The synopsis for Dead-End Drive-In on IMDB reads as follows: “In the near future, a teenage couple is trapped in a drive-in theater which has become a concentration camp for social outcasts. The inmates are treated to drugs, exploitation films, junk food, and new wave music.” That sounds a bit like paradise for me so if that’s the post-apocalyptic future we have to look forward to, sign me up.
An opening crawl details the recent economic collapse of every major economy and the violence that ensues. The camera moves through an unnamed Australian city and we see broken windows, burning buildings, and graffiti everywhere. On the streets run carboys - post-punk gear heads - who are just as apt to steal your hubcaps as they are to rape your women.
Soon we meet "Crabs" (Ned Manning) - he once thought he had the venereal disease, he didn’t but the name stuck - and his brother who are part of an aggressive tow-truck culture. Apparently whoever gets to the scene of an accident first gets to keep the wrecked vehicles and all its parts. That is if they can fend off the violent carboys and escape while an uninterested and corrupt police department merely watches.
This whole plot line is quickly forgotten as Jimmy steals his brother’s ’57 Chevy and takes his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) to the drive-in. It's just as scary as the rest of the city with open fires burning all over, and dirty punks running rampant. But it's not the movie Jimmy’s there for, but Carmen (who gets right to the point when she asks “do you like ‘em?” as she takes off her top). Jimmy most certainly does. Their lovemaking is interrupted when someone steals two tires from his car.
Jimmy chases the culprits down but stops dead when he realizes the thieves are the local cops. Complaints to the manager Thompson (Peter Whitford) go nowhere as he’s informed they are essentially stuck there indefinitely. The only road leading out is a government highway where walking isn’t allowed and there are no busses or cabs allowed.
Eventually we learn that the drive-in acts more like a concentration camp for all the socially undesirables of the country. They are given coupons to spend at the local diner, drugs if they want them, and plenty of bad movies as the sun goes down. Outraged, Jimmy tries to rile up the hundreds of other inmates but mostly they seem to be satiated. Life wasn’t great on the outside and here at least they get three square meals and plenty of entertainment. Even Carmen gets in on the act having found friends to do her hair and lots of milkshakes to drink.
Every time Jimmy thinks he’s got his car ready to drive him out, he finds Thompson foiling his plans. When he steals some tires, Thompson has drained his gas tank; when he gets some gas, the engine has been lifted. Eventual escape is inevitable and Dead-End Drive-In never ventures far from what you expect.
An enormous bomb when it was released (it made a grand total of $68,000 Australian off a budget of $2.5 million), the movie has since garnered a cult following, including Quentin Tarantino. It's not by any means a great film, but I rather liked it. It's oh-so-very 1980s, dirty day-glo look works really well. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith is rather subdued from his big stunt-fueled reputation, giving us only a few, mostly small action set-pieces. The acting is rather terrible but the story is intersting and it actually has some interesting things to say about society, even if it's not too subtle about how it says it. Ultimately, it's a fun if rather ridiculous post-apocalyptic exploitation flick.
Arrow has done another excellent job of bringing a mostly forgotten-about, low-budget genre picture to the masses. The video looks quite excellent considering the low budget nature of the film. The neon colors pop while the blacks are nicely drawn. There is some continual grain that was no doubt present in the original negatives and occasionally there were some compression issues, but overall it's a very nice-looking film. Likewise, the sound is quite good. Trenchard-Smith fills it with a lot of “second string” (minor hit songs that never made it to #1) new wave music and they all sound great. Sound effects do their job but aren’t particularly overwhelming, and the dialogue comes through clear.
Extras are few but really good. They include a really nice TV episode directed by Trenchard-Smith about the robust Australian stunt industry. There’s also a PSA, also directed by Trenchard-Smith, that’s ostensibly about the dangers of fires caused by cigarettes but at its heart, it's another crazy exploitation short film made with government money. The director also gives a very excited commentary for the film and there’s a photo essay about Sydney’s graffiti artists. The usual thick booklet filled with photos and essays rounds the package out.
Dead-End Drive-In often gets compared to George Miller’s Mad Max films and it does come off as a sort-of second tier version of those films. But there’s still a lot of fun to be had watching it even if some of the social commentary is a bit heavy handed.