Dead End Drive-In (1986)

Director Brian Trenchard-Smith
Writers Peter Smalley
Starring Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford Thompson
Genre Post Apocalyptic
Tagline The price of admission is the rest of your life.

For Fans of Ozploitation, or indeed Australian Cinema as a whole, Brian Trenchard-Smith should need no introduction. The Director is simply the man in terms of 1980s exploitation fare and the concept of blowing things up for cinematic effect. Two of Trenchard-Smith's other movies can be seen playing at the drive-in during the course of Dead End Drive-In, the much maligned Turkey Shoot and the kung fu fiesta The Man From Hong Kong. With Drive-In the Director continues his journey of social commentary while laying down a film that is perhaps overrated for what it actual is. Let's find a parking spot and see what dreams may be inspired.

Talk us through it

During a pre-credit rampage a number of on-screen messages inform us that the Western World has pretty much disintegrated socially with martial law being declared in Australia. Actually some of those messages were pretty eerie considering the current situation, no need to worry though swine flu will cull the herd. Anywise on the roads of Oz it's utter anarchy with tow truck drivers fighting "Car Boys" for car parts left over from accidents, and the Police deciding it isn't their problem. With the youth of the country clearly out of control the Government has developed a strategic response involving drive-in movie lots.

Crabs, our unlikely named hero, has borrowed his brother's pristine Chevy to take his girlfriend Carmen to the drive-in. He notes ticket prices are cheaper for the unemployed and decides to take advantage of the saving, what temptation is the root of man's downfall. Just as Crabs and Carmen are about to get into some nudie road games after parking, someone steals a couple of the tires off the Chevy. Crabs, he got the name because he thought he had a dose, is confused when he discovers the police are behind the theft and is not made to feel any better when Mr Thompson, the drive-in manager, helpful informs him he'll have to spend the night enjoying the dubious pleasures of "B" grade fare.

The next day Crabs and Carmen wake to discover there are hundreds of people living in their cars at the drive-in, sort of like a Mad Max commune really. The Government has come up with a whacky way of dealing with the unemployed, lock them up behind electrified fences at the local drive-in and worry about a more permanent solution later. On the bright side Crabs and Carmen have food vouchers to the concession stand and every night a string of real bad ozploitation flicks are shown. During the day Crabs can play two-up in the toilets while the gals perpetually do each others hair.

Not content with his new lifestyle Crabs plot his escape while the rest of the youth inside seem content with things. Unfortunately the Government start busing in truck loads of Asians raising racial tension, and putting the tinder to the powder keg. Ready to check out what the science fiction double feature is?


"SYDNEY, January 26th. 1988 Bicentennial celebrations spark 'The Rocks Riot', 51 die." - Title card

It seems with Drive-In that Trenchard-Smith rolled up his sleaves and answered the question "what are you rebelling against" with the basic answer "everything". That's a cinematic reference for anyone wondering. Having established his world imploding scenario the Director then proceeds to strafe the lifeboats with enough social commentary to sink even the largest ship. We have the news media sensationalising human tragedy, (now that's a recurrent theme in horror), dole bludgers (the kind not actually looking for work), a Government feeding off problems rather than providing solutions (hello John Howard's Australia), inherent redneck racism, and any other bandwagon Trenchard-Smith decided to hitch a ride to. Which isn't to say that the movie doesn't benefit from having a multi-pronged attack on society at the time, it's just slightly overwhelming for an ozploitation movie that features boobs and things going boom. In an example of life imitating art, it's a saying I'm not implying Drive-In is in anyway artistic, the Asians being trucked into containment facilities came home to roost in Australia with the Howard Government detaining Asylum seekers in some would say worse conditions. I'm not saying yay or nay to the former Government's policy, but it's a frightening concept when a federal leader resorts to the sort of stuff dreamed up for cheap movies. On the bright side at least Howard didn't experiment with growth serums and tarantula spiders, or at least lets hope he didn't.

