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May 24, 2013

Movie Review: Dead End Drive-In (1986)

Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith

Review by Greg Goodsell

In the far-flung future Australia of 1995, things have taken a turn for the worse. A series of global catastrophes has rendered the world effectively bankrupt, and law and order is strictly on a limited basis. Taking his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) to the Star Drive-In for a quick one, unemployed lay-about “Crabs” (Ned Manning) has his lovemaking rudely interrupted when armed policemen steal two wheels from his ’56 Chevy. The next morning, the true purpose of the Star Drive-In is revealed to him; it is a concentration camp for undesirables, chiefly the young and jobless. In exchange, the inmates are allowed all the junk food they can eat and a steady stream of no-budget action pictures screened nightly. Making friends with their fellow inmates, Crabs and his girlfriend discover that everyone there has more or less accepted their fate. Things get sketchier still when the drive-in is given a sudden influx of Asian inmates. In response, the white Australians band together -- NOT to confront their captors, but to discriminate and harass the minorities. Confronting the kindly, if insidious drive-in manager (Peter Whitford), Crabs vows to escape from the dismal drive-in – or die trying.  

Director Brian Trenchard-Smith one-upped the likes of Quentin Tarrantino with this ironic, self-reflexive film, which has yet to be equaled – low-budget action car crash movies are part of a greater social malaise, this message being tucked neatly into a low-budget action car crash movie! Dead End Drive-In looks great, with artfully composed shots of a dirty, dystopian backdrop comprised of spray-painted junked cars and wild colored lighting. The drive-in’s denizens are a smash-up of the then current punk rock hairstyles and fashions, coupled with Mad Max-inspired remnant attire. 

Dead End Drive-In is also defiantly Australian. A nation composed of people banned from Great Britain for sundry crimes and misdeeds, Australians grew up with little need of social systems and snobby class structures. Antipodeans take a certain snotty pride in heir plain-spoken, unvarnished view of the world and their approach to life … but this approach definitely has a darker side. The 1971 film, Wake in Fright, now recently rediscovered and out on Blu-Ray is the finest example of this. A young, uppity school teacher finds himself stranded in an outback town. He makes swift friends with all the locals, but all these Crocodile Dundees see to it that he never leaves the town or has anything more to look forward to other than generous servings of lager. Friends, they say, are like a crab bucket: The bucket of crabs is lively to a certain extent, but should you try to climb to the top to get out, the other crabs will be sure to pull you down …

In spite of this, Dead End Drive-In was a big financial flop. The reasons why are indeed worthy of analysis.

1. The message is overly facile. While Roger Corman was able to sneak social commentary into his features, Dead End Drive-In is just too strident and obvious. The evil plan behind the drive-in is revealed too quickly, and has little wiggle room to go story-wise.
2. It breaks one of the cardinal rules of exploitation cinema by being preachy. 

3. It breaks the other cardinal rule of exploitation cinema by being boring. The only real action to be had in the feature is at the beginning, showing the lawless Australia from outside of the drive-in, a fistfight here and there in the middle part, and Crabs’ escape from the drive-in. At a tight 84 minutes, the film is s-l-o-w. Watching people accept their fates and slipping into malaise only makes for engaging cinema if there are competent actors, of which this is seriously lacking.

4. Lastly, Dead End Drive-In insults its audience. People attracted to see a film like this one are out for some cheap thrills, but they all aren’t like the drunken yabbos as seen in the film. Many exploitation and genre cinema fans are a well-educated lot, and making them all out to be 40-ouncer guzzling miscreants seriously short-changes the people who – at that time, especially – had to go to scary grindhouses and drive-ins that not far removed from the one in the film in order to see movies like this!

Director Trenchard Smith has one of the films being projected on the screen one of his earlier sci-fi pictures, Turkey Shoot. Having met him in real life, I can vouch that Trenchard-Smith is a very nice man, but this gesture smacks of definite condescension. Boo, his.    

The DVD from Arrow Video offers a dupey, VHS quality trailer of the film when it was released stateside by New World Pictures. In summation, Dead End Drive-In does have a certain garish beauty and a playful energy, but will leave quite a few people with a sour taste in their mouths. The future world as predicted in this film come true to a certain extent, with one very notable exception: there are no more drive-ins.

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