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Punks on Film

There's a wonderful feeling when lounging around late at night, watching a previously unseen landfill of a movie, when a band you dig suddenly pops up on the screen for a few minutes. Here, I'm going to showcase those moments when great (and sometimes not-so-great) groups played live (or acted like it) in a few memorable—and some forgotten—scenes in celluloid history.

Though sometimes surprisingly good, I'm not going to go into any of Lee Ving's or Henry Rollins' many walk-ons, or the shock of seeing bandmate Bryan Elliott (of Timescape Zero) compliment Richard Dreyfuss in Let it Ride, as those are a single band member. I'm especially not going into the Ramones' Rock 'n' Roll High School, or Richard Hell playing in Blank Generation, because those were expected roles for the bands.

Many a young punk's favorite cameo might come from Alex Cox's 1984 dystopian comedy, Repo Man, as seminal Los Angeles punks the Circle Jerks went lounge, complete with a smooth jazz version of their "When the Shit Hits the Fan" off their Golden Shower of Hits LP.

The skit is made funnier when Emilio Estevez chirps before exiting, "I can't believe I used to like these guys."

Romantics often point out The Plimsouls' appearance in Valley Girl, from 1983, and while not as punk as one would really want here, it is an altogether good scene in a fun movie where the rebellious "loser" is the hero (though so Hollywood throughout).

Of course, some of the lesser-known pop-ins are my favorites, and a few are found in some pretty weird flicks. Some scenes are even tied to personal stories. I remember once drunkenly stumbling home from a night out and tuning in to late night cheesiness with the USA Network's airing of 1990's Pale Blood, only to be slapped sober by the giddiness of seeing skate-punk gods Agent Orange playing one of their more college rock numbers, "Fire and the Rain," in a dive bar on the Strip.

Rarer still is a clip from a movie I had to hunt down a little after I first heard a brief mention of it squeezed into a news scroll during MTV's 120 Minutes in the late-'80s. 1988's The Beat was about a new (seemingly autistic) kid on the block who tries to teach the street hoods the trials of life through poetry, as well as bursting out in nonsensical rants at inopportune moments. In turn, they take him to a Cro-Mags show, and all hell breaks loose. Laughingly predictable, the band is referred to throughout the movie as "The Skulls."

One of the oddest stories of all has to be goth-punk rockers Radio Werewolf being shoved into a terrible comedy from 1988, titled—no joke—Mortuary Academy. This Police Academy ripoff was about a school of morticians run by corpse-fuckers, and the freshmen who set out to stop them. In the middle of much zaniness, an early incarnation of Nikolas Schreck's outfit fills the screen performing "1960 Cadillac Hearse" at—of all things—a Bar Mitzvah.

Radio Werewolf soon went on to lose longtime members, but gained the "Devil's Daughter" as Zeena LaVey (daughter of the Church of Satan's Anton LaVey) joined. They quickly dropped the rock 'n' roll and picked up MIDI keys; morphing into ambient, neo-classical, and martial industrial—all the while keeping their arms at a 45° angle. Yep, they became neo-Nazis—even forming an occult group, calling themselves The Werewolf Order.

Section of a Werewolf Order pamphlet promoting White Aryan Resistance.
Zeena and Nikolas at the 8/8/88 rally at The Strand Theater in San Francisco, CA.

They released a 12" titled Bring Me the Head of Geraldo Rivera! (1990); put out another disc dedicated to "Hitler's Priestess," Savitri Devi, with 1989's The Lightning and the Sun; then produced a handful of EPs more before hightailing it to Europe. After the move, Zeena began distributing press releases where she disowned her dad and began promoting the Temple of Set. It all turned out to be really sad, which makes that Mortuary Academy scene so hilariously odd.

Not to be forgotten, there are great flashes of the New York City art scene in Downtown 81, which stars Jean-Michel Basquiat (showing DNA, Japan's The Plastics, and more); with the West Coast having The Mutants and Flipper showing up all over the arty punk gem Emerald Cities. One shouldn't need a reminder, but let's not forget T.S.O.L., The Vandals, and D.I. in 1983's Suburbia (produced by later-Wayne's World director Penelope Spheeris).

Getting back to major studio cinema, one strange loop that stands out would be The Professionals, appearing as "The Looters," in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982).

If you are unaware, The Professionals is the band started by Steve Jones (guitar) and Paul Cook (drums) after they left the Sex Pistols. Why the two decided to play themselves in the movie—and even play three of their own songs—yet under another band name, is beyond my research. Though filmed a year after they broke up, one can only figure label contracts and lawsuits kept them from making such a lucrative open association.

Speaking of bands under another name, who can forget—or wants to remember—L7 as "Camel Lips" singing "Gas Chamber" in John Waters' Serial Mom?

This all brings up another interesting question: why wouldn't a director get a real band—instead of making one up—for a movie? By 1986, punk was a household music genre, and every town had at least a few punk and hardcore bands. I guess Tinseltown wouldn't get to keep so much gold if they kept handing it out—so when in need, you sometimes craft things yourself. Such is the case in Star Trek IV.

In the scene where Spock knocks out an annoying punk rocker on a public bus, the hardcore song blaring on the boombox was made up by producer Kirk Thatcher. He wrote the song, "I Hate You," attributed the track to fictitious punk band Edge of Etiquette, and probably got to pocket the dough.

Makes one realize it's hard enough to get noticed in the music industry as it is, then harder when you jump into films. I'm just glad a bunch of punk kids got to stay in the picture.

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