This month at Nightmare On Film Street, we’re nearing the End of Days. Like many tinfoil hat conspiracy nuts, I’ve been preparing for this moment since the inception of my column because, if you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of punks running around in the wasteland and I’m here to find out why. Plus, I’ll be giving you fashion tips on how to look your fiercest when society collapses tomorrow.
The post-apocalyptic punk look owes a lot to the Mad Max franchise, which set the precedent for many dystopian films to come. George Miller’s 1979 explosive action film introduced a gang of motorcycle outlaws (with a bit of a queer flair), led by the ruthless Toecutter (played by the recently deceased Hugh Keays-Byrne). They act as the foil to Mel Gibson’s Max, a police officer trying to maintain order in a world that’s slowly falling apart (along with his own sanity).
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The leather jacket and combat boot biker look evolves in the 1981 sequel The Road Warrior. Here we see the integration of the punk rock style among the villains, particularly with the character Wez (Vernon Wells), with his bright red mohawk. The black leather is changed to bondage gear, either as a means to deal with the heat of the Outback, or maybe people have become kinkier with the crumbling of societal norms. Wez parades around in assless chaps with his twink boyfriend by his side, while his beefcake boss, Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), wears a chest harness and hot pants with a studded codpiece. Sports equipment is repurposed as armor; Wez completes his look with football shoulder pads, adorned with black feathers, for the sake of fashion. In the third installment, Beyond Thunderdome, mohawks and shoulder pads become the standard for the guards in Bartertown.
Mad Max largely inspired cyberpunk retro-futuristic derivatives like dieselpunk—akin to steampunk, except with diesel-powered technology—and desertpunk, which uses tropes found in spaghetti westerns and samurai films, following a lone wanderer traveling across a barren wilderness. The release of the Road Warrior spawned a dozen cheap rip-offs, many of them made by Italian directors, with titles like Warriors of the Wasteland, Wheels of Fire and Exterminators of the Year 3000. Everything from the modded dune buggies to the punk baddies was replicated a dozen times over.
Neil Marshall pays tribute to Mad Max in his movie Doomsday, particularly in the final chase scene. Scotland is ravaged by a deadly virus and the entire country is quarantined from the rest of the UK. The Scottish people are sealed behind a massive wall, left to die. Thirty years later, a special ops team is dropped inside the devastated country in search of survivors. What they find is a tribe of punk cannibals, led by the sadistic Sol (Craig Conway), who sports a bleach blonde peacock haircut and a large biohazard tattoo on his back.
His tribe’s style can be described as “modern primitive,” blending the ripped, spikey clothing of 77 Punk, the use of fur, feathers and bone jewelry inspired by the Iroquois warriors (the originators of the mohawk), and the tribal tattoos of the Pacific Islanders. And of course, they have a guy in a leather gimp suit chained to their cars. Although they wield medieval weapons like spears and axes, they use electricity to light their stage and blast their theme music: Adam and the Ants’ “Dog Eat Dog” and “Good Thing” by Fine Young Cannibals (how appropriate).
The post-apocalypse doesn’t always take place in the deserted outback. Other times, films are set in decayed cities, where gangs engage in urban warfare like The Warriors. Similar to Doomsday, dystopian governments believe it’s best to seal all the undesirables in one place to contain the chaos. In John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Manhattan is walled up and converted into a prison. On the inside, anything goes. The government has no reason to intervene in the going-ons of the inmates, until Air Force One is hijacked and the President is kidnapped by New York’s reigning gang leader, The Duke (Isaac Hayes), who dresses like a war general with bulking spiked gauntlets.
Carpenter was reportedly influenced by the bleak futurism of Mad Max, and based the look of The Duke and his lackeys off the biker villains. Carpenter cited his other muses by naming characters after his favorite directors, like Romero (Frank Doubleday), whose pale vampirish demeanor resembles that of Martin, with his wild hair sticking straight up.
Ozploitation director Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In takes the same concept, this time using a drive-in parking lot as a concentration camp for the unemployed. The punk prisoners don’t mind because they get to take drugs and watch movies every night. But their racial prejudices come bubbling to the surface when the government introduces immigrants into the prison. Car chases and wild stunts (courtesy of part of the Mad Max stunt team) ensue when our protagonist Crabs (Ned Manning), fed up with the racism of his fellow convicts, tries to escape.
