There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The thirty-second entry into this unbroken backlog is Mark L. Lester’s ultraviolent, futuristic companion piece to his own exploitation classic, Class of 1999…
Class of 1984 opens with Alice Cooper howling “I Am the Future”, immediately after a title card informs us about the thousands of incidents of student on teacher violence that occur in America each year. Mark L. Lester’s ’82 exploitation all-timer is a call to arms in the crudest sense – warning those who buy a ticket that their schools are rapidly being overrun by miscreants with pink hair who listen to punk and deal drugs. They’ll cut you quicker than they’ll kiss your daughter, and if we don’t stand up to them soon, there will be no educational system in the US to speak of. All that will remain are gladiator academies, where the weak better not show up to class, and tutors are about as useful as tits on a bull.
With this context in mind, Lester’s Class of 1999 (’90) is a case of a director deciding to fulfill the prophecy he unveiled in his previous work. Only with 1999, Lester ups the ante via a bag of action movie tricks he picked up during the near decade in-between his two Class pictures. Where 1984 was a natural extension of the type of lo-fi drive-in fare the workman had been crafting since Truck Stop Women (’74), 1999 updates his style for the post '80s muscle-head action genre Lester helped usher in by delivering the Arnold Schwarzenegger body count classic Commando (’85). To wit, 1984 may have climaxed with rooftop fisticuffs between an abused teacher (Perry King) and a snarling gang leader (Timothy Van Patten), but that shit just wasn’t going to entertain this new generation of video store rats. Instead, we’re gifted cyborg teachers (played by Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick and John P. Ryan) firing missiles at the misbehaving throng, who snort angel dust and drive dirt bikes through plate glass windows. It’s all-out war, and the viewing audience is better off because of this excess.
Where Class of 1984 is firmly rooted in the post-Corman aesthetic of American exploitation – cherry-picking a single element (school violence) and building a sensationalized sex and violence narrative around it – 1999 is analogous to the Italian or Turkish tradition of borrowing from many popular sources and cobbling them into a unique heap of digestible nonsense. In this case, Escape From New York (’81) and The Terminator (’84) are the major touchstones, Lester’s re-visitation of juvenile brutality soulfully linked to Enzo Castellari’s 1999: The Bronx Warriors (’82) or The New Barbarians (’83). It seems Peter Stegman and his crew won (at least in a spiritual sense), as gang violence has overwhelmed the United States’ secondary schools. “Free Fire Zones” have been established around major problem establishments, and police do not enter out of fear for their safety. Seattle’s Kennedy High School is one of the worst of the worst in America, and like all this country’s problems, it can only be cleansed via its purest ideal: capitalism.
Enter Dr. Bob Forrest (an albino, golden-mulleted, white-contact-lensed Stacy Keach), who has partnered with both Mega Tech and the Department of Education Defense (DED) to implement a pilot program at Kennedy High. The three aforementioned Hall Monitor Murder Machines are going to be installed in this facility, whether Principal Langford (Malcolm McDowell) likes it or not. These robotic entities were originally wired to function as war machines, but are now ready to dole out discipline to feuding clans who’ve completely overrun the school. As you can probably imagine, the “punishments” these cyborgs deem fit to keep their new digs running smoothly become an escalating series of bizarre abuse – ranging from robo-spanking (in a scene that needs to be seen to be believed) to forceful overdose for one of the school’s poison pushers. Once the kids suspect these Substitute Schwarzeneggers are on the fritz, they strike back with large caliber retribution. The ‘bots band together, recalling their original purpose as they dig in and unleash Hell upon their new enemies. To say a good amount of structural damage is done to the halls of Kennedy High is an understatement. This is Apocalypse 101, sending literal fireballs through these corridors of learning.
The cast of 1999 is a collection of faces that’ll be familiar for die hard horror and exploitation heads. Bradley Gregg is quite a distance away from playing Eyeball Chambers in Stand By Me (’86) or Philip the sleepwalking “marionette” in Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (’87). His freshly released leader, Cody Culp, has a bootleg Corey Haim charisma about him, wooing Langford’s daughter (Traci Lind) and keeping putty-faced bro Angel (former Near Dark tyke Josh Miller) in line. Screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner (Prison) takes a page from the yellow splatterpunk pages made popular by John Skipp (who did an uncredited re-write on the script), injecting a sizable quantity of interior existence not usually reserved for this sort of B-Movie fare. None of these performers are doing Shakespeare (or even Shakespeare in the Park), but they give us unlikely anti-heroes to root for, as Lester flips the narrative and makes the teachers the baddies in this far-out firefight.
The final reel of Lester’s cyberpunk High Noon reaches levels of insanity that were only glimpsed during Commando. Forrest’s battle droids tear the flesh from their forms, revealing brain-drilling power tools that would make Lucio Fulci proud, and rotating mini-rockets that clear out classrooms in the blink of an eye. It’s a flurry of extreme hyper-violence that becomes downright cartoonish, as limbs are severed and the robots take maniacal glee in their deadly disciplinary work. Lester’s competency as an action director is at an all-time high, as he delivers clearly choreographed and cut bursts of bulldozing mayhem. Cinematographer Mark Irwin (The Fly, Scream) captures it all with a clean sense of style that defined the VHS havoc of the epoch. By the time one of the automatons is being brutally decapitated, we’re pumping our fists in the air, totally wrapped up in the cavalcade of carnage that’s been served up on a tarnished platter.
One of the key components to being a great exploitation director is recognizing exactly what kind of movie you’re making, who it’s for, and what that audience expects out of the ninety minutes you’ve got their attention in that dark, smelly dive theater. Mark Lester excels in this regard, and Class of 1999 is his trash marvel. There are no pretensions of grandeur here, just a quick, aggressive eruption of wanton cruelty that’s aimed at entertaining the derelicts and perverts seated in those poorly upholstered auditorium chairs. Easily one of the best examples of the Euro-explo mentality crossing over to America and motivating the creation of savage gold, Lester’s second cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked armed hormones is a rip-off cinema classic, begging for a new generation of sleaze aficionados to champion its degenerate charms.
Class of 1999 is currently available to stream on Amazon.