Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid

Repo Man (1984)

Repo Man | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

In the liner notes to a Flaming Lips compilation album, band member Wayne Coyne recounts a late-night college radio show he listened to regularly in 1984 that featured punk, indie, and hardcore music. He noticed a sudden, dramatic shift in the style of the American underground at this time; bands like R.E.M., Black Flag, Meat Puppets, and Butthole Surfers were radically transforming the dynamic. Coyne describes a Hüsker Dü cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” that combined the sonic thrash of hardcore with outdated 1960s hippie psychedelia. This juxtaposition was incredibly meaningful to him, a merger of two sounds and philosophies that appeared incompatible, an alloy of seemingly exclusive worldviews. Coyne wrote: “FINALLY THE PUNK-ROCKERS ARE TAKING ACID!!!!” He means this both figuratively and literally, consciousness expansion across countercultures across time, “as if identical twins separated at birth, after years of searching..,finally found themselves…”

That very same year, 1984, wading in the same marginalized subcultures, Alex Cox’s Repo Man was released in theaters. Its punk soundtrack—including tracks from Iggy Pop, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Suicidal Tendencies—would also help bridge the gap between the disparate elements of punk and psychedelia. Considering how absurd and anticlerical Repo Man is, it’s ironic that a devoted cult of aficionados liken it to a religious experience. Repo Man is like a piece of bubblegum with a shard of glass in it rather than a Bazooka Joe comic. It’s the sort of deranged prank that draws blood. It is an irreverent portrait of a naive rebel who mentors with a series of sage masters, is transformed through an existential awakening, and merges with the infinite. It is the education of a punk as mythic hero’s journey. Think Joseph Campbell meets Joey Ramone. 

The mid-‘80s was a paranoid and repressive era. In 1984, the McMartin family, purveyors of a daycare center, were the victims of the first wave of arrests in the satanic ritual abuse panic. It was the height of the Cold War, the AIDS crisis, the crack epidemic, and U.S. interventionism in Latin America. The Berlin Wall would not fall for another five years and the arms race continued. In 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker has a typical boomer reconciliation with his father, forgives him for his sins (along with the Muppet Việt Cộng Ewoks overthrowing the empire). Repo Man, an unassuming, low budget sci-fi satire, stands out as one of the funniest, most subversive, philosophically profound, and addictively quotable movies of the Reagan era (“Let’s go get sushi and not pay!”). The movie was a beacon, a transmission from outer space broadcasting that even in these dark, tacky, conservative days, a counterculture persists. Someone understands.

On paper, Repo Man might seem like any number of silly early-‘80s teeny bopper comedies. Boiled down to its basic plot, it sounds ludicrous: a series of eccentric misfits in LA are on a madcap quest to find a 1964 Chevy Malibu owned by a mad scientist that may or may not have radioactive alien artifacts hidden in the trunk. Add a couple horny kids, some bathroom humor, and you’ve got a disposable flop like Weird Science or Real Genius on your hands. It’s understandable that the literal-minded studio executives at Universal were confused when they saw the final cut of the movie. It was supposed to be a goofy, accessible romp—though it was, after all, produced by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees, whose own 1968 movie Head was actually quite deranged and trippy. Repo Man was deemed profane, politically radical, blasphemous, uncommercial, downright strange, and, most of all, offensive. This certainly wasn’t going to appeal to the youth demographic accustomed to the Porky’s or Meatballs franchises. 

Repo Man is a movie that defies categorization unless using multiple hyphens. It’s a punk rock document that captures the 1980s SoCal hardcore scene, yet it’s also a Cold War artifact that skewers the atomic age and the impending threat of nuclear annihilation. But it’s also a social satire that mocks religion, consumerism, politics, capitalism, U.S. foreign policy, and conspiracy theories. It’s an action-comedy-science-fiction hybrid, but it’s more like a meta parody of those styles, financed by a Hollywood studio despite having more in common with ‘70s grindhouse fare. Writer and director Alex Cox may as well throw in the proverbial kitchen sink. It is and isn’t all these things; it is the sum of its parts and none of them. It transcends genres, transcends labels, transcends time and space. Somehow this gonzo movie succeeds on every level—and Repo Man has more levels than baklava. It’s a minor miracle that it exists at all.

For all its achievements as a satire and genre piece, the more I meditate on Repo Man, the more interested I am in the philosophical journey taken by former punk and apprentice automobile repossessor Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez). Set against the backdrop of all these absurd, paranormal hijinks, he travels a demented path to enlightenment. The crux of the movie is not outlandish humor, jokes, or sight gags; it is a sincere spiritual training akin to Buddhist principles and esoteric spirituality. The movie oscillates back and forth between metaphysical investigations and comic book farce. Otto is torn between two schools of thought: warrior versus worrier. His education schisms between two masters, the materialistic code of the outlaw repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) and the spacey theories of the outsider Miller (Tracey Walter). (Cox named a number of repo characters after beers in an attempt to get free booze for the crew. It didn’t work.) 

