Dead End Drive-In (1986) Retrospective

In the near future, the economy has collapsed and massive crime waves sweep the inner cities. The manufacturing industry has shrunk to the point where cars are a commodity and parts are fought over between salvage companies and roving gangs. In an attempt to control the crime-wave, a chain of drive-in theatres are turned into concentration camps for the undesirable and unemployed youth. The dirty, graffiti-laden drive-ins are surrounded by high fences, and the roads leading to them are Security Roads (“S-Roads”) that do not allow walking under any circumstances. Police collaborate with the owner to sabotage cars of unsuspecting visitors; however, some who know the true nature of the drive-ins come voluntarily for the shelter and food. Broken cars are continuously collected at these facilities. The prisoners are allowed easy access to a wide variety of drugs, alcohol, junk food, exploitation films, and new wave music. This, coupled with the awful conditions on the outside, engineers an atmosphere of complacency and hopelessness so the inmates will accept their fate and not attempt escape.


Jimmy, a young health nut who is nicknamed Crabs, sneaks off with his brother’s vintage 1956 Chevy to take his girlfriend, Carmen, to the local Star Drive-In. He tells the owner they are unemployed to get a discounted rate. While Crabs is intimate with Carmen, the rear tyres of his car are stolen, and Crabs soon discovers the police are responsible. Crabs complains to the owner, but he refuses to help until morning. The next morning, Crabs and Carmen are amazed at the number of cars still there, many of which have turned into hovels. The owner, Thompson, pretends to fill out a report and enters them both into the system. He lets them know they will be there for a while, as there are no buses or cabs, and gives them a stack of meal tickets to use at the run-down cafe. Time drags on, and Crabs makes several attempts at escape that are thwarted.

Preparing for an attempt to climb a fence he discovered was electrified, he locates the tyres he needs but learns his fuel tank has been drained. He steals fuel from a police vehicle, but then finds his engine stripped. Suspecting that Thompson, who receives a stipend for each prisoner, is behind the sabotage, Crabs warns him not interfere again. Further complicating matters are the verbal and physical fights Crabs continues to have with one of the racist gangs. During this time, Carmen makes no attempt to avoid the unhealthy eating and drug culture at the camp. She becomes friends with several of the female inmates, who are successful at indoctrinating her to the encampment’s bizarre racist mentality that Asians are to somehow blame for their problems, a situation exacerbated by the arrival of foreigners trucked into the camp. All attempts to talk sense into her fail, and Crabs soon realizes that she has succumbed to the hopelessness that pervades the encampment.


Crabs attempts one more spectacular effort at escape: while the majority of the encampment, including Carmen, attends a racist meeting, he hijacks a tow truck. He attempts to sneak out peacefully, but is recognized by Thompson. This leads to a car chase inside the encampment; the police fire automatic weapons at the tow truck, which frightens the prisoners who are hiding in the cafe. Eventually, Crabs crashes but manages to elude the police on foot. He finds Carmen and unsuccessfully attempts to reason with her; he kisses her and wishes her well. Crabs disarms Thompson and forces him to delete his profile, but his escape attempt ends in a violent confrontation with the police; Thompson is accidentally killed, and the remaining policeman hunts down Crabs. Using a ramp near the entrance, Crabs launches his tow truck over the fence and lands on the S-Road.

Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, one of Australia’s most prolific and respected action directors, and produced by Andrew Williams for Greater Union of Australia, DEAD END DRIVE-IN was scripted by Peter Smalley from a short story called “Crabs” by BLISS author Peter Carey. In the story, the youths are incarcerated unwittingly, but life is made too easy for them to want to break out. But Crabs, a born outsider refuses to conform and has other ideas. MAD MAX spiced up with political allegory. “I’m interested in this sort of subject pre-MAD MAX.” he said. “I’ve pitched this film sales-wise as MAD MAX 12. Consider a world in which our worst expectations have become a reality, short of nuclear holocaust. That’s why I open the film outlining such possibilities the second Wall Street crash and mass death in South Africa.

