Punk can mean a wide variety of things. It depends on the person using the word and the context in which it is being used. It can be used when talking about a low-level goon or what I like to refer to as 80’s thugs. You know what I’m talking about. The type of disposable baddie that Robocop would take out without hesitation. Most commonly punk refers to the aggressive form of rock music that gained steam in the 70’s thanks to bands like the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols. Punk rock ties directly into punk fashion and punk ideologies.
Punk is the voice of youth, the soundtrack to the revolution. It’s about challenging the status-quo and being anti-establishment. It’s the working class fighting for economic stability. Punk is about not doing what you’re told simply because it’s what you’re told. Punk is authentic.
Today I’m talking punk because this past Friday the brand new Blu-ray of D.O.A.: A Right of Passage hit shelves everywhere. This ground-breaking documentary on the origin of punk rock also marks the debut release from the MVD Rewind Collection. Needless to say, today is a pretty big day. The film, which you can order directly from MVD or from Amazon, is available on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and it comes loaded with special features.
To celebrate the release of this must-own punk origin story I’ve put together a list of 15 movies that fall under some of the punk umbrella that you should probably see. And when I say probably see I mean you should definitely see because failure to do so means you’re part of the establishment. And if you’re part of the establishment you’re part of the problem.
Death Race 2000 – 1975 – Dir. Paul Bartel
One could argue that everything Roger Corman has ever touched over the course of his illustrious career is punk in some way or another, which is kind of hilarious since Corman has always had the fashion style of the classic square. Death Race 2000 makes the cut for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that the fashion sense in the film’s dystopian future oozes punk aesthetic. The film also serves a bit of warning as to what happens if we don’t have that punk mindset to question those in charge. When those in power have absolute power they eventually pit us against one another for their own entertainment. In Death Race 2000 that’s a cross-county auto race where contestants are awarded points for running down pedestrians.
The Road Warrior – 1981 – Dir. George Miller
Post-apocalyptic movies are punk. I feel like that’s a pretty safe generalization to make and The Road Warrior is a shining example. Here we have a world that has come tumbling down because those with absolute power cannot be trusted. As a society, we always end up destroying ourselves and need punk to step in and save the day. Any Mad Max movie would fit on this list but I chose The Road Warrior because Vernon Wells’ Wez is as punk as they come.
Class of 1984 – 1982 – Dir. Mark L. Lester
Class of 1984 is the type of film that teaches us that we can learn a lot of from punk if we just pay attention. This is a film that utilizes the punk look to tell a story about violence in schools and this was released in 1982, long before school shootings were the norm. Mark L. Lester was presenting a social commentary on things to come based on the current state of the world back then and we failed to heed his warning. This film also features an insane performance from Roddy McDowall.
Liquid Sky – 1982 – Dir. Slava Tsukerman
Liquid Sky is a fascinating film for a number of reasons. It’s the story of a fashion model with dreams of making it big while overcoming abuse from her drug-addicted alter ego. There are also invisible aliens that kill people. This is one you have to see to understand but I can assure you that it’s a visual masterpiece of avant-garde filmmaking and it’s most definitely punk. The film has been a bit of a rarity and hard to see over the years which is sort of odd because it was quite successful for an indie film upon its initial release. Fortunately this past Black Friday the wonderful dudes over at Vinegar Syndrome release a Blu-ray of the film that by all accounts is gorgeous. Unfortunately, that release was limited has already sold out. Here’s to hoping they bring it back!
Suburbia – 1983 – Dir. Penelope Spheeris
Another Roger Corman production makes the list this time in the form of Suburbia, quite possibly the most punk movie of all to be included. This is a movie about a group of punks that don’t feel as if they belong in their suburban society. Treated as if they’re worthless, the band of misfits come together and create a family all their own. You can’t have a list of punk films without Suburbia.
Repo Man – 1984 – Dir. Alex Cox
Legendary television writer and noted McDonald’s critic Bill Oakley recently tweeted that Repo Man is his favorite movie of all time. If that is true, and I don’t know Oak to be a liar, that would make him punk AF because few movies are as punk as Repo Man. This directorial debut from Alex Cox is a punk/sci-fi hybrid that isn’t quite like anything else you’ve ever seen. It shows punks in a way rarely seen. The punks here are goofy and silly rather than all doom and gloom, despite the dark times in which they live.
