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film Repo Man at 40: A Journey Deep Into the Heart of LA Punk in the Age of Reagan

Set against the corrupt, soulless “greed is good” (or was it greed is god?) era of Reaganomics, the punk characters of Repo Man consist of cynical suburban youth...

Repo Man Film Poster 1984,Great Big Canvas

Alex Cox’s wildly entertaining take on American culture in the atomic age, Repo Man, had its 40th anniversary recently. With this milestone and the announcement of a sequel currently in development, it seems high time to revisit this underground classic. Cox’s marvelously bizarre film is the product of a vision honed as a student in UCLA’s film program, powered by unique narrative frame provided by a friend who worked as repo-man and took him on a few jobs.

As Roger Ebert would write in a review from 1984, “this is the kind of movie that baffles Hollywood, because it isn’t made from any known formula and doesn't follow the rules.” Adding context to these observations, Sam McPheeters, in “A Lattice of Coincidence,” included with the 2013 Criterion Collection edition, describes Repo Man as “an apocalypse tale with no doomsday, a punk movie with no concert, a science fiction story with less than ten seconds of aliens.”

The qualities Ebert and McPheeters so appreciate in Repo Man are due in no small measure to the iconoclastic edge Cox infused into the story through the inspiration of a script for a short film titled, “Leather Rubbernecks,” written by a punk friend, Dick Rude—also cast in the role of Duke, the film’s lead hooligan and frenemy of Otto (Emilio Estevez), the punk-turned-repo man lead.

Repo Man’s wild combination of apocalyptic tale, sci-fi, postmodernism and punk sensibility were fused in a story Rude describes in an interview also included in the Criterion edition, as “punk rock meets science fiction in Ronald Reagan’s house.” The crafty merging of such themes, fueled by the anti-establishment sonic mayhem reverberating from the punk scene of Southern California in the early 80s, helped cement the film’s cult status.

The frenetic riffs and caustic lyrics blasting from punk bands including Black FlagCircle JerksThe PlugzSuicidal Tendencies and FEAR carried a menace and chaotic urgency, tempered by a humorous irreverence that brilliantly complimented the film’s apocalyptic framing. With songs from these bands featured on the soundtrack, the SoCal punk scene and its spirit of defiance rise to the forefront of the story. The result is a film that unifies an array of madcap narrative threads with the shady profession of automobile repossession, as if with duct tape.

This unexpected merging of themes is initiated even before the film’s opening scene through the title sequence, whereby a route is traced on a radium green roadmap from Los Alamos, New Mexico, across Arizona, and into California. It’s set to the driving guitar of the Repo Man theme, born of a collaboration between punk icons Iggy Pop and Steve Jones. The clever use of these cinematic elements, accompanied by the iconic musical theme, serve as a sobering reminder of the radioactive contamination of large swathes of the American West, including the lands of several Native Nations

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The synthesis of the film’s diverse storytelling elements is displayed in the opening sequence,  featuring a 1964 Chevy Malibu. The car is driven by a screwball scientist named J. Frank Parnell, rendered impeccably by Fox Harris, and picks up where the map left off just west of Needles, California.

Here we find Parnell being pulled over by a motorcycle cop along a lonely stretch of highway that cuts through the Mojave Desert—“bat country” as Hunter S. Thompson famously referred to this liminal region in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The car’s New Mexico plates, 127 GBH—gives a nod to the British street punk band, GBH—another hint to its dubious origins.

The danger insinuated by these details is dramatically revealed when the officer inexplicably asks, “whatcha got in the trunk?” Parnell replies, “Oh, you don’t wanna look in there.” Proceeding with a search, the officer opens the trunk and is vaporized in a flash of blazing white light. His smoldering motorcycle boots are all that remain as the Malibu lurches back onto the road. With Parnell’s mysteriously lethal cargo now evident, his aura of kookiness, agitation, and paranoia is given a captivating source.

The Malibu’s origins enhance the mystery evoked in this scene, teasing at connections to Los Alamos and Roswell. Although Los Alamos has become even more well-known as the site of the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb through the wild success of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the latter holds a central place in UFO lore as the site, believed by some, of a 1947 UFO crash in which the bodies of extraterrestrials were recovered by the U.S. military, conjuring X-Files-type conspiracies.

