Warriors, Rockers, and the Last Days of Rebellion in the American Teen Film

warriors film
We will put on shirts when we feel like it

The year is 1979.  America is awash in a sea of polyester, flared trousers, and long hair, bouncing to a four on the floor disco beat. It’s all a desperate attempt to distract from what looks like a national nervous breakdown. Revolution in Iran has led to massive oil shortages, a corresponding spike in inflation, Americans being held hostage, and a flummoxed president Carter responding by giving a speech where he tells America that it has a “crisis of confidence.”  Yeah, no shit, bub.

As the confused, cynical decade of the Seventies seemed to be reaching its inevitable apotheosis in a stagnant swamp of economic ruin, rudderless leadership, and America’s humiliation on the world stage, you could just barely see the first rays of the Reagan Dawn. You could see it in Chicago, where a mob of rock fans ran riot in an anti-disco (and possibly anti-black and anti-gay) frenzy on Disco Demolition Night. You could hear it on the pop charts with Rupert Holmes’s “Pina Colada Song,” the last number one hit of the decade. It’s a song that criticizes the swinging ways of free love and opts for champagne over yoga and health food, vestiges of the “Me Decade.”

disco demolition night
All now at a Trump rally

You could definitely feel the Reagan Dawn on the fringes of the political world. It was in June of 1979 that Jerry Falwell kicked off the Moral Majority, a sign of the growing participation and power of Christian conservatives. Among many other things, they would target a perceived culture of permissiveness, especially among the youth. This would mean that practically everything I was interested in during my 1980s youth, from Dungeons & Dragons to video games to music, was called satanic to one degree or another.

The Moral Majority would play an important role in helping Reagan to the White House in 1980, flipping many districts that had previously gone for Carter in the South. It would flex its muscles in 1981, pressuring Proctor and Gamble, the biggest television advertiser at the time, to drop ads from over fifty television shows due to their sexual and violent content.[1] And lest we forget, Reagan gave his infamous “Evil Empire” speech in 1983 to a group of conservative Christian clerics.

Whereas the 70s had been the decade when the Sixties counterculture went mainstream, the 80s would be the decade of a conservative cultural restoration. A major part of that restoration was controlling the youth. After the spike in marijuana usage in the 1970s, the teens of the 1980s would get a heavy diet of “Just Say No” and DARE programs. Even with AIDS raging, the push for abstinence-only sex education would get stronger. Albums with “explicit content” would get stickers slapped on them, and some retailers (including Walmart) would refuse to sell them.[2] Young people themselves were openly discussed as a threat the nation’s future. In the government’s Nation At Risk report from 1983 America was warned that it was facing decline and downfall because the youth were simply too ignorant and feckless to be able to grow up and manage the country.

The start of the tipping point from permissiveness to fear and control can be seen in three films released in 1979 and in the very public reactions to them: The Warriors, Over the Edge, and Rock and Roll High School. All three presented rebellious fantasies to American youth, they would be suppressed or obscure, and, perhaps related to this, all three would be cult films in the much more reactionary years that followed.

kramer v kramer poster
All now at a Clinton rally

Kramer vs Kramer was the biggest hit of 1979, but today there are many more people under the age of 50 who’ve seen The Warriors than have seen that film. Youth-oriented films of the 1980s would package rebellion in ways that served Reagan-era values, and the youth of that time would have to dig hard beneath the hairspray and shopping mall exterior to excavate relics from a not so distant time that felt like a million years ago.

The Warriors actually would have been a big hit if not for the backlash against it. On its first week of release in 1979 it did very well, but soon gang-related violence outside of theaters where it was shown led to many cinemas withdrawing it. Paramount even offered to pay for additional security at movie theaters. The studio’s promotional campaign was blamed for inciting the violence, as the poster to the film, featuring a panorama of street gangs, bore this caption: “THESE ARE THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT. They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City. Tonight they’re all out to get The Warriors.”

