The price of admission is the rest of your life
When Crabs and his girlfriend Carmen go to the local drive-in for a little passion pit petting, they are unceremoniously trapped in a government-run youth prison. Apparently, in the near-future world in which they live, with crumbling global economies and rampant looting and violence, young people are considered a disposal commodity and obvious threat. Rounding them up and keeping them in a condition of state-sponsored arrested adolescence is apparently one delinquency-cutting measure. Drugs and junk food are provided for free. Girls are given the Pill. The cars they arrived in become their homes and, for most of the hopeless inmates, life inside is seen as better than out in the real world. But not for Crabs. He yearns for freedom. He wants an explanation for why he is in this odd jail. But mostly, he wants to make his way out into the still unknown future, able to make decision for himself. But first he'll have to take on the internal danger from his fellow convicts and the external menace from the government. But this scrappy youth has a few ideas of his own on how to escape the national conformity concentration camp known as the Dead End Drive-In.
What is it with the Australians and the Apocalypse? Is there a continent more obsessed with the "what if"? They just love to explore the end of the world and how it will look. Peter Weir mixed a little aboriginal mysticism with a murder trial to give us killer surf in The Last Wave. A freak science accident left a lab tech alone and angst-ridden, wondering if what he was doing for the government caused the rest of the world to go away in The Quiet Earth. But by far the most consistent thread to weave between most Down Under depictions of Armageddon is the wasteland ruled by crazed car jockeys. Mad Max begat the Road Warrior and then went Beyond Thunderdome before this and all other highway mayhem trips to Hell were pulled over to have their learner's permits revoked. George Miller set the standard for all freeways to Hades when he put Mel Gibson in a tricked-out land tank and sent him hurtling down the road to meet his destiny. Master Weir even used the car motif to explore a strange small town of automotive maniacs who purposefully caused accidents to gain valuable parts and new townsfolk in The Cars that Ate Paris. And then there is 1984's Dead End Drive-In, perhaps the strangest permutation of the cult of car ever created. It combines Max's me-against-the-system ideology, most of Weir's wicked social commentary, and even some specialties all its own to make an almost original out of what was rapidly becoming, even by mid '80s, cliché and lame.
Not that Dead End Drive-In is completely successful. It tries too hard, hoping that its visual flair, art design, creative use of natural elements (apparently, Australia has a lot of junk cars), and unique national obsessions will translate into something spectacular. But the problem is that director Brian Trenchard-Smith doesn't go far enough with his "pardon me" prophesizing. He pulls to many future shock punches, hoping to cruise along on gorgeous photography, decent action scenes, and the celebration of wasted youth culture. The biggest confusion comes from the actual premise itself. Not the end of the world and the economic flat-lining that occurs. No, this actually works in a realistic and somewhat logical manner. But the minute we get to the passion pit prison, with its arcane rules and strange Queensland's refugees from the Wiz, the explanations fade away. There is far too much attention paid to fad and fashion and not enough to how young people would actually respond to the circumstances they are involved in here. Certainly Trenchard-Smith wants to keep events close to the vest, to have our hero learn slowly and piecemeal that he is in a cultural concentration camp. But as a plot point, all the subtlety does is obliterate the threat. We need to understand the dynamics between the government and its underage citizenry to be fully involved. The attempt to force a sense of fascism (or fatalism) is fuzzy. Maybe it has to do with the attention paid to 80s video iconography detail. Or perhaps it's the lead. As a champion, Ned Manning is no Mel Gibson. He's not even a Charlie Gibson. His forced gallantry and pissed-off rebelliousness is never believable. He always seems to be trying too hard and for unclear reasons.
Yet all of this mediocre imagineering will probably not matter much to the genre crowd. Give something similar to them a somewhat inspired switch-a-roo and they will come calling to see if a cult can be started. Those who love the concept of car culture will enjoy this movie, with its renegade carboys, gangs of Road Warrior-inspired speed heads, and a lot of auto anarchy. Many of the chase scenes, including the ones around the finale, are very well done. And if you long for the days of early MTV, neon video tomfoolery, groovy graffiti with a real break dancer's feel, and arbitrary junk values, Dead End Drive-In delivers. It makes this media mess its visionary bread and butter. Oh yeah, and there is topless nudity aplenty—shower shots, dressing shots, undressing shots—anything and everything the hormones of a raging horror/sci-fi fan could long for. But none of this really saves Dead End Drive-In. With ill-defined characters, a strangely recognizable so-called future and the sudden, third-act inclusion of racism (obviously an attempt to induce serious social commentary into what is basically an exploitation film), it's a valiant, but ultimately vacuous, enterprise. There is no doubting director Trenchard-Smith's ability with the camera, both in composition and design. But the story encased in such lovely cinematography is ill defined and derivative.
Anchor Bay does do a nice job with Dead End Drive-In, giving the video and audio a nicely polished sheen. The original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is nicely preserved with superb clarity and rich details. The anamorphic image never flares or bleeds, even with the overuse of neon. Sonically, the Dolby Digital 2.0 serves the movie well. With the electronic tunes from the New Wave generation blaring behind the action, the dialogue is still clear and crisp. While the Australian accents can take a little getting used to (especially with everyone speaking as rapidly as they do), this is still a nice aural offering. A-Bay usually adds some interesting bonus material to its DVD releases and Dead End Drive-In doesn't disappoint. By far the best bit is the full-length audio commentary by Trenchard-Smith. He is jovial and truthful, explaining where his movie works and laughing at the numerous times he finds fault. He is a wealth of knowledge and revelations, highlighting production problems, the names and current projects of his cast and crew, and the history of modern Australian movie making (including his debt to the Mad Max archetype). Along with a trailer and a photo gallery, the extras do help explain the movie's methods and madness. Still, you may not be convinced. Joe Bob Briggs may perhaps be the only person on the planet to fully appreciate the plot plaudits of Dead End Drive-In. Other fans of this "what if" futuristic genre will just be stymied by the original question.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary by Director Brian Trenchard-Smith
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