Dead-End Drive-In Review

A series of captions takes us from the film's present into the near-future of the 1990s, where following economic collapse, undesirables (which include the unemployed) are secretly kept under lock and key in drive-in cinemas. However, Jimmy (Ned Manning), known as “Crabs” for reasons I'll spare you, borrows his older brother's car without permission to take his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) to the movies, spend the night, make out...all the usual things. But during the night Crabs's wheels are stolen, so he and Carmen are prisoners too...

Brian Trenchard-Smith was born in England in 1948 and began his directing career on Australian television before making his first features in 1975 with The Man from Hong Kong and the faux-documentary sexploiter The Love Epidemic. Since then, he has worked steadily and continues to do so, though mostly on television these days. His work in action/exploitation fare making him a favourite of Quentin Tarantino (see Not Quite Hollywood for more of this). In between the sex and violence he slipped in some more family-friendly fare, such as BMX Bandits, a cash-in on a then-current trend featuring a young Nicole Kidman, Frog Dreaming (which has several alternate titles, though that's the one I like the best) and Jenny Kissed Me. I haven't seen all his films, but those I have seen display an efficient director who points up the required exploitation elements with some quirky humour – maybe not a “smuggler” in the Scorsese sense, but a usually reliable entertainer. Trenchard-Smith nods to himself by including The Man from Hong Kong and Turkey Shoot among the films showing at the drive-in. Dead-End Drive-In stands close to the end of the Ozploitation era, as homevideo gained in popularity and drive-in cinemas closed down, so in a way this film is its own epitaph.

It's not every Ozploitation film that's based on a work by a Booker Prizewinning writer, but for Dead-End Drive In that writer is Peter Carey and Peter Smalley's script (with uncredited input from Trenchard-Smith) is derived from Carey's short story “Crabs”. (Pedantic note: in the interest of calling a film by the title that actually appears onscreen, Dead-End Drive-In is two hyphenated words. The DVD menu and the trailer included on the disc get it wrong by leaving out the first hyphen.) The set-up doesn't make a great deal of sense, and presumably the government is a similarly identikit totalitarian regime to the one in Turkey Shoot. Trenchard-Smith ticks one exploitation box by having several of his female cast, including McCurry (who would go on to be 1989's Miss Australia), topless now and again, but it's the fights and the car stunts which are the stars here. As Not Quite Hollywood will tell you, Ozploitation filmmakers shoot cars as if they were actors in porn movies, and there's plenty of four-wheel one-hand material here, culminating in a forty-nine metre car jump through a neon sign and over a wall that was a claimed world record at the time. There's some humour – much of it from Thompson (Peter Whitford), the nearest thing the film has to an onscreen bad guy, stealing every scene from the rather bland leads. Striking production design and costumes are other pluses. There's also rampant overacting from the gang led by Dave (Dave Gibson).

Trenchard-Smith takes his cue from the way commercial filmmaking was going in Hollywood at the time, when homevideo had become a force to be reckoned with and promo-video aesthetics had begun to take hold on the big screen. Paul Murphy's cinematography goes overboard with filters and has that overlit look that aims to avoid looking too murky in VHS on a sub-twenty-inch screen. The music on the soundtrack is mostly soft rock which sounds very much of its time. But Trenchard-Smith keeps the film moving briskly along and wraps it up in under ninety minutes.

Dead-End Drive-In was not the sort of film to seek out the approval of critics nor to attract award nominations, but it did get one AFI Award nod, a nomination to Lawrence Eastwood for his production design. Like a lot of 80s Ozploitation features, Dead-End Drive-In bypassed British cinemas and went straight to video in 1990. Judging from the running-time that was likely to be a NTSC-to-PAL standards conversion and almost certainly in 4:3, though whether that opened up the original (see below) or cropped a 2.40:1 version is anyone's guess. That release, with an 18 certificate, was cut by the BBFC – presumably to remove some martial arts weaponry in the fight sequences. This new edition is uncut and rated 15.


Arrow's edition of Dead-End Drive-In comprises a single-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.

The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1 and is widescreen-enhanced. The IMDB claims that Dead-End Drive-In was shot in Techniscope, a process that used spherical lenses instead of anamorphics. which exposed an image two perforations (sprocket holes) high as opposed to the normal four. However, in this case, from the evidence of what is on this DVD, the IMDB is wrong. This is a Super 35 film, wherein the whole frame is exposed but the middle is used to make a 2.40:1 version to be shown in cinemas, as can be seen by comparing the considerably greater headroom in the trailer – which is in a ratio of 1.78:1 – with the equivalent shots in the feature itself. Along with the same year's Dogs in Space this may have been among the earliest Australian productions shot in Super 35.

Arrow's DVD transfer is very good, good enough to make it a shame that there isn't a Blu-ray. The bold colours and solid blacks look right to me, The graininess that characterised a lot of Super 35 features is certainly there, but it looks natural and filmlike. There are a couple of brief marks and speckles, presumably close to where the reel-changes would have been, but nothing too distracting. In short, this looks just fine.

Dead-End Drive-In was released in cinemas in Dolby Stereo, and that's the source of the Dolby Surround (2.0) track on this DVD. The surrounds are used mostly for the music score and some sound effects, such as rainfall. There is some use of directional sound in the left and right channels and, although there is no LFE channel, my subwoofer did pick up some bass. Dialogue and sound effects are well balanced in a track that does benefit from being turned up a bit. Unfortunately there are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.

The only extra on the disc is a trailer (1:35), which looks very much that it comes from a VHS source and rather grandiloquently invokes A Clockwork Orange, Mad Max and The Road Warrior to sell this movie. It is in a ratio of 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced.

Arrow's release includes a booklet which was not supplied for review, though the essay it contains was. This is by US critic Cullen Gallagher, who discusses the original short story and draws on interviews with Trenchard-Smith and Ned Manning to relate the story of the film's production from start to finish.

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