This is the usual overheated boilerplate associated with genre movies in the 1970s, but with the twist that it carries a whiff of sans-culottes revolution. Paramount eventually pulled the poster, which was accused of being inflammatory, although nowadays you can just buy it on Amazon.[3] The film itself is gritty, but hardly super-realistic to the world of New York street gangs circa 1979, unless there were gangs who dressed like mimes or combined baseball uniforms with glam rock face paint. It appears to be set in a dystopic near future, but New York City was dystopic enough at the time that there was hardly any need to build any sets when the streets of the city would do. The youth running wild and ineffectual police seemed pretty true to life at the time.

The Warriors had a rushed post-production because of another New York gang film: The Wanderers was soon due to hit the screens. The same year also saw two more lower budget gang films, Boulevard Nights and Walk Proud. It is difficult to know why gangs all of a sudden became such a popular subject, although I would hazard a guess that the fears of urban decay and social breakdown may have played a role.

Those fears certainly played a role in the reactions to the film. Two murders outside of movie theaters showing The Warriors led to a public debate. After it got pulled from many theaters, Paramount also pulled its advertisements and replaced them with something much less controversial. That did not stop many from connecting the film to gang violence. In New York City, one subway police officer blamed The Warriors for a spike in violence on the subways. For those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s cultural backlash when suicides were blamed on messages in backwards heavy metal lyrics, this refrain is awfully familiar.

For the most part The Warriors shies away from the revolutionary message of its poster, except for the beginning. All of the gangs of New York have gathered in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to hear a speech by Cyrus, leader of the Riffs, the city’s largest gang. He preaches to the gang members, telling them that that they outnumber the police and could take over the city because it’s “all our turf!” (Can you dig it?) Cyrus is then assassinated by a gang member named Luther, who blames it on the Warrriors. It’s a tale fitting with the post-60s world where assassinations of progressive leaders helped contribute to a general feeling of hopelessness. In any case, the rest of the film involves the Warriors trying to get home, with little said about Cyrus’s dream. Of course, that did not stop The Warriors from giving a subversive thrill to its young audience.

***

Over the Edge goes from the city to the suburbs, but despite that it is a much grittier film. The Warriors has elements of comic book adventure, while Over the Edge is meant to show something much more real. It takes place in a Colorado suburb called New Granada, isolated and without anything for the kids to do. The middle schoolers in the movie only have a rinky dink “rec center” to go to, and turn to drugs, alcohol, and general bad behavior. While the film does not necessarily approve of their activities, it does not condemn them either, and it definitely makes the teens the sympathetic protagonists.

over the edge poster
I want you to not want me

Over The Edge was based very loosely on a “true story” from a news item in the early 1970s about a suburb in California where juvenile delinquency spiked because the town’s planners did not account for any public spaces for youth to use. In American memory the 1950s are thought of as the decade of suburbanization, but suburbanization arguably increased at a faster pace in the 1970s. After the urban uprisings of African Americans burned the cities of America in the mid to late 1960s, white flight only increased that much more. This was the decade of “Chocolate City,” Parliament’s sly ode to newly majority black cities surrounded by “vanilla suburbs.”

There are plenty of books, films, and television shows expressing ennui about suburbanization, but usually through the point of view of middle-aged adults. It’s become so common as to be a tired convention. (This is why Netflix’s Ozark lacks any of the subversive spark it thinks it has.) Over The Edge was different because it looked at the dissatisfactions of suburbia through the eyes of teenagers, who, as the film implies, were uprooted from the city at a young and impressionable age and thrown into an alienating environment.

The film is also different in that it does not offer easy answers or overt moralizing. The main character, Carl, is an eighth grader and relative newcomer to New Granada. He falls in with a bad crowd, but less out of malice than out of boredom. The parents are not depicted as monstrous or mean, but contented with their suburban lifestyle and uncomprehending of their children’s alienation. Their dream is their children’s nightmare.

The kids are living in a post-counterculture world, but “mind expansion” has devolved into just getting loaded. Being non-conformist has morphed into aimlessly anti-social behavior, like shooting cars with BB guns from the top of an overpass. However, unlike teen films made from the 1980s until now, there is little evidence of cliques and school hierarchy among the students. (This theme tends to be the thing driving the plot in 21st century teen movies, such as Mean Girls) The students are not competing with each other; they are mostly united in rebellion against their circumstances. While the old hippie values have faded, a sense of generational “don’t trust anyone over 30” solidarity persists.[4] This is without any hippie good vibes, though. As one of the characters says, “Any kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.”