Aside from the reveling in the weird and bizarre, Cox seems to also be utilizing such allusions to direct viewers’ attention to the wreckage of the Cold War, substantiating President Eisenhower’s dire warnings about the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” within the military-industrial complex. By 1984, this potential had become a terrifying reality, one that has grown ever more disastrous since.

As such, Repo Man’s exultation of B-movie sci-fi elements serves as a counter to the grim Cold War legacy from which it gathers meaning, providing an artistic outlet for social commentary and public dissent. For many youth of the 80s, the frenzied energy and outlandish irreverence of punk music served a similar function in confronting the despair and hopelessness of such harsh realities.

The opening’s lonesome desert setting also underscores the centrality of the automobile to Cox’s cinematic vision, with elements of the story evocative of the “road movie.” But as Ebert remarked, Repo Man is not reliant upon such narrative formulas.

As Sheri Linden, writing on the Criterion release, further notes, “it wouldn’t be wrong to call “Repo Man” a car movie, but it would be an understatement as sly as some of the film’s ultra-quotable dialogue.” Cox undermines these familiar formulas as he invokes them—a move that leverages familiar cinematic tropes while utilizing their ambiguities for misdirection, and as set-ups for the wild and profound revelations to come.

His representation of roads, thus, are evoked not as a way to some hard-won epiphany but as substantiation of the blob-like sprawl that made automobiles a necessity of life in Los Angeles, and the American West generally. The creeping metropolis Los Angeles became, invoking Richard Matheson’s story, is owing to development patterns necessitating vast networks of highways that reached out from the metropole in all directions like grasping tentacles. As Dewar MacLeod notes in Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California, this spawned “the emergence of postsuburbia . . . as the spatial expression of the stage of advanced capitalism.”

The film’s injection of punk energy is introduced through Otto and Kevin (Zander Schloss, who went on to play bass for the Circle Jerks). Portraying post-high school dead end misfits, audiences first encounter them as stock boys working in a grocery store called Pik ‘n Pay that sells only generic, white-labelled products. To Otto’s annoyance, Kevin sings the 7-Up jingle as they stack cans of “Yellow Cling Sliced Peaches” into a pyramid display.

The store manager, Mr. Humphries (Charles Hopkins), approaches with a security guard (Luis Contreras) in tow, chiding Otto for being late. Otto’s disregard for his schedule isn’t the worst of it, though, as Humphries zeroes in on what he sees as the deeper problem, saying, “you’re not paying attention to the way you space the cans.”

This trifling criticism underscores the mind-numbing purposelessness of much menial labor, leading into an inane lecture about responsibility in “these uncertain times . . .” Such empty sentiments represent the customary rebuke establishment types have used against young people for generations, while conveniently ignoring their own roles in creating the very ‘uncertainty’ of which they speak.

Otto, though, is hip to the Man’s game and aptly responds with a good ol’ “fuck you,” before shoving an amused Kevin into the display, bringing the peaches tumbling down. Otto tops off the outburst with a parting gesture of contempt, giving the manager and security guard the finger. True to form, the security guard draws his gun—displaying the authoritarian proclivity toward the use of excessive force in protecting the property and interests of corporations and the wealthy.

Kevin is fired for merely laughing at Otto’s actions as he would have, no doubt, taken his aggressive play like a shove in a mosh pit. Barking orders to the security guard, Humphries demands, “Luis, throw it out too.” His dehumanizing rhetoric underscores the powerlessness of workers in a society driven by the unprincipled and perfidious dictates of late capitalism in which the only escape for many is in looking forward to death.

These exchanges further speak to the lack of control many young people felt over their lives in the 80s within a society seemingly organized to enrich and empower the few at the expense of everyone else. It’s a situation that has only worsened in the ensuing decades, especially for women and people of color. The defiant punk ethic displayed by Otto, and others throughout the film, serves as a means of reclaiming social agency by refusing to become cogs in the capitalist machine.

Otto’s responses further recall the outrage expressed by the punk band FEAR in their 1982 song, “I Don’t Care About You,” dealing with the devaluation of human life in American society. The litany of indignity and suffering evoked by Lee Ving’s acerbic lyrics expose the callous disregard the mainstream Christian society so often holds for the most vulnerable, whereby those in greatest need are left to die on the streets of a nation celebrated as the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. Exceptionalism is a helluva drug.