Thankfully taking time out of his social commentary rampage, and who didn't get Crabs and Carmen being confined by social norms with Crabs wanting to break free of expectations and the like, Trenchard-Smith does proceed to blow a few things up, have a gun battle of dubious merit, and ultimately have his hero escape to a problematic outside world. So don't worry it's not all philosophising about the ills of the then national psyche.

As we would expect with an Aussie post-apocalyptic view point the sets are one of the overriding strengths of the movie. It's not often that I get down with the location people and set designers, and hey I didn't note who the hell they were for Drive-In but the movie can not be faltered for the look and feel of the designs. We begin with Crabs outside the ultimate in containment planning in a sort of industrial wasteland. Outstanding location decision, with Crabs and family living in what appears to be interconnected shipping containers in the midst of factory smoke stacks sending enough crap into the environment to give Al Gore a heart attack. Trenchard-Smith keeps to the urban blight feel throughout the first act of the movie really hammering home that society is eroding, anarchy is on the march, and the possibility of a Twilight sequel has sent things into a tail spin into the eye of chaos. On the surface one can readily see the appeal of the drive-in to be honest.

Trenchard-Smith ultimately asks whether the Government Drive-In isn't a better option than the dubious life obtainable outside the electric fences.

The drive-in itself is well constructed, if we excuse the obvious plot hole of having the employed mixing with the unemployed for the moment. A shanty town of cars and salvage building parts has been amassed to give a realistic view of what one feels it would actually be like in the containment centre. Out of interest the Director may be continuing an Australian theme about the over important role cars play in society, Peter Weir was all over that in The Cars That Ate Paris.

While Drive-In is definitely worth catching, the whole social statement and some action to keep you going, there are a whole slew of problems with the movie. No one has notice people disappearing after going to a movie? Crabs confrontation with Thompson simply doesn't work and doesn't ultimately go anywhere. Carmen's decision to stay at the drive-in and Crab's wanting to escape the confines to the dubious merits of the outside world simply aren't convincing. The whole racial angle seems tacked on, but one would have to say it resonates with modern Australian issues. And Carmen's friggin' obsession with deep fried fritters, what the hell is that about? Pick you own issue, unfortunately Trenchard-Smith gives you ample scope to beat your own cinematic drum of unease.

Ned Manning (Crabs) really hasn't gone on to a glittering career, and based on the evidence presented in Drive-In there's a good reason for that. Manning is hopelessly miscast in the role and doesn't really ring true as a working class hero. Natalie McCurry (Carmen) seems to have been cast due to her hair, but since she doesn't have a lot to work with is given a reprieve. And Peter Whitford (Thompson) simply goes with a stock standard Aussie character from the period, oh and those roles are still available on Aussie TV shows today folks.

Natalie McCurry is quite happy to show off her boobs in a couple of scenes but the ladies aren't getting much. Trenchard-Smith knows which side his ozploitation toast is buttered on.

Frank Strangio did the score, and by that I mean he handed in something that actually does work in that sort of 1980s Aussie style. Thankfully we have gotten beyond that schlock.

Summary Execution

Well I'm not going to lie and say I didn't have some fun times in country with Drive-In, for sure the movie isn't the best ozploitation film that has come across my desk though. I put my brain on hold for this one, a must see for Down Under movie fans, and got to the end credits without overly taxing myself. Light entertainment comes to mind, though the movie might be trying for something slightly heavier in the theme sense.

Distributor Madman seem content to roll out a new release of a classic Aussie movie every second month or so. Seems the entire back catalogue at some stage is going to be released, which is actually a pretty good result for those of us trying to catch up and document an entire genre from this part of the World. Keep up the good work Madman, there is a ready audience out there applauding.

If you haven't had enough of ozploitation yet then dial into Drive-In, while the movie isn't the best ever released in Australia and the "cult classic" charge maybe entirely premature, it does have it's moments and is worthwhile looking at to get a whole vibe in Australian film making that we aren't likely to witness again. Take a trip to the Drive-In and get yourself some banana fritters for full enjoyment.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

If you need to finish your Aussie schlock dance card then dive in, an interesting movie but not a must see.