Dead End Drive-In
Director - Brian Trenchard Smith
Cast - Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford
Country of Origin - Australia
Discs - 1
Distributor - Arrow Films
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 04/07/13
The Film: 4/5
The year is 1995. The world's economies have been reduced to utter ruin and criminal activity is the highest it has ever been. Gangs roam the streets in tooled-up cars surviving by any means necessary. Jimmy (Ned Manning), known to his friends as "Crabs", works for a towing company and has a great girlfriend named Carmen (Natalie McCurry). Life isn't a bed of roses for these two but they still find the time for a double feature movie date at the local Star Drive-In. During the date, unbeknownst to the couple, the back tires from Crabs' borrowed car are stolen, forcing them to stay the night. In the morning they notice that the other patrons and their cars are still there as well. The government has turned the Star and other drive-in theaters into prison camps for those they consider to be "undesirables", and that happens to include the unemployed. Prisoners are given plenty of sugary drinks and greasy snacks to eat and within the camp's confines are relatively free to do as they please, all the while being monitored day and night by the camp's owner Thompson (Peter Whitford) and the police. Crabs makes the best of a bad situation and is always looking for a way to leave the Star, but Carmen is unable to resist the temptations of rotten food, available narcotics, and joining with the camp's white inmates in despising their Asian fellow prisoners. Now a race war of apocalyptic proportions is brewing and Crabs knows things will not end well if he and Carmen remain at the Star. Their only hope to see tomorrow is attempting a daring escape, but by then it may be too late for Carmen.
You have to give it up for Brian Trenchard-Smith, by far the finest maker of entertaining B-movies in all of Australia. He's one of the best in the world even. These days he seems to be trapped churning out turgid cable television movies and passable horror sequels - including two of the better Leprechaun sequels - but in his prime Trenchard-Smith was responsible for such Down Under exploitation classics as The Man from Hong Kong (a joyfully violent Dirty Harry riff starring Chinese action star Jimmy Wang Yu), Stunt Rock (the movie that combined the majesty of hard rock with the death defying stunt work of the great Grant Page), the mind-bogglingly insane futuristic action classic Turkey Shoot, BMX Bandits (young Nicole Kidman and some awesome bike stunts - 'nuff said), and the sorely underrated Vietnam War action-drama The Siege at Firebase Gloria starring the unbeatable one-two punch of R. Lee Ermey and Wings Hauser. His films proved to be a huge inspiration on no less an authority on underground B-cinema than Quentin Tarantino and Mark Hartley's fantastic 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood paid loving tribute to his years making the best in "Ozploitation". In fact, I credit Not Quite with inspiring me to track down and watch as much of Trenchard-Smith's best movies as humanly possible. Trenchard-Smith is a consummate yeoman in the entertainment industry, reporting for duty wherever he is needed and doing the best job he can with what he has. Regardless of the quality of the movie or TV episode he is credited as directing, when you see the name of Brian Trenchard-Smith that is usually a good indicator that what you are about to watch is at the very least entertaining and was made by a true professional dedicated to his craft. Now that I have waxed rhapsodic about the director, allow me to tell you about just how great Dead End Drive-In is.
The first time I ever saw Dead End came courtesy of a copy of the out-of-print VHS a friend gave me four years ago but has since been lost sadly. Prior to my initial viewing I was familiar with the movie by name for many years, and then once I saw Dead End spotlighted in Not Quite Hollywood seeing it in full became a priority. The movie was released at a time when Australian exploitation's golden age was coming to a close, just as slasher movies were undergoing a painful and culturally relevant rebirth back in the States. The screenwriter Peter Smalley had then recently written the superhero musical comedy The Return of Captain Invincible for director Philippe Mora and stars Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee. Smalley's script for Dead End Drive-In was adapted from the short story "Crabs" by the acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Peter Carey (Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World). The set-up is reminiscent of the many Road Warrior rip-offs coming of America, Italy, and yes even Australia during the 1980's, but once Crabs and Carmen find themselves unwitting guests of the government at the Star something sneakily subversive begins to emerge in the narrative. Much like Turkey Shoot, the director is hunting far bigger game than you would find in the average Saturday night brain dead action rental from the neighborhood video store, even if the end product still resembles just that. The car chases (which are few, but there), rampant violence, and gratuitous female nudity are present in order to get those asses in seats. Once Trenchard-Smith has got your money, dude, you are in for something a little different than you were expecting.
The idea of corralling a nation's most wayward youth and then pitting them against each other was hardly a fresh one but at least Dead End got there almost two decades before Battle Royale did in bloodier fashion. Battle Royale was more about killing your friends when it is your only option for survival. Trenchard-Smith's movie, on the other hand, focuses on how a society will divide up and declare each other the enemy when completely removed from the rest of civilization. Stephen King's short story "The Mist" - as well as Frank Darabont's brilliant 2007 movie adaptation - was based around similar themes. This time, instead of a supernatural phenomenon isolating the worst aspects of humanity in a metaphorical Purgatory, the cause of the problem is a besieged government resorting to solutions to a skyrocketing crime rate that allow them to wash their hands of any and all consequences. If you watch this movie and still think afterwards that a drive-in theater would be a cool place to be imprisoned then you also must read Joe Lansdale's The Drive-In. Larry Eastwood and Nick McCallum created some impressive-looking sets on a limited budget and cinematographer Paul Murphy (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie) lights and films them brightly and in bold colors so that the neon signs pop and the dated punk-New Wave hybrid wardrobes look fresh off the rack. Ned Manning makes for a capable and sympathetic hero despite being nicknamed after an STD, Natalie McCurry plays her potentially one-note girlfriend role with a stronger hint of complexity than other movies would allow her, and Peter Whitford is a perfectly ideal villain for this movie - friendly and accommodating on the surface but with an undercurrent of fascistic tendencies. The action scenes are not wall-to-wall but when they happen Trenchard-Smith makes them worth the wait. The capper is a spectacular truck stunt that not only manages to end the movie on a upbeat note but it provides us with a decade-appropriate metaphor for bucking a system that would prefer to repress its citizenry instead of helping them.
Yeah, this is a pretty damn good movie.
Dead End Drive-In was originally filmed in 2.35:1 widescreen and presented in that aspect ratio when Anchor Bay first released it on DVD ten years ago. For this edition Arrow has compressed the picture to a ratio of 1.85:1. Image quality is solid with very little traces of print damage and a nice boost in the colors and brightness. The English 2.0 stereo track is mostly free of audio distortion and features strong volume control for the soundtrack and music score by Frank Strangio and the dialogue. No subtitles are provided, which might have been welcome given the amount of Aussie colloquialisms in the movie.
The trailer for the U.S. theatrical release - complete with voiceover by the same guy who narrated a ton of Roger Corman trailers - is the only extra we get. Pity that Arrow couldn't secure the terrific commentary track by Trenchard-Smith from the Anchor Bay DVD.
Dead End Drive-In was one of the last great Ozploitation flicks and to this day it stands as one of the genre's best and most underrated entries thanks to having more of a brain and soul than its slicker, action-packed counterparts. Its lack of substantial supplements notwithstanding, this new DVD from Arrow would make a fine addition to any B-movie fan's home entertainment library.