PUNK VACATION (1990) Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director: Stanley Lewis
Vinegar Syndrome

Two rare 1980s regional biker flicks ride out onto Blu-ray/DVD combo courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome.

Nothing happens in the little town of Tahachapi, California until it is invaded by a gang of punk bikers looking like extras from John McTiernan’s NOMADS (1986) on vacation. When Billy (Rob Garrison, THE KARATE KID) loses fifty cents in a malfunctioning soda machine, the gang kills the shotgun-toting grocery shop owner (Raymond Fusci) and traumatizes his younger daughter Sally (Karen Renee). Officer Steve Reed (producer Stephen Fusci acting under the name “Stephen Fiachi”, ANIMAL INSTINCTS) arrives too late but accidentally hits Billy with his car and puts him in the hospital. Hiding out at an abandoned ranch, the gang want to hightail it out of there, but leader Ramrod (Roxanne Rogers, 976-EVIL) refuses to leave until they can rescue Billy who will be taken to Los Angeles County lock-up when he is sufficiently recovered. Sally’s older sister Lisa (Sandra Bogan, FATAL BEAUTY) tries to take the law into her own hands and attacks Billy, but she is stopped by Steve. When she conveniently overhears a call at the police station reporting trespassers at the ranch, she goes up there herself and gets captured. When Steve and fellow officer Don (Don Martin) rescue Lisa and kill some of the gang in the process, Ramrod declares war on the town; but the militant sheriff (Louis Waldon, LONESOME COWBOYS) and the Tahachapi’s local gun club are already on the offensive.

As far as regional low budget action flicks go, PUNK VACATION is not particularly ambitious; but it is slickly-produced and entertaining. Rather than portraying the punks as nihilistic psychopaths, the film actually spends more time delineating their characters and viewpoints – for more than just comic relief – than it does on the good guys (who seem like cardboard cut-outs in comparison). Fusci makes for a rather sullen lead, but Bogan is charming and gets in the heroics (without getting tied up again) during the climax. The best performance comes from Rogers as the gang’s Eva Peron; she’s showy but not as over-the-top (and perhaps intentionally bad) as Waldon’s sheriff (“Did Patton call in the State Troopers when he took Iwo Jima?”). What style the film has comes largely from the photography of Daryn Okada, who photographed the California vistas of PHANTASM II in a similar fashion (Don Coscarelli regular Roberto Quezada shot second unit on this film), the punk make-up and hair styling, and the underscoring of Ross Vannelli and Ed Grenga which only seems half-a-decade or so behind the times because the film’s title card features a 1987 copyright – according to the extras, it was started in 1984 – although it was not released until 1990 direct-to-video from Raedon Home Video.

PUNK VACATION’s 1.85:1 image is beautiful to behold on both the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded Blu-ray and the 16:9-enhanced DVD in the package; and Vinegar Syndrome has finally made the upgrade to lossless audio with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track (standard Dolby Digital 2.0 on the DVD) that wonderfully highlights the music track without overwhelming any of the dialogue. Whereas their previous Blu-ray/DVD combo releases reproduced the same extras on both discs, PUNK VACATION has a large photo gallery as the sole extra on the Blu-ray. The DVD features PUNK VACATION in standard-definition along with the bonus feature NOMAD RIDERS – another Fusci production from 1982 – as well as two interviews (see below) and the still gallery.

When mobster Vacchi (director Frank Roach, FROZEN SCREAM) sends the biker trio “The Marauders” – Grenades (Wayne Chema), Cannibal (Richard Kluck), and Crud (Ron Gregg) – to shake up cop Steve Thrust (Tony Laschi), they get overzealous and blow up his wife and daughter with a grenade. His captain (Bill Carter, ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME) wants him as far away from the case as possible, so Thrust quits the force and goes after Vacchi himself. Aware that Thrust is gunning for him, Vacchi sends his own quartet of enforcers – including producer Fusci – after recently released snitch Charlie Larson (Don Martin again) before Thrust can get to him; however, they get sidetracked when they learn that “The Marauders” are looking for a bigger cut of Vacchi’s business. Meanwhile, Thrust has grabbed Charlie and is using him to hunt down both Vacchi and the bikers.

