Dead End Drive-In (1986)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-09-20 03:27

Dead End Drive-In (1986)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: September 20th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Mad Max obviously cast a long shadow over genre cinema, what with its octane-fueled vision of the apocalypse. It was a landscape that George Miller’s fellow Aussie filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith especially took to heart not once but twice: first with Turkey Shoot, a grim prediction that imagines society’s degenerates are sent to a rehabilitation camp and forced to compete in a deadly game of survival. Not to content to bum everyone the fuck out with such pessimism, Trenchard-Smith returned to the wasteland with Dead End Drive-In, a bombed-out, flames-and-fluorescent vision of a future where society’s “unmentionables” are herded together and forced to subsist on junk food and trash cinema, a panacea that keeps them oblivious to the toxic, white nationalist police state emerging around them. Whew, I’m glad we dodged that bullet.

Somewhat prophetic as hell, Dead End Drive-In unfolds in a not-so-distant future, in the wake of several economic crashes that have bottomed out the world’s economy. Australia hasn’t been spared, as it’s been transformed into a bleak hellscape overrun with gang violence and unemployment. And yet, the drive-in has somehow endured here; what’s more, it’s still a hot spot for teens and young adults to hang out and carry out their typical shenanigans. Among this bunch is Ned Manning’s Jimmy (aka “Crabs” because he thought he had ‘em once), a meek but good-hearted-guy who wants nothing more to be more like his tougher older brother, who drives a dope ’56 Chevy. When Crabs “borrows” the ride to take his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) to the drive-in, he has no way of knowing that his asking for the unemployed discount marks him for interment: in the middle of the night, some cops swipe his wheels, effectively stranding him in the place.

Much to his bewilderment, he’s literally trapped: walking down the long “security road” leading out the place is illegal, and there’s no way to make contact with the outside world. Once the drive-in attendant (Peter Whitford) stuffs some food vouchers into his hands, Crabs is sent along his merry way, forced to carve out some semblance of a life within the walls of the drive-in. To him, the most disturbing thing is that everyone else—including, eventually, Carmen—is completely fine with this. After all, outside the walls these people had nothing; inside, they sheltered and reasonably well-provided for—or whatever it is when you’re subjected to a steady diet of soda and hamburgers (for breakfast, even, if you fancy it).

Anyone weaned on a diet of other Ozploitation fare (especially Trenchard-Smith’s previous work) may be surprised by the restraint on display in Dead End Drive-In. Ironically, it’s a title and a premise that seems like it’d be the exact fodder playing on-screen in this fictional drive-in, yet it’s grounded and more serious-minded than expected. Sure, some violent outbursts occur when Crabs has a run-in with some malcontents who prefer to settle their differences with cricket bats, but Trenchard-Smith is more concerned with crafting an insidious atmosphere about the place. That nothing of note seems to happen for long stretches seems to be the point—this is how you keep a population under your thumb: by slowly placating them with uneventful, artificially fulfilled lives. Who cares about anything in the real world when you’ve got a steady supply of Pepsi and drive-in movies? (That Turkey Shoot itself plays at one point is a curious act of self-implication by Trenchard-Smith.)

Less an outright horror movie (or even an action movie) and more an exploitation allegory, Dead End Drive-In is a rather thoughtful reflection on 80s excess, commercialism, and consumption. Obvious though it may be (and, by definition, most allegories are obvious—seriously, shit like Everyman has characters named “Good Deeds”), it’s nonetheless a striking look at how despotic governments basically coerce many of its citizens into simply not giving a shit. And when that doesn’t work, they introduce a scapegoat in the form of an outside ethnic group (in this case, a group of Asian immigrants) to further distract the downtrodden populace. These folks go from being pretty happy to have a bunch of junk to being fiercely protective of whatever it is they have. It’s a sharply observant satire couched in the milieu of a drive-in movie, which is a fancy way of saying “don’t worry, there’s also some bitching, fiery stunt work.”

This hardly comes as a surprise with Trenchard-Smith at the helm. One of the Ozploitation genre’s indispensable auteurs, he’s peddled assorted junk for decades, some of which (Night of the Demons 2, Leprechaun 3) might give you the wrong impression of his output. Make no mistake: between this, the goddamn insane Stunt Rock, and the wicked Turkey Shoot, one could make the case that he almost positioned himself as Oz’s own John Carpenter. Here’s a guy with genuine filmmaking chops throwing himself into genre fare and making a statement all at once, and Dead End Drive-In is a marvelously crafted but unmistakably pissed-off movie. Like Carpenter, Trenchard-Smith dazzles with impressive camera work: meticulously framed scenes, elegant crane shots, moody, alluring compositions, all in the service of revealing some ugly core rotting beneath it all.

With all due respect to Mad Max, Escape from New York seems to be a bit more of a reference point here, right down to the cordoned off section of society. The dynamic is obviously switched, as most of the drive-in inhabitants are more than willing to stay confined within its walls, but the sentiment is the same: the most dystopian things imaginable aren’t barren wastelands and murderous, octane fleets. It’s our complete willingness to section ourselves off and completely tune out the wasteland. Good fences make good neighbors, and walls make for even better buffers from reality.

Watching Dead End Drive-In in 2016 without thinking of our current political climate is nearly impossible, and this is not to say it’s some eerily prescient shit or anything. Instead, it reveals just what a clown show the rise of Trump has been: he’s stuck so comically close to the despot’s handbook of how to incite a mob mentality that just about any dystopian work will seem prophetic—even one that’s scored with new wave tunes and features a car impossibly flying through the air during its climax.

The disc:

Back when I first watched Dead End Drive-In several years ago, I distinctly recall renting a DVD copy out of sheer panic: it turned out the disc was going out-of-print, so I hastily checked it out because who can resist a movie with that title? Anyway, this is all very comical now that Arrow Video has issued a wonderful special edition Blu-ray for the film that boasts a gorgeous restoration and a fine array of special features. A commentary with Trenchard-Smith is an obvious highlight, as is “Hospitals Don’t Burn Down,” one of the director’s early short films.

The Stuntmen is an aptly-titled, hour-long documentary that sees Trenchard-Smith paying tribute to his homeland’s most deranged daredevils, providing a reminder that we could use more of: let us never forget that people have risked their lives for stuff like Dead End Drive-In. A stills gallery and a trailer provide the usual promotional material, all housed in a package that boasts reversible artwork. It’s another solid effort from Arrow for an off-the-beaten path title that’s being released at the perfect time since Dead End Drive-In proves to be a pretty salient microcosm of today’s political atmosphere. If anything, the existence of a functioning drive-in is the least believable thing here.
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