The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.
This coming week, May 3rd to 7th, is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States. Teachers have extraordinarily important jobs, despite being underpaid for the amount of education, skill, and out-of-pocket expenses the role requires. So I’m celebrating teachers the only way I know how: with a deep dive into an obscure, fascinatingly-flawed piece of pop culture like the cult classic exploitation thriller Class of 1984.
A Canadian film released in 1982, Class of 1984 is a far cry from grounded and inspirational films about teachers from the same decade like Stand and Deliver or Lean on Me. It’s a bloody, gritty, yet at times laughably over-the-top revenge tale about a young high school music teacher (Perry King) who launches an ill-fated crusade against a violent group of students who run their school like a prison gang. It’s entertaining in an “I can’t believe they got away with this” way, but between its questionable politics and a plot that stretches the limits of plausibility, I wasn’t sure what to make of it during my first viewing.
That’s why I enlisted The Beat‘s own Ricardo Serrano Denis for this special Teacher Appreciation edition of Silber Linings, to chat with me as we watched Class of 1984 for my second time, and Ricky’ first time. Not only is Ricky the best authority I know for all things horror, thriller, and genre fiction of a certain ilk, but he’s a New York City high school social studies teacher.
A content warning: Class of 1984 features a rape scene, so I’d advise sensitive viewers against watching it. There’s also frank depictions of substance abuse, bullying, self-harm and other potentially-triggering material involving underage characters. Ricky and I did our best to discuss this subject matter more sensitively than the film does, but Class of 1984 itself is decidedly not for everyone. Proceed with caution.
That said, if you’d like to follow along with our commentary, you can stream Class of 1984 now on Shudder.
Gregory Paul Silber: Ricky, I cannot tell you how excited I am to have you joining me for a discussion of this absolutely absurd revenge thriller, Class of 1984, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week. Not just because you have a lot of the same genre sensibilities that I do, but because you, like the protagonist of this film, are a high school teacher! One who I assume would never go to the cuckoo bananas length he does to deal with some particularly rowdy students…
Ricardo Serrano Denis: First let me say that I was all in from the moment I knew the movie’s theme song came from the twisted mind of Alice Cooper. I wouldn’t go as bananas as the teacher does in the movie, but I’d definitely play that Cooper song in the background as I teach. So, really, thank you for having me!
Silber: And thank you for joining me! I’m glad you mention Alice Cooper, because (A) I love him, and (B) he’s one of a few recognizable names we’ll see credited here, which may be somewhat surprising for a relatively obscure cult favorite. It’s co-written by Tom Holland, for example. Not Spider-Man, but the director of ’80s horror classics like Fright Night and Child’s Play. And most notably, we have a supporting role from a pre-fame Michael J. Fox, so early in his career that he’s credited simply as “Michael Fox.”
Denis: That was before his Back to the Future transformation, in which the J. became a part of his iconic persona. On the topic of Tom Holland, I’ve always felt his take on horror to reflect on the 1980s as a whole is not only hilarious but also very well thought out. I’m actually very curious to see what Class of 1984 shares with Fright Night, if anything. There’s another connection to Fright Night, actually, as Roddy McDowall also features in the film. He plays Peter Vincent in Holland’s vampire flick.
Silber: I should remind our readers here that while this is your first time seeing Class of 1984, I saw it for the first time myself last year, and immediately got the idea to have you join me for Teacher Appreciation Week. It actually feels a little funny to be the one introducing you to this, because even though I wouldn’t call Class of 1984 a horror movie, it is on the horror streaming service Shudder, and you’ve kind of been my mentor for all things spooky and scary ever since I got onto a horror kick when the pandemic started.
Denis: Goes to show how teaching is a cycle unto itself. I’m so glad you pointed me in this direction. I’ve been reading up as much as I can on the movie since you mentioned it and the story behind it as it was getting its release is pretty out there. Especially since it had some 4 minutes cut from its UK release. So it’s definitely a movie that hit a nerve.
Silber: It did, and I think it’s important to contextualize why it was (and remains) so shocking. As much as I’m fascinated and entertained by Class of 1984, I can’t recommend it without a few massive qualifiers. For one, it came out in 1982, and even though it’s a Canadian film, the Reagan-era American politics are extremely evident in the way it depicts urban youth as ruthless predators who will burn our entire society down if they’re not kept in check.
I’m sure we’ll get much more into this as we continue our discussion, but I urge everyone to please take this film’s politics with a massive grain of salt. I don’t endorse the film’s message and I’m sure it’s safe to say that you don’t think it’s right to take violent revenge on underage students either, Ricky.
