Zapped! (1982) is the heartwarming story of high school science geek Barney (Scott Baio, years before we knew how evil he was), who develops the power to move things with his mind after a lab accident, just like a Marvel Comics character. After slamming doors and flinging objects across rooms with an arched eyebrow and his mind, and because this is a 1980s teen sex comedy, Barney escalates to more lascivious use of his new gift by zapping the clothes right off of the school’s resident unattainable and popular blonde bombshell, Jane Mitchell. Jane is played by the eighties über babe Heather Thomas, who would transition into a steady gig on The Fall Guy right after this movie. Through her work in both projects, she was directly responsible for millions of schoolboy (and girl) crushes during those years. Look, I know this. I was there. I’ve talked to people about it, including myself (what, you don’t talk to yourself??). It’s just a scientific fact.
Jane isn’t just the movie’s frivolous bimbo du jour (a staple of the genre), but also its antagonist, mostly because she treats Barney like a nuisance and is generally snobby with most everyone. Plus she has sex with Barney’s swarmy pal Peyton (Willie Ames, completing the trifecta of where-are-they-now eighties stars), but later dumps him and says she faked her orgasm. Oh, Jane. Doesn’t she know that’s a sure-fire way to antagonize insecure high school boys? Sheesh, it’s like she’s never seen a teen movie before.
In order to humiliate his nemesis, Barney mentally pops open the buttons to Jane’s hot pink angora sweater, revealing her hot pink bra for all the campus to see. This happens multiple times. Later on at the school prom, our bad girl gets her ultimate comeuppance. First, Peyton reveals secret nude photos he took of Jane when the two got it on in his room. Eew. Then, Jane’s college-jock boyfriend goes after Peyton, ostensibly to defend his lady. Of course we all know it’s actually because Jane is a possession to him, so he’s really just avenging his own challenged manhood. Barney zaps the boyfriend to the ground, but then zaps Jane’s hot pink dress right off her body. Note the gendered difference in zappings—boyfriend is simply knocked down, but Jane gets stripped half-naked. She’s left standing topless, mouth agape, in only her hot pink lingerie, while boyfriend lies delirious nearby. There are three takeaways here:
1. Jane really loves hot pink.
2. Jane is outrageously sexy, and that’s all thanks to Heather Thomas’s inability to ever be anything less than outrageously sexy.
3. Jane is punished like all bad girls of that era by being sexually humiliated. This is what passed as humor back then.
By eighties teen sex romp logic, Jane is “bad” because she’s snooty and sexually active, and deserves to be stripped half-naked against her will class. Sounds icky when I put it that way, huh? But that was just another day at the movie theater in 1982. Look, I’m not here to re-litigate the genre. We all know it’s utterly depraved and beyond reproach! But you must understand, I grew up on eighties teen sex comedies, which gives me keen insight into their problems while I’m also laughing my ass off because they’re solid, cheesy entertainment. It can be two things!*
This sort of objectification of women wasn’t only in movies, then or now, of course. It was prevalent in those movies because it’s also part of real life. In junior high school in the late 1980s, I witnessed a boy sneak up behind a girl and yank down her miniskirt as students walked through the halls between classes. Many in the crowded hallway laughed and the girl screeched, frantically trying to pull up her skirt with one hand while swatting at the laughing boy with her other hand. I think the boy and girl were friends, but still, that was eye opening to twelve year old me, and not just because it was probably the first time I saw a girl’s underwear. The point is, movies of my youth were not far off from the reality of those years.
Ultimately, Jane is an antagonist I feel sympathy for because so much of her punishment at the hands of horny teenage boys feels sexualized and degrading. And beyond being stuck up and rude, what did she really do to deserve that? Did the boys of Zapped! ever think that maybe the bad girl has to be bad in order to put up with their bullshit?
How cool would it have been if they’d given Heather Thomas a starring vehicle in a sequel called Zapped! 2: Jane’s Revenge? Way cool, that’s how cool. Just imagine, our bad girl stumbles into another science accident and gets her own set of Carrie White-style powers. Soon she’s lighting next year’s prom on fire, while a zapped Barney cowers in his underwear. Ah, if only.
*For a fascinating and nuanced exploration of the everlasting appeal of teen sex films, please seek out a copy of the late great Mike “McBeardo” McPadden’s Teen Movie Hell: A Crucible of Coming-of-Age Comedies from Animal House to Zapped! As the subtitle says, Zapped! is one of hundreds of films reviewed, analyzed, and lovingly skewered by McPadden, along with a small but fantastic group of contributors. About Zapped!, Mike wrote,
“Zapped! is the telekinetic teen T&A rampage comedy toward which all previous telekinetic teen T&A rampage comedies led and from which all subsequent telekinetic teen T&A rampage comedies have proceeded. It’s a short list, but that’s besides the point. What matters here is simply the greatness.”
He goes on to note that the movie achieves its greatness “with perfect stupidity” and that’s the truest description of what made many politically incorrect teen sex comedies of the eighties so endearing. At heart, Zapped! is a profoundly stupid movie that has an awful lot of fun being profoundly stupid, which makes it easy to love, even while we wince at how it reinforces some really bad male behaviors. When Barney zaps Jane down to her skivvies, the film and Thomas seem to be in on the joke, making the entire affair feel light and silly. And as I said earlier, Zapped! and its ilk were simply reflecting what we’ve long known to be true about straight teenage boys: they’re degenerates and perverts!
If you’ve ever had even the slightest interest in teen T&A rampage comedies, as Mike so eloquently called them, then do yourself a favor and snag a copy of his book. It’s indispensable, really. I should mention too that I met Mike online through some mutuals right around the time this book was published (and then I reviewed it here), just a few years before this death. We would chat on social media and throw a lot of laughing emojis at each other. We had fun. He was absolutely hilarious. There was some more symmetry too, as we both contributed regularly to Diabolique and were published together in another indispensable book, Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: When TV Sitcoms Sometimes Got Serious, Volume 1: 1957-1985.
Mike had such an outsized personality and an unabashed zeal for cinema—especially lowbrow, outsider cinema of the sleazy Times Square in the 1970s style—that it felt like I’d known him through his writing for years before I’d even met him. He had opinions and wasn’t afraid to share them. Those opinions were bold, but always substantive—Mike knew his shit. He was fearless as a writer and, it seemed, as a human being. Every word he wrote was inspired by passion—he really loved things, or he really didn’t love them. His fondness for exploitation films was always apparent, as was his loathing for Star Wars. He was also extremely kind and supportive of fellow writers like myself, even when he didn’t have to be.
When I saw that Zapped! turned forty, my first thoughts were of Mike’s words about the film, which then inspired me to write about it too, from my particular angle focusing on Heather Thomas’s character—just like Mike always found his own, unique angle. This December will be two years since Mike’s sudden, unexpected death. So because his work inspires me often, and specifically motivated me to resurrect the “Bad Girls” series for the first time in seven months, I’m dedicating this post to one hell of a writer, and a truly unique soul.