If you’re looking for a new cult classic to champion, search no further. Mark L. Lester’s Class of 1999 delivers all the action and off-the-wall weirdness you could want in a sci-fi exploitation flick.
The film opens and a narrator explains that America was taken over by youth gangs in the early 90s. By 1999, major cities are in total chaos and decay. The school systems are unable to properly function amidst all the violence between gangs of students. Kennedy High school in Seattle, Washington is smack in the middle of a “free fire zone”, areas so violent that frightened police avoid them altogether.
The story follows Cody (Bradley Gregg), a former Blackhearts gang member fresh out of prison. On his first day back at school (after successfully avoiding a rival gang along the way), he meets a new student, Christie (Traci Lind), and the two hit it off. Christie’s father is the new principal, Mr. Langford (Malcolm McDowell). Unbeknownst to Christie, Cody, and the rest of the student body, Mr. Langford has agreed to try a new government program which places android teachers in classrooms. These androids, as part of a military experiment, carry out corporal punishment to deter gang activity and violence at school. However, when punishment goes way too far, the students begin to realize that these new teachers must be stopped at any cost. It’s up to Cody to unite the students to take down the government bots… or else.
Class of 1999 sounds like it might be super campy and so-bad-it’s-good, but the film is executed surprisingly well. The effects look (mostly) fantastic, especially considering the limitations of available methods at the time. Seemingly minute details give the cyborgs a little extra charm, such as their green blood or their target vision. At times, the androids attempt to be too much like Terminator than the budget could possibly allow, and it does show. Overall, however, there is a lot of commendable animatronics work done here, as well as some awesome gags that are pulled off impressively.
Additionally, the set design is excellent. The crew was able to make Seattle look terrifying, grungy, and dystopian. The city is nearly unrecognizable, depicted as a decrepit, hellish landscape. The houses are falling apart, there is part of a crashed airplane in the middle of a road. All of the cars and buses are covered in Mad Max-style armor. The gangs of teenagers all dress in what can only be described as post-punk, cyber-goth clothing. Most have colorful mohawks and wear a lot of leather. Angel (Joshua John Miller), Cody’s beloved brother, wears a ragged drum major’s jacket and has a small patch of pink dye in his unkempt hair while Cody himself is clad in skintight black jeans, a vertically striped shirt, and a crop top denim jacket. Lester’s version of fashion in the future is much cooler than the fashion of actual 1999.
Also worth noting is how seriously all the actors take their roles. Pam Grier and John P. Ryan as two of the teachers are stand-outs. Both give their performances as much nuance and attention that they would a more expensive production. Another stand-out performance is that of Joshua Miller as Angel. Although not onscreen for very long, Miller is able to portray his character’s desperation to fit in (or perhaps misguidedly protect his brother from gang violence) with the older students around him with earnestness.
While it might be easy to dismiss this premise as silly, it’s odd watching this film through a modern lens. Despite knowing Class of 1999 is poking fun at fears that children were becoming out of control back in the late 80s, it’s somewhat eerie how close to successfully predicting the future the film actually is. While America is not overrun with post-punk gangs of teenagers, there certainly is a staggering amount of violence in schools. In fact, it seems that Class of 1999 would not be allowed to film on an actual school campus today because there are just too many guns and other weapons in the movie. Relatedly, the film’s Kennedy High School has several military-style armed police officers roaming the hallways and guarding the doors, patrolling and ready to take on any students that step out of line. In real life, schools have also responded to increased gun violence by implementing the use of metal detectors and placing police officers throughout campuses.
Further, many of the students (and parents) in Class of 1999 are addicted to a drug called “edge”. It’s never made clear what this drug is exactly, but it’s obvious that it’s highly addictive and dangerous. Strangely enough, America may not have been going through a major drug crisis back in 1999, but the film depicts, with remarkable accuracy, the drug epidemic which is currently affecting the young people of the United States.
Class of 1999 is a rare instance where a low budget seems not to be a hindrance to the production value. This eccentric spectacle is irresistible and holds up very well nearly 30 years after its initial release. A blu-ray restoration can sometimes accentuate dated effects, cheap makeup, or sloppy mistakes that could more easily be hidden with a VHS format. Luckily, Class of 1999 manages to look amazing with its updated format while still maintaining a grittiness we all love in exploitation films. Class of 1999 is a fun, fast-paced, outlandish, punk rock good time that is certainly worth a revisit.
Class of 1999 is now on Blu-ray.