By Mark Wilkinson
Dead End Drive-In sets up its world right from the beginning, it showcases a dystopian future where crime is rampant, the economy ravaged and cars are considered precious commodities. Life in Australia is falling apart. Roving gangs threaten innocents. Rival salvage companies fight for increasingly rare car parts. A clean-cut boy named “Crabs” borrows his brother’s classic Chevy to take his best girl Carmen to the local drive-in. During the movie, his wheels are stolen, stranding the kids at the theatre overnight. In the morning they find out that the drive-in is actually a concentration camp for youths and ne’er-do-wells who come for the movie and are tricked into staying forever. Crabs refuses to give in. He scours the camp for the car parts necessary to fix his ride, facing off against the drive-in’s scummy owner, a colourful group of thugs and corrupt police.
The movie follows a formula many of these lower budget action movies take on: kick off loud and fast with a big action sequence, take the next hour to hang out with the character and give us a reason to care about the last 20 minutes where we get a series of action set pieces for an explosive finale. It’s a formula that is make or break based on that middle hour of movie, where action is at a minimum. Thankfully, Dead End Drive-In succeeds where similar movies of this ilk would fail. What keeps the pace moving is the wonderful world it is able to build in its simple setting and the colourful characters it fills the drive-in with. Crabs is a likable enough lead, albeit a bit of a weeny. A scrawny kid, that doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. An outcast in every sense of the word. There is enough plot for him to work through to keep the downtime of the film thoroughly entertaining, with some very well-done car action at the bookends of the film. Dead End Drive-In certainly isn’t short of ideas to keep your attention during its lean 88-minute run time.
The amazing production design is really where this movie begins to stand out and the world that they are able to create on such a small budget. The clothes, the make-up, the punk-rock hairstyles, the location designs, the use of graffiti and paint, the consistent fire throughout, all the vehicles that are shown, including that gorgeous red Chevy convertible. All of this is perfectly exemplified by the wonderful visual talents of cinematographer Paul Murphy. His photography throughout is nothing short of beauty, creating a remarkably lived-in world and never leaving a single frame underused. Right from the opening credits, he captures perfectly a beautiful hazy-orange--polluted skyline that bespeaks how much of a broken society world that this movie lives in. He manages to give the film a grungy midnight look of a 80s music video. Moreover, my favourite visual however is the way he captures the neon-lit, Star Drive-In sign. Its forever shown beaming so brightly in that polluted night sky, like a gaudy north star guiding the unemployed, reprobates and the destitute towards it. It's brightly lit stature is both a welcoming sign for potential new vagrants yet is also a constant reminder to everyone inside that they are stuck there.
Although its exaggerated satire, there is so much fear and resentment aimed towards the youth in this movie. They are portrayed as nothing more than deadbeat punks, who are literally burning the old earth to make way for their own (everything is always on fire in this movie) when really, teenagers/young adults are mostly just lost and insecure individuals looking for some guidance, not imprisonment and to be spoon-fed trash. This is really where Dead-End Drive-In begins to unveil that it has a surprisingly large amount to say. The general idea of a post-apocalyptic drive-in as a refugee camp for the unruly youth, is an interesting concept on its own. However, the remarkable added touch of making the prisoners happy to accept their incarceration because the compound offers an endless supply of junk food, trashy B-movies, new wave music and drugs elevates this movie to profound social commentary.
The burn outs that now live within the drive-in turn their disabled cars into cost-effective studio apartments. They decide to literally stew in their own means of escape, instead of seeming remotely interested in escaping. They seem to focus mainly on drinking, gossiping and fighting and to just carry on with their meaningless, dead-end lives despite the electric fences and eruption of a totalitarian police state. This is such a hyper-stylised tale of a generation held prisoner by consumerism. The system of Big Brother in Orwell’s “1984” is here repositioned as a neon-lit helpful hand rather than a brutal fist, but still a society imprisoned, and being constantly reminded that there is no escape.
Our hero crabs journey touches on some Kafka-lite territory. His attempts to escape are met with endless conversations about why he can’t. Things always seem to get worse for him and the two-steps-forward-one-step-back occurrences give the whole thing a sort of Aesop’s’ quality; just as he finds two replacement wheels for his Chevy, he runs out of petrol; just as he siphons the petrol from a police van, his engine gets stolen. Crabs becomes increasingly frustrated yet is shown to still be driven to escape, Carmen on the other hand seems relatively content. She starts making friends and increasingly baffled by Crabs’ attempts to escape and bemused as he maintains the car, which she has now long since stopped regarding as anything other than where she now resides.
Lastly, if there was one issue that I could imagine being rather problematic for audiences, it would definitely be the campy acting. This is sadly where Dead end drive will likely lose a lot of its audience. Its understandably easy to reject a movie based on over the top acting. However, watching how expertly Brian Trenchard Smith directs every other aspect of the movie, it’s clear that the acting is an active choice. He manages to keep the energy and the tone exactly the same throughout the entire movie and never backs down. he commits to his choice until the end and this is something I can’t help but respect.
Nevertheless, I implore you to seek out Dead-End Drive-In. Come for the funny accents, the car chases and beautiful cinematography. Stay for the social commentary that is as relevant today as it was back then. And let the manic, punk-fuelled energy immerse you throughout. This is pure joy, this is balls-out fun. This is, trash cinema!