Informed by Ving’s chorus, Otto’s insubordination is transformed into an ironic act of repudiation at the moral bankruptcy of our society in a voice parodying the ideologies of Reagan’s America and Jerry Falwell’s “moral majority:”

I’ve seen men rollin’ drunks,
bodies in the street,
I saw a man that was sleepin’ in puke,
and a man with no legs crawling down 5th street,
trying to get something to eat!
I don’t care about you!
Oh nooo!
I don't care about you!
Fuck you!

Set against the corrupt, soulless “greed is good” (or was it greed is god?) era of Reaganomics, the punk characters of Repo Man consist of cynical suburban youth who saw the weaponized faux-virtue and hollow patriotism for the scheming charades they were.

One of the things that makes Cox’s anti-establishment message so enthralling is that he is careful to avoid replicating binary systems that reproduce an us versus them model. This becomes apparent in the following scene where we catch up with Otto moshing amongst a group of punks to the Circle Jerk’s song, “Coup d’état”—one of the numerous references in the film to American military intervention abroad.

An old friend, Duke, arrives fresh out of the “slammer” wearing a t-shirt featuring Sid Vicious under the print, “I did it my way.” He joins the fray locking onto Otto for what is known as a ‘strangle dance’ (see, for instance, 0:12 to 0:15). The scene culminates with Otto in bed with a mohawked punk rock girl, Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin), who asks him to fetch some beer. He returns to find Duke and Debbie making out and leaves in disappointment.

Proclaiming a loose devotion to chaos and anarchy, Southern Californian punks of the 80s seemed more interested in exploring radical forms of self-expression and non-conformity over efforts to establish any kind of permanent, cohesive in-group. Punk music and culture, at its most basic, offered a means of escape from the neglect, despair and privation of capitalist society rather than some utopian enclave of doctrinaire resistance.

Even with its limitations and flaws, as one of the punk characters say of an abandoned neighborhood used as a squat in the Penelope Spheeris 1983 film Suburbia, it’s “the best home most of us ever had.” For punks growing up in the “fragmented metropolis” of Los Angeles, as McLeod notes, “suburban areas of Southern California underwent changes that would lead, by the 1980s, to the characterization of . . . a new social formation: exurbia, edge cities, or postsuburbia.”

Spheeris further exposes the nature of this fantasy through the perspective of an ordinary teenager, Evan (Bill Coyne), who leaves his abusive home after being slapped and belittled by his mother and subsequently taken in by a punk named Jack (Chris Pedersen). As they drive through the seemingly endless Los Angeles sprawl, Evan pulls out his mother’s dairy, which he’d taken after being told he “was the biggest mistake she ever made.”

He reads, “Mark and I are gonna be very happy here. The air is clear, skies are blue, and all the houses are brand new and beautiful. They call it suburbia and that word’s perfect because it’s a combination of ‘suburb’ and ‘utopia.’”

Conditioned by similar experiences and feeling even more jaded by his time on the streets, Jack can see the irony of her shattered dreams, observing, “they didn’t realize it would be the slum of the future.” A similar lack of a stable home life and hope for the future leads Otto to a chance meeting with the wily, veteran repo man, Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, RIP), and onto a collision course with Parnell’s Chevy Malibu.

Although punk culture emerged simultaneously in Great Britain and America in the mid-70s, its peculiarities are best understood as reactions to local conditions. Drawing contrast between the emergent punk scenes of London with that of Los Angeles through the 70s and early 80s, in Hardcore California: A History of Punk and New Wave, Peter Belsito and Bob Davis identify a key distinction. They remind that the SoCal punk scene wasn’t “dealing with English economic oppression. L.A. Punks were investigating fashion anarchy and musical chaos as a way of striking back at the complacent, dull scene they had suffered for the last decade.”

The sense of displacement and decenteredness pervading Los Angeles is emphasized through Repo Man’s weird characters, gaining particular significance through its depictions of punk culture. This is starkly evident in the wanderings and actions of punk characters, Duke, Debbi and Archie (Miguel Sandoval), functioning as a means of self-exile and withdrawal to the fringes of society.

