A chaotic cousin to the likes of The Warriors, Troma’s Surf Nazis Must Die, Repo Man and, of course, the whole bleaching smoke-stack of post-apocalyptic exploitation movies in the wake of zeitgeist-cresting cult classics Mad Max and Escape From New York, Ozploitation king Brian Trenchard-Smith’s (BMX Bandits, Leprechaun 4: In Space) 1986 trash-fest Dead End Drive-In is an obviously opportunistic grab for the same disaffected dollar in the era of evangelical Reaganomics, piratical free-markets, social unrest, and confrontational youth culture.
Dead End Drive-In, though, deserves far better than to be lumped in with the big, dumb Italian knock-offs like The New Barbarians or 1990: The Bronx Warriors. Its subtext looms increasingly large to the point where it seems destined for an A-level Media Studies syllabus alongside Boyz ‘N The Hood, and it’s a testament to the clarity of its message that the most fondly remembered films in this seemingly cheap and crass microgenre will always seem immediately relevant and profoundly prescient whatever the year they’re revisited.
Where Mad Max, Dead End Drive-In‘s rural precursor, was the every(law)man pushed to the edge by lawlessness via idiosyncratically Australian road culture, Dead End Drive-In has a fundamentally good kid on the margins, Crabs (Ned Manning) imprisoned with his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) in the Star Drive-In by a near future autocracy of corrupt cops and their quisling theatre manager, desperately trying to force back the tide of delinquency.
Locked in with them are a mass of bright and brash youth tribes, punks and new wavers, obvious scumbags and wierdos, all plucked from the smoke-filled high school restroom of every 80s teen movie you’ve ever seen.
Setting up camp in their disabled cars (the fuzz sneak around at night, ripping the wheels from every new intake) – literally stewing in their own means of escape – the titular drive-in has become a chaotic internment camp, all refugee camp clutter, graffiti and oil drum campfires, its inhabitant less concerned with escape and more concerned with slamming back Fosters, fighting (there’s a cricket bat duel at one point, which is a particularly Australian vision of post-apocalyptic social breakdown), gossiping and generally carrying on with their meaningless, dead-end lives despite the electric fences and eruption of a totalitarian police state.
Like a sodastream Kafka, Crabs’ attempts to escape are met with endless conversations about why he can’t, and two-steps-forward-one-step-back occurrences that give the whole thing a sort of Aesops’ quality; just as he finds two replacement wheels for his chevvy, he runs out of petrol; just as he siphons the petrol from a police yute, his engine gets stolen. Eventually he just snaps, tries to run the gate with a pickup truck, kicking off a chase sequence around the drive-in (Tarantino, a huge fan of Trenchard-Smith, maintains that nobody films cars like Australians – signing his cinematographic love letter in the likes of the lukewarm Death Proof, as well as the garish Pussy Wagon of Kill Bill) a shoot-out with the cops, and the climatic jumping of the fence – then not only the biggest jump in cinema, but the most expensive single special effect in Australia’s film history.
While Crabs becomes an increasingly frustrated and driven K, Carmen seems relatively content, making friends who do her hair and advise her on birth control, and increasingly baffled by Crabs’ attempts to escape – “We’ve got a good thing going on here” – and bemused as he maintains the chevvy she’s long since stopped regarding as anything other than a sort of studio apartment. A hyper-stylised tale of a generation held prisoner by consumerism (“We don’t have orange juice, just lemonade, Fanta and Pepsi” says the woman in the cafe), unable to escape less from the wire and guns and more from their own lack of will, Crabs jogs around the perimeter while the rest smash windows and eat burgers.
While Crabs runs afoul of a gang, rejecting their company and wounding their fragile thug egos, Carmen finds herself increasingly orbiting their world, especially as the arrival of a truckload of Asians (the first of Australia’s ‘boat people’ arrived in 1975 in the wake of the Vietnam War) increases tensions to hysterically irrational degrees, with the the gang at the centre. It’s a crudely effective parody of bigotry, as the Drive-In’s gutter-punk inhabitants suddenly go from complacency to blaming the newcomers for all their problems, with Carmen particular suddenly profoundly concerned she’s going to get raped by them if she goes out alone. No wonder Crabs wants out, as true to form those at the bottom of society are quick to position themselves above another social group if the opportunity makes itself known.
It’s more than just confrontational subtext that makes Dead End Drive-In something of an overlooked and unappreciated classic, but Trenchard-Smith’s accomplished direction and cinematography, that treats its low-budget subject matter with Hollywood respect – eschewing the flat direction of his contemporaries for creeping tracking shots across wide open spaces and claustrophobic crane shots down the forbidding fences. The production design, too, is luscious – the souped up cars and trucks, the domain of the same team as 1979’s Mad Max, are Micro Machines perfect, while the dusty exteriors give the drive-in itself a bleak, apocalyptic feel that clashes with the smokey, neon-lit interiors. Screw 3D; this calls for scratch and sniff, to see in each scene with the appropriate nostril-dose of piss, engine oil or beer.
Now uncut for the first time in the UK – the BBFC stripped 16 seconds on its original release, probably some of the boobs or racism – there’s no better time to swing by the Dead End Drive-In for what feels like a Dead Kennedy’s song writ large, or a late-night Yoof TV remake of The Prisoner – a sardonic shot-glass of The Warriors, Mad Max, and Surf Nazis Must Die, with a side-helping of Romper Stomper, massive hair, and a forceful worldview that could have been born in no other era.