Drive-in movie theaters have all but vanished from the American landscape, and that saddens me. Going to the drive-in was an event when I was a kid. We’d always show up early because there was a playground right at the base of the screen. We would entertain ourselves there while we waited for it to turn dark. I saw Song of the South at the drive-in! With the way Disney is handling that film these days, my kids may never even get the chance to see it, forget about seeing it at a drive-in! Today’s film is about an old drive-in…one turned into a post apocalyptic concentration camp. It’s the 1986 Australian import Dead End Drive-In.
The film takes place in the not-too-distant future where car parts seems to be one of the most sought after commodities. Whenever there is an accident, gangs emerge to grab whatever parts they can. It’s kind of a bummer…but the future always is. Still, the hero of our story, Crabs (Ned Manning) has a steady girl, Carmen (Natalie McCurry), and he gets to borrow his boss’ 57 Chevy to take her out…so at least he’s got that going for him. On this particular night, he decides to take her to the Star Drive-In to catch a flick. Well, actually, the flick doesn’t really matter that much as they spent most of the night in the back seat. On the way in, Crabs tells the ticket taker that they are unemployed, which gets them a discounted rate. Bad idea.
While Crabs and Carmen are rocking the back seat, a couple of police officers steal the wheels off of the car. Crabs notices this and talks to the owner (Peter Whitford), but he says he can’t do anything about it until morning. When the sun comes up the next day, Crabs and Carmen realize that there are many people there who appear to be living out of their cars. They have little campsites set up and everything. It turns out that the drive-in is actually a concentration camp for getting the undesirable unemployed folks off the streets.
Of course, Crabs isn’t too thrilled with this and starts trying to find a way to get out. Carmen, however, starts to get pretty comfortable. Such is the case with most of the residents. After all, they get free food (paid for with credits they are issued), there’s no bills or anything…compared to life out on the street, it’s not too shabby. It’s not good enough for Crabs, though.
After several attempts to escape fall short, Crabs starts to get chummy with the owner of the theater in order to try and find another way out. Meanwhile, trouble starts to brew in the camp as a bus load of Asians arrive. The white inmates have a very negative and racist view of Asians, which Carmen starts to get sucked into. But with many of the inmates gathered together for a meeting to discuss what to do about the Asians, Crabs has the perfect opportunity for one more escape.
The premise of Dead End Drive-In is a bit goofy but also intriguing. I remember seeing ads for it back in the 80’s and thinking it looked a little like The Road Warrior but set in a drive-in theater. The fact that all the people had Australian accents probably contributed to the Mad Max comparisons in my mind. But now, having finally seen the film, I’m sad to report that it’s nothing like that. In fact, the film really strikes me as one big missed opportunity. A drive-in theater that is a concentration camp is an interesting premise…but honestly, very little happens there. Sure, at the end we get some cool explosions and car crashes, but it just takes so long to get there.
Throughout the film we do get hints of what the filmmakers were probably going for, but there probably wasn’t enough budget to fully realize it. For example, it seems like they were trying to have various gangs of baddies with punk rocker type clothes and makeup…again, kind of like a Mad Max movie. But it all seems to fall short. Even the film’s poster features a large, sinister looking face with Adam Ant style 80’s makeup…but I’m not sure that character even appears in the film.
There are certainly many B-movies that are unable to fully realize the vision of their filmmakers due to budget constraints. Yet, they manage to still succeed because the earnestness of those behind the camera still comes through. Dead End Drive-In just didn’t convey that for me. It’s a concept with great promise that unfortunately fizzles.