Otto’s initiation into the seedy world of automobile repossession merges two sets of social outcasts in punks and repo men, both of which survive on the margins. Yet, the life of a repo man isn’t one that Otto exactly chooses, either.

Instead, he is duped when a stranger—who turns out to be Bud—pulls up alongside asking for help in moving a car, claiming his “old lady” is sick and pregnant. Otto is naturally suspicious and rebuffs the offer. After some spirited back and forth, Bud promises Otto $25 to drive his wife’s car out of “this bad area.” Otto agrees and commandeers the car Bud has identified just as its actual owner runs out to stop him, with “El Clavo Y La Cruz” by Latinx punks, The Plugz providing musical accompaniment.

Bud’s ruse is exposed when he leads Otto to the impound yard of the “Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation.” Foreshadowing impending entanglements, Parnell’s Malibu appears out of nowhere on the highway, almost crashing into Bud and Otto while in route. Upon their arrival, Otto follows Bud into the office for his reward, with the manager, Oly (Tom Finnegan), tossing him a beer. Realizing his involvement in this unsavory profession, Otto says, “you’re all repo men,” before pouring the beer onto the floor in a show of contempt.

Recalling the grocery store scene, instead of being lectured or worse by the repo crew with Bud teasing at the possibility, saying, “you know, kid, usually when someone pulls shit like that my first reaction is, I wanna punch his fuckin' lights out.” Bud’s words, however, are more an initiation with his purpose revealed as he then asks, “but you know something?” in a shift serving as a cue to Oly, with whom he delivers the punchline, “you’re all right!”

Oly takes it from there: “whatd’ya say, kid, we’re always on the lookout for a few good men.” Otto scoffs at the offer, exclaiming, “screw that, I ain’t gonna be no repo man. No way!” Just as he’s ready to leave, however, the receptionist, Marlene (Vonetta McGee) reminds him, “it’s too late, you already are,” counting out his payment. Accepting the cash, Otto substantiates his participation in an industry he disdains. His actions illustrate the difficulty in avoiding complicity in systems of capitalist exploitation that we might otherwise condemn, while placing ourselves in senseless conflict with people most like us.

This is emphasized in Oly’s banter with a man already in the office to retrieve his car when Bud arrives, telling him it’s the “best goddamn car on the lot.” Handing over the payment, the man replies, “you damn right it is!” The unremitting tussle over motor vehicles as property and symbols of status, also speaks to the automobile’s function as an object of freedom and personal liberty within a hyper-individualistic, materialistic society. Yeah, society . . . right? we’ll return to that later.

Through Cox’s skillful weaving of the film’s divergent storylines, we find Otto with Kevin discussing a future that isn’t looking so bright after all, shades or not. As Kevin shares his aspirations to advance from fry cook to manager, Otto balks at a future reduced to such a trifling existence trapped in a low-wage job.

Returning home on a bus with “Edge City” displayed as the destination, Otto seeks an escape from the stultifying existence closing in on him. Upon entering this house, his parents are sitting nearly catatonic having a TV party more mind-numbing even than the one described by Black Flag, which he’d sang after leaving Debbi. With little else to do, instead of drinking “a couple of brews” they smoke marijuana while watching a crooked televangelist—I know, aren’t they all?—named Reverend Larry (Bruce White).

The reverend preaches on the reward of salvation, but with the condition that his flock heed god’s call to religious warfare and “destroy the twin evils of godless communism abroad and liberal humanism at home.” As an embodiment of the trademark megalomania and hucksterism of such figures, he continues addressing accusations of greed levelled by critics, shamelessly responding, “they’re right, I do want your money, because God wants your money.” It continues from there with Cox underscoring the venality of this particular brand of con artistry that preys on the ignorant, meek and desperate.

The reason for Otto’s visit is soon revealed when he asks his father about a promise of $1000 to encourage him to attend college, claiming he now sees the importance of an education. Instead of getting the money when he graduates, Otto bluntly asks if he can have it before, “like now.” His father’s listless reply, “I don’t have it anymore,” reflects the stupefying effects of Christian fundamentalism, while his mother clarifies, “your father gave all our extra money to the reverend’s telethon . . . we’re sending Bibles to El Salvador.”