Punks aren’t always the villains in the apocalypse either. They can be the last remaining rebels in a world where evil empires have stranglehold over dwindling resources. In the film adaptation of the Tank Girl comics, the world is thrown into chaos following a decade-long drought. Under the control of Kesslee (Malcolm DcDowell), the Water & Power corporation has a monopoly on the almost all of the Earth’s remaining water, with the exception of a small water well operated by a commune of punks, one of them being Tank Girl (Lori Petty). When their commune is raided by corporate mercenaries, it’s up to her, Naomi Watts and Ice T in kangaroo prosthetics to bring down the old white men in power. Tank Girl is surprisingly light-hearted compared to other titles mentioned above, thanks to its colorful cast of characters and the riotous yet upbeat soundtrack.
How you look in the end times is very important. If you’re not living as a nomad, travelling from place to place, then you’re living in modest dwellings. Either way, having a rotating wardrobe is a thing of the past (unless you’re Tank Girl, who wears 18 different outfits throughout the movie). Rather, you will have a single dusty outfit that you can continuously bedazzle with whatever you find. Just look at the inhabitants of Waterworld, who weave salvaged trash into their clothing. Post-apocalyptic costumes often include chains, strips of rubber from old tires, rusted metal plates, goggles and a gas mask, depending on how toxic the wasteland is.
You will need to look dangerous, but sexy as well. Societal collapse means the puritanical taboos of the Old World are long gone; you can’t kink-shame in the apocalypse. You’re free to love whoever you want (or whoever you find), be they man, woman or a kangaroo-human hybrid. However, there is a downside to sex without rules: sexual assault and pedophilia are rampant in the post-apocalypse, depicted in too many uncomfortable scenes in The Road Warrior, Waterworld and Tank Girl (Iggy Pop being one of the patrons of an underage brothel).
The end of civilization is a dream for punk rockers who have been singing about anarchy for decades. No need for money or cops, just raw survival by any means. You need to live every day on the wild side because it could very well be your last. But the wasteland is not as lawless as it appears. Hierarchies and territories still exist among bandits, and tribes are often ruled by a psychotic leader— like Lord Humungus, Sol and The Duke— who takes pleasure in slaughtering innocent survivors. Without the threat of punishment by the state, evil is given free rein.
The apocalypse is a reoccurring theme in punk music, particularly in two subgenres, deathrock and d-beat. Deathrock has a post-punk sound with a gothic horror aesthetic. Although the lyrics deal with death and gloom, you can still dance to it. Siouxsie and the Banshees is a good representation of the look and sound, though the band has never been referred to as deathrock. Deathrockers complete their look using excessive amounts of hairspray, elaborate mascara and ripped fishnets. As goth music later became industrial, the term deathrock was used to described the classic goth rock sound. Finland’s Grave Pleasures provide the perfect soundtrack to the apocalypse with their 2017 album Motherblood, romanticizing mass destruction coupled with religious imagery in songs like “Be My Hiroshima” and “Atomic Christ.”
D-beat basically worships UK punk pioneers Discharge. In the early 1980s, their debut EP Why? and first album Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing took the scene by storm with its mix of anarcho-punk and speed metal. Their sound led to the creation of a new subgenre: d-beat, named after Discharge’s seminal drum patterns. A wave of imitators formed in Japan and Scandinavia, with on-the-nose names Disrupt, Disclose, Disfear, etc. The lyrics are mainly anti-war, although their outlook is bleak, singing about how world leaders will always choose greed and hatred over peace, while other songs paint the disturbing realities of nuclear warfare.
Their album covers feature imagery of historical war atrocities. When the possibility of nuclear annihilation became less likely after the end of the Cold War, d-beat bands shifted their focus to environmental destruction caused by unregulated capitalism. Your average disrocker (d-beat fan) dresses all in black, normally with a single shoelace tied around their head, much like Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome, to keep up their spikey mullet dyed half-blonde, like Toecutter’s hairstyle in the first Mad Max movie. They’re essentially dressing for the apocalypse, now.
As I’m writing this, I’m mourning the loss of a local punk venue in Montreal that was known as Katacombes, where disrockers and deathrockers were among the regulars. The walls were lined with skulls painted black and a pillar of bones shot up from the concert floor. The giant mushroom cloud painted on the mural outside on its terrace was modelled off the nuclear badlands featured in Inepsy’s cover art. If you ever wanted to cosplay for the apocalypse, that was the place to go. I’ve dumped a bunch of songs into the Gut the Punks Spotify playlist, to get you in the mood for the inevitable end of civilization. The goal is to have fun once it does come.