Dead End Drive-In Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Some time, in a near-future, the economy has crumbled and violent gangs play havoc in the streets, the powers-that-be have decided to lure the delinquent youth into drive-in cinemas and keep them there. No longer just a place to watch trashy movies and make out, these outdoor picture shows have become concentration camps for the unruly and unwanted. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
While Brian Trenchard-Smith is a considerably eclectic working director with four decades of movies and television under his belt, he will probably always be remembered for his bawdy, bloody Ozploitation opuses. In this regard, the magnum among these opuses would probably be 1986’s Dead End Drive-In. Following fun, but mindlessly entertaining movies that helped define the Ozploitation subculture, like The Man from Hong Kong (1975), Stunt Rock (1978), and Turkey Shoot (aka: Escape 2000 and Blood Camp Thatcher, 1982), this referential, metaphor-strewn movie showed Trenchard-Smith’s smarter side. It was, of course, still rooted in enough neon-caked exploitation spectacle to please popular audiences in the mid-’80s and became a home video staple in America – even though none of the mom & pop video stores I ever visited seemed to have any idea what section to file it under.
Basically, when he joined the production, Trenchard-Smith was tasked with making yet another Mad Max (1978) clone, as the third film in the series, Beyond Thunderdome (1985), had just been released. Possibly bored by the prospect or perhaps aware that Italian exploitation filmmakers already had the Mad Max rip-off industry under control, the director reworked screenwriter Peter Smalley’s post-apocalyptic tale (based on Peter Carey's short-story, Crabs) into an allegory for the conservative era (he cleverly refers to it as Mad Max by way of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, 1967). The basic idea (as indicated by Arrow’s synopsis) is that a totalitarian government has walled the town’s troubled youth into a drive-in theater to keep them from “infecting” the good, God-fearing Australian families that struggle to maintain the status quo. The teens are so sated by violent movies (Trenchard-Smith’s own Dragon Flies  and Turkey Shoot, Simon Wincer’s Snapshot , and David Hemmings’ Treasure of the Yankee Zephyr ), junk food, drugs, and the freedom to misbehave that they don’t care about their imprisonment. In fact, they like it. The main character, Crabs, is the only prisoner who seems to notice their predicament. His isolation makes him a strong, audience surrogate-type protagonist (actor Ned Manning does a fine job in the thankless role of the only sane man in a city of maniacs) and turns the middle section of the movie into a sort of punk-rock Kafka nightmare. Dead End Drive-In was made to poke fun at the politics and culture of the ‘80s, yet its metaphors and themes are spookily relevant. Embarrassingly relevant, if you pretend that the drive-in prison is an allegory for toxic internet message boards.
Dead End Drive-In also verifies Trenchard-Smith’s artistic skills in ways that his quick ‘n cheap pictures could not. Of course, it owes a lot to the aforementioned Mad Max movies, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981), and the themed street gangs of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), as well as a number of other punk culture movies from the ‘80s (Alex Cox’ Repo Man, 1984; Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, 1983; and Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, 1978, in particular), but it still stands out as an antidote to the other Mad Max clones, thanks to its sophisticated filmmaking techniques. Trenchard-Smith really is on par with Carpenter and Hill throughout much of the film with its use of color and cinematic tricks, including some very complicated tracking shots. The car stunts are delegated to the beginning and end of the movie and, though they aren’t as outrageous as the Mad Max mayhem they’re meant to evoke, they’re tightly edited and have plenty of explosive impact. Really, Trenchard-Smith’s only problem is that he seems unsure of the film’s tone, especially during the early, pre-drive-in sequences. These awkwardly fusion of dry humor, car action, and Turkey Shoot-like, over-the-top social satire. They’re likely the artifacts of the early Mad Max rip-off concept, because the tone normalizes quite a bit once the plot comes into focus and the allegories are refined (especially the third act’s more frightening racism motif). Given the deliberate pacing, Trenchard-Smith and editors Alan Lake & Lee Smith could’ve trimmed the first thirty minutes to ten without losing anything. Then again, it would only be about an hour long if shortened by that much...
At the risk of hyperbole, I honestly think every video store I ever visited between 1987 and 1999 had a VHS copy of Dead End Drive-In. It was released on anamorphic DVD throughout the world, including several repacked re-releases from Anchor Bay and Image Entertainment in the US. Arrow’s simultaneous US and UK releases mark the film’s first HD home video availability (the iTunes, VUDU, and digital streaming versions are all in standard definition). The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer was culled from a 2K scan of the original 35mm negative. Grading was conducted at Pinewood Studios and Arrow supervised the digital clean-up. The results are better than expected; not because I don’t expect the best from Arrow at this point, but because Trenchard-Smith and cinematographer Paul Murphy intended Dead End Drive-In to look gritty and polluted. The 2K scan doesn’t clean-up the purposefully smeary, orange ‘daylight’ sequences, diffused lighting, and hazy wide-angle shots, but does manage to tighten the overall image quite a bit. The only definitely unintentional artifact is a bit of wobble here and there. There also appears to be a couple of missing frames around the 45:20 mark. Grain texture appears more accurate than the blocky SD releases (aside from some of the daylight scenes, which are snowy), print damage is limited to a handful of vertical lines, and fine details are tightened. The HD upgrade also reveals stronger blacks, while avoiding crush in the soft and foggy gradations. Colors are strong throughout and those excessive neon lighting schemes are vivid and eclectic. I was especially impressed with the way the cool blues/greens bounce off of the more vibrant reds even when they’re chopped up by smoke effects.
Dead End Drive-In is presented in uncompressed LPCM and its original 2.0 audio. Dialogue and music are the key components throughout most of this movie. Ambient environmental effects are limited to the basic buzz of the drive-in and its patrons wherever car chases aren’t involved. Foreboding thunder and rain pops up in the stereo channels a few times as well. Quite a bit of the dialogue appears to have been added in post, so there are some minor issues with volume inconsistency and lip-sync – though these shouldn’t be confused with intentionally strange vocal effects that are used to set an eerie mood. The car crashes are crunchy and have an impressive bass presence, despite the lack of a discrete LFE channel. Frank Strangio’s music blends original, very ‘80s-friendly rock and synth pop cues that fit nicely with the actual Aussie pop/rock music that plays in the background of some sequences. The music is mixed pretty low during action scenes, to the point it sort of disappears into revving engines, explosions, and squealing tires, but sounds great during the more low key moments.
Commentary with director Brian Trenchard-Smith – This is the same track that has accompanied the film on home video since the Anchor Bay release. Trenchard-Smith is always a jovial guy and comes prepared with loads of behind-the-scenes memories. His commentary covers a nice mix of factoids and screen-specific discussion without losing momentum as the film ticks on.
The Stuntmen (48:46, HD, 1.33:1) – A made-for-television documentary (aka: Dare Devils) that Trenchard-Smith made in 1973 about Australian stunt performers with a special focus on Grant Page of Mad Max fame. It has the tone of an educational short as it covers the basics of stunts and practical effects. It also served a dual purpose by acting as a ‘proof of concept’ to get financing for The Man from Hong Kong and Stunt Rock. Fans of Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008) may recognize some of the footage.
Hospitals Don’t Burn Down (24:10, HD) – A 1978 public information ‘scare film’ (referred to as PSA’s here in the states) by Trenchard-Smith. The director’s exploitation credentials are hard to miss, because this is basically an elongated horror set-piece.
Vladimir Cherepanoff Gallery – A text and photo gallery that recounts the story of the film’s resident graffiti artist.
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