cautionary tale into a whacked out piece of unfiltered exploitation.
One could make a case for its prescience, of course. Class of 1984’s insistence on its own pertinence feels far more at home in our era of routine school shootings than it did in 1982. But one hesitates to ascribe any kind of grander scheme to a film this simplistic. Time and again, it eschews more nuanced ideas in favor of flinging blood in our faces, revealing in the horrors of its seemingly unstoppable villains to better emphasize how dearly they need to be destroyed. We gain no lessons from the cartoon characters on display. It’s simply a matter of enduring the little monsters’ horrors until their proper comeuppance: as brazen a case of button-pushing as you’re likely to see.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a warning to lay aside the filmmakers’ obvious pretense in favor of their true purpose. Class of 1984 succeeds far better as a bit of drive-in sleaze than as a message picture of any kind, buoyed by its relatively unique status in the era that spawned it. It earns points for pushing its concept farther than other films might take it, but it’s a joy ride, not a life lesson. We don’t regret taking it, so long as there’s plenty of soap nearby and we’re willing to snicker at its absurdities a tad more than it does.