Disaffected Teens Ride Again: Shout! Re-Releases Two Punk Favorites, 'Rock 'n' Roll High School' and 'Suburbia'

May 5, 2010

FOR MORE THAN 50 years, legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman has brought some of the silliest and also the scariest creepy-crawlies to the big screen, from the man-eating space-flower of “Little Shop of Horrors” to the murderous vegetation of “Humanoids From the Deep.” But “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “Suburbia” (the first two entries in Shout! Factory’s new series of DVD/Blu-Ray reissues) feature some of the most horrifying monsters ever to hit the drive-in: American teenagers.

Full of hokey jokes and silly setpieces, the former is a broad comedy in which teen rebellion — playing rock music! dancing! blowing up the school! — is as American as apple pie. It’s so laid-back, there’s barely even a plot, just P.J. Soles bopping through the halls like a pint-size Pan and the Ramones making their legendary appearance. Their acting may be wooden, but the group’s performances elevate “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” from a goofy cult fave to essential viewing for punk fans.

Yet, there’s no trace of any of punk cynicism or disaffection. The kids face all the eternal high school problems — a strict principal, the mysteries of the opposite sex — with such good-natured perseverance that the grown-ups don’t stand a chance. Its cornball anarchy is convivially subversive: It’s good, clean, American fun.

Made just four years later, the daringly bleak “Suburbia” shows a different youth culture — still anchored by rock music but much more jaded and violent. How dark is this movie about L.A. runaways with Mohawks and leather jackets? A Doberman fatally mauls a small child, then later a woman is nearly gang-raped at a punk show. That’s all in the first 20 minutes.

But Penelope Spheeris‘ film includes some finely studied details about scene politics and nicely understated acting by local teenaged non-actors. While hampered slightly by its melodramatic plot, the film’s verite grittiness benefits greatly from Corman’s notoriously stingy budget.

As different as they may be, both films exploit their young subjects but never condescend to them, which suggests that Corman not only knew his audience but trusted his artists.

Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photo courtesy Shout! Factory

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Arion Berger · May 5, 2010