#TBT on THC: Life and Death Come at You Fast in "Nightmare on Drug Street"
The vignettes in this 1988 PSA are over-the-top, yet they are also undeniably devastating in a way that most anti-drug propaganda films rarely are.
Published on October 13, 2017

Anti-drug films often aim to scare us. Fear tactics work well; they linger well past adolescence and morph into something that withstands adulthood. 1988's A Nightmare on Drug Street of course borrows its title for a beloved T.S. Elliot poem — just kidding, it's a heinous riff on the film that launched a thousand sequels and introduced the world to Freddie Kruger, the man who haunts your nightmares and makes them reality.

In a way, Drug Street is more like a parents' worse nightmare than Johnny Depp's: the PSA is structured by three separate vignettes that follow three kids, Felipe, Jill and Eddie, the latter of whom is the youngest of the bunch. They take us through instances in which drugs and alcohol lead to a worst case scenario, and tension proves to be an unnecessary indulgence since Jill opens the film literally with, "Hi, I'm dead."

The three of them are sitting in a dark expanse, wearing shapeless gray sacks fit for a Yeezy season. This is a kind of purgatory, the kids tell us with a surrender that implies they've been here for a long time. "No hamburgers, no pizza, no movies, no television," Eddie says. "No MTV, so forget about music." Filipe chimes in: "I use to hate homework, but I would love some homework now."

With that, we fade into the first of our three stories, with Jill introducing us to Filipe's tragic tale. He is, as tends to be the case in every single PSA, the star athlete of his school, and on this particular night is celebrating with a case of beer after shooting the winning shot of the season's final basketball game. His friend goads him into drinking some more —"c'mon," he says, "your old man does it" — while Filipe's little brother looks on in both admiration and concern.

Soon, the three of them go on a joy ride, with Filipe's drunk driving proving too erratic for his younger brother, who asks to be let out at a cul-de-sac. Somehow, two seconds after turning around to speed away, we hear a crash off-screen and it's insinuated that Filipe has absolutely died. How he managed to crash his car severely enough to die on the spot in a cul-de-sac is beyond me, but the bigger issue is how smug Jill's ghost is as she watches on, as if her ass isn't about to die next. Stop judging, fam!

Next up, we shift focus to Jill's story, this time narrated by Eddie, who watches as a party Jill is throwing goes wrong. The party begins relatively tame. Jill and her mother are seen joking by a table of snacks, implying that there is nothing mischievous about Jill's social life. But lawhen a cute boy she's crushing on offers her cocaine — "never trust a 14-year-old who wears cologne," Eddie says — things immediately escalate at a pace that can only described as "nobody on set has ever actually done coke" fast. Within minutes, Jill has somehow fallen into the deep end, stealing money, selling her light pink radio (which I would frankly kill for), and even pawning her grandmother's diamond necklace for an 8 ball. In one baffling scene, she does coke in her high school bathroom, but by the sink instead of in the stall like a normal person. By the end of the film, Jill has succumbed to coke addiction in about the same amount of time it took me to kick a cold. Desperate for a high and out of cash, the film ends with Jill sneaking into her mother's bathroom after trying to borrow some money from friends, and downing a bottle of pills and dying as a result of either an accidental overdose or a tragic suicide.

The third and final story, Eddie's, is narrated by Filipe, and is probably the strangest of the bunch. Eddie, who appears to still be in elementary school, goes over to his friend's house. It's there that his friend goes through what is presumably his mother's stash of drugs, and takes out a vial of crack cocaine. He badgers Eddie into trying it, a fascinatingly troubling optic considering that Eddie is our one black protagonist and 1988 was one of the high points of the country's crack epidemic. In any case, Eddie takes a hit and is immediately too high to function, and runs home once he realizes he's late for dinner. Worried that his mom is going to know something is off, Edie calls his friend and asks him what to do. The friend's advice makes a ton of sense: just smoke more crack.

Next thing you know, Eddie hightails it for his parents' bathroom with the shower running, smoking crack that he must have acquired through sheer manifestation. He wanders slowly to the dinner table, unable to focus. His parents are at first concerned, but they make verbal excuses out loud attempting to justify the bizarre behavior their son has been showing over the last 45 minutes he's been home. Suddenly without warning, Eddie gets up from the table and collapses on his way out of the living room, and literally dies in his father's arms? Eddie's father tries to wake his son up, still in denial as the camera pulls away and back into the dark expanse, with our three ghost teens bidding us adieu.

Some of Nightmare on Drugs Street is weirdly haunting, such as Felipe's ghost watching Eddie and his two friends walk along a street that I definitely remember from the Universal Studios backlot tour (they filmed Desperate Housewives on that same set! Where my formerly-closeted teenagers at??) And in spite of the melodrama, the PSA actually manages to elicit real emotions. The endings may be far-fetched in how quickly the perils of drug addiction escalate; Jill becomes addicted to cocaine so quickly that when she runs out of funds to feed her habit, she raids her mom's pill closet, desperate for a high. The scene is just grim enough to make you wonder whether the overdose was accidental or intentional, and those kinds of questions run much deeper than the moral epidemic the film is attempting to address. Drug Street threads in a variety of issues. Drugs may be the problem, but its escalation that actually does the kids in: drinking is bad, but drunk driving is worse; cocaine is a hell of a drug, and the desperation will serve as a gateway.

The vignettes are over-the-top, yet they are also undeniably devastating, in a way that most anti-drug propaganda films rarely are. Usually, the hysteria surrounding addiction bellows so loud that it drowns out any realistic trauma. People don't die in these films as much as they're designed for death — kids drawn as martyrs. Here, the specter of death is comedic; the kids watching themselves, watching each other, watching us. But, for the first time, the everyman sensibility, the idea that these kids could be anybody's children, feels meaningless. They don't need to be proxies for everyone else. It's bad enough being them.

Follow Rod Bastanmher on Twitter

Rod Bastanmehr
Rod Bastanmehr is an arts and culture writer and one-half of the GOOD FRIENDS podcast. His work has appeared in VICE, The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, and the LA Review of Books.
Share this article with your friends!