Friday, February 3, 2017

Intern-tainment Camp - DEAD END DRIVE-IN

It's unnerving when dystopian cautionary tales, especially ones from 30 or more years ago, ring oddly prescient today.  Many are still comfortingly unrealized.  The government isn't repackaging poor people into food (though I avoid McDonald's, just in case), and I doubt anyone is going to turn the most expensive real estate in the country into a prison anytime soon.  But it's really bad when even the outrageous, batshit notions from Down Under can be disturbingly on the nose today.  Case in point, Brian Trenchard-Smith's 1986 gonzo Aussie satire, DEAD END DRIVE-IN.

The Capsule:
In the far flung future of 1995, the world has gone to shit.  Riots, disasters, and economic collapse have caused global unemployment and food shortages.  Ironically, Australia seems to have it better than most places.  Crabs (Ned Manning) is enjoying the good life, relatively speaking.  His brother runs a towing business and is big enough to fight off the other wreckers for the best salvage.   He takes a break from his delivery job to enjoy a movie with his honey, Carmen (Natalie McCurry), at the Star Drive-In, claiming to be unemployed to get the discount.  As things get steamy in the car, the cops steal his tires out from under him.  The management doesn’t seem to care that he’s stuck there, and Crabs slowly realizes that the drive-in is actually a government run internment camp for unemployed teens.  The listless teens, fed a steady supply of movies and junk food, don’t really care that much, but Crabs is determined to escape.  His lack of apathy gets him the attention of the local black market gang and Thompson, the drive-in manager, who just want things to run smoothly.  The cops take an even dimmer view of him, and look to shut Crabs down for good.

DEAD END DRIVE-IN is Brian Trenchard-Smith’s spiritual sequel to TURKEY SHOOT.  It continues his fascination with the semi-pocalyse, where society is circling the drain, but has not completely fallen apart.  Things are a little grungier than MAD MAX without going full-on ROAD WARRIOR.  There is talk of food shortages and revolts, but the biggest problem we see is unemployment.  Aimless youth roam the paper strewn streets looking to cause trouble.  Since this is Australia, everyone is obsessed with cars; which also seems to be the main driver of the economy.  Tow truck crews fight it out gladiator style for the choicest salvage, Carboy gangs swarm over wrecks like vultures.  Nobody, not even the cops, are too concerned with the bleeding occupants.  In this culture, the drive-in makes the perfect bait for the government to trap undesirables.  A roach motel for car freaks.  

Trenchard-Smith pushes the satire here even more than in TURKEY SHOOT.  It is a smaller movie, with fewer locations and no international stars.  There is much less action, little blood, and (sadly) absolutely no werewolves.  No one’s life is in danger once we get to the drive-in (at least until Crabs’ escape attempt), only their freedom.  The lower stakes of the story makes it more realistic and relatable, which in a way is scarier than TURKEY SHOOT’s more overt dystopian theme.  I could absolutely see a version of this scheme crossing some politician’s mind.

The world of The Star Drive-In is both hysterically over the top and a believable result of unmonitored ‘80’s teens.  Fantastic punk/new wave outfits are augmented with car parts, boomboxes, and any other crazy shit they can find around.  They have transformed themselves into the Warriors of the Teenage Wasteland.  There is fog, and fire, and neon lights all around.  Someone has a pet monkey.  Basically, the whole movie is one giant Duran Duran video.  

The punks look dangerous, but it’s mostly just for show.  Everyone has easy access to food, drugs, sex, and movies, so there is not a lot of conflict.  No one had that much to begin withThe junk of the world is evenly distributed.  The most interesting aspect of this nightmarish future internment camp is that the government really seems to have figured it out.  The inmates could easily overpower the couple of cops on patrol and bust out anytime they wanted, but why bother?  Everything they need is provided.  For most of these losers, life inside is better than life outside.  

The manager of the drive-in, Thompson (Peter Whitford), could be considered the warden character, but he seems like just as much a prisoner as anyone else.  We never see him leave the camp, no one respects him, and he is filled with a resigned sadness that things are never going to be good again.  He sees that Crabs is more ambitious than the other knuckleheads, and tries to win him over with privileges like beer.  Ultimately though, he’s a cog in the machine, an efficient bureaucrat who only cares about doing his job and not bucking the system.  Crabs can’t get a straight answer out of him.  Every explanation is infuriatingly vague, like “that’s just the state of things.”  

Every time Crabs makes progress toward escape, Thompson is there to undo it.  When Crabs finds new wheels, Thompson steals his engine.  In a way, he is a much more insidious villain than the over the top Warden Thatcher from TURKEY SHOOT.  Thompson is only armed with a smile and a beer, reminding Crabs that it’s so much easier to just give up.

What makes it worse is that Crabs is totally alone in his desire to escape.  Everyone thinks he’s crazy for maintaining his car, working out, and having hope.  Even Carmen can’t understand why he doesn’t want to just hang out and have sex all the time.  She puts it on herself, thinking he’s not into her anymore.

All of his resistance only attracts the attention of the local drug pushing big shot Dave and his cronies.  It might be a rough situation for Crabs, except that this is the least intimidating gang in history.   Dave is pretty much the Australian equivalent to Francis Buxton from PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (Oi, I know you are, but what am I?).  They seem more like schoolyard bullies than a serious threat, especially after Crabs cracks Hazza, Dave's muscle (?), upside the head with a rock.  

The only real danger comes when the drive-in denizens’ kingdom is threatened by outsiders.  The government decides the drive-ins (there are nine of them around the country) are a perfect place to stash all their pesky refugees as well as unemployed hoodlums.  Everyone in the camp is worried about how this will change their idyllic existence of doing nothing all day.  The punks look at the refugees as a strange and threatening group of freaks, despite the fact they are the ones wearing all the spikes, shoulder pads, and light-up braziers.  

As usual, Crabs is the only one to step up and do the right thing.  In this case it is defending a innocent Sikh's right to use the public toilet from Dave's gang of bulliesAfter this, though, Dave's gang change from harmless nitwits to something much more sinister.  They form their own White Drive-In Nationalist party.  Dave paints the refugees, mostly wide eyed Asian and Indian families, as a bunch of thieves and rapists.  The drive-in denizens are all too eager to buy into his rhetoric.  Instead of focusing their energy against the government that is illegally detaining them, the punks turn their anger on the easier targets, the people with even less power.  They live in a garbage heap, but they are determined to be at the top of that heap.

We never get to see how bad things will get.  Crabs’ last ditch escape attempt sends the whole place straight to hell.  While Crabs races around the camp trying not to get shot by the cops, the punks desperately attempt to save their sad little kingdom from burning to the ground.  In one impressive stunt, rabs launches his stolen cop car over the electrified fence, straight through the Star Drive-In sign.    

The last we see of him, Crabs is hauling ass down a desolate road, racing towards an uncertain future.  He has no idea what awaits him or if it will be any better than what he just left behind, but for that moment, he is happy as fuck to be free.  For such a depressing future, it’s a good message to end on.  Keep fighting and appreciate any success we can get.

Obviously, the events of this movie will never come to pass.  Drive-ins are obsolete and we all treat our refugees with respect and dignity.  Well, drive-ins are obsolete, at least.  So we don't have to worry about Star Drive-Ins in our near future.  I would be a little leery of the  Star Free High Speed Wi-Fi, though.

C Chaka


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