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In Bomb City, a Tribute to an Amarillo Punk

A new film tells the story of Brian Deneke, a teenager killed in a brawl that illuminated a Texas town's stewing cultural battle.
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Sheldon Chick and Jameson Brooks were still kids—15 and 12 years old, respectively—growing up in Amarillo when tragedy rocked their small city on the Texas Panhandle.

One Friday night several weeks before Christmas 1997, a street fight broke out between Amarillo’s young punks, leather jacketed and mohawked to be the ultimate outsiders in a place that prized the staid normalcy of high school football and khaki pants, and the local jocks. The brawl ended when Dustin Camp, a junior varsity football player driving a 1983 Cadillac, intentionally struck a restless 19-year-old and avowed punk named Brian Deneke with his car. Deneke, held in the arms of his brother, died there in the parking lot. Camp was tried for murder but convicted only of manslaughter, getting a lenient sentence of 10 years’ probation that provoked outrage far outside of Amarillo. (Camp later served about five years in prison for violating the terms of his probation.)

The case, with its punks vs. jocks drama, its seeming legal injustice, and its intimations of culture clash in a Texas city that appeared to demand conformity, drew state and national attention. Texas Monthly made the connection with The Outsiders, the novel about teenage violence and class strife, while the Dallas Observer went with the less subtle “Anarchy in Amarillo.” The incident imprinted itself on Amarillo residents, and for Chick and Brooks, at least, it was an opportunity to reevaluate their own perspectives, and their own biases. Regardless, it always stuck with them.

So when Chick and Brooks, now filmmakers working in Dallas, decided to make their first feature-length project, it wasn’t difficult to decide the subject. Bomb City, which takes its name from an Amarillo punk crew (itself named for the city’s nuclear weapons disassembly plant), premieres this Friday at the Magnolia as part of the Dallas International Film Festival.

“There was really no other story that we wanted to get behind. If we’re going to dive into this movie stuff, let’s do stories that we want to get out there, that need to be told and mean a lot to us,” says Brooks, who directed Bomb City and co-wrote the film with Chick, also a producer. Major Dodge, a co-founder of their Dallas-based 3rd Identity Productions, was a producer and major force behind the project, while Chick’s brother, Cody (another 3rd Identity member), did the score.

Working on a story that carried such emotional weight, particularly in their hometown, proved more challenging.

“It’s not our story. There are real people,” Brooks says. “It went past the Amarillo community, it affected people’s lives nationwide.”

The filmmakers became close with Mike and Betty Deneke, Brian’s parents, and with his brother, Jason, who threw the cast and crew a barbecue when Bomb City was filming in Amarillo. (The rest of the movie was shot in Dallas, Fort Worth, and everywhere in between, using North Texas production teams.) Doing justice to Brian was their main concern, Chick says.

Talking to Brian’s friends and family helped the filmmakers build what they hope is an honest portrait of a young man who, in his life, was so often misunderstood. While a documentary would have only reiterated the cold hard facts of the story, a narrative feature like Bomb City allows an interior view, inviting the audience to be a part of Brian’s world.

“It’s an alternative style of life,” Chick says. “If you’ve never grown up in a punk community, maybe you can look at it in a personal view.”

That kind of acceptance is more prevalent in Amarillo these days, Brooks and Chick say, perhaps partly a result of Deneke’s death, but also technological and cultural developments: punks are much less shocking to cultural norms in the age of the internet, where much of it’s been seen before.

After Bomb City’s premiere, the filmmakers will begin seeking distribution for the project. For now, they’re looking forward to Friday, where many of their fellow Amarilloans and Deneke’s friends and family will get to see the film, where Brian’s story—his life, not just his death—will be told.

“There’s no way of bringing him back,” Chick says. “But hopefully this is a tribute allowing all his friends and family to spend a couple of hours back with Brian.”

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