Otto initially seems like just another off-the-rack punk stereotype, one of the human cartoon hooligans so prevalent in pop culture at the time (hellraisers, boneheads, gang leaders with mohawks and leather jackets). Otto rises above this trope. Repo Man even has its own cartoon (within a cartoon) punks: Duke, Archie, and Debbi, (imagine The Three Stooges on a crime spree), a Greek chorus who rip off every retail store Otto patronizes. The entire movie is just as inspired by Looney Tunes and Mad Magazine as it is B-movies like Kiss Me Deadly or Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns. Repo Man morphs from an absurd farce into an irreverent philosophical journey into parts unknown, a mystical realm beyond comprehension that is just around the corner from the everyday.

Repo Man teasingly disrupts the banal environment of normal life with a paranormal quest for the radioactive Chevy Malibu. The locations are boring—the kind of places invisible except to outsiders like expat Brit Alex Cox. Otto is an unassuming hero and the movie itself is set against a Nowheresville urban landscape as generic as the off-brand products so prominently featured: grocery store, liquor store, impound lot, railroad tracks, parking garage, junkyard. Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller, Repo Man’s DP, shot this the same year he worked on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. These kinds of dreary locales, hidden in plain sight, are what makes America distinctly American, but we don’t even notice them. It takes someone looking from the outside in, tapping the glass.

Otto is introduced while working at his menial supermarket job, stacking cans for the man. His annoying co-worker Kevin will not stop singing advertising jingles (“Feelin’ 7Up, I’m feelin’ 7Up”) and it pisses Otto off to no end. After his uptight boss chews him out for being late, Otto tells the soul sucking jerk to fuck off, rips the oppressive bow tie off his uniform, throws Kevin into the stack of cans, and flips the double bird as he exits. A rent-a-cop pulls a gun on him—it’s everyone’s take-this-job-and-shove-it fantasy. Otto later peruses the classifieds; the only jobs he finds are asbestos worker and fry cook. He moshes in a parking lot, he meets up with Duke, an ex-con pal of his fresh out of jail, and is then cuckolded by said ex-con. He drinks beers alone by the railroad tracks singing a Black Flag song until he wanders off and a mysterious stranger approaches with a proposition for him. Cue: “Call to adventure.”

Bud, a grizzled, over-the-hill repo man recruits Otto to work with him at the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, a euphemism if there ever was one. Bud takes him out on drives around the city, teaches him the way, the repo code, a sort of renegade libertarian chivalry. It’s a road movie where the characters are constantly driving, but don’t really go anywhere. In fact, they hardly leave the city limits. Bud speaks of duty, sacrifice, an honorable ethic to live by in a legally blurry enterprise. Being a repo man isn’t just a job to Bud, it is a way of life. Although he is a deviant on the fringes of polite society, a glorified thief repossessing cars from people (primarily people of color) who are behind on their payments, Bud considers this noble work, consumer justice served.

This apprenticeship impresses Otto. Somehow an anti-authoritarian punk like himself is won over by Bud’s sales pitch. Car chases and games of cops and robbers are certainly more exciting than stocking shelves at a grocery store. He takes Bud’s advice and dresses like a square to look like a plainclothes detective who might be packing a gun. A hitchhiker, Leila, says Otto looks more like a used car salesman. He brags about the life of a repo man and his newly elevated status. “I take back cars from dildos who don’t pay their bills. Cool, huh?” Apparently, doing the dirty work of the banks and private lenders is an honest way to make a living, protecting the private property rights of corporations by holding people’s possessions for ransom. The irony is lost on our protagonist. 

Bud’s philosophy is that by upholding the principles of the financial system, he performs an integral societal role, and will ultimately be rewarded. “Credit is a sacred trust, it’s what our free society is founded on,” he says. “I don’t want no commies in my car. No Christians either.” Although Bud might seem like a nocturnal creeper to most of the straight world—a damaged man that spends his nights snorting speed, drinking beer, and ripping off cars—he upholds the status quo, yet scorns average citizens. “Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ’em.” Bud is a wise man, a corrupter of youth, a master pontificator who loves the self-important sound of his own voice. You can only imagine his home life. Probably a sad studio apartment with a mattress on the floor next to a bottle of scotch, empty walls, and a case of beer in the fridge, maybe some leftover takeout from last week.

After Bud is eventually fired by Helping Hand for harassing a competitor and causing a lawsuit, Otto drives him through a derelict part of town full of check cashing places, liquor stores, and an overabundance of litter. Bud spits nails: “Fuckin’ trash. Makes you wonder how much they owe. Most of them are on the run. Don’t even use their fuckin’ social security numbers. If there’s just some way to find out how much the motherfuckers owe and making them pay.” Otto is shocked at this self-righteous attitude. “Jesus Christ, Bud. They’re winos. They don’t have any money. You think they’d be bums if they did?” Otto witnesses the ugly, hypocritical side of Bud’s code, and it sickens him, a set of rules and regulations meant to control people, keep them in their place. Maybe him, too.

