Despite making one of the greatest action movies of all time, Commando’s director, Mark Lester, isn’t often talked about. Despite making a major landmark in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, Lester hasn’t been the most prolific director.
Yet, I want to discuss what I feel are the highlights of Lester’s career outside of The Governator.
Class of 1984 and Class of 1999 are two of Lester’s films that complement each other. They’re both exploitation films (a legacy that Commando carries on with its endlessly creative slaughter), but they approach the same concept—a school taken over by a sinister “other”—and go in very different directions.
Lester’s 1982 film Class of 1984 is mean and angry. It’s not just a revenge film, it’s a Death Wish inspired revenge film, which is exploitation movie code talk for “mistakes rape scenes for character motivation.” That’s not to say it’s not worth a watch, but you ought to know that going in. This was a time when unruly school kids were seen as a wild and alien concept (see also: the awesome-and-completely-politically-incorrect The Substitute). The movie uses a troubled school in the same way that similar revenge films depict the inner city—as a powder keg of violent conflicts, ready to ignite.
The school is lawless. Metal detectors and security checkpoints aren’t able to stop the flow of crime, and a punk named Peter Stegman runs the place—again, like in other revenge films, the punk movement is used as shorthand for “someone who hates you.” A mild-mannered teacher named Andrew Norris is new to the school and tries to balance the growing conflict between his authority and Stegman’s gang with his attempts to put a school orchestra together. The setup is fairly basic, as these movies go. Norris’ hand is forced multiple times before he gives in and unleashes a violent revenge extravaganza upon the punks.
That’s why you should watch Class of 1984. In the gross, smelly subcategory of “Death Wish cash-ins,” its school-set climax is absolutely fantastic and is a standout of the genre. Again, your lust for chaos and blood will have to be weighed against your comfortability with violently misogynistic genre films of the 1980s, but if it’s not too much of a dealbreaker, it’s definitely worth a watch.
Now we get to the film I have a much easier time recommending—1990’s Class of 1999 sees the tables turned. This time, troubled teens are the protagonists and teachers are the enemy. It’s the far-off future of 1999, and gang violence has turned many cities around the world into “free-fire zones.” In this world, your average teenager looks like an extra from The Road Warrior, schools are built like fortresses, and nobody has any solutions to the problem.
In Class of 1984, the security was metal detectors and overworked mall cops. In the violent year of 1999, security that wouldn’t look out of place in the Judge Dredd comics beat students who attempt to skip a class. Our protagonist, Cody Culp, is a young man who’s fresh out of prison and not particularly eager to jump back into the cycle of drugs and violence that’s consumed his friends and younger brother. He just wants to keep his head down and graduate without getting arrested or killed—neither of which are easy feats in this dark future. He strikes up a romantic relationship with Christie Langford, the haughty daughter of the school’s principal, and things are looking up for the two of them.
Behind the scenes, however, said principal is striking a deal with a major military research firm, funding the bold move of disguising three military-grade androids as new teachers to better teach the raucous classes. This is, of course, a horrible idea, and while it starts out slow (slow, as in, a kill-bot played by Pam Grier giving two students superpowered corporal punishment) eventually the school (once again) explodes into violence as the murderous machines engineer a gang war. Our hero has to try and save his loser friends and his new girlfriend from being chewed up by the conflict, and convince everyone around him that the new teachers are more than they appear to be.
It’s essentially The Faculty, but replace alien parasites with Terminators filled with the slime they dunked people with on You Can’t Do That on Television. It’s so much fun. In my opinion, both films are worth a shot, but if the grosser habits of ‘80s exploitation turn you away from 1984, don’t hesitate to give 1999 a try. It’s silly and tons of fun with friends or as a solo watch. Also you get to see robots explode into goop. What a time to be alive.