[BLU-RAY REVIEW BY PAUL FREITAG-FEY] PUNK VACATION (1987)

Punk

There are few greater pleasant surprises I get than coming home to find a package with the words “Vinegar Syndrome” on the label. Though less than a year old, the label has quickly become a great source of uncovering exploitation film history, via both their line of single-feature Blu-rays and their double feature Drive-In Collection.

The offering that arrived on my doorstep last week contained their latest release, PUNK VACATION, which differs quite a bit from their previous entries into the line. For one thing, 1987’s PUNK VACATION had a previous home video release, albeit a minimal VHS one on the notoriously obscure Raedon label. (All of Vinegar’s previous Blu-rays, the H.G. Lewis Collection, MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS and THE TELEPHONE BOOK, were getting a home video release for the first time.) It’s also the most recent film they’ve released, and it’s good to see them dipping their toes into the lush world of DTV obscurities.

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PUNK VACATION is certainly an oddity worth checking out. While the title and screenshots on the cover promise some sort of CLASS OF 1984-type maniac punk extravaganza, the film is a strange meld of revenge flick and character-heavy comedy, and while it never really works completely on either level, it’s surprising and unique enough to be compelling. Whether that’s due to a genuine vision on the part of director “Stanley Lewis” (producer/actor Stephen Fusci claims in an interview that the director took his name off of the project and used a pseudonym) or just because they weren’t sure how to put a consistently-toned film together is up for debate, but it certainly creates the sort of one-of-a-kind atmosphere that makes some DTV films stand above the rest.

Our story stars with our ostensible hero cop Steve Reed (Fusci, under the name “Stephen Fiachi”) investigating the alarm at a diner in the small town he patrols. It’s another false alarm, and Reed shares some awkward interaction with the owner’s older daughter Lisa, who gives him the cold shoulder. Younger sis Sally talks about how nothing ever happens in town, so of course, as soon as Steve leaves to take Lisa home, an irritable young man on a motorcycle gets irritated when the vending machine outside refuses to give him his Dr. Pepper and begins pounding on it.

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The diner owner, of course, POINTS A SHOTGUN AT THE GUY and drives him of. (Seriously, dude. It’s forty cents. Refund the money. It may be due to customer service skills like that that the only other customer you have is a drunken old man who also complains about how nothing happens in town.) The guy quickly comes back with his fellow biker friends in tow and attack Sally.

The owner tries to defend against them, but has a heart attack (or is possibly stabbed – it’s a little unclear, though anyone with a stress level high enough to pull a gun on someone complaining about a soda may have some medical issues) just as things are about to get really disturbing. Steve shows up just in time to scare off the punks, save for the soda junkie Billy who gets hit by his car, putting him in the hospital.

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Now, when I use the word “punks,” I don’t really mean anyone who would have any idea who Lee Ving is. There are more the ‘80s idea of punks, as though punks, goths and new wavers were mixed together in a vat and given an overdose of mescaline. Basically, they’re wild and have eye makeup. The Tangerine Dream-esque soundtrack gives us no clue as to what they listen to, so as far as I can tell, they may all be a roving band of huge Sammy Davis Jr. fans.

At least that’s the first impression we get. As the film progresses, we discover that the group is led by the mohawkish Ramrod (Roxanne Rogers , in a role that should have gotten her more notice) and that each member has a fairly distinct personality. One blonde beefcake is obsessed with Native American culture, another member is a pacifist, and a pair of the girls just have discussions about what they’d rather be doing with their lives. They’re an admirably distinguishable bunch, all on the road for one list fling before dealing with adulthood, with the exception of Ramrod, who seems committed to deranged anarchy. As one member points out, “We’re just misguided as hell.”

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Back in town, Lisa wants revenge for her father, so she sneaks into the hospital and attempts to attack Billy. She’s stopped, and nobody seems too concerned about her trying to kill a witness, so she’s soon back at the police station and overhears a conversation as to the group’s new whereabouts. Having no skills, weapons or plans, she makes the brilliant decision to take on the gang by herself. (Sally, meanwhile, has mysteriously vanished – not in the movie, but from it, as she’s never mentioned again.)