Otto’s evolution as a hero works in stages, like locks in a canal. With Bud, he learns the way of the warrior, a gunslinger without a gun, a good thief. With Miller, Otto learns the way of the shaman. Miller is a bit of an odd duck. He dresses like a mechanic but talks like a guru. He works at the Helping Hand impound lot but doesn’t even know how to drive, and refuses to learn on principle. “The more you drive,” he says, “the less intelligent you are.” He does his best thinking on the bus and has far out ideas that warp the boundaries of reality.

When Otto returns from a botched repo job battered and bruised, Miller gyrates about him like a medicine man. He monologues while he and Otto congregate around a flaming barrel, burning garbage like hobos. Otto throws an L. Ron Hubbard knockoff called Dioretix into the fire. “A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on,” Miller says. “They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate of shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.” Otto’s reply to this is his typical punk cynicism: “You eat a lot of acid, Miller, back in the hippie days?”

This Bud/Miller dynamic parallels the culture wars of the 1980s. As opposed to Bud’s laws of man and the marketplace, Miller speaks of an eternal, immaterial world where there are things that cannot be bought or sold, cosmic rules rather than the systems of man. “You know the way everybody’s into weirdness right now?” Miller says. “Books in all the supermarkets about the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, how the Mayans invented television, that kind of thing?…Well the way I see it it’s exactly the same. There ain’t no difference between a flying saucer and a time machine.” Miller is the court jester wiser than the king, a cartoon character always seen in the exact same outfit, a dirty pair of coveralls. Otto learns to listen. For such an arch satire where nothing is sacred, Otto’s heroic voyage from punk nihilist to enlightened pupil is utterly sincere. He journeys from sneering punk to cosmic citizen. 

Cox views mankind’s philosophical and political struggles as essentially comic fodder. Bud, a seemingly sensible man, the capitalist agent, is destroyed by his own code. Bud goes mad, waving a gun around while wearing a hospital gown like an escaped mental patient, demanding compensation from the system for services rendered. Bud is riddled with bullets by federal agents because he ignores his own advice on a greedy quest for the Chevy Malibu: “Only an asshole gets killed for a car.” He dies an asshole. Every death in the movie, for that matter, is a joke. Every dingus is vaporized by the Chevy Malibu’s radioactive trunk. When Duke dies after the Mexican standoff during a liquor store robbery, he pathetically blames society for making him a criminal. “That’s bullshit,” Otto says. “You’re a white suburban punk just like me.” This is Otto’s most self-aware, heroic moment in the movie, realizing that he has led a life of privilege and benefited from it. The most he’s suffered so far is that his couch potato parents gave his allowance away to a greedy televangelist who happens to be in cahoots with the U.S. government to control alien technology. Otto now knows who he was, who he is, and who he can be.

Repo Man concludes with all the demented participants in the fiasco converging upon the Chevy Malibu in an attempt to control it: the church, the government, the conspiracy theorists, the repo men. It’s like a cast party in its excessive, silly fun. The fate of the Malibu is like the fate of the sword in the stone; it is meant only for the chosen ones. Everyone else who approaches the car is zapped by bolts of electricity. Only Miller, the shaman, the blind swordsman, is allowed to enter, even though he has no idea how to drive a car. He beckons Otto to ride shotgun, because he is pure of heart, and he walks the righteous path to the passenger seat. The glowing Malibu ascends into the sky and they take a joyride. They transcend time and space, transcend the political, transcend the material world, travel the speed of light, and venture off onto the astral plane. With so many accounts of alien abduction and UFOs in the 1980s, escaping the troubles of this world on a flying saucer seemed like a viable option. This sequence, accompanied by a cosmic surf guitar score by The Plugz is probably the most beautiful scene in any science fiction movie, followed by the conclusions of 2001 and Close Encounters.

What makes Repo Man’s ending particularly affecting is that, in the original draft of Cox’s script, the Chevy Malibu obliterates all of Los Angeles in a massive thermonuclear explosion. That is a standard, nihilist punk rock finale, a snide punchline. Cox reimagines the conclusion as a hallucinogenic journey, a merger of both hippie and punk yearnings for a different world: a bold, psychedelic one that fuses the future with the past.

This modern world of concrete, trash, strip malls, and chain stores is not inherently mystical. Maybe it’s what we deserve, though, a barren slab with a guy outside wearing a sandwich board advertising a BOGO deal. We Americans don’t seem worthy of magic or secret mysteries. We bulldozed all the sacred lands, paved over the ceremonial sites, and expelled the spiritual leaders. Still, we dreamers wait for that mysterious stranger to welcome us, the wrong man, into the unknown, into an exciting—possibly dangerous—narrative. We yearn for a life of genre fiction, an escape from the doldrums and into our daydreams. What we yearn for is freedom.