Denis: I don’t believe it’s right to go down that road, in any way. I will say, ’80s movies have a particular quality about the way they addressed certain problems. They’re big, strangely moralistic, and prefer their metaphors charred. They’re just loud, unapologetically so. So while many of them have their hearts in the right place, their “go big or go home” approach can be overwhelming. Subtlety wasn’t a thing in the eighties.
Silber: The moral panic definitely makes it a product of its time, as do some other elements that haven’t aged well. I need to give a content warning that Class of 1984 does include a scene of sexual assault in the third act, and it’s not treated with the sensitivity that more people today understand that kind of content requires. So if that’s a deal breaker for any readers, please skip it.
Denis: I feel like this disclaimer should be printed in every ’80s movie. Warning! Exercise extreme caution. Fits the entire decade really.
Okay, Greg, ready to put your outlaw student helmet on?
Silber: Hell yeah! Class is in session…
Okay it’s safe to say this text card at the start is… not entirely truthful, right?
Denis: “Unfortunately based on true events.” Great way to set the mood. I mean, New York in the ’80s was Rough with a capital R.
Silber: I guess that’s fair!
Denis: “Take a look at my face, I am the future.” -Alice Cooper.
Silber: He had been around over a decade by this point, but he really understood, throughout his career, what scares people about youth culture… so we start with the arrival of a new teacher, our protagonist, and a fellow teacher immediately reveals he carries a GUN to work.
Denis: Teacher Terry Corrigan showing a gun in his briefcase, next to his lesson plans, played so differently in those times.
Silber: As do these metal detectors.
Denis: I know so many teachers that carry themselves like Corrigan, the veteran teacher that has seen all the horrors of public education. I’ve even gotten a few speeches myself.
Silber: I assume it plays out differently for you then “some kids have switchblades, it’s fine.”
Denis: Thankfully it does. Also, Michael Fox sighting!
Silber: Yup! He really is a baby here. He played a teen of roughly the same age just three years later in Back to the Future, but by then he didn’t really look like a teen anymore.
Denis: So the students in this movie are already off to a horrifying start. They stand up to authority with Nazi salutes and gang behavior. This movie feels more like The Warriors than Lean On Me.
Silber: Yeah, and the punk aesthetic really comes through too. How well the filmmakers understood the punk movement is another story.
Denis: I wonder if punks really did walk around as bullies. Punks were usually in their own corners, minding their own business. They’re what metalheads eventually became in the 90s.
Silber: Which isn’t to say there weren’t some nazi punks, like this gang appears to be. But in the immortal words of Jello Biafra: Nazi punks, fuck off!
Denis: Ha! Precisely right. I like how innocent the new teacher is. A guy who came from Nebraska, where apparently education works perfectly and punk has yet to reach its borders.
Silber: It’s very “first 15 minutes of a horror film” within the confines of his home. He literally says “everything is perfect!” Anyway, I didn’t really notice this in my first viewing, but this film does subtly acknowledge the privilege white gangs enjoy that their Black rivals don’t.
Denis: I saw that. It’s like the white Punk gang is a worse influence in the school than the Black gang. I mean, they’re basically Nazis.
Silber: They really are, and it doesn’t seem to be an “ironic” use of Nazi imagery that sadly a lot of punk bands employed in the early days of the scene.
Denis: So this gang also runs a sex work ring?
Silber: Drugs, sex work, and apparently they have an in with the owner of this club given their use of the space as a base of operations?
Denis: They’re really going the ’80s way of presenting the villains as pure evil. There is no redeeming quality in them. Although! The gang leader plays a mean piano!
Silber: Yes! He shows a lot of promise. And yet. It’s easy to forget because the actors look as old as 30, but let’s remember these characters are supposed to be high school students. Literally children.
Denis: Yeah, a lot of these films prefer to show students as adults in kids clothing.
Silber: So Ricky, how would you handle a kid like that? One who has talent but is extremely disruptive?
Denis: To tell you the truth, there are so many laws and protocols that all I would need to do is call someone and wait for another person to take over. I don’t always do that. I try to get kids on my side since day one, offering alternatives to behavior. Comics always work for me.
Silber: Sounds like a wise strategy! Now watch this scene, because so much of what happens here would NEVER fly in a real school today. At least I hope!
Denis: It’s always a give and take. I don’t get overtly strict so long as they don’t force it. It’s like an unwritten contract and it tends to work well for me.
Silber: You know this is a Canadian movie because they keep saying “washroom.” Despite the conspicuous American Flag in the principal’s office! They’re definitely making a statement about Americans. Emphasized here with a student throwing himself off a flag pole and killing himself after reciting the pledge of allegiance.
