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“Dead End Drive-In” (1986): An Entertaining and Quintessentially 80’s Ozploitation Classic That Also Has Something to Say

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Director Brian Trenchard-Smith’s “Ozpoitation classic Dead End Drive-In (1986) takes the grim and dirty style common to tales of dystopian near-futures and marries it to the neon aesthetic popular in the mid-1980’s. In the near-future, the World is in economic freefall with vast numbers of unemployed youth getting into trouble. The solution, trick idle youth into coming to a drive-in theater and trap them there, effectively turning the drive-in into a concentration camp. Can one young man overcome the complacency rampant in the camp and escape? Derelict automobiles, punks crowned with impossibly tall mohawks, and graffiti plastered buildings combine with second-tier pop and new wave tunes to give the film a serious 80’s vibe. It is surprisingly upbeat and even hopeful in spite of the gloomy future that it depicts. Between the youth-gone-wild fights, nudity, and car chases, there is a core of social commentary on the values of the 1980’s. The result is a fun and entertaining exploitation film that feels typically 80’s while simultaneously lambasting the values of that decade.

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In the near future of 1995 (well, near future for a film made in 1986), the World is in economic collapse. Things have not quite fallen into utter chaos and society is still holding itself together, but just barely. Early 20-something Jimmy, aka Crabs (Ned Manning) is unemployed, like most people his age. He borrows his older brother’s prize 1956 Chevy and takes his girlfriend Carmen ( Natalie McCurry) to the remote Star Drive-In for a night of entertainment. Seeing their nice car, the drive-in manager Thompson (Peter Whitford) assumes they will pay the “adult” price ($10), but they inform him they will be paying the “unemployed” price ($2.50). During the feature, while the two are enjoying some “alone time” in the back seat of the car, someone steals two of their car’s tires. They report this to Thomson, who does not seem surprised and offers them blankets. The next morning, they find that they are more-or-less now permanent residents of the drive-in. In the daylight, they find that the other cars around them are also very much non-functional. The drive-in is essentially a self-contained community of unemployed youth living out of their cars. Thompson provides them with meal coupon books which they can use at the restaurant and even informs them that he can procure other items (aka drugs and alcohol) if they need them. It takes a little bit for Crabs to realize the full nature of the situation, thinking that if he could just fix the car, they could leave. Eventually, after noticing the 15 foot high walls topped with an electrified fence that surrounds the drive-in, he realizes that they are actually in a concentration camp. What is worse, most of the residents seem perfectly content to stay where they are, as they are provided with alcohol, drugs, food (albeit junk food), and entertainment (albeit junk movies). Crab works on plans to escape, but his biggest problem may be getting Carmen to agree to go with him, for she has begun to enjoy her new carefree lifestyle and does not seem to miss her freedom. When the other residents react strongly to a sudden influx of Asian refugees to the drive-in, Crabs sees the chaos caused by this as a possible avenue for escape.

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Dystopian near-future tales are a staple of low-budget 1980’s genre cinema. Most of these take their aesthetic queues from the Mad Max universe – punks, leather, mohawks, studs, chains, and stripped down cars set in a dusty and derelict world. While Dead End Drive-In certainly contains these common tropes, production designer Lawrence Eastwood, throws in additional, brighter elements that are more closely associated with teen comedies of the era than with pre-/post-apocalyptic cinema. While the walls for the drive-in are splashed with graffiti, it is not random scribbling; instead, it is from noted graffiti artists of the era, giving the setting a more whimsical look while maintaining the squalor. Eastwood further brightens this desolate setting with liberal use of neon, another mid-1980’s hallmark. The Punk style common to dystopian pictures is joined by the brighter New Wave fashions of the time period. The soundtrack is populated with second-tier Pop and New Wave tunes, providing further contrast to the squalor of the camp. All of these elements come together to give the film a distinctly 1980’s vibe without making it feel dated. It is a cohesive whole, truly feeling like a complete world. It is no wonder that it was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Achievement in Production Design.

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The production design in Dead End Drive-In is intricately tied into the sense of community it projects among its residents. This is not simply a large lot filled with derelict cars. Instead, it is a mini-society contained within the walls.  It is as if each of the disabled cars is an “art car” reflecting the personalities of those living within them. Some are even converted into swimming pools, complete with sundecks. Director Trenchard-Smith fills the background with activity as well. Kickball games, strolling couples, squabbles and more can be seen, giving the feeling that this is a living society and Crabs and Carmen’s story is just one of many taking place. With the art cars, flamboyant costumes, and street performances, it almost feels like it was filmed at Burning Man. In spite of the squalor, there is a real sense of community and belonging. The bathrooms become impromptu Men’s and Women’s Clubs. Whereas Crabs does not fit in with the other young men who call this place home, Carmen has found a sense of belonging at the women’s group. This sets up the conflict between Crabs, who wants to leave, and Carmen, who enjoys her place in this makeshift society.

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While quite a fun film with a very 1980’s feel to it, Dead End Drive-In also has something to say. The inmates at the drive-in are provided food, drugs, alcohol, and entertainment – to the point that most of them are quite content to give up their freedom in exchange. The quality of what they are given is junk – junk food, junk movies – much like the derelict cars in which they live. It is not really a stretch to say there is an obvious and intended parallel between the residents of the drive-in and the seduction of Odysseus’ crew by the Lotus-Eaters. Complacency is the biggest disease from which they suffer. The hero, Crabs, sees this junk food, drugs, etc. as the traps that they are and understands that they are all imprisoned. His hope of escape, though, helps him to overcome the complacency of the others. In interviews, director Trenchard-Smith  has explicitly stated that the film is intended as a condemnation of the values of the 1980’s, and that comes through in the film. Crabs is not lulled into complacency by the materialism, he rejects those values, and hopes for an escape to something better and “more real.”

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Dead End Drive-In has a quintessentially 80’s vibe to it. The outstanding production design expands upon the grim and gritty feel common to dystopian near-future films by adding in elements from the mid-80’s New Wave and neon aesthetics. This gives the film an undercurrent of hope not often found in other films of the genre. Being an “Ozploitation” picture, there are plenty of scenes with violence, nudity, and car chases, but the film also has a strong core of social commentary. Dead End Drive-In is a fun and entertaining film that has manages to get its message across without losing site of the fact that it is an exploitation picture at heart.

Dead End Drive-In 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.
Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.