The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

'The Decline Of Western Civilization' Enjoys Deluxe Treatment With New Box Set

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 30, 2015 2:00PM

"The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III" (Photo courtesy of Shout! Factory).

Cultural snapshots more than definitive statements, The Decline of Western Civilization films, as a series, barely deserve a shared moniker. But as stand-alone films, each holds up well to the test of time. Shout Factory's new 4-disc box set, The Decline of Western Civilization Collection, gives these documentaries by Penelope Spheeris (read our interview here), the deluxe treatment movie fans love to see lavished on their favorites.

The original Decline of Western Civilization (1981) takes the most pure, cinema vérité approach of the three. Covering the L.A. hardcore punk scene of the time (with performances by Black Flag, Circle Jerks, X, Germs, Fear, Catholic Discipline and the Alice Bag Band), the film's interview subjects range from the troubled and imbalanced (Germs' Darby Crash, who later died of an intentional heroine overdose) to the driven and seemingly happy (the members of X).

Though limited to the L.A. environs and not addressing the simultaneous emergence of the straight edge movement that challenged the violence and self-destruction Decline captures, the movie's authenticity has made it, for many, the definitive punk film. Watching it again, I found myself hungry for more insight, but it's possible forcing context on what the movie shows would have destroyed the purity that has given it such longevity.

Cover art courtesy of Shout! Factory.
The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years (1988), is the colorful clown of the trilogy. Spheeris' 1983 "punksploitation" melodrama, Suburbia (released by Roger Corman's New World Pictures), would probably have made a more fitting part of the collection thematically. But The Metal Years is a hoot. Hair bands and some hard rock veterans that purists would say are not metal at all (like Aerosmith and Kiss) are thrown into a mix of celebratory excess and no-apologies rock star ambition.

Ozzy Osbourne's comical breakfast conversation is just one of the highlights of a movie full of laughs and good vibes. Even the darkest aspect of the movie—W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes' self-hating, drowned-in-vodka ramble while floating in his pool—seems less grim 27 years later, as Holmes did not meet the same fate as Darby Crash.

The sucker punch of the set (in a good way) is The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III (1998), which turns out to have much less to do with punk rock than homeless youth, substance abuse and traumatic upbringings. Making its home video premiere as part of this set (with only a very limited theatrical run before), this will be new to most viewers and it's a compelling, albeit depressing viewing. Spheeris frames her footage to heartbreaking effect, as hopelessness runs rampant among her subjects.

The Shout Factory set is loaded with extras that range from the very engaging (outtakes, interviews, panel discussions) to the disappointing (Dave Grohl's meandering audio commentary on the first film). But with quality transfers of all three films, hours of supplemental features and a 36-page booklet included, no one is going to feel cheated.

The Decline of Western Civilization Collection is available today, June 30, in both Blu-ray and DVD formats.