Denis: While under the influence of coke, no less!
Silber: Very ’80s.
Denis: I agree with the commentary on America. It’s basically presenting its schools as lawless Wild West towns with gunslingers and everything. The teachers are basically underpaid Sheriffs!
Silber: It is sort of like an urban western, isn’t it?
Denis: It so is! Terry and Andy are the only good cowboys in a town corrupted by bad education. Or lack of education. I like how Terry (Roddy McDowall) is the wise but pessimistic drunk teacher. Full of lessons to impart…so long as it’s over a bottle of whiskey. Classic Western.
Silber: These are great observations that totally went over my head in my first viewing. So Ricky, if a student BLEW UP YOUR CAR, what would your next move be?
Denis: My move? Burn their grades! F’s all around! Vengeance achieved. They burn my car, I burn their future. Fortunately, I don’t have a car. Everyone wins.
Silber: Oh yeah, these kids don’t care at all about getting into college huh.
Denis: That’s true. Well, put yourself in the teacher’s position. How would you react to all this?
Silber: Probably get a lawyer involved? There are definitely channels I’d go through before throwing a swing at a student. Now we find out these kids have no qualms about animal cruelty or self harm, so I’d talk to the school psychologist too!
Denis: That’s one of the things schools desperately need. Mental Health classes to teach kids to deal with a lot of the issues we see in the movie. It might be exaggerated but a lot of these things do happen in schools.
Silber: Oh I don’t doubt that at all, but the way this movie frames those problems is wildly short sighted. Here it suggests overly lenient parents are to blame. Solution: destroy the kid’s car!
Denis: Exactly! Then again, now we know why the gang leader is the way he is, according to the movie. A privileged kid with a parent that doesn’t discipline him the way she should. Missing father figure as well. The ’80s recipe for evil bad guy. The teacher is now corrupted by the system! Greg, I trust you’ll talk me down if I ever get the idea to thrash a student’s car.
Denis: Oh my god, they stabbed Michael J. Fox!
Silber: That man’s a national treasure you little jerks! But yeah, this gang doesn’t take “snitches get stitches” lightly. I genuinely like Andy and Terry’s relationship by the way. The idealistic newbie who tries to reinvigorate the jaded vet.
Denis: Terry pouring his heart out telling Andy why he teaches.
Silber: Terry holding up his class with a gun. Chekhov would be pleased!
Denis: He says something I’ve heard so many say before: “If I could only reach one thinking mind.” But then Terry losing it and holding up a class with a gun, like I said before, one of those super metaphors the ’80s were so good at. Frustration getting a teacher to the limit.
Silber: There’s a raw emotional core to this film that’s impossible to deny. Right or wrong, it gets at some very base societal fears about teenagers.
Denis: That and car explosions. Gotta have one and the movie delivered.
Silber: It almost has a 1950s sensibility in the way that era had a moral panic about kids corrupted by sex drugs and rock and roll into juvenile delinquency.
Denis: I agree. It’s a step away from becoming something like Reefer Madness. I think that movie laid the foundations for all these type of movies, of youth corruption and the importance of moral reinforcement.
Silber: That’s a great point of comparison. Class of 1984 isn’t as campy or accidentally comedic, but in its own way it reads like a propaganda film.
Silber: It’s more subtle than Reefer Madness but not by much! Okay, unfortunately we have to talk about this scene. Throughout the rest of the movie you can almost laugh off the shock value, but this home invasion/sexual assault is horrifying and not fun at all.
Denis: Not at all. And I feel like maybe the director wanted to shoot it as A Clockwork Orange kind of thing. But it’s not as effective. It’s the movie at its most gratuitous.
Silber: Yeah, there’s really no reason it had to be in here. We had plenty of reason to understand how awful these kids were without it.
Denis: The kids were already bad enough. The movie had well established that by then. Feels like it was shot more for shock value than anything else.
Silber: They could have simply kidnapped her to move the plot forward to where we are now, with Andy forced into a violent final confrontation with the kids to save his kidnapped wife… all while he’s supposed to be conducting his class’s recital.
Denis: That’s another ’80s thing. Sexual assault was too easily thrown around as a plot device. This movie is a prime example of it. You’re right. The kidnapping was enough.
Silber: It puts a damper on this whole climactic sequence, which is otherwise tense and exciting.
Denis: This is the movie at its most Horror. Dark school corridors, intense red lighting. Very effective and well-shot.
