Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
Last week, we looked at the work of Ken Kwapis, a career that went from the first Sesame Street film, Follow That Bird through to He’s Just Not That Into You via Cyndi Lauper vehicle Vibes. Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris has arguably had a similarly meandering career, quite literally growing up as a child of the circus scene. Possibly best known these days as the director of Wayne’s World, Spheeris’ association with all things rock and roll began to take off with the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), an exploration of the (post) punk scene in Los Angeles. Solidifying her punk reputation with Suburbia (1985), Dudes bridges the gap between punk rock, Westerns and action films.
A group of New York based punks – Grant (Jon Cryer), Biscuit (Daniel Roebuck) and Milo (Flea) – tire of the monotony of the city, and decide to head out West to the promised land of Los Angeles. Travelling in their beat-up Volkswagon bug, they begin to embrace the Western ethos when a group of real badass cowfolk set upon them and kill Milo. The authorities are unable (or perhaps simply unwilling) to help them, so Grant is spurred on by visions of a mysterious cowboy to take the law into his own hands, and hunt down the killer Missoula (Lee Ving) in the spirit of The Old West.
“I’m so sick of doing this,” remarks Milo at the start of the film. “I’m sick of waiting for the world to end.” At its heart, Dudes is a 1980’s punk reinterpretation of Easy Rider. Remaining the same thematically , it shifts the freewheeling attitude of New Hollywood to a time when the indie film was once again on the rise after over a decade of blockbuster cinema. Jon Cryer, who had won over the hearts and minds of unrequited lovers everywhere as ‘Duckie’ in Pretty in Pink, continued his career of playing outliers, here slipping effortlessly into the punk attitude. Occasionally Spheeris and writer Randall Jahnson (who followed this up with The Doors (1991) for Oliver Stone) overdo it with their characterisations, particularly around the caricature of Biscuit. Yet the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, already an established presence in the LA music scene and appearing in Spheeris’ previous Suburbia, lends some level of authenticity to the film.
Filled with snake-juice fuelled vision quests, and an Elvis impersonating rodeo clown named Daredelvis (Pete Wilcox), Dudes still manages to take a sharp left turn as the leads transform themselves into a Lone Ranger/Tonto pairing (in full costume) to take on the bad guys. Here it becomes one of the forgotten action films of the 1980s, and a full-on Western as a gunfight plays out in a deserted old town, which Biscuit compares to The Andromeda Strain (1971). As the gunplay begins, the characters can be found in a cinema, and Jesse James (1939) is engaged in his own gunfight in the background. Spheeris tips her hat to the history of cinema, but maintains her punk aesthetic regardless.
Dudes is a unique capsule in time, and while it may not be great cinema, it is still worth a look if you can find it. It isn’t currently available on DVD, possibly due to the music rights needing to be renegotiated for a home release. Fans of music from this era will love the inclusion of Keel, Megadeath, W.A.S.P, The Vandals, Steve Vai Leather Nun and Jane’s Addiction on the soundtrack, filling every scene with a sense of the frenetic whether warranted or not. It’s almost as if the whole thing was shot on speed, and the volume had to be cranked up to cover the grinding of teeth.