There’s a real chicken-and-the-egg thing when it comes to 1980s Australian exploitation movies. 1979’s Mad Max, and more so its 1981 sequel The Road Warrior, proved intensely popular with their frenetic chase scenes and post-apocalyptic desert setting, to the point that more Aussie films with similar themes came out. Was the gas-short near-future in the zeitgeist in Australia, or did George Miller truly create a brand new subgenre? Regardless of the order of events, there certainly were tons of movies in the same vein coming out around the same time, and probably my favorite non-Max film is the 1986 film Dead End Drive-In.
The director of Dead End Drive-In is a name fans of Ozsploitation surely already knows, and if you don’t know it, you should: Brian Trenchard-Smith, the British-Australian maker of some of the most audacious and outlandish action movies in the genre. His most notorious is probably Turkey Shoot from 1982, another post-apocalyptic number, about a concentration camp full of “deviants” who decide to rise up against their vindictive and brutal wardens. One of the most violent films of the movement, and needing heavy cuts when it was released in the U.S. under the title Escape 2000. Dead End Drive-In isn’t nearly as gory, but it’s steeped in social satire which makes it all work just as well.
The story is set in 1995 (the future!) where Sydney is teetering on the edge of chaos, with vicious gangs of unemployed youths causing problems for the good, average folks. One kid with a job is our hero, Crabs (Ned Manning), who works for his brother’s car towing company and who has a lovely, innocent girlfriend named Carmen (Natalie McCurry). One night, Crabs steals his brothers sweet old Plymouth and takes his lady fair to a drive-in theater that’s just been built way out on the edge of town. There are two ticket prices listed: Adults for $10 and Unemployed for $3.50. Despite having a job, Crabs says “two unemployed tickets” to the proprietor, Mr. Thompson (Peter Whitford). It does not pay to save a few bucks.
While watching the movie (Turkey Shoot, no less) and getting it on in the back seat, Crabs and Carmen feel something happen with the car. Someone has stolen the back tires, which means they’re pretty well stranded. The next morning (yes, they just decided to stay all night), they’re surprised to see about half of the parking spots still are full of cars, each with tires missing. It’s here they learn that the Star Drive-In is in actuality a kind of concentration camp for undesirables, essentially a place for the rough and tumble youth to be secreted away and kept away from regular civilization. There’s movies at night, all the food they can eat at the concession stand, New Wave music all the time, and even recreational drugs handed out freely — anything to placate the angry young people.
Carmen takes to this new reality remarkably fast, even though she came from a good home and wasn’t an undesirable, but Crabs badly wants to get out. He sees the inherent problem with this apparent paradise, which is that they’re actually prisoners. And he certainly doesn’t like a particular gang of punks who are constantly picking on him, stealing things from him, and otherwise being assholes. When a truckload of Asian refugees are rounded up and dropped off at the drive-in, things take a dangerous turn. The white punks start screaming that they don’t want these “others” here, and there’s loose talk about them being full of disease and bound to rape all of “our women.” Even Carmen thinks this way; Crabs has to get out of there, no matter the cost.
The social satire here is pretty on-the-nose, but it’s no less effective. It feels incredibly relevant today, with huge swaths of angry white people crying about making America great again. There’s also a definite strain of absurdism with all of these kids just accepting this new paradigm because it’s easy and they get to eat and do drugs whenever they want. It has a definite Luis Bunuel vibe in a lot of places, maybe even veering toward Kafka. I also particularly enjoy how Thompson clearly cares about the kids he’s forced to preside over; he just also wants them to behave and be quiet. He’s definitely not a normal villain, but he is the roadblock keeping Crabs and the others locked up.
Trenchard-Smith is known for his action sequences, and while Dead End Drive-In doesn’t have as many as some might like, it does have a few good examples. Early on, prior to the drive-in, Crabs has some run-ins with street gangs through a junkyard which is pretty enjoyable, and the finale features Crabs stealing a tow truck and being chased by police cruisers through the drive-in at night, which then becomes him stealing the police van as well. That’s definitely the sequence that makes you remember whose movie you’re watching.
Dead End Drive-In is getting a fancy 2K Blu-ray release from the fantastic Arrow Video, which features a commentary by Trenchard-Smith as well as a few of his other short films. It’s a good release for a movie that feels both terribly dated and terribly of the moment.
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Images: New World Pictures