Silber: The gang is in their most outlandish costumes and makeup here too, making them a little more like slasher villains.
Denis: That’s a great observation. They’re basically young Freddy Kruegers. As soon as I saw the buzzsaw, I knew shit was going to get real. Now the movie’s straight up horror. A gang member gets killed in the carpentry workshop classroom and it’s as violent as you expect from ’80s horror. But it’s like the movie took a turn from wacky/serious to full on ultra-violence.
Silber: Yeah, and again we need to remind readers: these are high school students. We can quibble about self defense and whatnot, but there’s no getting around the fact that he’s murdering children. Maybe before he ran off he could’ve said to the principle “hey get help, these kids kidnapped my wife so I gotta go.” But I can see why logic goes out the window in that situation.
Denis: Good point. And the whole hallways sequence would’ve still worked.
Silber: The leader’s final words, and one of the last lines in the whole movie: “I’m just a kid.”
Denis: The gang leader dies in a fall that leads to him getting hanged! Over the recital! Greg! What did you just make me watch!
Silber: I warned you as best I could!
Denis: Oh wow. And the caption: “And Andy wasn’t prosecuted because no one saw what happened.” There was no other way this could’ve ended.
Silber: It felt inevitable, as absurd an ending as it was.
Denis: So here’s a question I think the movie could’ve done a better job asking. How much should teachers wait before seriously considering quitting?
Silber: I wouldn’t know, but that’s a great point. Because they do discuss it briefly, such as when Terry is brandishing a gun at his class and Andy pleads with him that not all teens are like the gang that killed his animals.
Denis: Exactly. I’ll tell you this, my very first year of being a teacher, I almost quit. The stress and just that first real jump into it is extremely overwhelming. You see a system that barely works and how bad it can get. I think that’s why I related so much to Terry. He broke my heart, Greg! He wanted to hold on and he did until he took the gun to class.
Silber: Obviously, there’s no excuse for pointing a gun at a student, but Class of 1984 does go to great pains to show what pushed him to that point. Plus, there’s so much heart in Roddy McDowell’s performance. An essentially decent but broken man. Anyway Ricky, what were your overall impressions of this film?
Denis: I think this is a great movie all the way up to the rape scene. And it’s a criticism that I think could’ve been made of the movie when it came out. The horror ending it went for after that turned an interesting movie into an exploitative showcase of violence.
As rough as it is with the subject matter, I actually think it didn’t need the horror elements. Having said that, its look at the challenges teachers faced and still face is compelling and opens up a lot of conversations on what teachers face when walking into schools. How did your second viewing go?
Silber: I wouldn’t describe Class of 1984 as a “great” film, although it certainly is an entertaining one before it abruptly stops being fun. I thought perhaps I’d enjoy the finale more this time around because this time I knew the sexual assault scene was coming, but it really sours the whole experience regardless.
I’m glad you brought up some of the valid questions this film asks about teachers and teaching, because my first time around I may have been a little too critical of some of its more noxious elements to notice that. That’s part of why I wanted to bring you in: your perspective as a teacher. I’ve worked with kids much of my life, but I’ve never really had to ask myself questions like that. That said, the harmful Reaganist “war on crime” and moral panic about urban youths still came through pretty clearly this time around.
Denis: Yeah. Look, the ‘reaching your limit’ thing is quite real and it does mess with one’s head. The job is demanding and sometimes you will have kids that will remind you of those in Class of 1984. No joke, it can get that bad. But one finds a way. Unlike Terry, our almost hero.
Silber: Here’s something I wanted to ask you about since my first viewing: how much could’ve been avoided if Andy handled his initial confrontations differently? I keep thinking about the scene where the gang leader starts banging on the piano keys, only to transition into a beautiful solo. What if Andy had said something to the effect of “hey, you’ve got a lot of talent. When you’re in my class you have to follow my rules, but if you stick around I can help.”
Denis: That would’ve made a world of difference. What a lot of these movies don’t get is that bad behavior is usually a call for attention they’re not getting elsewhere. The worst thing one can do is ignore a “problem student.” Had he gone your route, Greg, something would have changed. This isn’t a sweeping solution, but it’s an imperative one to try.
Now, having a principal that has your back is another important part of it. The movie goes lengths to show how Andy is left alone to deal with a gang of students by the principal, who is already overwhelmed with running the entire school. Had the principal also intervened further, chances of success go up.
I think the movie shows that well. How the principal is tied up by laws and other responsibilities that sometimes preventing from helping further. The lesson here, though, is: don’t ever consider using a gun as a teaching strategy. Ignore Chekhov! Document everything and hope for the best!