If there were any doubt about our November Movie of the Month Swampchat’s assertion that the bizarre technofuture of Class of 1999 was born out of fear of escalating violence among Regan-era youths, you’d have to look no further than the original entry in Mark Lester’s Class of 19__” series. 1982’s Class of 1984 opens with the following warning: “Last year there were 280,000 incidents of violence by students against their teachers & classmates in our high schools. Unfortunately, this film is partially based on true events. Fortunately, very few schools are like Lincoln High . . . yet.” While Class of 1999 pushes the paranoid fear of bloodthirsty, sex-crazed youths to an absurd extreme crawling with cyborg teaching units & mind-melting future-drugs, Class of 1984 gives off a much more distinct feeling of believing its own bullshit. There’s an air of satire in the way Class of 1999 warns of future school systems having to function like high tech prisons in order to survive, while Class of 1984 plays much more like a grim warning of the moral cesspool our country is supposedly becoming as if it were originally conceived during an old curmudgeon’s drunken rant. In their depictions of a crime-ridden future gone to shit, Class of 1999 is the satirical Robocop to Class of 1984‘s heartfelt Death Wish.
Class of 1984 starts by depicting basic teen activities that already horrify parents: graffiti, marijuana use, the donning of leather jackets & *gasp* mini-skirts, etc. The transgressions obviously escalate from there, as the movie goes on to depict an absurdly organized network of gang violence & drug trade, one that eventually includes casual instances of rape & murder. I’m not sure that there’s a single trace of irony or satire in Class of 1984. Its depiction of school systems as surveillance-state prisons & the edict that “Teaching is something you do in spite of everything else” plays as entirely justified, serving as a wake up call in case parents (rightfully) believe that the state of things actually isn’t all that bad. In Class of 1999, teachers are ultra-violent & ultimately in the wrong. In Class of 1984, they’re victims to the rapid teen menace supposedly ruining this country.
Even though Class of 1999 is more of an exaggerated cartoon than its 1982 predecessor, I find that it reads as a much more level-headed & nuanced exploration of the ridiculousness of paranoid fears about out-of-control teens, whether its satirical camp was entirely intentional or not. Class of 1984, on the other hand, is too straight-forward to be read as anything but a conservative nightmare brought to life. It’s essentially the epitome of 80s & 90s inner-city-teachers-in-crisis movies like Dangerous Minds & Lean on Me brought to their most ridiculous extreme. The two films do share a lot of similarities in their details, including unanswered questions about why the teens choose to go to school in the first place, the use of “suburbanite” as an insult, depictions of beyond-rowdy punk concerts, and a climactic, after-hours gauntlet in a high school’s hallways that results in a body count. They even share a performance by Roddy McDowell, but it’s difficult to say if the continuity of his character makes total sense between them. Class of 1984 stands as the more grotesque of the pair, though, extensively fulfilling the rape only threatened in Class of 1999 & depicting the kids as bored, rich teen sadists instead of criminals born of an economic system that left them behind.
With contributions from Big Names like Alison Cooper & a baby-faced Michael J. Fox, Class of 1984 isn’t exactly a dismissible trifle, but it is significantly less . . . classy in its politics than its absurd sci-fi sequel. Thanks to the thoroughly pointless Class of 1999 II: The Substitute it can’t be said that Class of 1984 is the worst of the Mark Lester trilogy, but it was surely outdone by its 1989 sequel. It’s an interesting film, a grotesque insight into conservative paranoia in the Reagan era, but that distinction is not nearly as exciting or unique as the campy Terminator-knockoff shenanigans of the film that followed.
For more on November’s Movie of the Month, 1989’s Class of 1999, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the diminished returns depths of its shoddy sequel, and this glimpse of its unlikely Australian counterpart, Future Schlock.