Punk to me has always been epitomized by Dead Kennedys. For educational purposes, I love a whole slew of punk bands, from Negative Approach to Dead Boys to D.I. to The Ramones (the only one of those listed here I ever got to see live, though sadly without Dee Dee, but it was still outstanding), and back again. Anyway, DK was unique in punk. There was strong musicianship involved in their song writing (and no, that doesn’t mean that I think that other punk bands are musically talentless). Jello Biafra’s vibrato vocals were singular (and a blast to imitate to this day). Their subjects ranged from political (California Über Alles) to personal (Dead End) to silly (Dog Bite), and they tackled them all with equal parts wit, anger, and raw power. As of this writing, no punk band has made a bigger impression on me than these guys (and frankly, I don’t see that happening ever if current acts are any indication), and I think their place in the punk pantheon is certainly well-deserved. So, why don’t any of the punks in Stanley Lewis’ Punk Vacation listen to them (music rights notwithstanding), huh? One of the mysteries of the ages, that one.
Billy, a motorcycle-riding punk who really can’t stand cola-flavored soda but loves orange, gets run off from Mr. Kemper’s store at the end of a shotgun, but he comes back with his punk (in the Adam Ant vein) gang, who proceed to kill the old man and rape his youngest daughter, Sally (Karen Renee). While responding to the store’s alarm, fairly useless cop Steve (Stephen Fiachi) accidentally nails Billy with his cruiser while the rest of the gang flee. Enraged, older daughter Lisa (Sandra Bogan) vows vengeance. It’s funny, because, back in the day, I and some friends of mine wanted to shoot a movie called Rednecks Versus Punks that was essentially the plot of this film (which, I hasten to add, we had never seen), just without the seriousness, rape, and budget, but with more beer. We got exactly one shot done.
There is a very clear theme about America illustrated within the film’s first moments. We get a montage of a sunrise over a forest, the American and California flags, railroad tracks heading off into the distance, a church, and running water. Alongside the images that are self-explanatory, the others combine with them to paint an idyllic, idealized version of small town America (how many beer commercials have we seen with sunrises/sunsets over lush foliage and crystal clear streams [which obviously flow straight into a brewery’s water taps]). This is the American Dream visualized. It is then shattered by the sounds of gunfire as Steve practices his shooting on some empty bottles (the police don’t have a range for this?), and this disruption is the foreshadowing of what’s coming down the pike for this town. Naturally, the punks are antithetical to everything that Steve and his friends and colleagues hold dear. And yet, the filmmakers are just as critical of the establishment in the town as they are of the villainous punks. This is exemplified by Sheriff Virgil (Louis Waldon), a loud, idiotic, cigar-chomping ultra-patriot. He calls the punks “fascist communist pinkos” (as I’m sure he would term any person or group of people different from himself). He wrongly declares (a la Animal House’s Bluto), “Did Patton call in the state troopers when he took Iwo Jima?!” When he thinks of America, he salutes, and military march music pours in on the soundtrack. Later, he will lead a pack of rednecks (affectionately referred to as “The Gun Club”) in a tonally incongruous (and there are tonal incongruities aplenty in Punk Vacation) attack on the punks. People like Steve (and by extension Lisa) are in between the two groups, more or less shunned by the two groups (Steve is ridiculed and browbeaten by his boss, and Lisa is considered little more than a nuisance), and so are alone in a world gone mad around them. The realization of the film (to me, anyway) is that the American Dream doesn’t exist as anything other than a romanticized concept. Rebelling against it is futile, but playing along by its rules is equally insane. And while this stance does finally give some closure to the story, I found it less than satisfying. Further, I felt that this perspective was cowardly on the part of the filmmakers. To imply that doing nothing and walking away is better than taking a stand one way or the other may seem like an enlightened viewpoint (and, hey, maybe it is for all I know), particularly in light of the film’s dim view of its world and characters, but it feels like the exact opposite. It feels like a lazy cop out, and it took away from my enjoyment of this movie.
The film can be looked at as a Western in some respects, as well. A gang of rowdy outlaws rides into town and interrupts the normal lives of its inhabitants. A posse (and they do use that word in this film) is formed to take care of the problem, but of course, they can’t (they are even confounded by a net for far longer than they really should have been). The outlaws hide out at the old ranch on the town’s outskirts, waiting to bust their pal out of jail. A lawman, his trusty deputy pal (Don, played by Don Martin), and his loyal woman are the only ones who can run the bad guys out of town. Further, the punks also refer to themselves as Indians (one of them even says he likes “playing Indians”), and their leader Ramrod (Roxanne Rogers) claims to be their shepherd (I was a bit surprised she didn’t call herself their chief). She even has theme music which emphasizes Native American flute. Nonetheless, the Western influences are only decorations, like so much else in the film is. There’s no intelligible point, because Lewis and company do everything in halves. They don’t go far enough in any one direction to make any kind of cogent point, and the schizophrenic tone robs their non-finale of any impact. From what is a solid set up for a small revenge tale, the film simply plods along and then peters out, as if the filmmakers either simply lost interest in where they were heading, or they wanted to cram so many disparate facets into one film that none of them fully gels. Punk Vacation disappoints more than it gratifies. It’s more mundanely bad than offensively bad, but I know I’m not in a terrible hurry to rewatch it, whether I’m on vacation, taking the skinheads bowling, or just lying on the couch.
MVT: There is an attempt to flesh out the punk characters to some small degree, so they’re not strictly one-dimensional. Simultaneously, I never bought that these people would actually hang out with each other if this is who they are. Maybe I’m just shallow.
Make or Break: The initial attack on the Kempers was interesting to me, particularly because of what happens to Sally. It’s not very often that you see very bad things happen to child characters, and I was a little bit taken aback, quite frankly. And then, almost all of this was forgotten and completely left dangling, so…