A brief guide to punks on film

From Repo Man to the Class of 1984, here are seven memorable examples of anarchy on the big screen.


David Hayles

Ever since the advent of punk in the 1970s, the subculture has been mined in zombie movies, coming-of-age dramas, Star Trek sequels and countless exploitation flicks. Punks have even provided the soundtrack to one of cinema’s most electrifying endings, with Sid Vicious murdering ‘My Way’ over the finale of veritable punk director Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

Most recently, fictional punk band The Ain’t Rights feature in Jeremy Saulnier’s white-knuckle backwoods thriller, Green Room, playing the gig from hell to a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads at a dive bar in the middle of nowhere. Screen punks are so plentiful there’s even an annual Punk Film Festival, Too Drunk To Watch, now in its fifth year. And later this year, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of punk, the BFI is holding its own Punks On Film season. With all that in mind, here are some of our all-time favourite movie punks.

Punks on public transport – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

It seemed like no Hollywood film from the ’80s was complete without the hero getting street hassle – or public transport hassle – from some anti-social punks. Here, with the Enterprise crew visiting 20th century California, a sole punk on a bus is given a variation on the Vulcan death grip by Spock, after Captain Kirk asks him to turn his ghetto blaster down. The scene was replicated in 1994 in The Specialist, where bomb expert Sylvester Stallone favours Miami buses over car ownership, but takes exception when a group of punks (in the very literal sense, ‘ruffians’) nab the seat of a pregnant woman. Nothing like seeing a punk get put through a plate glass window.


High school punks – The Class of 1984 (1982)

This ’80s take on The Blackboard Jungle has Perry King as an idealistic teacher coming up against a punk gang in an out of control inner city high school. Head punk, the charismatic Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), is a messianic nihilist prone to profundities like “I am the future” and “life is pain.” Teach decides that Stegman is a pain, and sets out to eradicate the gang – and how! The music is performed by Canadian punk band Teenage Head, who remarkably are still going, which come to think about it isn’t very punk-like behaviour.


Zombie punks – Return of the Living Dead (1985)

In this classic horror comedy, some small town punks, led by a fellow called Suicide, choose a typically obnoxious location for an impromptu party – the local cemetery. What they don’t realise is that a secret army nerve gas has been inadvertently leaked causing the dead to rise out of their graves, chomping on the punks (including nude, flame haired tomb dancing scream queen Linnea Quigley), turning them from drooling, revolting creatures into… well, you get the idea.


Mutant punks – The Class of Nuke ’Em High (1986)

This grotesque splatter comedy from Troma is actually a morality tale – when high schoolers start ingesting drugs contaminated by the nuclear power plant next door, they turn into rampaging mutants. More specifically, the clean cut pupils become the ‘Cretins’, nasty punks with zero respect for authority. The message is clear: don’t do drugs, and don’t build a school next to a nuclear power plant.


Californian punks – Repo Man (1984)

Alex Cox’s film is pure punk cinema – irreverent, unclassifiable and brimming with an infectious, uncontainable energy. Emilio Estevez is a down on his luck punk (is there any other kind?) in Los Angeles, who gets a job repossessing cars with Harry Dean Stanton. Appearing as a nightclub band are LA punks Circle Jerks, who also feature in Penelope Spheeris’ celebrated 1981 punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, where they can be seen performing their fragrant love ballad I Just Want Some Skank.


Brit punks – The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (1980)

Dubbed the ‘Citizen Kane of punk movies’ by Variety, Julien Temple’s lunatic mockumentary charts the rise of the UK’s most infamous punk rockers, taking savage swipes at the vagaries of fame and the cynicism of the music industry along the way. Bizarrely enough, Sex Pistols had been due to star in their very own film, Who Killed Bambi?, a couple of years previously, directed by Russ Meyer. The film was pulled after half a day’s shooting when the backers got a look at Roger Ebert’s script which starts with a surreal scene at a job centre followed by a riot at a country and western pub. Russ Meyer – Sex Pistols – what were they expecting – a sequel to the Disney cartoon?


Teen punks – Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood sunk its fangs into the punk craze, and the money making potential therein, with this story of an idealistic punker, Diane Lane, front woman of the titular band lured by fame and fortune to sell out her ideals, much to the chagrin of fellow rocker Ray Winstone. It arrived a couple of years too late – by then the punk ‘scene’ was dead – and likewise it died a death at the box office. Similar ground was covered to better effect in the British film Breaking Glass in 1980, starring Hazel O’Connor and Winstone’s Scum co-star Phil Daniels, and featuring a scene where O’Connor stirs up a riot among an audience of far right skinheads. Which brings us full circle (jerk) to Green Room.

Green Room is out Friday 13th May.

Published 10 May 2016

Tags: Green Room Jeremy saulnier

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