There is something so delirious about punks (of the DIY-art-music-outsider variety, not the prison-wagon-train variety) being depicted in cinema. Some filmmakers got it close enough, like Penelope Spheeris with both Suburbia and the very-underrated Dudes coming immediately to mind. But for every Suburbia, there have been a LOT of interpretations of this initially diverse alternative culture that have been straight up from Mars. The way “punks” started popping up in movies and TV in the 80’s was akin to the whole juvenile delinquent craze in the 1950’s.
This trend was already starting to fade by 1990, but there was at least one more film to tackle this, creating a strange hybrid between The Wild One and your typical revenge flick with a splash of the great outdoors. The result? Punk Vacation. A title that instantly makes me think of Johnny Thunders’ “Sad Vacation,” the film begins in pastoral, small town California. Deputy Steve Reed (Stephen Fiachi) is target practicing with some old Pepsi cans when he gets a call to check an alarm at a nearby gas station. It ends up being a false one, but it gives Steve a chance to scoop on his old flame, Lisa (Sandra Bogan). Her little sister, Sally (Karen Renee), thinks it sweet, while their gruff dad glowers in the background.
While Steve gives Lisa a lift home, Sally notices a young man outside, wigging out and wailing on their already battered looking soda machine. Everyone has an anger trigger and for this particular freakazoid, Billy, it is the twin combo of no orange soda and having his change devoured. Unfortunately, Sally and Lisa’s dad is kind of a reactionary redneck and immediately greets the young man with a rifle. Seems a bit extreme and sure enough, Billy is a punk rocker and the rest of his friends, led by the fierce Ramrod (Roxanne Rogers), arrive for some revenge. After some friendly car windshield destruction via baseball bat, things get decidedly nasty. By the time Steve finally arrives, Dad is dead and Sally is near-catatonic. Everyone but Billy leaves the scene, with the latter getting hit by Steve’s police vehicle head on.
What emerges from there is Lisa wanting vengeance for her father and little sister, Steve and his fellow officer Don (Don Martin) trying to do the right thing despite their hugely incompetent co-workers and Ramrod and company plotting on how to get Billy out of the hospital. The culmination ends up being the “punks” versus the “rednecks,” including the uber-dumb Sheriff (played by former Warhol actor Louis Waldon?!?) and his crew of future Tea Party members, with Lisa and Steve separate from the two herds.
Punk Vacation is one fascinating film. On one hand, there are all these non-campy elements. The editing, of all things, is subtly creative and lends a serious tone to the proceedings. The whole brutalization of sweet Sally is certainly no fun to watch either. Then there’s the whole semi-nihilistic angle. The punks are all prepped up to be the villains, but then with the Sheriff, who is loud-mouthed and constantly ranting about “fascist communist pinkos” and his rogue gang of ball-scratching, gun club touting merry dumb asses, the lines become blurred. One punk takes the time to fasten his newly dead comrade’s metal studded wristband in the middle of a life & death chase. All of which is interesting since there is this whole earlier build-up of the punks identifying heavily with Native Americans, giving you this false illusion of some kind of metaphorical old West battle. Instead it ends up being a more anti-climatic rumble between the young, restless and ignorant and the middle-aged, inbred and idiotic. Not quite the epic moral battle, but really, isn’t more interesting that way?
On the other hand, there are some really goony things here. For starters, there is some of the more cherry dialogue, with my personal favorite being “I think he looked like Gomer Pyle’s Grandfather,” uttered by one of the punkettes regarding the man they killed the night before. Even better is that she utters this like it’s a positive thing. Speaking of the punks, holy hell, about 90% of these cats would be devoured at any hardcore punk show of your choosing. They range from looking like extras from the nightclub scenes in Purple Rain to college dudes scuzzing it up. The girls fare a little bit better with Ramrod and her French girlfriend looking very punk meets goth. That said, the other women are one article of clothing away from New Wave Hookers, so there you go. And for the record, what was it with so many movies and TV shows making “punks” look like some kind of New Wave/heavy metal mutant? It’s so strange, not to mention most punks are not going to kill your father and terrorize your sister. If they’re like some of my friends, your 12 pack of Natural Ice and copy of Black Flag’s Who’s Got the 10 ½? might be in danger, but your family will probably be fine.
The absolute best bit of weirdness is the premise itself. The idea of these street gang punks, complete with faux-hawks, leather and ripped fishnets, taking some time off from LA living to go fishing and camping a hundred miles away from the city, is definitely novel. It’s a literal punk vacation.
Vinegar Syndrome have done a fantastic job of taking this fairly obscure title, that had one VHS release, to my knowledge, on Raedon Video back in the day. The print looks very good and there are some nice extras on the DVD version, including some funny interviews with star/producer Steven Fusci and producer’s assistant/stuntman Steven Rowland, a gallery and Fusci’s earlier action film, Nomad Riders. Wisely, they also changed the artwork to something way more striking and less Gouda. (Anyone that has seen the Raedon Video cover, which looks like a Betsy Bitch cover-band from Hell, understands.)
Punk Vacation is an entertaining hybrid, capturing a moment in time where punks were depicted as the nastiest of JD’s, with lots of fuchsia eyeliner, hairspray and character names straight out of a Class of 1984 name generator.