Cox deploys such scenes to highlight the ills of religious indoctrination, drawing ironic attention to the fact that throughout the 80s the Reagan administration was financing and supporting assaults by vicious death squads against civilians in El Salvador and other Central American nations. Aside from his depictions of Rev. Larry, Cox also lobs hilarious pot shots at the pseudo-scientific dogma of L. Ron Hubbard, which Mike Davis in City of Quartz called “a cosmology derived from the pages of Astounding Science Fiction,” and lampooned throughout Repo Man as “Dioretix.”

With his options dwindling, Otto returns to Helping Hand, signing on as Bud’s understudy and partner. Riffing on Cox’s use of classic western tropes, Linden describes the pair as “new age cowboys,” emphasizing another evocative layering of referentiality. It’s a theme that isn’t just metaphorical either, with a unique combination of comic relief provided by the company’s resident guru, Miller (Tracey Walter), who peppers the repo crew with pop-philosophy takes on everything from coincidence, the Bermuda triangle, UFOs and time travel, to John Wayne’s alleged kink.

The bleak financial outlook leads Otto into the world of automobile repossession, while precipitating the narrative shift focused on the repo men and Parnell as the prevalent pattern. This is reinforced by a return to the scene of Parnell’s traffic stop where we learn he is being surveilled by intelligence agents from the NSA—a government agency at the core of the military-industrial complex. Clad in standard-issue grey suits and donning mirrored sunglasses, the clone-like agents are headed by a female intelligence officer named Rogersz (Susan Barnes). Since little is ordinary in the off-kilter world Cox dreams up, she sports a metal hand, adding yet another zany element to the film.

Orchestrating a cover-up of the patrolman’s grisly death, Rogersz glosses over his apparent incineration when speaking with the local deputy on the scene, attributing it to “natural causes,” while dismissively adding, “it happens sometimes. People just explode.” Before he can respond, Rogersz withdraws into an unmarked delivery truck that serves as a mobile command center.

Inside, she reviews a top-secret dossier on Parnell labelled “do not notify police.” A $20,000 reward for the Malibu’s recovery is issued instead. This comes to the attention of Helping Hand, drawing its crew of repo men into the search, as well as their rivals, the ‘outlaw’ Rodriguez brothers. That the truck is guarded by an agent in a hazmat suit gives another ominous hint at the hazardous cargo in Parnell’s trunk.

The accretion of themes from consumerism, societal disintegration and government conspiracy, to the implications of space aliens held at military bases, à la Megadeth’s “Hangar 18,”converge in the search for the Malibu. The nature of the stakes is revealed in the numerous repos and car chases that consume the characters throughout. It’s notable that the first of these showdowns between Bud, accompanied by Otto, and the Rodriguez brothers, takes place in the paved Los Angeles River—a place where the reterritorialization of the American West is most starkly depicted.

With Bud hurling insults after spinning out while the Rodriguez brothers recede into the distance, Otto expresses his delight in the exhilarating nature of the job, exclaiming, “Wow, that was intense.” Bud’s iconic reply, “repo man’s always intense,” meshes with Otto’s freewheeling punk attitude, reinforcing a commitment not based on any real zeal for the job itself, but for the thrill of the chase and the exhilaration of speed.

Being that the repo industry derives from an economic system that is often exploitative and predatory, it seems unfair to heap the blame on the so-called ‘delinquents’ created by such conditions. This, despite Bud’s half-baked assertion that “credit is a sacred trust, it’s what our free society is founded on.”

These claims notwithstanding, Bud is far from the mold of the “true believer” as conceived by Eric Hoffer. Conversely, he’s an individualist sort who condemns communism and Christianity in the same breath, while flaunting a strong misanthropic streak and seeing his fellow Americans as “assholes,” before adding, “ordinary fucking people. I hate ‘em.”

It’s an attitude well-suited for the dangerous situations that come with being a repo man, and fundamental to what Bud promotes as “the repo code.” The hazards he speaks of with Otto in this context serve as another provocation for the film’s concerns. The broader ideas raised are also evocative of the anxiety and paranoia associated with structures of institutional power that the so-called postmodern condition was reactive to.

