Dead End Drive-in: a clever and political genre movie

By Mark Longden | 20 September 2017

Mark Longden writes about and loves alternative and experimental cinema. He is an occasional writer for this blog.

Brian Trenchard-Smith’s film Dead End Drive-in is a low-budget action movie centred on a teenage couple trapped in a drive-in cinema – but it is much more than that.

Because they have a lower barrier to clear to make a profit, and don’t have the same level of scrutiny of “proper” cinema, low-budget genre filmmakers have been quietly making political cinema for decades. Take 1973’s Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, for example. It was made at the height of the 1970s oil crisis and offered a powerful indictment of the society of the time, while still being a super-entertaining movie about wild men and women driving across a dystopian landscape killing lots and lots of people.

This article will hopefully be one of a series about movies you might not have heard of, but that have really interesting things to say about the times they were made in – and still have a political message for us today.

Before Trenchard-Smith made the ordinary car-chase thriller Drive Hard, and two of the Leprechaun sequels, he made some really fun, wild exploitation movies in his native Australia. One of these was Blood Camp Thatcher. Given the time it was made – the early 1980s – the last word of the title is almost certainly a reference to our un-beloved former prime minister.

But Dead End Drive-in is a little oddity from the end of his time in Australia, before he moved to the US 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.

The Australia of Dead End Drive-in, to compare it to the most famous dystopian movie filmed there, is like Mad Max drenched in neon and covered in graffiti. The man we meet navigating this place is Jimmy, aka Crabs, a naive “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.

Jimmy lives with his mum and older brother Frank, who has carved out a niche for himself with a tow-truck that 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 who 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, including Blood Camp Thatcher.

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 – 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.

The film’s take on capitalism is extremely acute, but it is when racism is brought into the story – in the form of several trucks of Asian immigrants who are treated as far worse enemies than the cops by the vast majority of the original occupants of the prison camp – that 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 used by many progressives 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 mostly the movie offers 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 lackey 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 that I’ve got no problems whatsoever recommending – it’s also Quentin Tarantino’s favourite of Trenchard-Smith’s movies, if you’re interested in his opinion.

If I had a minor 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 the film more prescient, as we’re given useful idiots to rail against on Twitter and the gentlest centrist parody of the system – all the while our wages and working conditions are being cut, women’s liberation and LGBT+ victories are being rolled back, and so on.

I imagine if the camps portrayed in the film 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 that is a weird thing to say about a movie where punks get trapped in a drive-in theatre and fed drugs by a genial middle-aged man, but it’s true nonetheless.

Recently released on Blu-ray, Dead End Drive-in joins Society among the movies that use the trappings of genre cinema to stick the boot into the capitalist system, and ought to be enjoyed by many more people.


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