What more can a kid want…except to get out?
I love science fiction, but it can be stuffy. Stories set in the future on distant planets with alien languages and moral parallels to modern social issues are all well and good, but sometimes you just want a car chase. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith caters to the high-minded and lowbrow in his 1986 post-apocalyptic “Ozploitation” flick, Dead-End Drive-In.
In the future the world is reeling from crises and wars. Life in Australia is falling apart. Roving gangs threaten innocents. Rival salvage companies fight for increasingly rare car parts. A clean-cut boy named “Crabs” borrows his brother’s classic Chevy to take his best girl to the local drive-in. During the movie, his wheels are stolen, stranding the kids at the theater overnight. In the morning they find out that the drive-in is actually a concentration camp for youths and ne’er-do-wells who come for the movie and are tricked into staying forever. While his girlfriend adapts to their imprisonment, Crabs refuses to give in. He scours the camp for the car parts necessary to fix his ride, facing off against the drive-in’s scummy owner, a colorful group of thugs, and corrupt police.
Dead-End Drive-In has been compared to the Mad Max movies, but the films don’t have much in common beyond Australian accents and a car fetish. While the most popular Max movies take place in a desert wasteland, Dead-End Drive-In is set in a world mid-collapse, before its inhabitants have had a chance to slip into the pig-poop-and-leather-bar stage of devolution.
The biggest difference between Dead-End and Max is the pacing. Trenchard-Smith bookends his movie with automotive action, but in between the story slows down to focus on the folks living in the drive-in compound. It’s more prison movie than action blockbuster. Usually, a flabby film midsection smacks of a low budget and padded runtime. That’s not the case here.
Dead-End Drive-In has a surprising amount on its mind. The basic idea of a post-apocalyptic drive-in as government roach motel is cool on its own. The added touch of making those prisoners happy to accept their incarceration because the compound offers an endless supply of junk food, B-movies, and drugs elevates it to resonant social commentary.
Not that anyone is going to confuse Dead-End Drive-In with an arthouse indie. Trenchard-Smith does enough with its characters to make us care about them, but they are uniformly broad. Crabs is our hero. He’s also sort of a weenie — an exercise freak who won’t let a little thing like the collapse of society keep him from running laps. He’s briefly a teacher’s pet to the drive-in owner. He’s deathly afraid of what his brother will do when he finds out Crabs borrowed his car. None of this keeps him from kicking butt or leading the cops in a high-octane car chase. It just makes him a weenie.
The social commentary falls apart a little near the end, when the camp crowd hurls racist epithets at a bus full of Asian prisoners. There’s a fine line between satire of racism and racism itself. There’s no use applying 2016 standards of decency to a film from this era, but it’s fair to say modern viewers may take issue with this particular aspect of the exploitation.
No one will take issue with the stunt work in this film, though. The action scenes are few and far between but that only makes it sweeter when Dead-End Drive-In moves into its climactic finale, building to an iconic and record-breaking stunt. In most other low-budget movies that drought of spectacle would be a problem. That Dead-End manages to be both a fun, frivolous exploitation flick and smart satire makes it worth pulling out of the cinematic lost and found.
Dead-End Drive-In fans and newcomers alike have a new best way to experience this singular film thanks to Arrow Films. This Blu-ray release features a new 2.35:1 1080p 2K scan. Despite some image softness that speaks to its low-fi roots, the new transfer boasts deep blacks and rich colors. It is a vivid picture that looks better than a movie like this probably should. The 2.0 mono soundtrack is clear and balanced, with ample separation for audio effects, ‘80s new wave music, and dialogue.
This special edition Arrow disc comes with a collection of bonus features that are as much about Dead-End Drive-In’s director as the film itself:
The primary extra is an audio commentary by Brian Trenchard-Smith. The director talks about the movie’s origins, ideas, and filmmaking tricks that let him spin a modest budget into a good-looking view of an awful future.
“The Stuntmen” (48:46): This Australian TV documentary directed by Trenchard-Smith focuses on on Australian stunt performers including Bob Woodham and Grant Page; mixing interviews with a detailed breakdown of several movie stunt sequences.
“Hospitals Don’t Burn Down!” (24:10): Another Trenchard-Smith-directed short film, this one a harrowing 1978 PSA about fire safety that would scare Smokey Bear straight.
Vladimir Cherepanoff Gallery: The graffiti artist who helped create the backdrop for Dead-End Drive-In tells the story of one fateful night in the Sydney graffiti scene in audio and still photos.
Theatrical Trailer (1:36)
The package also includes a 27-page booklet with photos and essays about the film, “The Stuntmen,” and “Hospitals Don’t Burn Down!”; plus reversible cover art.
Dead-End Drive-In would be worth watching even if it was just a weird Australian time capsule with a nifty sci-fi premise. Come for the funny accents and car chases. Stay for the social commentary that is as relevant today as it was in 1986. Arrow gives this minor cult classic the royal treatment in a special edition Blu-ray set that looks and sounds great, with a buffet of meaty bonus features.