Welcome to Gut the Punks, a monthly dissection of genre films that have a loose connection to punk rock music and culture. It’s Women in Horror Month here at Nightmare On Film Street. At first, I was stumped on which director to write about, in the realm of both horror and punk. I’ve already covered the debut features of Jenn Wexler and Jovanka Vuckovic, and their promising directorial careers are just beginning, so it’d be best to come back to them a few years down the line. But who else is there? The answer was right under my nose. Sure, she hasn’t directed any dictionary-defined “horror,” but she never shied away from the dark moments in her movies. Her career has had plenty of ups and downs, starting off fiercely independent, then ending up on the set for big studio features. She single-handedly set the bar for female directors to come, as well as shaped the music scene with her provoking documentaries. Her name is Penelope Spheeris.
I have already mentioned Spheeris before when covering her first narrative film Suburbia in my first entry to the Gut the Punks column. To avoid repeating myself, I’ll be concentrating on her 1987 film Dudes, a punk rock neo-western with a surprisingly light-hearted revenge plot.
It follows three young punks, Grant (John Cyer, Two and a Half Men), Biscuit (Daniel Roebuck, the Fugitive) and Milo (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea), who have decided they’ve had enough of New York City and want to start a new life in California. But their cross-country road trip is cut short in Arizona when a gang of rednecks come across their campsite. Milo is killed by the gang leader Missoula (FEAR frontman Lee Ving), and Grant and Biscuit are left to die in the desert. The traumatic event gives the two punks a new purpose: track down Missoula and avenge their friend.
Both Grant and Biscuit undergo a spiritual rebirth, aided by hallucinatory “snake juice” given to them by a bull-fighting Elvis impersonator (Pete Willcox). Grant meets tow-truck girl Jessie (Catherine Mary Stewart, Night of the Comet), who teaches him how to ride a horse and to properly shoot a gun. Meanwhile, Biscuit is overcome with nightmares of First Nations tribes being slaughtered by Union soldiers. The visions inspire him to reconnect with his Native American roots… though he leans a bit too heavy into the stereotypical look. With their new identities solidified, the two stalk Missoula to a late night screening of the 1939 western Jesse James, leading to a shoot-out in the theater as the movie plays in the background. Missoula escapes, and Grant and Biscuit are arrested by the local sheriff, but Jessie comes to their rescue and breaks them out of jail, giving Grant a final showdown with Missoula.
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“Being the “rock n’ roll anthropologist” that she is, [Penelope] Spheeris had to make the soundtrack to Dudes as integral to its story as possible.“
Writer Randall Jahnson (who went on to write the Doors biopic and two episodes of the Tales From the Crypt TV series) had intended for the movie to be a lot darker, but Spheeris picked up on the comedic points in the script, and completely changed the mood of the film. She also cast some of her friends she met through the LA punk scene. Oftentimes, it’s a gamble to bring in musicians to act in such pivotal roles, but both Lee Ving and Flea play their parts incredibly well. Plus, it helps that they had some previous acting experience.
Spheeris met Lee Ving while shooting his band for her debut documentary feature the Decline of Western Civilization. He already played a foulmouthed heel onstage, so playing the villain in Dudes came naturally to him. A couple years prior, Lee Ving acted alongside Willem Dafoe as a biker in Streets of Fire, and was the murder victim in the film adaptation of Clue. He is set to appear in Danzig’s upcoming sophomore movie Death Rider in the House of Vampires. As for Flea, Spheeris met him through Lee Ving, back when he was playing bass for FEAR, and cast him as an animal-loving punk in Suburbia. He later went on to play Needles in Back to the Future II and III, though he is best known as one of the nihilists in the Big Lebowski and the voice of Donnie in the Wild Thornberrys. In Dudes, Flea plays Milo with so much heart for the short amount of time he’s on screen, that it comes as such a shock by the time he’s murdered.
Being the “rock n’ roll anthropologist” that she is, Spheeris had to make the soundtrack to Dudes as integral to its story as possible. The movie opens with a live concert by the Vandals, playing the most quintessential song for a punk rock western: “Urban Struggle.” The intro pays tribute to the call-and-response theme from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, before Dave Quackenbush comes in singing “I want to be a cowboy…I couldn’t make it as a punker.” The soundtrack also features Jane’s Addiction, the Leather Nun, the Tail Gators, as well as heavy metal bands that Spheeris would later interview in her documentary the Decline of Western Civilization Part II: the Metal Years, like Faster Pussycat, W.A.S.P. and Megadeth covering Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’.” I’ll be putting these songs, along with some tracks by FEAR and early Red Hot Chili Peppers, onto the Gut the Punks Spotify playlist, for your listening pleasure.
