Hello, curious readers. Welcome to the first entry to my monthly column, Gut the Punks; a column analyzing punk characters in horror and their cinematic evolution from stereotypical brutes to sympathetic victims. Every month, I’ll cover a movie with some relation to punk rock (and occasionally heavy metal), exploring the themes and, of course, the soundtrack. Also, spoilers will be discussed. You have been warned.
To coincide with the Nightmare on Film Street’s November theme of “Home Is Where The Horror Is,” I will be talking about Penelope Spheeris’ 1983 drama Surburbia and its complicated portrayal of family.
No longer able to stand living with his alcoholic mother, Evan (played by Bill Coyne) decides to leave home. With nowhere to go, he follows a group of punks to an underground concert, where he meets Jack (Chris Pedersen). Jack brings Evan to T.R. House (which stands for ‘The Rejects’), an abandoned house in an empty suburb occupied by a dozen other punks. Evan gets along well with his new misfit family, and convinces his little brother Ethan to come live with him. But the neighboring community wants the punks out, fed up with their acts of vandalism and escalating violence (though the T.R. crew aren’t usually the ones to throw the first punch). Convinced the cops will do nothing, gun-toting vigilantes calling themselves Citizens Against Crime take it upon themselves to force the punks out. The T.R. crew anticipate the attack and fight off the Citizens. But as they’re being chased off with their tails between their legs, the Citizens accidentally run their pickup truck into Ethan, killing him.
Having directed the first part of The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary on the Los Angeles punk scene, two years before writing and directing Suburbia, Spheeris had insight on the punk rock lifestyle at a time when most filmmakers were depicting punks as drug-addicted goons. I suspect Spheeris modeled many of her characters off real-life people she interviewed while filming The Decline of Western Civilization. Each one of the T.R. punks have a familial horror story, and the spray-painted, cockroach-infested squat is the closest thing many of them have had to a home. They rely on each other for support. Jack comes off as the leader of the group, but they all live in an egalitarian home, where everyone takes turns sleeping in the big comfy bed. For food, Jack and Evan drive through populated suburbs, looking for open garages to steal from the chest freezers.
“It’s very appropriate [Suburbia] takes place in an abandoned suburb.”
The dark tone of the movie is set in the opening scene, in which a toddler is mauled and killed by a wild dog on the side of the highway, foreshadowing a death of innocence. Packs of wild dogs roam the boarded-up suburb. Once a cherished member of the traditional American family, they were abandoned by their owners, and, like their punk counterparts, had to band together to survive, attacking outsiders and eating from the garbage.
It’s very appropriate that this movie takes place in an abandoned suburb. The houses were built to accommodate nuclear middle-class families, away from the noise of the inner-city. But a weakening economy forced homeowners to abandon the neighborhood. The parents of the protagonists experienced growing up in post-war prosperity, yet weren’t able to provide the same opportunities to their children. Evan reads a passage out of his mother’s diary of when she was moving into her new home, pregnant, with a loving husband with a good-paying job. Fast-forward seventeen years, and she’s working a full-time job, drinking heavily, and can’t stand to look at her own son because he looks too much like her ex-husband. She later proves to be unable to provide for both her children when she’s jailed for drunk driving.
Some of the punks left home due to their parents disapproving of their newfound lifestyle. Flea (who, at the time, was playing bass for Fear) plays Razzle, the Pig-Pen of the group– covered in dirt, dressed in ripped clothes, his pet rat constantly on his shoulder. He tells a story about how his old man knocked him to the floor and held him down while his mother cut his clothes off with scissors and burned them in front of him.
Sheila (Jennifer Clay) has probably endured the worst from her parents. Her father molested and beat her for years, and she has the scars to prove it. She carries a lot of trauma with her, eventually driving her to commit suicide. When her friends attend her funeral, her father has the nerve to ask them to leave, at which point he is violently confronted by Sheila’s mourning lover Joe (Wade Walston, who went on to play bass for U.S. Bombs).
But not all the punks are necessarily running from homelife nightmares. One aspect of the film that hasn’t aged well is Joe’s relationship with his dad. At the start of the movie, Joe is living in luxurious mansion, yet is repulsed by his dad’s homosexuality and his new partner. Joe treats it like a betrayal, as if his dad ruined his chance of having a normal family. His dad has become indifferent to whether Joe stays or goes, since he’s attempted to move out several times before. Jack, on the other hand, is embarrassed that his step-father is a cop, as if his connection to an authority figure shatters his punk rock credibility. But when we meet Officer Rennard (Don Allen), he’s compassionate and patient, hardly the fascist Jack makes him out to be. And Rennard makes it clear to Jack that his mother misses him, and that he can come back home whenever he’s ready, free of judgment.
“Panhandling and stealing food couldn’t have sustained the punks forever. Eventually, some of them would have to go back home, while others would have to join the workforce. “
What Rennard fails to understand is not everyone is as privileged as Jack. He tries to warn the punks when the Citizens Against Crime target T.R. House, telling them they need to lay low and go back to their parents’. But a lot of them don’t have homes to go back to. He asks if they had any other ambitions, like going to college, having a career or starting a family. It shows a generational divide, between the baby boomers (or silent generation) parents, who were able to afford higher education and a house, and their disaffected Gen X children, who have sworn off a cookie-cutter life.
If it wasn’t for outside factors threatening its livelihood, who knows how long T.R. House could have survived. Panhandling and stealing food couldn’t have sustained the punks forever. Eventually, some of them would have to go back home, while others would have to join the workforce. Would they want to marry and have kids of their own? Would they repeat the mistakes of their parents and continue the cycle of broken homes? Or would they be more understanding of their children?
During all this chaos, the punks attend a handful of local shows featuring some memorable punk bands (though the shows are usually cut short due to outbreaks of violence). We see performances from Vandals, a goth rock incarnation of T.S.O.L., and D.I. playing their suicide ballad “Richard Hung Himself.”
Around this time of year, it’s important to remember that some people don’t have a loving relationship with their family. Spending the holidays with relatives could be dreadful for them, or in some cases, they simply don’t have anyone to visit. Like the T.R. punks, you can be supportive of each other and form a new family of caring friends with common interests.
For next month, I’ll be rewatching one of my favorite movies, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, and I’ll be talking about what he got right in his representation of white power skinhead gangs (to be honest, I’m not looking forward to what I find in my research, I’m already scared of racist militarized groups as it is).