New to Blu: Arrow Video: Dead End Drive-In - (Reviewed)

British-Australian cult director Brian Trenchard-Smith’s 1986 Dead End Drive-In begins as a frank Ozploitation imitation of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi thriller The Road Warrior before settling down into an Argento-like trenchant social critique about institutionalized welfare.  An exceedingly simple but startlingly prescient rebuke of food stamp culture, the film concerns two punk teens living in a time of economic and social collapse who enter a shady drive-in theater for some sexing only to discover they’re not allowed to leave the premises.  Surrounded by distinctly Australian delinquents and reprobates, the couple quickly learns the aged venue is a holding cell nesting dangerous criminals and refugees loaded with junk food and drug dealing as police occasionally drop off food and more patrons.  

Both a bona-fide '80s cult gem which is both a low budget entertainment and a sneakily Orwellian takedown of welfare’s potentially communistic effects to individuality and freedom, Dead End Drive-In poses the question of whether or not you would want to forfeit your identity and free reign as long as you’re provided for.  Why work your way up to earn your keep and live your own life when you can just lay down with everybody else and watch movies all day?  For as much of a staunch theatergoer as I am, Dead End Drive-In’s prospect of an eternity of free room and board with cheap exploitation movies playing in the background ad nauseam sounds far more terrifying than inviting.

At first I was quick to write this one off as another Mad Max knockoff, which it kinda starts out as, but once the kids enter the drive-in theater it truly comes alive and finds its own voice.  As aforementioned, visually it’s equal parts George Miller and Dario Argento but the soundtrack by Frank Stangio suggests something closer to Lamberto Bava’s Demons meets Steve De Jarnatt’s Cherry 2000.  What could have been just a cheap Ozploitation flick actually sports some handsomely composed cinematography by Paul Murphy, who makes the concentration camp of a drive-in theater look both repellent and inviting.  To the film’s credit it does feature some inventive set design depicting a dry wasteland littered with burnt and rusty cars, barb-wire, electrified fences and graffiti galore.  Being a bit of a Mad Max clone, it also features some death defying stuntwork from the same man responsible for some of The Road Warrior’s most exciting stunts, Guy Norris, and for a short time contained a world-record breaking truck jump.  The acting is also surprisingly good with special props going to the film’s lead, playwright and esteemed stage actor Ned Manning, who gives the half-bored punk a complex moral compass and reasons to care for his plight.  A strong counterpoint to Manning of course is the mercurial movie theater owner played by Peter Whitford, who makes the man simultaneously sinister yet oddly caring for kids locked in his giant prison playground with the same loving fervor as Danny Aiello’s pizzeria manager in Do the Right Thing.

Call me Mad Max one more time and I'll blow your head off. 

From the outset I figured Dead End Drive-In would be another hip post-apocalyptic throwaway and was more than pleasantly surprised at how incisive of a cultural critique it really is.  One of the smartest films to get the Arrow Video blu-ray treatment this year, this Ozploitation flick has more on it’s mind than most would be led to believe and couldn’t have been re-released to cinephiles in high-definition at a more pertinent time than now.  Like A Clockwork Orange, the film is a dystopian science fiction fable about the bureaucratic dissolution of our freedoms under the guise of being helpful and by making the central character himself a delinquent, it becomes far more relatable by pitting him against a burgeoning fascist police state.  It also ponders the other side of the equation by suggesting outcasts finding acceptance in a communist society, showing why people would prefer staking out the world in their own way.  When it’s not slamming couch potatoes who don’t dare to question the junk food they’re eating, Dead End Drive-In is fun to look at for the bright neon colors and dilapidated set design.  Going in you too will probably fold your arms at how it starts off by copying George Miller but once you reach the drive-in, like the characters, you too won’t be able to leave your seat.


- Andrew Kotwicki

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