Revenge movies had their heyday in the seventies with the release of high-profile innovators like The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave as well as more underground imitators such as Death Weekend and Poor Pretty Eddie. The eighties had their punks-gone-wild movies like Class of 1984, Tuff Turf, and Bad Boys. In 1984, a movie called Savage Streets mashed these two exploitation subgenres together in the most magnificent way.
Savage Streets is about a young woman named Brenda (Linda Blair, best known as the possessed girl in The Exorcist) who is the de-facto leader of a tough group of high school girls. One night, Brenda and her gals get into an argument with The Scars, a gang of thugs led by a ferocious punk named Jake (The Borrower’s Robert Dryer), that culminates in the ladies trashing the guys’ car. This begins a series of events which includes the gang-rape of Brenda’s deaf-mute sister, Heather (Linnea Quigley from Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), and the killing of her best friend, Francine (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter’s Lisa Freeman). Of course, Brenda does not take any of this lying down; she systematically hunts and kills Jake’s boys, saving Jake himself for last.
If it sounds like that synopsis gives away the whole movie, that’s because it kind of does. Directed by Danny Steinmann (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning) from a script he wrote with Norman Yonemoto (Chatterbox!) with a little uncredited rewrite help from producer John C. Strong III (A Show of Force), Savage Streets is a fairly predictable film, built more on shock than surprise, and full of brutal violence and disturbing behavior that never tricks the audience into thinking that something they haven’t seen is coming. Brenda’s plan is essentially laid out from the first scene, when she is shown window shopping for bear traps and crossbows, her weapons of choice in her as-yet unplanned (and unprovoked) attacks on the thugs. Essentially, what you see with Savage Streets is what you get; an ultra-violent revenge tale, nothing more, nothing less.
Of course, predictability of plot comes with the territory with exploitation flicks, and Savage Streets is an exploitation flick, through and through. The script is full of brainless dialogue, gratuitous violence, and pointless nudity. At one point, Brenda gets into a fight with another girl, and it happens to conveniently occur in the middle of their post-gym class shower where they are surrounded by half-naked girls. The gang-rape scene is, although mercifully short, extremely brutal, and shown in a way that leaves little to the imagination. Because of this, the audience relishes in Jake’s demise almost as much as Brenda does, even though she, trying to stretch out his pain, leaves him an opening where he (of course) musters up the strength and fortitude to turn the tables on her, even with crossbow arrows sticking out of both of his quadriceps. The violence, while purposeful, is sensationalized for emotional impact, whether that emotion is repulsion or amusement.
While Linda Blair is about as famous as any of the cast members in Savage Streets gets (although Linnea Quigley has her hard-core fans), there are plenty of familiar faces in the film. John Vernon, the dean from Animal House, shows up as Brenda’s high school principal who’s always leering at her inappropriately. Paula Shaw, who would go on to portray Jason’s mother in Freddy vs. Jason, appears as the owner of the club where Brenda and her friends hang out. Johnny Venocur from Lord of Illusions and Sal Landi from Maniac both play members of The Scars. And, because it’s an exploitation flick, Suzee Slater (Chopping Mall), Rebecca Perle (Tightrope), and Kristi Somers (Hell Comes to Frogtown, Return to Horror High) supply the film’s blonde eye candy.
Although it’s never mentioned in the film, it’s clear to anyone who has ever been there that Savage Streets is set in Los Angeles. The opening scenes before the initial confrontation between Brenda’s friends and Jake’s gang take place right on Hollywood Boulevard, the gang walking past building-size murals and the girls trotting over the Walk of Fame stars. The high school in the film is Palisades High School, the same school that has been seen in movies like Carrie, Freaky Friday, and The Glass House. The scene of Brenda’s friend’s murder is a bridge over the Los Angeles River Basin, the site of the Thunder Road race in Grease. Finally, a cemetery shown in the film is the same one that’s featured in the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Savage Streets never says it takes place in L.A., preferring to keep the big, tough city anonymous, but the landmarks don’t lie. Los Angeles plays itself as an additional character in the film.
The photographic look of Savage Streets is a slick blend of the glimmery lights of Hollywood and the gritty grime of grindhouse – a true modern exploitation flick. Cinematographer Stephen L. Posey (Bloody Birthday, The Slumber Party Massacre) embraces all the blood, guts, and gore in the film without making it look cheap, so the effect is that of a high-budget B-movie. There’s a stark contrast between the neon-lit darkness of the evening scenes and the bright sunlight of the daytime shots, making it seem as if all of the characters are living double lives – one in the stark light of day, and the other in the shadows of the night.
The music in Savage Streets is one of the most memorable aspects of the film. Yes, there’s a typically eighties synth-and-drum score by Michael Lloyd (“The Land of the Lost”) and John D’Andrea (Child’s Play 3), but the real draw is the Survivor-esque arena rock fight anthems that play during the montage sequences. The bulk of the musical selections were performed by pop singer and one-time Little River Band frontman John Farnham, although they rock harder than anything Little River Band ever did in its wildest, most acid-induced dreams. With titles like “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way” and “Justice For One,” the soundtrack to Savage Streets is the perfect musical accompaniment for Brenda’s dishing out of sweet vengeance on the punks that did her wrong.
Linda Blair would end up revisiting the killer punks revenge theme a few years later when she made Grotesque. As much fun as that one is, it can’t hold a candle to Savage Streets; the punks aren’t as wretched, there’s no Linnea Quigley, and, most importantly, the soundtrack doesn’t rock nearly as hard.