The illicit behavior of these 14 year olds is shown naturally and frankly, with no real judgment or celebration. In one of the more famous scenes, one of the characters thinks he has taken some speed to help him get ready for a test, only to find out that he has dropped acid. After that experience he simply tells his friends that he is sticking to hash from now on. In another scene a group of kids points an unloaded gun at a drug dealer classmate for ratting on them to the cops. It’s scary, but we are so far in their world that we understand why they do something so dangerous and potentially lethal.

The drug use is also striking because the kids in this movie are actually played by actors the age of the characters, with all of the gangly, pimply awkwardness. It feels far more real and true to teen life than just about any other movie about teenagers made up to that point, and most since. If the naturalistic depiction of drug use by eighth graders would make this film controversial today, its scenes of teenage gunplay would make it downright toxic. This gunplay eventually leaves head dirtbag Richie, played in a memorable debut performance by Matt Dillon, shot by a police officer after brandishing an unloaded pistol.

This brings the film to its startling and memorable conclusion. The school holds a meeting for parents in the aftermath of the death, and the kids use it as an opportunity to wreak havoc and get revenge. As the parents are inside, the kids lock the hallway gates, then go wild in the parking lot, firing guns and blowing up cars, that ultimate symbol of American suburban consumerism. Two girls get on the school’s PA system and start mocking the trapped parents as the school is trashed.

The adults are overcome by fear and desperation, and it is indeed one of the more harrowing things I’ve seen in any movie. It is the kind of scene that sticks with you, and not for nothing did a young Kurt Cobain, living through his own highly dysfunctional small town teenage years, find it enthralling.  The adults get out once the police arrive, and the aptly named Officer Doberman arrests Carl, only to crash his police car into the youth center after his windshield is cracked by a shot from one of the kids’ BB guns. Carl escapes, but the youth center, symbolic of what little the kids have, burns down. The conclusion comes the next day, with little dialogue as the teenagers responsible ride away from New Granada on prison buses, some of their friends waving good-bye from the top of the overpass where the film began.

Watching Over The Edge today, it is amazing that such a thing ever got made by a major studio. It turns out it was far too incendiary to allowed into the light of the Reagan Dawn. Inevitably, Orion Pictures was too scared of it, especially after the controversy over The Warriors had already pushed that film out of circulation, and marketed Over The Edge as a horror movie. Even worse, the studio gave it an ultra-small release in a handful of theaters. In the days before the dawn of video, it should have practically ceased to exist. However, the critics who saw it championed it, and the film got a new release in 1981. On screens for the first time in New York, Vincent Canby gave it a rave, and it was eventually picked up by HBO, which showed it regularly in the 1980s. In the midst of the Just Say No world and consumerist conformity of the Reagan years it is hard to think of a more subversive movie for a fourteen year old to watch.

***

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, the last of 1979’s teen rebellion cult films, did not cause such controversy, mostly because it flew under the radar as a release from Roger Corman’s schlockhouse New World Pictures. Nevertheless, it could never be made today due to its ending where the students, led by Ramones superfan Riff Randle, blow up the school. According to one of the film’s writers, the inspiration for the end came from a desire to compete with Over The Edge, and to raise the stakes of that much more serious film.

The author of the original script wanted it to be more of a message movie, but it became a surreal exercise in irreverent fun, taking place in a universe where the Ramones were universally beloved, rather than liked only punker kids on the margins. Originally producer Corman wanted to exploit the current trends in his usual way and make a movie called Disco High. Director Allan Arkush, a huge rock fan who worked at the Fillmore East, convinced him that rock and roll was the better genre for the picture. This was fortuitous, considering that disco was about to flame out, and that The Ramones would remain a cult band for high school kids for year to come.

rock and roll high school ramones
Since taken over by the state

The subversiveness of Rock and Roll High School is less in its message than in its complete and total irreverence. Authority figures are portrayed less as evil than ridiculous. Principal Togar is played brilliantly by Mary Woronov as a mix of Joan Crawford and Tim Curry. The stuffy, ineffectual music teacher who tries to lecture a bored class about Beethoven ends up becoming an amusingly over the top rock and roll fan. There is plenty of casual marijuana usage, and no punishment put down on the characters for their vices. The character of Eaglebauer, played memorably by Clint Howard, sells fake IDs and other illicit items from his office in one of the school bathrooms. There is zero moral anguish expressed about any of this.

