July 11, 2011

Dead-End Drive In (1986)

The release of George Miller's "Mad Max" in 1979, and its sequel in 1981, inspired a whole new geneation of science fiction films set in dystopian post-apocalyptic worlds where vast desolated landscapes and brutal violence was the norm. While some of the most famous of these films were Italian ("2019 - Dopo la caduta di New York" being a prime example), the trend extended to other latitudes. Australia itself, the origin of "Mad Max", produced "Dead-End Drive In" by British filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith. While Trenchard-Smith is probably not a big house-hold name (not even for B-movie fans), he has build up a filmography that, while probably not exactly of high quality in technical terms, it's certainly offbeat and never lacking originality ("The Man from Hong Kong", the Nicole Kidman vehicle "BMX Bandits" and his entries in the "Leprechaun" film series are testament of this). In "Dead-End Drive In", probably his best film, Trenchard-Smith along writer Peter Smalley construct one of the best Australian b-movies. A cult classic of science fiction.

As stated above, "Dead-End Drive In" is set in a post-apocalyptic future, after the world's economy collapsed, and chaos runs rampant through the land. Australia is turned into a violent wasteland where the unemployed youth uses the street as a battlefield and the law is forgotten. As a measure to fight the chaos, the restructured government has devised a plan to regain control of the situation: problematic youngsters, violent gangsters, the unemployed, the undesirable and other social rejects are to be sent to Drive-Ins transformed into concentration camps. At the drive-in, the inmates are kept controlled using unlimited fast food, modern music and a constant string of movies. Basically, giving them everything a youngster may want. Crabs (Ned Manning), a young man in this world, is trapped inside the drive-in along his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry), but instead of becoming a conformist member of the nihilistic youth, Crabs has decided that he'll fight the establsihment and escape the teenage wasteland no matter the cost.

Hidden under the guise of another "Mad Max" clone that mixes post-apocalyptic sci-fi with horror, "Dead-End Drive In" actually contains a very well conceived plot with a stunningly sharp social commentary included. Based on a story by Peter Carey (better known as the author of 1988 best-seller "Oscar and Lucinda"), "Dead-End Drive In" is basically, the tale of a fight against conformism. In the film, Crabs is trapped in an apparent paradise where he could basically do nothing but eat and watching films, but instead he chooses to fight back and try to escape from the Drive-In and to return to his family. At the same time, Crabs begins to see how everyone else, including his girlfriend Carmen, begin to conform and accept this "paradise". But as in Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World", the apparent "paradise" that is the drive-in is false, and for Crabs, the only thing worth fighting for is real freedom. Certainly, the screenplay lacks character development, as it tends to become more a statement of ideals than a true story.

Stretching the budget to the max, director Brian Trenchard-Smith manages to create very well done scenes with the very few resources he has. With the eye of cinematographer Paul Murphy's camera, Trenchard-Smith makes great use of his locations and constructs a very atmospheric world of desertic heat by day, and neon madness by night. A true post-punk atmosphere if there ever was one (the New Wave soundtrack simply confirms this). However, while its intended message is not exactly subtle, "Dead-End Drive In" is far from being a serious film, as it is packed with an overtly irreverent tone, high-octane action and a healthy dose of humor. Still, the film remains focused on its message and commetary on present-day society, as racist, conformist and violent as the cynic youth depicted in the film. "Dead-End Drive In" is not a horror movie in the strict sense of being a scary movie, but it is haunting in the sense that even when it is a fictitious scenery, it is not hard to believe that humanity will behave the way the conformist teenager do in the film.

The cast, made-up of faces of Australian television is nothing too amazing, but for the most part get the job done. As Crabs, Ned Manning is actually very good, as he makes a spot-on portrait of a common young man trapped unfairly in a living tomb. Manning makes his character very likable thanks to his natural charm and everyman attitude. Certainly, if a different aproach had been taken, probably the film woulnd't work that much, as it is Manning's unlikely hero (he is definitely no Mad Max) what makes the film. Natalie McCurry, playing Crab's beautiful girlfriend Carmen is also an important character, as hers is basically the other half of the coin, being the one who begins to lose hope in Crabs' idea and starts to behave just as the rest of the cattle. McCurry adds her beauty and charm to the character, though her performance is not as good as Manning's, and at times feels a tad forced. The rest of the cast is as a whole good, nothing really bad, but unfortunatelly, nothing truly memorable as well.

As written above, one of the biggest flaws in "Dead-End Drive In" is that often it seems to leave character development in favor of stating the film's social commetary. At times, more than a real character, Crabs becomes simply the embodiment of an ideal, an archetype without a realistic personality. "Dead-End Drive In" is, while witty, not exactly subtle in its commentary, and its characters suffer a tad because of this. However, Trenchard-Smith's work of directing and Manning's natural talent are what often manage to avoid the worst of this this and make Crabs a likeable character with more personality. Another problem is the sad fact that the film looks terribly dated after all these years. With its New Wave soundtrack and post-punk fashion, the film has that decidedly 80s look that can't come up as "futurist" anymore. It is stuck in its pop fashion as a product of its time, and can't avoid to look old. Anyways, the movie still manages to be quite entertaining and some effects (like the use of explosives) still look great after 20 years.

As a product of its time and one of the most intelligent sci-fi films of its time, "Dead-End Drive In" is a very interesting curiosity that proves to be more than a cheap "Mad Max" rip-off. Unfairly forgotten after all these years, "Dead-End Drive In" is a cult classic that deserves a bit more of recognition. It is far from being perfect (and as said above, has not aged well), but it offers an interesting take on the subgenre that surprisingly, gives good food for thought without any attempt at being pretentious. With its 80s atmosphere, high-speed action and sharp social commentary, Brian Trenchard-Smith's tale of post-apocalyptic madness and fashionable conformism still delivers the goods. Wild, irreverent and darkly humorous, this tale of a fight against the establishmen is a terrific (though hopefully not prophetical) vision of the future.


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