**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+
starring Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford
screenplay by Peter Smalley, from a story by Peter Carey
directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith
by Bryant Frazer Australia's signature entry in the cinematic encyclopedia of dystopian hellscapes will always be the Mad Max series, and rightly so. But if you dig just a little deeper into the corpus of down-and-dirty genre movies from Down Under, you'll discover this B-grade entry from Aussie action impresario Brian Trenchard-Smith, which daydreams about confining rebellious youth culture to a dusty prison camp way out on the edge of town. Trenchard-Smith is best-known abroad for 1983's BMX Bandits, an early Nicole Kidman feature widely available for home viewing in the U.S., and his corpus comes with the Quentin Tarantino seal of approval. Dead-End Drive-In isn't great cinema, but it has some well-executed stuntwork that bolsters a speculative premise just goofy enough to catch the imagination.
Once you get through an unfocused opening act that establishes Sydney as a ruined metropolis following a global economic collapse but really exists to shoehorn some action scenes into the first twenty minutes of the film, Dead-End Drive-In is just the story of Crabs (Ned Manning) and Carmen (Natalie McCurry), two teenagers out for a good time without a chaperone. They drive out to the isolated Star Drive-In and buy two tickets at the deeply-discounted rate for jobless patrons, which turns out to be a big mistake. When Crabs is cock-blocked, mid-coitus, by policemen stealing two of the wheels from his borrowed '56 Chevy, he learns that the drive-in has been repurposed by the government as a kind of honeypot for catching ne'er-do-wells. Patrons who self-identify as unemployed are kept from leaving the property, revealed by daylight as a concentration camp for layabouts, who are placated with government-supplied drugs, fast food, and B-movies. So Dead-End Drive-In becomes, essentially, a prison-break movie, with Crabs trying to figure out a way to negotiate life among gangs of inmates long enough to hatch a plan that will get him past the electrified fences and back on the road outside.
And that's all there is to it, more or less. There's a rowdy cricket match that turns into a brawl and a nifty gunfight near the end with lots of shattering glass, but you can't accuse Trenchard-Smith or screenwriter Peter Smalley of overthinking this. Peter Carey's short story "Crabs" was a character study that had the protagonist transform himself into a vehicle in order to escape. Dead-End Drive-In is a bit more literal-minded than its source material, though it does convey Carey's theme of alienation and decay in a swirl of junk culture. (Trenchard-Smith builds in a pretty broad wink and nudge by projecting his earlier films Turkey Shoot and The Man from Hong Kong on the drive-in screen.) As you'd expect in a prison movie, the inmates here have splintered off into different factions--punk rockers, druggies, working-class hooligans--that have little to do with one another, but what eventually unites the disparate gangs is the arrival of a group of Asian prisoners who immediately bring out the bigot in all of them. When a meeting of the White Australia Committee is called to order, Crabs wants nothing to do with it. Carmen, however, succumbs easily to peer pressure and allies herself with the xenophobes. That's when it becomes clear that if Crabs is to escape, Carmen is going to be left behind.
Although Dead-End Drive-In was made on a small budget, it looks pretty great. This was only cinematographer Paul Murphy's second movie, but he achieves a pale pastel music-video look that locks the film precisely into its candy-coloured era. Similarly, production designer Larry Eastwood achieves a lot with very little, giving the drive-in a ramshackle shantytown aesthetic and having the location liberally tagged by local graffiti artists. The stunts, coordinated by industry legend Guy Norris (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Mad Max: Fury Road) are especially impressive, culminating in a shot where a truck jumps a world-record-setting 163 feet. Another distinguishing feature of Dead-End Drive-In is its attitude towards the youth culture it exploits--here's a picture that has no interest in liberating the oppressed, enlightening the ignorant, or bringing eyesight to the blind. These people are blinkered, deplorable racists, it says, and without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror, it cries out a hearty good riddance to 'em.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
If you're familiar with other Arrow Video releases, odds are you know what the deal is: a clean, cinematic image with suitable dynamic range, period-appropriate colour rendition, and a dusting of 35mm film grain. Arrow describes Dead-End Drive-In as a new 2K restoration from "original film materials," and that sounds about right. The source isn't the original negative, as positive dust and dirt is infrequently visible, but it's close enough for this sort of film--one suspects neither a 4K scan nor the camera neg would reveal much more detail in the captured images. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is lovely nonetheless, with gentle edges, ample shadow detail, and a pretty nice roll-off of the highlights. Sound quality is just as impressive--you're not going to get a ton of dynamic range out of a mix that originated in the mid-1980s, but the uncompressed PCM Dolby Stereo 2.0 track unfolds nicely to a four-channel surround field with no noise or hiss to speak of, clean delineation between dialogue, FX, and musical elements, and a pleasing overall timbre. No trebly harshness here, thank you very much.
Extra features aren't exhaustive, but they're exhaustive enough--and fun, too. First up is the director's commentary, repurposed from a 2003 Anchor Bay DVD release. Trenchard-Smith proves to be an engaging and reasonably thoughtful host for his own movie, talking his way through various aspects of the production and even discussing ways he could have made simple changes to the script to make the movie more coherent. Live and learn seems to be his motto, and he barrels pretty happily through the yak-track, handing out due credit to his many collaborators. "This film was not very well received in Australia," he remembers at one point, adding that an Australian government classification official wanted the film released with an over-18-only rating "because he felt it had so many negative attitudes." Ratings boards are an obvious sticking point for Trenchard-Smith, who had to cut a shot from Turkey Shoot to secure an R rating from the MPAA. Accordingly, one of the scenes that plays on the drive-in screen in Dead-End Drive-In features the offending moment from the earlier work--finally, he notes with some satisfaction, appearing in an R-rated movie.
Two more Trenchard-Smith classics appear here in their entirety. First up is "The Stuntmen" (49 mins.), an entertaining and instructive TV documentary dating to 1973 that showed the methodology of working stuntmen. Trenchard-Smith used its staged action scenes to establish his credibility as an action director before seeking funding for his first feature, The Man from Hong Kong. And then there's his one-of-a-kind industrial safety film "HOSPITALS don't burn down!" (24 mins., HD), really a disaster movie about a carelessly-discarded cigarette that starts a fire in a hospital's laundry chute. Trenchard-Smith shows, in alarming detail, the botched evacuation that results in the death of patients and caregivers alike. We see condolence cards and children's toys burning up, a little girl crying out, "I can't find my teddy." At one point, a man in scrubs leaps to his death from a high floor, his entire body engulfed in flames. Trapped on the building's roof, a nurse asks, "Why didn't anybody tell us what to do?" The director's fearlessness makes it quite an effective horror movie; I'd imagine few who saw it were able to forget it, especially those who worked in health care.
Also on board is a photo gallery contributed by Sydney graffiti artist Vladimir Cherepanoff, who managed to leverage a paycheck from the filmmakers as a get-out-of-jail-free card when he was rounded up by the police. In interstitial notes included with the images from the production, he calls it "one of the few legal jobs I did as a teen." The disc is topped off with a one-and-a-half minute trailer for Dead-End Drive-In from the U.S., where it was released by New World Pictures.