At the end of the film the Ramones pay a visit to the high school, then play punk rock as the students occupy, trash, and then blow up the school. Unlike Over The Edge, there is nothing harrowing about this scene, it is purely cartoonish, a kind of teenage fantasy about running wild and sticking it to authority figures.

The spirit of Rock and Roll High School seems a million miles away from the spirit of the raft of teen films that came out in the 1980s. Just compare Riff Randle to Ferris Bueller. Both are legendarily cool at their school. Both feud successfully with the principal. Bueller, however, is completely selfish in his aims. He’s out for a good time in Chicago, he constantly denigrates his best friend Cameron, and his biggest complaint is that his parents bought him a computer instead of a car. Riff Randle, on the other hand, goes out of her way to buy Ramones tickets for the entire school, and is much more supportive of her mousy friend Kate. Instead of leaving the school for a good time, she tries to get everyone involved communally. Ferris is an avatar of 80s neoliberalism, Riff of the dying embers of sixties generational rebellion. I definitely know who the teenaged me would have rather spent time with, and who would’ve bothered to even talk to me.

Certainly many other 80s teen movies had their share of raunchiness, such as Porky’s, but none of them felt dangerous like The Warriors and Over the Edge. The dirtier films owed a major debt to another late 70s flick: Animal House. And like that film, the surface-level sexual liberation masked deep levels of cultural restoration: women reduced to passive sex objects, black people to colorful props, and white men able to do what they want without any consequences. Some of this bled over into the more respectable films as well as the raunchy ones. The examples are legion. Note the depiction of people of color in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles (shudder), and Weird Science (where Anthony Michael Hall goes full minstrel). Think of what amounts to a cheerful rape scene in Revenge of the Nerds.

The 1970s have been fetishized (mostly rightly so) as a high point in the history of American cinema. Most people usually think of the so-called “New Hollywood” directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola. But as Charles Taylor’s recent and brilliant Opening Soon At A Drive-In Or Theater Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s illustrates, it was a time that produced a lot of lesser known films that could be dismissed as exploitation or genre films that have proven to be hidden masterpieces. As Taylor notes in his book, the freedom of 70s film-making would give way to a decade that was far less open and innovative.

Teen rebellion as raw and irreverent and violent, as expressed in 1979 on film, would no longer be welcome. However, the rise of home video allowed so many of us 80s and 90s Gen Xers to be thrilled by subversive cinema that you wouldn’t find at the local mall multiplex. Richard Linklater took much of the feel of real life teendom from Over The Edge and made it joyous rather than scary in his own cult classic, Dazed and Confused (1993). Kurt Cobain, my own teenage messiah, was a huge fan of Over The Edge, and its influence on the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is obvious. That song and video dropped like a bomb in late 1991, following the breakout of Public Enemy and NWA. Hair metal and Vanilla Ice were swept into the dustbin of history. That moment marked the true Reagan Dusk in youth culture, and could not have come a moment too soon.

Addendum: if you want to hear more about these films, listen to the three episodes from the incomparable The Projection Booth podcast about them.

References

[1] This was also the basis for the plot of a great SCTV episode entitled “Moral Majority” in 1981.

[2] The only actual record store in my hometown was a Musicland, which actually carded you if you wanted to buy such an album to make sure you were 18. This is why I have a “clean” version of Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday.

[3] Director Walter Hill’s theory about the violence is probably the correct one. The Warriors attracted gang members who wanted to see it, then they ran into members from rival gangs at the theater and rumbled.

[4] This is best illustrated through music. The kids listen to Van Halen and Cheap Trick, and one character refers to Jimi Hendrix as his mom’s (dated) music. Take that, Boomers!

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