Running with the dogs in ‘Suburbia’ (1983)

❉ An appreciation of Penelope Spheeris’ study of sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll in the ‘80s, by Brian J. Heistan.

Suburbia (1983) is the brainchild of Penelope Spheeris. Spheeris grew up with a troubled family relationship. Her father ran a carnival which made her family travel from town to town. Her only friends were gypsy kids. After her father died in a knife fight, Spheeris’ mother would remarry seven times to mostly abusive drunkards in trailers. The experience was traumatizing for Spheeris, but she sought escape through the punk rock scene. To her, it all made sense. Spheeris saw punk rock as the perfect genre of music to listen to when you are struggling in life.

Spheeris would go on to express her love of punk rock through films. Her first movie, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), was a documentary and is the most widely praised of her filmography. However, Spheeris had a hard time getting it into the theatres. Spheeris claims that the Chinese Theatre had scoffed at her, telling her that no one pays to get into the theatre to watch a documentary. Following this, Spheeris went out to make a punk rock-based film with a narrative, a plot, and characters. Through the help of producer Bert Dragin, Spheeris was able to get her film funded by B-movie producer Roger Corman, who saw it as another grindhouse joyride to make a buck from. Something like Corman’s own The Wild Angels (1966). However, Spheeris fought to make sure her movie got the message she wanted. As a result, Suburbia (1983) is an interesting combination of Spheeris’ study of real-life social outcasts and Corman’s usual sensational b-movie thrills.

The film begins with a runaway girl named Tina hitching a ride from a mother and her toddler son. After the car breaks down, the mother looks for a phone booth while Tina holds onto the toddler. Suddenly, a wild Rottweiler comes at the toddler, ripping him from Tina’s hands before mauling him to death. This is just an example of the kind of drive-in thrills Corman told Spheeris to add. Some may call this a bit extreme. Even Spheeris says she went too far. The scene is no doubt very effective and disturbing until re-watching it and seeing the dog maul what is clearly a toy store doll (Okay, who am I kidding? It’s still really disturbing) and while I cannot disagree with Spheeris’ opinion on this topic, I must admit I still kinda like this scene. It certainly isn’t boring. Forgive my morbid taste.

We then cut to Evan Johnson, a teenager struggling with his abusive alcoholic mother. Tired of her constant patronizing influence and behaviour, Evan finally decides it’s time to run away. While on his own, Evan stops at a punk rock nightclub, the real-life notorious Cuckoo’s Nest in Costa Mesa, California (Look it up!), where the audience is introduced to whom we will later identify as the T.R. gang. We will later come to sympathize with these characters soon enough, but there is one scene that I feel is worth criticism and that is the scene where one of the T.R. kids sexually molests a girl by stripping her clothes off. Soon, everyone joins in and begins throwing her clothes at her naked body. According to Spheeris, this was another request by Corman so that the film could have a bit of sexual content. Spheeris was not happy shooting this scene. While many of Corman’s thrills in this film are entertaining, I will say that I strongly dislike this scene. It is so absolutely sickening. I mean, what was the point?

The rest of the film improves when Evan meets Jack Diddley, the leader of T.R. We find out later that T.R. is a group of homeless punk outcasts, most of them running away from child abuse (Just like in case you’re wondering, T.R. stands for The Rejected). Jack very much steals the show. I like Jack. He’s always got something funny to say and carries a quintessential bad ass presence on screen. In many ways, Jack is the most relatable. I also like Razzle, played by a pre-fame Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Razzle is arguably the funniest of the group. He has a pet rat and is always doing something zany. My favourite scene is when he’s in a convenience store and he messes with the store clerk by dunking a blue slushie into a jar of eggs. After having dyed the eggs blue, Razzle tells the owner “Happy Easter, asshole!”

The portrayal of the punk scene is perfect here. Some notable highlights are when the kids go raid other people’s garages for food and even start fights. This is when Corman’s additions truly work. Not only are these scenes entertaining, but they also show us the struggle these homeless punks must face every day, such as when they need to feed themselves to survive. I also enjoy it when they just start shit with innocent suburbanites for no particular reason. I can’t help myself from getting a certain pleasure out of the mayhem they cause. It’s easy to identify with these punkers. We, the audience, understand the reason for the trouble they create is because they did not ask to be in this society. We understand they’re young and confused, as well as the fact that they feel threatened by the wretched suburbanites. They are simply lashing out of emotion. There’s a sense of irony too, showing how boring the “normal” suburban dream world is versus the wild excitement of the T.R. gang. This is meant to symbolize Spheeris’ real-life experiences of boredom moving in the suburbs after the many wild ventures she had excelled in when her mother was remarrying time and time again.

Another thing that makes the portrayal of punk rock in this film so good is that Spheeris hired actual punkers to play the parts in the film. She thought that actors would not understand the then-recent and society-shunned punk rock movement. Spheeris believed the only people suitable for the roles of punk rockers were actual punk rockers. None of these punk rockers had any acting experience and, well, they certainly aren’t De Niro. However, it’s still very believable, since these people are basically portraying themselves. Spheeris made a very interesting decision to recruit real-life punks for the film, even using actual abandoned areas for the hideout that they all live in. All this helps to make Suburbia (1983) feel more like a documentation of real life, while still managing to be a narrative film.

Overall, I’d say some of Corman’s elements may feel a little out of context, while in other cases, it adds entertainment to the film. Whatever the case, Suburbia (1983) is an important documentation of real culture. Its characters are endearing, and its action is always riveting. If you’re into guerrilla filmmaking, this one is a spot-on masterpiece.

❉ ‘Suburbia’ (1983) ‘Suburbia’ (1983) was released on Blu-ray by 101 Films in 2021 as part of their Black Label, RRP £16.99. Director: Penelope Spheeris. Screenplay: Penelope Spheeris. Starring: Bill Coyne, Chris Pedersen, Jennifer Clay, Timothy Eric O’Brien, Wade Walston, Mike B. (a.k.a. Flea). Running Time: 95 min. Cert 18.

❉ Brian J. Heistan is a 20-year-old film enthusiast and writer from Illinois. His favourite genres are horror, science fiction, westerns, war dramas, and crime films. Brian loves to share his passion for classic and cult movies.

Become a patron at Patreon!