The ear­ly ‘80s were the last great era of exploita­tion film­mak­ing, mark­ing the last time that inde­pen­dent film­mak­ers could still get into the­aters with a film about a time­ly top­ic and com­pete with the major stu­dios. One of the best, most icon­ic b-movies to emerge from this era was Class Of 1984, a tough, com­pelling pic­ture that remade the juve­nile del­i­quent gen­re for the post-punk 1980’s. It main­tains a healthy cult fol­low­ing thanks to its com­bi­na­tion of savvy film­mak­ing and a the­me of ris­ing school vio­lence that remains all-too-cur­rent.

Class84-posThe plot of Class Of 1984 sug­gests a new wave remake of The Blackboard Jungle with the stakes updat­ed to R-rat­ed lev­els. The hero is new school­teacher Andy Norris (Perry King), who dis­cov­ers the high school he’s work­ing at is over­run with crime and drug use. This vice is orches­trat­ed by Stegman (Vincent Van Patten), a smart but psy­chotic teen who leads the school’s dom­i­nant gang. Norris does his best to pro­tect the oth­er stu­dents from Stegman but his resource­ful foe keeps the upping the ante and claim­ing casu­alties. When things get too per­son­al, Norris has to have a show­down with the gang on Stegman’s vicious terms.

The best exploita­tion movies allow the view­er to have their cake and eat it too by offer­ing plen­ty of sleaze and excite­ment while also giv­ing the view­er a com­pelling sto­ry and some­times a lit­tle food for thought. Class Of 1984 pulls off this bal­anc­ing act with con­fi­dence, exhibit­ing smarts on mul­ti­ple lev­elClass84-01s as it deliv­ers the goods.

The clev­er script gives us like­able heroes, a vil­lain who has a few com­plex char­ac­ter shad­ings to give his evil deeds some dimen­sion and — best of all — is laced with quotable, often dark­ly humor­ous dia­logue that makes the ver­bal con­fronta­tions as enter­tain­ing as the phys­i­cal ones (Schlockmania’s favorite quote: “Life is pain. Pain is every­thing.”).

The expect­ed fights and vio­lent revenge finale are all set up with manip­u­la­tive skill but the screen­writ­ers, includ­ing a young Tom Holland, add some unex­pect­ed­ly inspired touch­es: the best might be a moment where teacher TerrClass84-02y Corrigan (the great Roddy McDowell) holds Stegman and his gang hostage dur­ing class, forc­ing them to answer sci­ence ques­tions at gun­point. Beneath it all, the film makes some salient points about the inabil­i­ty of schools and inat­ten­tive par­ents to deal with vio­lence-inclined prob­lem chil­dren: sad­ly, this the­me has not aged a day since the film’s orig­i­nal release.

Class Of 1984 is also blessed with A-lev­el per­for­mances from a cast who plays the mate­ri­al straight. King brings both charm and dra­mat­ic chops to his role, sell­ing the audi­ence on the sin­cer­i­ty of his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion nice­ly. Van Patten is deli­cious­ly evil, cre­at­ing a por­trait of extreme­ly resource­ful psy­chopath who can do any­thing from child­ish plead­ing to vio­lent threats to get his way. McDowell offers ace sup­port as Norris’ tragic/sarcastic teacher pClass84-03al and the gang mem­bers are all vivid, par­tic­u­lar­ly Lisa Langlois as the glee­ful­ly nasty female of the group and Stefan Arngrim as the res­i­dent drug expert with a dry wit. Children of the ‘80s will also be amused to see a young Michael J. Fox as a stu­dent try­ing to dodge Stegman’s wrath.

That said, the key to the suc­cess of Class Of 1984 is the slick yet hard-hit­ting direc­tion from b-movie vet Mark L. Lester. He gives the larg­er-than-life sto­ry­line a punk­ish, comic-book look full of vivid col­ors and effec­tive use of trashy sur­round­ings, with cin­e­matog­ra­pher Albert J. Dunk’s lens­ing mak­ing it look like The Warriors. Lester also adds dra­mat­ic ten­sion with a great Lalo Schifrin score that mix­es per­cus­sive orches­tra­tions with new-wave syn­th drones (not to men­tion the mem­o­rable Alice Cooper the­me song).Class84-04

Most impor­tant­ly, Lester bal­ances the film’s well-craft­ed dra­mat­ic con­tent with an array of excit­ing set­pieces that keep the film’s pace ener­gized, like the afore­men­tioned teach­ing-with-a-gun sequence, a gang rum­ble and a fiery car stunt. However, his finest achieve­ment in this regard is the school-set show­down finale: crit­ic Roger Ebert once described the finale as a cross between The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. It lives up to this wild descrip­tion, offer­ing a mix­ture of effec­tive­ly chore­o­graphed fights and cre­ative deaths that use the school set­ting to malev­o­lent effect.

In short, Class Of 1984 is required view­ing for any cult movie buff into clas­sic exploita­tion cin­e­ma. Like it’s vil­lain, it is as smart as it is bru­tal — and that’s what makes it an allur­ing­ly dan­ger­ous piece of cin­e­ma.