The rest of the film features various forms of onslaughts onto the punks’ hideout in the woods, culminating in a posse of townsfolk led by the sheriff (entertainingly, they don’t even bother to call Steve, who shows up late) facing down with the punks as the group uses curiously non-lethal methods of protection that wouldn’t look out of place in a HOME ALONE sequel. In the end, the townsfolk look more bloodthirsty than the gang, and you end up with only the vaguest idea as to who you’re supposed to be rooting for.

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All of this may sound dark, but PUNK VACATION may be the most light-hearted punks vs. normal revenge film ever made. The town’s sheriff (played by Warhol and sexploitation regular Louis Waldon) is a ridiculous caricature, spouting off about “pinko commies” and knowing nothing about actual WWII history. Certain sequences border on slapstick, especially a scene where Ramrod tries to break Tommy out of the hospital, despite the fact that he’s handcuffed to the bed. Even when heroine Lisa is tied up by the gang, it never really feels as though she’s in any danger and she instead has a discussion with a couple of the girls about Scientology and kink – in fact, the only mention of rape in the film is directed at Steve.

There’s no question that PUNK VACATION is a strange hodgepodge of a movie, and certainly, any similarities to actual punks are strictly coincidental. But it’s certainly an interesting hodgepodge, and despite all of the tonal inconsistencies and continuity errors, you can’t help but to watch, especially with lines like “I don’t think this is the time to discuss racial stereotypes in the media!” being uttered as a plan of attack is about to take form.

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Vinegar’s Blu-Ray transfer of the film is fantastic, giving vivid colors to the cinematography of Daryn Okada (PHANTASM II, HALLOWEEN H2O) that no doubt were washed out on the VHS release. While many of the night scenes were clearly darkly shot, the contrast makes the colors that are there pop, so you can certainly see what’s going on even if it doesn’t really make sense. The only issue is that it doesn’t do some of the film’s cheaper aspects any favors – if you want to see one of the least convincing bald caps in film history, this is certainly a must-buy.

The Blu-ray disc itself offers no special features save for a large still gallery, but the package also includes a DVD that comes with some nice bonus options. An interview with Stephen Fusci provides a good backstory as to the making of both this film and his previous film, NOMAD RIDERS, and there are a number of great stories, including their abduction of a soda machine and Fusci talking about his experiences with Clint Howard while working on ICE CREAM MAN. (Also, Clint Howard has an entourage. Good for him!) An interview with producer’s assistant and stuntman Steven Rowland is also included, and he brings some reason behind why there are rats in the movie that don’t do anything.

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The biggest special feature, however, is the entirety of Fusci’s 1982 film NOMAD RIDERS, previously only released on a long out-of-print Vestron VHS. Another movie about revenge against bikers, though more of a downbeat one, NOMAD RIDERS stars Tony Laschi as Steve Thrust (!) a cop whose wife and son are murdered when some bikers, sent to scare Steve, douse their tent with gasoline and throw a grenade at them while Steve is up flying in his plane, leading to one of the most protracted slow motion “nooooos” I’ve ever seen as Steve exits his plane to see the damage.

The rest plays out a bit like a low-level ROLLING THUNDER, as Steve makes his way towards revenge on the bikers, though the bikers, led by a scenery-chewing Wayne Chema, are much more entertaining to watch than Laschi, who resembles a bland Daniel J. Travanti. There’s certainly entertainment to be had, and there are plenty of explosions and lines like “I wouldn’t trust you if you was dead,” but NOMAD RIDERS is really not much to write home about. As a primary feature, it would be a bust, but as a bonus, it’s 82 minutes of time-killing goodness.
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The complete package makes PUNK VACATION another great entry into Vinegar Syndrome’s growing line of releases. While certainly a departure from the ’60s and ‘70s exploitation films they’ve become known for, PUNK VACATION is a great step into the (deep, deep) depths of the forgotten DTV films of the ‘80s, given a presentation where one can finally appreciate the film, warts and all, without the shoddy VHS transfer.

Can I wish for DEAD BOYZ CAN’T FLY now?

– Paul Freitag-Fey

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