Dead End Drive-In (1986)

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered director Brian Trenchard-Smith – he made the super-ordinary car-chase thriller “Drive Hard”, and two of the “Leprechaun” sequels; but he’s best known for his early career in Australia and the weird exploitation movies he made, such as “Blood Camp Thatcher” (aka “Turkey Shoot”). This little oddity is from the end of his time in Australia, before he moved to the USA and started making…well, Leprechaun sequels.

Dystopia happens before the movie even begins, but it’s not so much environmental as it is explicitly political – banks collapse, extreme authoritarian parties take over government, crime runs rampant, etc. Australia, to compare it to the most famous dystopian movie filmed there, is like “Mad Max” drenched in neon and covered in graffiti, and the man we meet navigating this place is Jimmy, aka Crabs, a naïve “youngster” (the actor who played him, Aussie TV stalwart Ned Manning, told the director he was 24 to get the part, but was actually 36 and looked it), who lives with his mum and older brother Frank, who’s carved out a niche for himself with a tow-truck which he uses to tow wrecks from fatal accidents and keep all the stuff.

There’s quite a lot of world-building here, as “Dead End Drive-In” unfolds at a leisurely pace. Jimmy, after fighting off a gang of near-feral “carboys”, borrows his brother’s beautiful Chevy and takes girlfriend Carmen to the drive-in. Even though he has a job, he makes perhaps the worst decision of his life and buys an extra-cheap “unemployed” ticket from drive-in manager Thompson. During the movie, as he and Carmen are in flagrante, two of the car’s tires are stolen, but it’s cool as he can just stay the night there and get them replaced in the morning.

Only no. It’s here that the movie’s other main inspiration – Trenchard-Smith called it half “Mad Max” and half “The Avenging Angel” – comes into focus. Jimmy and Carmen are trapped there, as are thousands of others, mostly disaffected youths, plus lots of “carboys”, and no matter what Jimmy tries, he can’t escape. It was the cops that stole his tires, and despite Thompson being a pretty friendly fella, it’s made very clear that he’s there to stay. They’re provided with food tokens, free drugs, and cheesy exploitation movies every night (most of which are Trenchard-Smith’s old releases, such as the classic “Blood Camp Thatcher”, and it’s not a coincidence that the name in that title is the same as the former British Prime Minister).

“Dead End Drive-In” is one of the most explicitly political movies I can remember watching. It’s obvious from the beginning that the drive-in represents the modern world, where we’re trained to be happy with our prison, in fact trained to not even see the bars. It’s an extremely clever movie, as the jailer is seen as a friendly figure, but when it comes down to it, he’s on the side of the authorities, no doubt at all.

Its take on capitalism is extremely acute, but when racism is brought into it, in the form of several truckfulls of Asian immigrants, imprisoned alongside them but treated as far worse enemies than the cops by the vast majority of the original members of the camp, is when it feels a little crude. Carmen starts claiming that the Asians might rape her, and when the people who Jimmy has half-befriended form a white defence organisation, Jimmy knows he has to step up his escape plans. He has the best line of the movie when confronted with his girlfriend’s latent bigotry – “they’re not the enemy, they’re prisoners just like us”, a variation of which has been said by every good forward-thinking person when confronting these sort of views among their friends or workmates.

But as every good exploitation filmmaker knows, you have to give us a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. There’s the briefest nudity, but most of it is action, in the form of a couple of pretty brutal fight scenes and a fantastic car chase at the end, as Jimmy steals a tow-truck and attempts to force his way out.

The acting is pretty awful, if we’re being honest. Peter Whitford as Thompson is the best thing in it, almost making you believe he was a human being after all and not just a lacky of a brutal regime. Manning is fairly weak in the central role, Natalie McCurry is great in a thankless role as Carmen, and there’s an occasional standout from the main cast, but most of them feel like amateurs, which is a disappointment. But the set is great, and when you’ve got such a convincing dystopia it does a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

Trenchard-Smith uses the popularity of new-wave music and dystopias to tell an extremely political story, one which I’ve got no problems whatsoever recommending – it’s also Quentin Tarantino’s favourite of his movies, if you’re interested in his opinion. If I had one more criticism to make of the plot, it would be that Jimmy is the only person who sees through the facade; perhaps I have more faith in humanity than the filmmakers did, or perhaps it would have been a less immediate story to tell. Imagine Jimmy standing in for all the people who fight back against this cruel system on a daily basis, and it becomes a lot more enjoyable.

The intervening 30 years since its release have only made it more prescient, as we’re given useful idiots to rail against on Twitter and the gentlest of centrist parody of the system, all the while our wages and working conditions are being cut, women getting worse and worse treatment, LGBT+ victories are being rolled back, and so on. I imagine if these camps were opened today a sizeable number of people would line up to support them, after a hefty amount of propaganda of course, and that’s both sad and energising. I know this is a weird thing to say about a movie where punks get trapped in a drive-in theater and fed drugs by a genial middle-aged man, but it’s true nontheless.

Recently released on blu-ray, it joins “Society” among other movies that use the trappings of genre cinema to stick the boot into the capitalist system, and ought to enjoyed by many more people.

Rating: thumbs up

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