Despite the Malibu being the focus of the film’s intersecting narrative threads, Parnell’s identity and motives remain obscure. Cox likewise defers any disclosure of what’s in the Malibu’s trunk until halfway through the film when Otto picks up a woman named Leila (Olivia Barash) he spots walking the street, seemingly in distress since, as Missing Persons has taught us, “nobody walks in LA.”

Leila supplies the answer by showing Otto an indistinct photo of what she claims are “four dead aliens.” Otto can only laugh at the ridiculousness of her assertion, prompting more bizarre details. Among these, she claims to be part of a “secret network” seeking to make contact with the scientist who “smuggled them out of an Air Force base in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu.”

Arriving at Leila’s destination, things only get kookier as the sign on the building reads: “United Fruitcake Outlet.” The emergence of another conspiratorial storyline ratchets the comic effect while reinforcing sci-fi themes. Yet, even with the details Leila provides, Parnell’s role remains ambiguous, evoking more questions.

Interspersed between scenes portraying the repo men and the Rodriguez brothers, along with the movements of Parnell, Leila and the government agents, the exploits of Duke, Debbie and Archie keep bubbling up at the margins as they rob their way across Los Angeles. The gang’s crime spree culminates when they steal the Malibu from the Rodriguez brothers just after they’d snatched it from Parnell at a gas station where the ubiquitous Kevin was working as an attendant.

Soon after, Duke and company encounter Otto at a bar where the Circle Jerks are doing a lounge-style rendition of “When the Shit Hits the Fan.” He’s there for a meeting with Leila and Agent Rogersz, who’s pursuing the Malibu. After a brief exchange Duke, oblivious of the Malibu’s value, leaves in disgust at Otto’s transformation into a repo man, exclaiming, “fuck this, let’s go do some crimes.”

In the parking lot outside, they find Parnell next to the Malibu with Debbi yelling, “what the fuck are you doing with our car?” Parnell responds with surprise, “your car... are you sure? This looks like my car.” With the gang escalating their threats in an attempt to intimidate Parnell, he plays it cool and asks, “what’s in the trunk?” Duke's response, “what do you mean?” signals his increasing agitation which he expresses by crowding Parnell against the wall.

Unfazed, Parnell’s questions serve as his own form of taunting as he seizes his opening by saying, “I think you’re afraid to find out.” Duke’s fuming response, “I ain’t afraid of nothin,’ see,” exposes his fragile ego. Such anger gives Parnell further encouragement as he continues, while expressing feigned concern, “it’s all right, I don’t blame you for being afraid.” Duke reiterates his fearlessness at this provocation, while Debbi and Archie goad him to violence.

We see where this is headed, but just as Duke starts to open the trunk he recoils after burning his hand. Debbi intervenes as he readies to try again, pushing him out of the way, thus, saving his life. Archie steps up to assert his dominance, while mocking Duke. His rise is short-lived as he is incinerated upon opening the trunk like the officer—but definitely with more style as his mohawk remains visible when he is vaporized, leaving only his combat boots behind. Debbi sets up another iconic line, hiding her fear by feigning disinterest, saying, “come on, Duke, let’s go do those crimes,” to which Duke responds shaken, “yeah, yeah, let’s go get sushi and not pay.”

The closest we get to learning Parnell’s backstory occurs just after he stops to offer a pursuing Otto a ride. With Otto saying he represents the Helping Hand Acceptance Corp.; Parnell cuts in with a rambling tirade defending the safety of radiation and lamenting the cancelling of his work due to some “half-baked goggle-box do-gooders.” Speaking to the personal impact of these events, Parnell continues, “when they canceled the project it almost did me in. One day my mind was full to bursting. The next day, nothing. Swept away. But I'll show them. I had a lobotomy in the end.”

Astonished, Otto asks, “lobotomy? Isn’t that for loonies?” Parnell’s emphatic response, “Not. At. All,” belies his denial while signaling a dissociative break through a shift to a third person perspective, teasing at his involvement in government nuclear weapons programs:

“Friend of mine had one. Designer of the neutron bomb. You ever hear of the neutron bomb? Destroys people—leaves buildings standing. Fits in a suitcase. It’s so small, no one knows it’s there until . . . Blammo! Eyes melt, skin explodes, everybody dead. So immoral, working on the thing can drive you mad. That’s what happened to this friend of mine. So he had a lobotomy. Now he's well again.”

