SUBURBIA: Collector's Edition
(Penelope Spheeris, US, 1983, 94 mins.)
"You'll love 'em or hate 'em."
Under the heading "Roger Corman's Cult Classics," Shout! Factory does punk fans a solid with this one-two punch: Penelope Spheeris's Suburbia and Allan Arkush's Rock 'n' Roll High School, both now available with a combination of old and new extras, including trailers for the next two films in the series: Piranha and Death Race 2000.
Spheeris, the director behind 1979's The Decline of Western Civilization (and the producer behind Real Life), opens her film exploitation-style as a suburban mother picks up teenage hitchhiker Sheila (Jennifer Clay, quite good). The next thing the mother knows, a Doberman has her young daughter in its clutches. It's unclear whether Sheila provoked the incident or not. Later, it transpires that wild dogs are roaming the streets of Orange County, and that Sheila, the victim of child abuse, wouldn't hurt a fly.
Presumably, the kids with whom she's about to co-habitate are like those dogs: rootless, hungry, eager to fuck shit up--or at least that's how the outside world sees them. (In her commentary, Spheeris says she took inspiration from the sudden closure of a guard-dog training center.)
After that disturbing prologue, she shifts her focus to the home life of a couple of other unhappy youngsters in the So-Cal suburbs. Deciding that he can't take his booze-sozzled harpy of a mother anymore, Evan (Bill Coyne, one of the cast's few professional actors) runs away, though he'll soon return to collect his younger brother, Ethan (Andrew Pece).
On his first night alone, Evan ends up at a punk show where the discomforting exploits continue as D.I.'s Casey Royer sings, "Richard hung himself!" while Skinner (Timothy O'Brien) rips off a valley girl's dress to the overwhelmingly male crowd's delight. No one steps in to lend her a hand. The bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, then billed as Mike B. the Flea, watches with his pet rat. Oh, and someone doses Evan's beer.
So far, the punk scene seems more creepy than cozy as the kids also take issue with homosexuals and the disabled. Charming. Then bleached blond Jack (Chris Pedersen) spots Evan crashed out in front of the club and lets him sleep in his beat-up car. Stepson of a cop, Jack commiserates. "Parents are so lame," he sighs. The next day he throws a beer bottle at a vehicle, because "I hate buses." Jack, in short, is an idiot, but at least he has a heart, and Evan moves into his roach-infested crash pad. Turns out his roomies, who call themselves The Rejected, are the same creeps who put last night's party girl in her place, but they have more respect for the women--and the one-legged guy--who populate their own tribe.
So, Evan gets a T.R. (for The Rejected) tattoo and a haircut. Just as he's found a new home, a couple of rednecks start taking out the dogs, indicating that the punks may face similar treatment in the days to come. Now Evan's life revolves around TV, Rodney on the ROQ, stealing food from the garages of unsuspecting suburbanites, and defacing property (at least the skinheads in Shane Meadows' This Is England targeted condemned buildings).
If the kids aren't initially sympathetic, Spheeris gives the the blue-collar guys and the cops, notably Jack's stepfather, Officer Rennard (Donald V. Allen), back stories of their own. The former, for instance, have just joined the ranks of the unemployed through factory layoffs. They're angry, too. Consequently, comparisons to Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider don't quite work.
Instead, Suburbia updates earlier entries about teenage misfits kicking against the pricks, like If..., A Clockwork Orange, and Over the Edge. And with their flat, but effective line readings, it comes as little surprise to find that most of the cast didn't go onto acting careers, but they add the verisimilitude for which Spheeris was looking. As she explains, "It was easier to turn a punk rocker into an actor than an actor into a punk rocker."
Her first feature also offers choice quotes. Here's Redneck #1 on the gang, "Mental rejects running wild on our streets!" Here's Skinner to Rennard, "If we didn't have each other, we wouldn't have anything." Then there's this pungent exchange: Redneck #2: "Where's the war?" Skinner: "Up your ass!"
As with Rock 'n' Roll High School and Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge, the film ends with a showdown between the outlaws and straight society. I won't say who wins, only that Spheeris captures the feel of an old Western as surely as John Carpenter did in Assault on Precinct 13. Extra features include a photo gallery, three original trailers (two of which refer to the film as Rebel Streets), and two commentary tracks; Spheeris on one and Spheeris, Clay, and mattress king-turned-producer Bert Dragin on the other.
Next: Rock 'n' Roll High School
Images from MovieMeter.