Like most of Spheeris’ movies from the ‘80s, Dudes had a very limited theatrical run and an even smaller physical release, but gained a cult following thanks to bootleg VHS copies that were passed around in punk circles. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that her early films got official Blu-Ray releases through Shout Factory. Spheeris wanted to make more fictional punk rock films like Dudes and Suburbia, but her life completely changed when she was offered a chance to direct Wayne’s World, mostly because Lorne Michaels considered her an expert on headbangers because of the Decline of Western Civilization Part II. Wayne’s World was a massive success, making Spheeris the “Comedy Queen,” as she describes it. She became the number one person in-demand to direct big-budget comedies throughout the ‘90s. Few reached the level of success of Wayne’s World, like the feature-length reboots of classic television shows like the Beverly Hillbillies and the Little Rascals. But Spheeris agreed to direct all of them, not for the money, but because there were so few women sitting in the director’s chair in Hollywood, she felt she didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing projects.
“What makes Spheeris’ work stand out is her portrayal of male friendships. In Dudes, we really get a sense of the love Grant, Biscuit and Milo have for each other.“
What makes Spheeris’ work stand out is her portrayal of male friendships. In Dudes, we really get a sense of the love Grant, Biscuit and Milo have for each other. We get to see the exhilarating high points of their relationship (in one scene, quite literally), but also the devastating low points that put their friendship to the test. The same can be said for Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) in Wayne’s World, everyone in the He-Man Woman-Haters Club in the Little Rascals, or even the aspiring serial killers Roy (Maxwell Caulfield) and Bo (Charlie Sheen) in the Boys Next Door. To quote Kurt Fuller in Wayne’s World “I’ve learned that platonic love can exist between two grown men.”
However, there are plenty of kickass and complex female characters throughout Spheeris’ filmography, such as Jessie, Wayne’s World’s Cassandra (Tia Carrere), and Elly May Clampett (Erika Eleniak) in the Beverly Hillbillies. Yes, they were cast as the love interests, but in the cases of Carrere and Eleniak, they are also one of the few cast members doing any on-screen combat, while the men have to stand by the sidelines with their mouths wide open. Before she studied film, Spheeris first went into psychobiology because she was fascinated with human behavior. It would explain why her documentaries are so fascinating and why her characters are so emotionally driven.
Spheeris butted heads with many big-time producers and executives over the years. B-movie king Roger Corman produced Suburbia, meaning female nudity was required. Spheeris fulfilled that requirement, but made the scene feel violating and far from sexy, as a means of conveying the protagonists’ moral ambiguity. Spheeris famously disagreed with Mike Myers on several points during the production of Wayne’s World. She believes Myers convinced the producers not to bring her back for the sequel because they couldn’t see eye-to-eye on his script.
But Spheeris was truly put through hell when she worked for the now disgraced Weinstein brothers on the Marlon Wayans comedy Senseless. Spheeris says she was never sexually harassed by them, but experienced first-hand their predatory methods of conducting business. They demanded the ending of the movie be rewritten and reshot, and if Spheeris objected, both brothers verbally abused her. It was around that time she decided she had enough with Hollywood. In a recent interview, Spheeris tells Damian Abraham on his podcast Turned Out A Punk: “Fuck those guys! Harvey’s going to rot in jail. Rewrite the ending of THAT movie!”
“[…] is it better for a filmmaker to go broke making the movies they want to do, or make a ton of money working on a big studio project where they have no creative control? Well, Spheeris was able to do both.“
In true punk rock form, Spheeris took all the money she made working for the Weinsteins to finance the third part of The Decline of Western Civilization, this time filming and interviewing homeless punk kids– better known as “gutter punks”– as they panhandled on the streets of Los Angeles and squatted in abandoned buildings. It was like Suburbia come to life, 15 years later. Hearing their stories of how they were abused by their parents and ended up on the street broke Spheeris’ heart, so she donated all the profits made off the documentary to charities that work with at-risk youth. As if that wasn’t enough, Spheeris became a licensed foster parent and over the years, opened up her home to kids who came from broken homes, giving them a new lease on life and making sure they didn’t end up on the street. Because of that, she will always have my undying respect.
Spheeris is now retired from filmmaking, and says she is much happier working in home renovation, though for years, she’s been hinting at a Part VI for the Decline of Western Civilization. Last month, I asked the question: is it better for a filmmaker to go broke making the movies they want to do, or make a ton of money working on a big studio project where they have no creative control? Well, Spheeris was able to do both. Forty years ago, she made one of the most important punk documentaries (which now sits in the National Film Registry, I might add) on a shoe-string budget. She then managed to get her foot in the door of Hollywood and used it to pave a path for more women who wanted to get into filmmaking. She took the abuse, the stress and the bitter grudges, and got to walk away with her head held up high. She will always be a punk in my book.