Dystopia without apocalypse, or as Jello Biafra sang it with Dead Kennedys: “efficiency and progress is ours once more/now that we have the neutron bomb./It's nice and quick and clean and gets things done,/ away with excess enemy . . . Gonna kill, kill, kill, kill, kill the poor,/kill, kill, kill, kill, kill the poor, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill the poor tonight.” But we should also heed the words of The Weirdos, who while acknowledging that “we have the neutron bomb,” make clear, “we don’t want it, don’t blame me.”

And if there were still any doubts about Parnell, Otto asks what kind of car his friend drives, with the answer being: “a Chevy Malibu.” Before Otto can extract more information, Parnell collapses unto the steering wheel. Otto drags him from the car, placing his body on a bench, and departs in the Malibu. The pursuing agents soon locate the corpse, setting it ablaze with a flame thrower. This sequence of events sets up the film’s conclusion, bringing everyone together for a wildly bizarre finale.

Weeeellll, almost everyone, that is, except for Duke. He, as the western formula demands, goes out in an absurdist blaze of glory during a final liquor store robbery with Debbi, which is interrupted by Bud and Otto. The clerk, Bud and Humphries’ security guard, who is also inexplicably in the store, are all mortally wounded in standoff cinematographer Robby Müller offers in homage to that featured in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and also replayed in subsequent LA films from Reservoir Dogs to Boogie Nights.

Duke’s dying statement perfectly sums up the film’s satirist message, while going down as among its most famous lines as he laments to Otto, “I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society...society made me what I am!!!”

Otto’s classic response, “that’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk just like me,” brings the story full circle. While Otto’s response might seem like a joke, in the context of the LA punk scene an important distinction is being drawn. This is clarified by Belsito and Davis, who remind that hardcore punk, as represented by the likes of Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Youth Brigade and Wasted Youth among others, emerged from the suburbs of Los Angeles and “underlined a separation between the South Bay working class kids and the post-glitter Hollywood punks.”

Mike Ness, founder of the iconic punk band Social Distortion from Fullerton, is even more explicit in his response to the urban/suburban distinction, “just because we live in a suburban setting, what? There isn’t alcoholism in the home? There isn’t child abuse? There isn’t fucking abandonment? There isn’t fucking addiction? You’re fucking confused, man.”

With Duke choking through his final words, “but it still hurts,” we are confronted with a haunting question and also, maybe, a realization: can there be any escape from the systems of control and violence imposed by governments, religious institutions and corporations, but also ourselves; or much less the inscrutable mysteries of the world and universe that demarcate our lived experiences in so many myriad and sundry ways?

Bud offers as good an answer as any in his own spectacular death scene after being shot again by one of Rogersz snipers from a circling helicopter as he approaches the now glowing Malibu in the impound yard: “I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” Although Bud’s words echoes a punk-like outlook, he’s actually quoting the famed Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Given the film’s context, his choice is exquisite.

With that, what else is left to say? A lot, obviously, but for me, it’s enough. More than enough. And isn’t the fullness of meaning conveyed by a profusion of disparate themes and narrative threads what makes Repo Man such a wonderfully unique and enduring film? A delightfully weird b-movie that our awareness of the nature of time and history, life and death are now finally, or at least, closer to catching up with, and thus, warranting its standing as a classic of contemporary cinema.

So, even if its themes have grown more urgent in the four decades since its release—unblinking, yet also laughing, in the face of the exposure of a rot more sinister and eviler than any extraterrestrials from outer space might conjure—we can laugh along with it to ease our most cynical suspicions while facing our deepest fears in all their horrible ugliness and sublime beauty.

This article was written over the last two months amid some intense mourning. It’s dedicated to the memory of dear loved ones lost during this time: Mr. Batty, Jason West, and Chris Wham. While you are now free of this mortal coil, the enduring gift of your presence will never be forgotten!  

The opinions expressed here are solely the author's and do not reflect the opinions or beliefs of the Hollywood Progressive.


Billy J. Stratton is originally from Eastern Kentucky, the son of a coal miner. He earned a PhD in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and currently teaches contemporary Native American/American literature, film, and critical theory in the Department of English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver.