Directed by Sande Johnson
Starring Diane Conti, Joey Naudic, John Batis
"Nuts to you, buster!"
Sande Johnson - also known, every so often, as Sam Stunning - was a low-rent smut-peddler who was in out of the business in less than a decade. Still, he made quite a splash in the seamy world of regional sexploitation, helming one of the more obscure Blood Feast rip-offs (The Beautiful, Bloody and the Bare, 1964), acting in several mid 60's nudie-flicks (Hot Nights on Campus, 1966; Nudes on Tiger Reef, 1965), and working in various capacities on the infamous "Olga" roughies. And then the cat split, man. Before he moved on to greener pastures (or died, whatever), however, he made one seminal slice of anachronistic rock n' roll bullshit, the ambitious and frequently amazing Teenage Gang Debs. Basically a particularly over-the-top Shangri-Las tune brought to cinematic life, Gang Debs exposes the seamy underworld of violent New York street gangs, and the scheming gangster molls who sometimes bewitch them.
One of the interesting anomalies about Teenage Gang Debs is, despite being made at the dawn of the psychedelic era, it gives no hint that the Beatles ever happened or that the Summer of Love was a few months away. The world presented in Gang Debs is straight out of the Beatnik era, full of hipster slang, bongo jazz, and the kind of overwrought juvenile delinquent melodrama that already seemed square in 1956. This is partially because of the high-contrast black and white photography, but even so, it sometimes seems like a period piece, like an episode of Sha Na Na with better dialogue and more street fights.
There's an opening scene that sets the mood. It's the mean streets of Brooklyn, circa 1966 by way of 1955. Rosie-the-hooker agrees to hook up with Eddie, but before they get down to business, his buddies show up. They slap her and beat with her a belt to the sound of a jazzy bongo beats.
Then Terry (Diane Conti) shows up in town - Terry from Manhattan, who used to run with the Falcons - and ingratiates herself with Johnny, leader of the Brooklyn rebels. This does not sit well with the other Debs, but what can they do? She's from the big city, man!
Then there's a dance party! I guess 60's street gangs were into dancing. Before we get there, though, we witness Terry at home, yelling at her parents while smoking at the dinner table. Clearly, Terry is a bad, bad girl.
The other gang Debs are already plotting Terry's downfall when she shows up at the party with Johnny. So naturally, she has to rumble with his old girlfriend, Angel.
Terry wins, so Angel has to hit the bricks. That's the way of the Rebels, daddy-o!
Terry and Johnny make brutal mid-60s love in Johnny's trophy room, which includes an awesome hand-written "Rebels Forever" sign and a pair of scissors he once took from a rival gang. Johnny insists she get his 'mark' on her via cigarette or knife, but she stalls.
Then she puts the moves on Nino. What a schemer! She tells him she's dumping Johnny because she doesn't want to get his stupid tattoo and suggests Nino tell him what's up. And then she makes out with Nino. How can he resist? Terry hands Nino a switchblade, and then the two dudes rumble! And Nino wins! And then Terry suggests everybody gang-rapes his ex, Annie. And so they do!
Then a couple of the dudes jabber about a rumble and they show footage of a real Brooklyn biker gang, the RPMs, while they guzzle wine and eat dinner rolls.
Then the Ratpack and the Rebels team up to stomp the Eagles. Why? Who knows? That's what street gangs do, they rumble. It's a successful raid, but Terry convinces Nino they have to go after the Warriors next. The Warriors!
And then they have another dance party and we hear an awesome tune by Lee Dowell called "Don't Make Me Mad". And then they do the Kung Fu dance, which may be the coolest dance of all time. By the way, you'd figure those two songs would be available somewhere, perhaps on a 45, but it doesn't appear like that record actually exists.
Nino's not into the rumble, but Terry convinces him he's a coward if he doesn't go through with it. I'm beginning to think Terry's got ulterior motives, especially after she gets Nino to moider his old pal Piggy when he wants to leave the gang.
But then all the girls team up to teach Terry a lesson!
And that's it, pretty much. Fighting, fucking, and Kung Fu Dancing. There's really very little else you could ask for, is there? Sure, it would have been nice if we had some insight as to why Terry showed up in town to ruin everybody's life, but it's not necessary. She's simply power hungry, like Lady Macbeth with more mascara. In fact, this whole film is probably more Shakespearian than anyone gives it credit for. But it's the best kind of Shakespeare - the kind you don't actually have to read. Aside from some draggy fight scenes, Teenage Gang Debs is a primo slice of 60's exploitation, filled to the brim with goofy pseudo-hip slang, evil chicks, and a delightfully screwy soundtrack. Seminal stuff, well worth seeking out.
Teenage Gang Debs is available from Something Weird video on a double-feature with the awesomely goofy Teenage Strangler. A lot of the SWV/Image double features are going out of print lately, so scoop it up while you can.
- Ken McIntyre