“When does a dream become a nightmare?” sings Alice Cooper over the opening titles to Class of 1984. As we’re introduced to the film’s setting of Lincoln High School over images of kids beating each other up, Cooper growls out a chorus of “I am the future,” and the message is clear. If these punk kids are the future, we’re all doomed.
That Lalo Schifrin’s score constantly refers back to “We Are The Future” is no accident. Evoking George Orwell through the lens of a Boomer generation fearing their kids, Class of 1984 is the dark sibling of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Both take place in a school where punk kids run rampant over the staff. But unlike Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Class of 1984 is not told from the students’ point of view, nor is it a gleeful celebration of youthful energy. Instead, it’s a horror movie for teachers.
These kids are far from goofy pranksters; they’re a bona fide crime ring, operating an (all-underage!) drugs and prostitution racket out of the school bathrooms and a nearby club. Early on, they beat up a rival gang, who I have to assume were cast black so that a 1980s audience would be even more intimidated. When they want to get back at teachers, they don’t hijack the school PA system to play music, they murder their lab animals. I feel confident that you’ve never seen students worse than these.
The inmates may be running the asylum, but they’re damned watchable inmates. Stegman (Tim van Patten) - whose first line is “shut your hole, you little dyke!” - is the quietly psychotic leader of the gang, quite willing to smash his own face against a mirror just to frame a teacher for it. Patsy, played by a delightfully unhinged Lisa Langlois, is his Harley Quinn; Drugstore (Stefan Arngrim) his dealer; Barnyard (Keith Knight) his enforcer. They’re no caricatures, either. Their brand of anarchy feels violent, dirty, and real, made even scarier by occasional hints at their underlying humanity. Only band conductor Erin Noble and a young, pudgy-faced Michael J. Fox represent the upstanding portion of the student body.
It’s important that the film builds up these kids as pure villainy, because if we didn’t side with the teachers on this, the film would completely fall apart. Into the Lincoln High hellhole comes Andrew Norris (Perry King), a naive Nebraska music teacher looking to make a difference. Norris joins the school with naive expectations of the students. He expects them to be human, when the film takes every opportunity to paint them as monsters. “Teaching is something you do in spite of everything else,” he’s told, and he soon learns the truth of that statement.
Over the course of the film, Norris’s can-do attitude falls closer and closer to Corrigan’s nihilism - and even Stegman’s petty vengeance. In a wonderful up-ending of the traditional “teacher wins over the kids” narrative, Norris gets pushed closer and closer to the brink of madness. Class of 1984 is unashamedly right-wing in its attitude towards teen crime. There’s a scene where Norris almost beats Stegman in the bathroom, and his restraint is portrayed as weakness. Tormented by the gang and frustrated by the law’s inability to do justice, he grows skeptical of the “bullshit that holds it all together,” edging towards vigilantism.
Roddy McDowall, who takes his authoritative, effete manner to a furious, hard-drinking extreme as science teacher Mr. Corrigan, goes further, in an incredible scene in which he submits his class to a pop quiz at gunpoint. Corrigan goes off the rails, and it’s not long before Norris does the same. You’d think torching Norris’ car, butchering Corrigan's lab animals, and framing him for assault would be enough for Stegman and his gang, but they don’t stop there. They of course go after Norris’ pregnant wife, who like Corrigan’s rabbits apparently exists in the film for this sole purpose. It’s an ugly scene, staged like an exploitation version of A Clockwork Orange, and it sets off a jaw-dropping third act.
The third act of Class of 1984 is where the story turns from Dangerous Minds into a kind of Death Wish for the education industry, as Norris exacts his revenge on Stegman and his gang. It all climaxes in a Die Hard-esque sequence in which Norris sneaks around the school at night, offing his problem students one by one in escalatingly horrifying ways. Turns out schools are full of dangerous equipment - steer clear of the wood shop.
I was lucky enough to attend a screening at which director Mark L. Lester (who also directed Roller Boogie, Firestarter, and Commando!) told a production story that sums up the film’s whole attitude. The climax sees Stegman stuck in the rafters above the school orchestra as it reaches the climax of the 1812 Overture. Norris tries to help him up to the roof, but Stegman lashes out, falling backwards and unintentionally hanging himself on the auditorium’s fly ropes. Originally, this played as an accident, and audience response was muted. So Lester and King took a quick shot of Norris recoiling from Stegman’s attack before punching back, changing the entire context of the death.
And you know what? It totally works. Norris’ final victory over Stegman is one of the great stand-up-and-punch-the-air moments of cinema. The closing title card says Norris couldn’t be convicted because there were no witnesses; the audience with which I saw the film roared with approval. That’s where the film gets to from its opening claim that “fortunately, very few schools are like Lincoln High...yet.”
In one respect, Class of 1984 was surprisingly prophetic. Norris is shocked to see metal detectors at the doors of the school upon his arrival. While it’s presented as an unthinkable practice in the film, a couple decades later, it would become standard in some areas thanks to school shootings. Similarly, there’s a real debate now about whether teachers should carry guns - that could have been considered satire at the time of the film’s 1982 release.
Class of 1984 is AAA+++ exploitation: violent, grotesque, morally debased, and completely reactionary - and perfectly crafted to deliver its grimy dystopia like a punch to the throat. In context, it’s morally repugnant, but it’s so damned entertaining (even amusing in how extreme it paints its villains) that it’s hard to fault for it. And you never know: maybe those kids were the future after all.