Demons – 1985 – Dir. Lamberto Bava
Demons is one of my personal favorites and I consider it to be the all-time best party movie. Throw this on with a bunch of friends over and you’re guaranteed to have a great time. Lamberto Bava’s greatest achievement is a somewhat meta story about demons popping out of a movie screen to attack the unsuspecting audience members. It also features a trio of punks that get involved in the madness and has great new wave-punk soundtrack.
The Return of the Living Dead – 1985 – Dir. Dan O’Bannon
It’s easy to see why The Return of the Living Dead is punk — it’s a movie about a group of punks fighting zombies with an awesome 8o’s punk soundtrack. That’s merely what you find on the surface. Once you dig deeper you see a whole of punk sensibilities. There’s social commentary regarding the US government, a punk staple, and this is the movie that completely changed the way we view zombies. At this point, zombies had been well-established thanks to George Romero but O’Bannon decided to mix things up and introduce us to humorous zombies that literally call out for brains. The ROTD sequels would also fall under the punk category.
Dead End Drive-In – 1986 – Dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith
Ozploitation is basically another work for punk. Those Aussies are all about taking on the establishment and my favorite film to do so is Dead End Drive-In. In this BTS classic, the youth of Australia are round up and forced to live within the confines of a drive-in movie theater. While watching movies and eating junk food 24/7 may sound great this is really all just a ploy to willingly get people to live inside an internment camp. The movie was a commentary on the state of Vietnamese immigrants in Australia at the time, but unfortunately, it still applies to various scenarios throughout the world today.
Punk Vacation – 1990 – Dir. Stanley Lewis
Punk Vacation is actually more punksploitation than anything else. The punks in this film are the villains and punk stereotypes are definitely played up. It definitely lacks a bit of the authenticity of some of the other films on this list. With that said, it’s a great deal of fun and worth your time. It’s a nice slice of late 80’s-early 90’s low budget action and it shows how big punk’s influence was back then.
Wild At Heart – 1990 – Dir. David Lynch
In the history of cinema has there ever been a more punk rock actor than Nicolas Cage? I think not — you’ll see him again on this list — and his one teaming with David Lynch might be his most punk rock movie ever. Wild at Heart is one of those movies that is really hard to explain and the only one to truly make sense of it is to watch it and watch it and watch and watch it. It’s a love story between Cage and Laura Dern that puts a Lynchian twist on The Wizard of Oz. Also Willem Dafoe and Crispin Glover get weird.
Shopping – 1994 – Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson
Before he got into the world of Resident Evil and big budget popcorn pictures, director Paul W.S. Anderson made his debut with a low budget crime thriller about reckless teens in England. The two leads, played by a young Jude Law and a young Sadie Frost, get their kicks by stealing cars and crashing them through storefront. Then then further trash the stores. This is known as “shopping.” Stealing from the man? Punk.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – 2011 – Dir. Neveldine/Taylor
Ok so the Neveldine/Taylor take on Ghost Rider is probably more metal than anything, but metal and punk go hand in hand, right? Personally, I couldn’t imagine making this list without including Spirit of Vengeance. Superhero movies weren’t quite what they are now back in 2011 but they were beginning to put a stranglehold on the box office and Marvel had already showcased they had a formula that works. Ghost Rider went completely against the grain in an effort to do something different. The results are decidedly mixed with not everything working to perfection but the movie is loads of fund and Cage is absolutely unleashed from the opening credits to the final scene.
Green Room – 2015 – Dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Green Room is literally about a punk rock band forced to fight for their lives after witnessing a murder at a neo-Nazi bar. This movie is tense, gripping and far too relevant. It all speaks directly to liberal Portland’s dark, racist past. The punks always resist.
Get Out – 2017 – Dir. Jordan Peele
Is Get Out punk? I think so. In fact, it’s not all that different than Green Room and I’d recommend watching the two films back-to-back to get a nice 3-hour look at the sad state of America. Get Out may not appear punk on the surface — at least not when it comes to how most people perceive punk — but it most certainly shares the same ideologies as punk and challenges the establishment head-on.