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Tabula Rasa

Dead End Drive-In

Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1986

A Review by David Carroll, 2001

"Shit! We're on fire!"

I saw an interview with one of the film-makers of Oscar and Lucinda once -- possibly Gillian Armstrong herself, though I can't quite remember. She said that they would not have considered making the movie if they could not film a glass church floating down a river. If you've read Peter Carey's original novel, you'll understand (and if you haven't you should, although that's a completely different review).

I am wondering if similar thoughts went through Brian Trenchard-Smith's mind. Would a screen adaptation of Carey's short story 'Crabs' work without the hero of the piece turning into a tow truck and driving away? I suspect the answer to that one is that it better bloody work, because some things really are unfilmable. Whether that applies to the story as a whole could be debated, but they had a go, and Dead End Drive-In is it.

This is good old post-apocalyptic Australia. Not the desert nomad stuff of Mad Max II, but the decaying urbanity of Mad Max I, where the cities are dangerous and freedom is an open road. The hero is Jeffery Rossini, aka Crabs for reasons best not gone into, who borrows his brother's car to take his date to the drive-in. Crabs is trying to get himself into shape, and has ambitions to drive a tow truck, scavenging parts from the carnage on the roads before the 'karboys' move in to grab the lot. But for now he's got his girl, a car with fold-down seats, and he's as happy as can be. Until, inevitably, something goes wrong and they're stuck in the drive-in, seemingly for good. (Joe R. Lansdale wrote a couple of novels with a similar premise, by the way, which are recommended, although turn out quite differently.)

It all looks pretty good. At the beginning we get shots of oil-refineries, red sunsets, trash and old wrecks on the streets, and lots of spiky haircuts. The drive-in itself is a mix of fifties décor trashed by eighties punks. While the boppy-soundtrack and retro-fashions start off looking stupid and out of place, in the end it is all part of the tableaux -- after all, it is set in a drive-in. Naturalism is not the point. So the designers did well, and for the most part the director took advantage of it. Where it all falls down is the script, and the stilted delivery of many of the lines within it.

It's easy to blame this on the short story, or rather the way it has been adapted. The writer, Peter Smalley, seemed so keen to follow his source that you can practically tick off the paragraphs. People say things that they wouldn't, just to get across the written background. Worse, some combination of the editing and the delivery makes most of the lines seemed strained even if they're reasonable. Of the principal actors, only Peter Whitford as the drive-in proprietor acquits himself well (he's been in a lot of things, including Oscar and Lucinda I note in passing). The prolific Trenchard-Smith looks a lot more relaxed showing us burning cars than a family dinner. Strangely enough, the punks also come out well. Australian actors seem to be able to portray such things a lot better than Americans usually manage, mainly because they don't seem to care if they look grubby and insane in a not-zany-at-all fashion. Wilbur Wilde takes honours here. And as the punks start taking up more of the screen-time, the point of the movie starts coming across, and quite a subversive one it is too.

On the surface it's about racism -- the white inhabitants start railing against the Asian hordes that are being shipped into the drive-in (one of the harbingers of apocalypse in the beginning title cards is the 'great white massacre'). Then there's the whole corrupt cops bit. But these familiar and highly topical bugbears are still only symptoms of the deeper problem. All this youthful rebellion epitomised by the drugs, wanton destruction and visual cues back to teenage films of past decades goes nowhere, because it is the establishment. They wear the clothes of rebellion, but almost explicitly let the government tell them how to rebel.

This is in the story, in a lower key (I'm very interested in Crabs' girlfriend, Carmen, who becomes part of this interior society. Compare her name to the karboys...) In the original, the gate of the drive-in is unlocked and unguarded, because all that is needed is the will to leave. In the movie we get explosions, chase sequences, slo-mo car flips and machine-gun fire (and some gratuitous nudity as well -- although it must be said that every bared breast is prefigured in the source text!). As the hero fights his way out, we see fight scenes on the cinema screen behind him. So although the film does not follow its hero into transformation, by that point it does not need to, because it has carved out its own rationale from its own medium. I'm a little disappointed they didn't try for the final sting at the end, but it's also a hard one to film (and I've given away too much already, so that's all I'll say about that).

Balanced by all this interesting stuff is the fact it's still not particularly well-made, with stilted performances, weird pacing and a self-conscious manner that gives the audience too much distance from the action. But its heart is in the right place, and it does flow better as it goes on. It may not have become iconic like the Mad Max series did before it, but it still worth hunting down a copy and giving it a look.

  • External link: IMDB listing. Note: although included in the local version, Peter Carey's credit for the story is missing from the US video release. Very strange...

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