Alex Cox’s ‘REPO MAN’ (1984)

Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Photofest. Copyright Universal Pictures

by Lawrence Maddox

The life of a repo man is always intense.” When I first heard character actor Tracey Walter close Alex Cox’s Repo Man with this utterance, I could’ve sworn these were words to live by.

It was 1984, and I walked out of the movie theatre electrified. I felt I’d been waiting for this movie all my life. Repo Man, about a young punk rocker named Otto (Emilio Estevez), who falls in with a band of car repossessors (led by Harry Dean Stanton), only to end up pursuing a Chevy Malibu with dead space aliens in the trunk, combined my great teenage passions of B-movies and punk rock––all played out in my own Los Angeles backyard.

I blame my older brother Mitch for my pre-teen predilection for cheese-ball horror and sci-fi. Seven years my senior, his room was decorated with the Aurora monster model kits he’d meticulously paint and glue together. He got me hooked on Famous Monsters magazine, and, most importantly, introduced me to late night TV horror host Seymour.

Seymour, archly portrayed by Larry Vincent in black cape and hat, would hilariously goof on the movies he’d show. Be it the classic Dracula, or Attack of the Mushroom People, you could count on him to mercilessly rip the films apart while trying to figure out how to crash the ever-present party down the street. When I got older, you could often find me and my high school pals hitting the raucous B-movie screenings at South Pasadena’s Rialto, or at the Egyptian II, the small theatre hidden away in the back of the old Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard.

I’m not trying to paint Repo Man into a B-Movie corner, but it does have some of those trappings. The first scene begins with a motorcycle cop pulling over a weaving Dodge Charger driven by an obvious lunatic, a mad scientist involved with the neutron bomb, we later learn. When the cop opens the trunk, a green ray shoots out, evaporating him down to his boots. B-movie all the way.

The new music, underground punk, seemed like our secret.

But the true face of the film is revealed right off the bat, in the opening credit sequence. A map of Los Alamos, New Mexico––monochromatic, as it would appear on a 1980s computer monitor––is jump cut into closer angles to follow the mad scientist’s route, presumably to Los Angeles. No fade-ups on the blazing red credits, but hard cuts, intercut with the map. The sequence is driven by Iggy Pop’s punky “Repo Man” theme song, which to me was like a shout from the fringes. You just didn’t put Iggy up front in a movie back then unless you wanted to make a statement. I remember leaning forward in my seat, thinking, “I’m in for something different.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, I heard a lot of rock ‘n’ roll radio. I also had the benefit of two older brothers with hundreds of hard rock albums. I’ll admit that I was a card-carrying member of the ELO Fan Club, but I started to wonder, where was my music?

My junior high school pal Mark seemed light years ahead when it came to new bands, and it was he who first played me records by now famous groups like the Ramones and the Clash, and still obscure LA bands like the Weirdos and the Naughty Sweeties. KROQ, Rodney Bingenheimer and Peter Ivers’ local New Wave Theatre on UHF all clinched it for me. We named our school bowling team DOA, after the Canadian punk outfit, and we all started learning instruments so we could start our own band.

Deep down, I didn’t hate disco as much as my friends did, but the new music, underground punk, seemed like our secret. You didn’t hear it on the big radio stations like the Mighty MET, or even in otherwise cool movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High. My favorite band, X, called it “the unheard music.”

In Repo Man, after the motorcycle cop gets zapped, we meet Otto. Around my age when I first saw it, Otto gets fired from his lousy grocery store job when he tells his boss, “Fuck you!” He goes to some back alley mosh party, “Coup d’État” by the Circle Jerks blaring, only to lose his girl to a reform school friend. He winds up alone by the railroad tracks, singing Black Flag’s “TV Party” at dawn.

It’s a new day and a bad neighborhood. Stanton drives up and offers him what turns out to be the chance of a lifetime. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.