Directed By: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Starring: Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford
Tag line: "The price of admission is the rest of your life"
Trivia: Director Brian Trenchard-Smith used to go to the drive-in featured in this film. According to him, he saw Peckinpah's Major Dundee there
Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, Dead End Drive-In is set in a world that has fallen apart (just after the opening credits, we’re given a laundry list of cataclysmic events, including a nuclear accident, a revolution in South Africa, and financial collapse in New York City, all of which have contributed to the decline of society as we know it). While roving gangs known as “carboys” terrorize the good citizens of Sydney, our hero, Crabs (Ned Manning), tries desperately to convince his brother Frank (Ollie Hall) to lend him his car, a classic 1956 Red Chevy convertible, so that he can take his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) out in style. Frank eventually agrees, and Crabs, hoping for a little “alone time” with Carmen, whisks her off to the Star Drive-In theater. But Crabs makes one very costly mistake: to save money on the tickets, he lies and tells the Drive-in’s supervisor, Thompson (Peter Whitford), that he’s unemployed (Regular admission is $10, while for the unemployed, it’s only $3.50). So, instead of a relaxing night at the movies, Crabs finds himself in deep trouble when the police swipe two tires off of the Chevy, thus stranding him and Carmen at the Drive-In.
As it turns out, the Star isn’t so much a movie theater as it is a detention camp (complete with guards and an electrified fence), where society’s cast-offs, some of whom have been there for quite a while, are forced to live out of their cars (by claiming he was unemployed, Thompson concluded that Crabs and Carmen were “undesirables”). The next morning, when Crabs storms into the front office to complain, Thompson, instead of helping, gives Crabs and Carmen a booklet of “meal coupons”, which can be redeemed at the snack stand, and offers them blankets. In short, he tells the two young lovers they won’t be leaving anytime soon, and, like those already there, they should accept the fact that the drive-in is going to be their new home. Carmen takes Thompson’s advice and befriends some of the other girls, one of whom gives her a new hair-do; but Crabs remains determined to find a way out, and is ready to do whatever is necessary to regain his freedom.
Dead End Drive-In reveals early on that the world the film takes place in is both savage and cruel. One night, while Frank (who operates a tow truck) and Crabs are out cruising, they receive a call from Frank’s dispatcher: a three-car accident has just occurred a few blocks over. When they arrive on the scene, the cops are already there, and Frank informs them that he’s claiming the wreckage of all three cars. But another tow truck driver showed up at the same time, and he and Frank nearly come to blows as they argue over which of them will be leaving with the smashed-up vehicles. Just then, some “carboys” drive up and begin vandalizing the wrecks. Knowing it will decrease their value, Frank and Crabs fight them off, all as the cops stand by and watch, offering no assistance whatsoever. During the melee, the press arrives and immediately breaks out their cameras, followed closely by an ambulance, because as all this is going on, the victims of the crash lay bleeding in their cars (and from the looks of it, most were already dead). Though not quite as dystopian as The Road Warrior, Dead End Drive-In does have one thing in common with George Miller’s classic 1981 flick: in this world, cars are the ultimate prize, and human life, at best, is a secondary concern.
So, when the action shifts to the Drive-In, we, unlike Crabs, can understand why many of the “inmates” aren’t in a rush to leave. Dave (Dave Gibson), a self-appointed leader of a group of thugs, tells Crabs that, on the outside, he had been out of work for 4 years, and was lucky if he could afford one meal a day. Like most others, Dave’s life "on the inside" is much better than it was in the real world. Even Carmen, who had run away from home and was living on the streets, sees the drive-in as a sort of salvation. She tries to convince Crabs that he, too, should accept their fate, but director Trenchard-Smith is quick to show us that the drive-in isn’t the paradise some believe it to be when, without warning, a group of Asians are bussed in and take up residence. All at once, Dave, Carmen, and many of the others are complaining about their new neighbors, and stage a “whites only” meeting to discuss how they plan to respond to this “invasion”. Having already taken pot-shots at the media, youth culture, and government control, Dead End Drive-In now shines a light on racism, and though it’s a bit heavy-handed, the message comes across loud and clear.
Yet, despite moments such as these, Dead End Drive-In is, above all, an exploitation film, with a rocking soundtrack, exceptional set pieces (especially the drive-in, where dozens of cars have been converted into makeshift houses), some nudity and sex, and lots of action. Along with a well-staged fight scene, in which Crabs dukes it out with Hazza (Wilbur Wilde), a member of Dave’s gang, the final sequence, where Crabs puts his escape plan into motion, is jam-packed with excitement (car chases, shoot-outs, and even the odd explosion). When all is said and done, Dead End Drive-In has plenty to say about the world as it existed in 1986, but it’s the thrills that make it all worthwhile.