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July 27, 2022

Class of 1999: The 1980s In A Nasty, But Thoroughly Entertaining, Little Nutshell

Est. Reading: 6 minutes

One day your children will turn to you and ask what the 1980s were like, and you won't know how to answer because you won't be as old and fat as I am, but do not lose hope, you can sit them down and let them watch Class of 1999, or just upload MP4 into their iBrain. The film doesn’t so much depict what the 80s were like, it’s more of an insane fever dream of what America was afraid of. 

The film has no relationship to reality, but more than that it seems to be written by someone who had never actually met a human. The script not only lacks any understanding of how humans think but of how human bodies work. The kids in the film are beaten, smashed in car accidents, made to cough up blood, and burned repeatedly by countless fiery explosions, but in the next scene, there is no evidence of any physical trauma of any kind.

There is also a fundamental misunderstanding of physics. If a speeding car smashes into the back tire of a speeding dirt bike in what the police call a “pit maneuver,” the bike isn’t going to just keep zooming along. If a kid grabs an assault rifle and shoots someone with a generous hail of bullets, the smattering of holes in the victim's sweater will not magically heal by the next scene. Physics and anatomy aside, it’s the depiction of human behavior that is the most bizarre. 

Class of 1999 seems to be operating in a world where psychology doesn’t exist. People are either good or bad and are motivated solely by short-sighted self-interest. I suppose it’s not a bad summation of 1980s ideology inspired by Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand, but unlike those two, real people are more than cartoons. The characters in Class of 1999 are like chess pieces that have to perform their function regardless of whether it makes sense. If the heroine is not supposed to understand what is happening even though it is happening right in front of her face, then so be it. 

The premise of the film is that high schoolers of the future are so out of control, it has become impossible to teach them. The schools are nightmarish wastelands of burning cars and gang wars. Plenty of 80s films begin with some kind of apocalyptic vision, I think that’s when that whole trope began, but Class of 1999 tries to blend this premise with a little Valley Girl romance. However, rom-com and post-apocalyptic punks don’t mix well. Picture Mel Gibson from Mad Max and Molly Ringwald from any John Hughes movie in a cage match.

The school in the film is full of punk rockers who cover themselves in leather, chains, and hairspray, but they exist alongside prissy fashion girls who cover themselves in Esprit, Gloria Vanderbilt, and hairspray. It makes for a strangely incongruous classroom where the kids from 90210 share desks with the kids from … what I think is supposed to be South Central LA? There are some weird references to the gang members being Hispanic. It wouldn’t be the 80s without a little racist subtext. 

In a way, the film’s complete disregard for human behavior and emotion ends up making everyone look profoundly resilient. Even with greedy, greasy drug attics shooting Uzis and AK-47s in the hallway students still manage to get to their classes and do their homework. No one has a nervous breakdown; they just beat each other bloody and then go home for a beer with their parents. 

It’s a vision of a callous, jaded youth that have no regard or respect for society. Again, it’s not so much a portrait of what life was like in the 80s, but what the pearl-clutching old ladies and coke-sniffing CEOs of the 1980s thought life was like. “Kids today with their loud music and grenade launchers!”

In Class of 1999, the principal, played by Malcolm McDowell, hires a corporate, evil guy played by Stacy Keach. Speaking of cocaine sniffing, Stacy was having some problems with it during filming. On-screen, he seems to oscillate between being lost in a sleepy daze or being lost in a sleepy daze whilst grinding his teeth.

His character sports a nasty cross between a rat tail and a mullet. I apologize for the illustrations below. Cocaine and mullets what, could be more 80s?

It wouldn’t be an 80s film without some anti-corporate, government conspiracy messaging. Stacy plays a profiteer and entrepreneur who has been secretly working for the United States Department of Defense. Apparently, unbeknownst to anyone, the military developed androids to use in battle, but for some reason abandoned the project. Stacy, ever the capitalist, fashioned the decommissioned battle-droids into teacher-bots capable of dispensing lessons in both algebra and/or discipline. 

So we have the anti-corporate counter-culture trope as seen in other 80s films like Society (1989), The Stuff (1985), Parents (1989), and Videodrome (1983) and then we add the robots for the ever-important technophobia trope as seen in movies like Robocop (1987), Chopping Mall (1986), WarGames (1983), and The Terminator (1984). We even get the classic Terminator robot vision with crosshairs and readouts that says stuff like “EDUCATE” and “EXTERMINATE.” 

I have to say. as jumbled and ridiculous as the whole movie is, the final climax is a hoot. The robo-teachers start ripping off their skin to reveal all sorts of wacky weapons which inflict a very colorful variety of super gory and very entertaining deaths. Accompanying the violence is the obligatory multitude of 80s one-liners, like when our hero blows up his English teacher and mutters “I guess I blew that course.” This is the era that gave us “Hasta la vista, baby.” and “Yippee-ki-yay, Motherfucker.”

The exploding English teacher is a foxy teacher-bot played by the one and only Pam Grier. Before she dies she gets to rip open her famous chest to reveal her mechanical innards dripping with green goo.

To round out the 1980s time capsule, it seems that Eden Soy was a major contributor to the production, as evidenced by the product placement. The 80s were when soybeans conquered America. It was the era of Tofutti, the miracle soft-serve ice cream that suddenly appeared on every corner like a Starbucks cafe, or to be more time appropriate, like a Benneton Sweater store.

It’s not easy to look like a tough punk while sipping soy milk out of a juice box. Frankly, the actor doesn’t pull it off, but Stacy Keach manages to look pretty fucking creepy while sipping his faux milk in the semi-darkness. He’s pretty creepy through the whole film especially when eating his banana and watching his robots murder all the students.

There are a few homoerotic sub-currents that pop up here and there. One of the best scenes in the film is when the history robot slings a naughty punker over his knee and gives him a good spanking.

There is so much packed into this film. Nine Inch Nails’ Head Like A Hole is in there, the one set of fake eyelashes from A Clockwork Orange is in there, and George Jetson is mentioned for some reason. There is even a sign from John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) that reads “OBEY,” but best of all is the Scooby Doo ending where Stacy Keach explains that it all would have worked if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. 

Class of 1999 is actually the middle of film in a trilogy. Class of 1984 was made in 1982. Class of 1999 was made in 1990 and the Class of 1999 II: The Substitute was made in 1994. I hope that’s all clear. The man responsible for the entire mess is Mark L. Lester. He’s made a lot of crap, but some of it is famous crap, like Commando (1985) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Firestarter (1984) with Drew Barrymore.

Class of 1999 is more than a “so bad it’s good film,” it is an unabashed indulgence in blood, guts, bullets, and fire with a budget big enough to deliver some genuine gruesome goodness. It’s certainly a stupid film, but it has to be in order to properly deliver the delirium. If you want to experience the joy of watching a high school punk get his head drilled in by a blood-soaked cyborg teacher in a tight mini-skirt, you can’t also expect a carefully considered mise en scène. 

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