While NOMAD RIDERS is the lesser film on the disc, it’s still quite entertaining for all its shortcomings. The film was also shot by Daryn Okada (with additional photography by Roberto Quezada), but this earlier effort looks professional but unspectacular; and Rob Walsh’s synth score makes me wonder if the film was temp-tracked partially with Tangerine Dream cues. The Tehachapi locations also look very different from what we saw in PUNK VACATION. The story is less predictable if only because it’s busier, and the grenade explosions – and a scalping – provide some novelty amid the usual bullet hits. Lead Laschi is no thespian, so his slow motion reaction to seeing his family blown-up is more laughable as his Charles Bronson-isms as he blows away bikers and mobsters. The script also has the captain put a tail on Thrust almost solely in order to give the mourning, vengeful cop a love interest (and a tame bedroom interlude). The barroom sequences may be the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen with under-endowed strippers in granny panties gyrating to one of the most annoying songs ever heard on film (a visit to a brothel provides some better views of scantily-clad bodies). NOMAD RIDERS was reportedly mastered from the best available source element, which was a 1” tape master for the 1986 Vestron Video release (so it’s just as well it wasn’t included on the Blu-ray part of the set) that has its share of damage including occasional tape rolls. The dialogue occasionally requires amplification, but that’s a fault of the original mix. The Vestron logo appears after the end credits.

Producer/actor Stephen Fusci appears in a video interview (17:56) which covers both films. Fusci had a small role in director Frank Roach’s FROZEN SCREAM, but he found that the director seemed ill-prepared to deal with inexperienced actors as he changed dialogue on the set. He also recalls the pretensions of the lead actor who brought a forty foot motor home to the set (only for it to end up being the break room for the production and getting trashed). PUNK VACATION was his attempt to do a higher budget project, and he ran into similar problems. He reveals that director “Stanley Lewis” is a pseudonym for an AFI graduate who did not want his name on the final project. Fusci claims that AFI directors are not suited to work outside the studio, and that the director did not understand the production’s limitations and clashed with cinematographer Daryn Okada (although he does acknowledge that the director was responsible for the casting). He met Okada while working as an extra on a music video, and speaks warmly of him (Okada took NOMAD RIDERS and PUNK VACATION not to make money but to show his talent). He has some interesting stories about conning props – including a vending machine – and dressing up as a cop in order to rope off an exterior location for shooting. He mentions that his role in PUNK VACATION lead to a handful of film and TV roles (including a part on the supposedly nonfictional TV shot “Divorce Court” that had friends and cast/crewmates thinking he really was a wife-beating mobster) including the Clint Howard horror film ICE CREAM MAN in which he accidentally backed a police car into a fence.

The disc also includes an interview with stuntman and assistant to the producer Steve Rowlands, a childhood friend of Fusci (Fusci’s father worked for Rowland’s father). He was working for ABC when Fusci started working on PUNK VACATION – he was only on set briefly for NOMAD RIDERS (and has some amusing if not exactly kind things to say about the lead) – and Fusci asked him to help on the production. Besides being one of the gun club members, he did some of the stunts – under stunt coordinator Greg Brickman (THE BOOGENS) – as well as securing required vehicles (police cars and motorcycles), instructing the actors on how to ride the motorcycles, decorating the hospital set (with signs left over from the ABC coverage of the 1984 Olympics) and running off the bulls that lived on the farm location during shooting. PALE RIDER was being shot at the same time in Tehachapi, and their shooting schedules did occasionally conflict. Rowlands also mentions some scenes and entire sequences that were cut from the film (including a scene where the punks unleash rats in an aerobics studio). He also recalls how the trailer carrying the production’s used Porta-Pottys crashed in the middle of town. The still gallery contains over a hundred color and black and white publicity and behind-the-scenes shots, and contact sheets (which include some shots from the aforementioned cut aerobics studio scene) from both films. The first ninety-seven stills are afforded their own chapter stops, but a bunch of them are crammed into chapter ninety-eight (DVDs allow a maximum of ninety-nine chapters per title). Neither PUNK VACATION nor NOMAD RIDERS may be entirely satisfying on their own, but they make a nice – and economical – pairing as the latest in Vinegar Syndrome’s obscure cinematic rescues. (Eric Cotenas)