Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dead-End Drive In (1986)

In the far-flung future of the early 90s, the quality of life in the Western world has taken a bit of a nose-dive following a series of man-made natural disasters and a large economic crisis (sounds somewhat familiar, doesn't it?).

The concept of law and order has changed a little too: the police seems only interested in keeping to the easiest targets (and probably, though that's not made explicit, protecting corporate interests), while the streets are dominated by garbage and roaming youth gangs known as Cowboys.

Hard-working young pizza delivery man Crabs (Ned Manning) still keeps to ancient protestant ideas of salvation through work and bettering oneself, but when he takes his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) out to see a movie in a drive-in outside of town, and pretends to be unemployed to get in for less money, he still gets in trouble.

A pair of cops steals the wheels off of Crabs's car while Carmen and he are distracted, leaving the couple stranded in an drive-in that seems peculiarly prepared for a situation like this. The next morning, it becomes clear what's going.

The government in its infinite wisdom has decided to use this and other drive-ins as internment camps for their country's young unemployed, keeping them fed with fast food, plied with drugs and entertained with movies. And because this works so well, why not load off some immigrants there from time to time, too? That way, the white clientele will have a convenient way to blow off steam without ever having to begin to think about the cause of their situation. Looks like Crabs and Carmen won't be able to leave their new home soon.

While Carmen (who is not the brightest) is quite satisfied with the state of affairs, Crabs is willing to do just about anything to get out.

In my long and storied career of watching movies of dubious quality and moral value I've encountered more than a normal person's share of bizarre set-ups, so the Australian Dead-End Drive In's pretty bizarre high concept is not the strangest a movie has ever inflicted on me. However, Brian Trenchard-Smith's film is surely still somewhere in the top 50 when it comes to conceptual weirdness.

What's even more strange about the film than the whole "drive-in as internment  camp" business is the script's decision to use that set-up for a pretty obvious, yet also earnest and honest leftish critique of the state of politics in the 80s (which, I shudder to say, is still unpleasantly applicable to the state of things today), presenting the audience with a former working class that lets itself be distracted from pushing for change by being fed and housed and given brown people to look down on and etc., and so on. Not surprisingly, this part of the movie is realized with what looks like real conviction to me, but also with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, leaving out complexities and complicities to make a point that's already obvious from the start so clear even the dumbest audience member will understand it.

Having said that, let's not pretend I don't appreciate a film about a drive-in prison full of bizarre cheesy 80s characters (with the required rather boring hero, played by a rather boring actor) whose mixture of political satire and exploitational values proudly stands in the tradition of Roger Corman productions of the 70s, or pretend that I don't agree with its political stance, more or less. It's just that I doubt that the film's on the nose critique of economical politics of the mid-80s will convince anyone who doesn't already agree with it; after all, its arguments are naturally rigged to prove the point it wants to make, and don't leave much room for other views of the world.

More problematic for Dead-End Drive In's success as a movie than its satirical obviousness, though, is its surprising reserve when it comes to providing exploitational value. There's only a wee bit of nudity, it is however at least equal opportunity nudity (something I always approve of in my exploitation), so the part of the audience not interested in breasts gets several good looks at Ned Manning's manly chest. The violence is rather minor, too - the film features one longish melee fight and a combined car chase/shoot-out ending in a nice big explosion, but that's more or less it. Roger Corman - well, pre 90s Roger - would have demanded more breasts and more blood and probably sharper dialogue, and he would have been damned right.

The only exploitational value Trenchard-Smith truly, ahem, exploits, is the bizarre as seen through the lens of the 80s in Australia, and it's difficult not to be at least a bit charmed by the film's lopsided ideas of youth culture that cross Mad Max-isms with 50s youth culture (Crabs's car is not a '56 Chevy for nothing), as well as the obvious love for details that went into everything. The latter, Roger Corman - again pre-90s Roger - would have highly approved of.

Now, although all this surely doesn't sound like the elements that make up an unmissable film, Dead-End Drive In is much too peculiar a film not to at least watch it once. Its world view might be too obvious, its satire too unsubtle, and its plot just not all that exciting, but the film's basic set-up, Trenchard-Smith's decent direction, and its fun aesthetics made Dead-End Drive In well worth spending 90 minutes on for me. Just don't expect too much from the poor, enthusiastic thing.



Doug Bolden said...

I almost assuredly going to have to watch this. This sounds...unique.

Anonymous said...

I have some fondness for this film as I live in the suburb where it was filmed (Matraville is not a movie mecca, so I'm kind of delighted by the film on the "local landmark" level). As you say, it's sledgehammer subtle, but sometimes brute bluntness is the best approach...

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Doug: Unique it definitely is. I think it's difficult to really dislike a film like this one.

james: That the film's pretty clearly "local" (though it does look to someone like me living on a different continent more "Australian" than more specifically local) is one of the film's strengths, I think. The local and the specific is often more interesting than the generically "international" to me.