Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith
Starring Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford, Wilbur Wilde
Arrow Video, Out now
In the near future, the world economy has collapsed and crime is rampant. In the midst of this, teenager Crabs (Manning) takes his girlfriend Carmen (McCurry) out to a drive-in movie to forget about their worries. But when someone steals the wheels off their car, they find they’re not allowed to leave the drive-in – along with other sinister-looking punks…
Brian Trenchard-Smith’s low-budget future-teenpic from 1986 has its origins in a surprisingly highbrow source: a short story by Peter Carey, the double Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang.
But then this is more than a throwaway exploitation picture. Dead End Drive-In wrestles with serious themes that still resonate today, including the link between economics and crime, ethnic tension and disaffected youth.
The drive-in is essentially a place for the authorities to deport ‘undesirables’ like unemployed teenagers and Asians. What the authorities plan to do with them is never entirely clear – the big reveal, which we keep expecting, never arrives. While there are echoes of prison exploitation movies, no one actually wants to leave the drive-in aside from the hero, Crabs (a puny teen who’s desperate to prove himself tough). There are no sadistic guards. The bullies are reasonably polite. There’s even a fast-food diner on site, not to mention constant movie screenings (mostly consisting of other Trenchard-Smith films, such as Turkey Shoot and The Man From Hong Kong).
The point presumably is that these teenagers are willing to accept their dead-end lives as long as they’ve got movies, sex, fast-food and beer (the slightly creepy drive-in manager Thompson keeps foisting bottles of VB onto Crabs). It’s an intriguing theme, though the fact that the drive-in really isn’t that bad (and the world outside isn’t any better) means the plot loses something in the way of dramatic tension.
In typical low-budget filmmaking fashion, the action is mostly restricted to a single location. But Trenchard-Smith invests the film with the energy and verve of a much larger movie, full of extended dolly shots, sinister close-ups and characters framed through cracks in bonnets and car windows. The drive-in looks fantastic too, full of repurposed, broken-down vehicles, colourful graffiti and disparate, elaborately-dressed punks who look like they’re guests at a 1980s fancy-dress ball. If Dead End Drive-In doesn’t quite deliver on the non-stop gunfights and car chases promised by the cover art, the final Mad Max-style stunts are worth waiting for, even if the film has nowhere to go after that.
There’s been an increased interest in ‘Ozploitation’ movies in recent years, mainly due to the success of Mark Hartley’s excellent documentary Not Quite Hollywood, and Dead-End Drive In is a distillation of everything that’s great about the genre.
The DVD comes with a typically sensationalistic trailer and a booklet by Cullen Gallagher (unavailable at the time of writing).
VERDICT: Sure, the dialogue and acting are variable and there’s a hideously dated theme tune, but the bizarre plotting, fascinating themes and terrific visuals make Dead End Drive-In well worth seeking out. 8/10