“Because of rising inflation and the increasing crime rate, Drive-in movie houses are designated as unofficial benevolent prison camps, ” Trenchard-Smith continued, explaining the film’s premise. “If anyone enters these establishments to claim unemployment benefits, they are definitely the sort of people to keep off the streets. The original Carey short story is somewhat surreal and doesn’t have any of the political background that I infused. It starts in the Drive-in. I felt a need to explain the concept.”


In the first 17 minutes of the film Trenchard-Smith details why the detainees are more than happy stay locked up. “You don’t need guard dogs or other expensive security if you give them what they want,” he said. “And what they want is junk. Junk food, junk cars to live in, government supplied drugs, etc. Give them the junk values that youth seems to crave and they’ll stay. Why enter the outside world when everything they want is supplied free?”

Trenchard-Smith admits that the film confronts the very audience to which it is being pitched. “The Drive-in is the metaphor for the junk values of Western society in the ’80s,” he said. “Our hero represents the individual who will not be programmed, who actively wants freedom. No one else in the Drive-in can understand why he would want to enter the outside world.

“One of the aftermaths of post-War socialism is that some people take certain things for granted,” continued the director. “The forces of control will always find avenues with which to indoctrinate people who basically want a quiet life. So in DEAD END DRIVE-IN I was interested in government manipulation of the media for their own ends. It was my direct input to have drugs government supplied and even wrapped in cellophane. Some of the more daring ideas in the movie have not gone over too well back home, I can tell you.”

If the film sounds too political or cerebral to be commercial, it’s not. Trenchard-Smith hired Guy Norris, Australia’s top stunt coordinator, to come up with the world’s record action contained in the film. “He planned all the stunts in THE ROAD WARRIOR and doubled for Mel Gibson,” said Trenchard-Smith. “I’ve worked with him several times now and consider him the thinking man’s stunt coordinator.”


“The major stunt was for the spectacular denouement, “continued the director. “This was a super colossal stunt where Crabs jumps a three-ton Ford truck 160 feet over the box office through the neon sign. We had to synchronize an explosive device to shatter the sign at the moment of impact. Norris did a tremendous jog with no bruises.”

“I always had a crash camera-one close to being hit by the vehicle in question, running at 120 frames per second-so the audience can enjoy all the flying bits,” he continued. “We built a Ned Kelly for that, a protection unit made out of giant truck wheel hubs with a protected perspex window in the middle. Although it was hit quite a lot, which sent the camera spinning off out of control, it still meant the camera was safe enough to film another day.”

Trenchard-Smith hails lead actor Ned Manning as a real find. “I wanted total unknowns for DEAD END DRIVE-IN,” he said. “Which is just as well as our budget couldn’t have stretched to star names. I wanted a classic working class hero. Ned gives the impression that he would not be unemployed for long. There is a certain spark in him. He is always in competition with his brother who is much taller but as the film progresses he becomes a big man, nevertheless. If we do a sequel, it will be interesting to follow this development. That’s why I left the girl in the Drive-in. She represents the other point of-view and is there in case we need that plotline in the future.”


DEAD END DRIVE IN’s look is described by director Brian Trenchard-Smith as “grittily contemporary.” To achieve a crystal clarity for the steamy neon-lit night sequences, the director utilized a special way of filming on Kodak Super 35. “We had special gates cut for the camera lens so we could shoot on the soundtrack area as well, in the same manner that people do on Super 16.” he said.

“One reason for doing this is that you can use ordinary spherical lenses which have much greater depth of field particularly at night. You can really see a long way in focus and this isn’t usual in night photography.” The technique also results in less grain when the negative is converted anamorphically for wide screen projection. And the original negative is the proper aspect ratio for video reproduction. Trenchard-Smith began shooting at 3:00 pm on most days. “I like the late afternoon quality of the Drive-in scenes,” he said. “Most people are afraid of losing the light but we were scared of gaining it!”

A loquacious and humorous man, director Brian Trenchard-Smith sums up his career to date quite eloquently. “My lot in life until recently seemed to be emergency filmmaking of the worst possible kind,” he said. “I got so used to economizing that I seem to have this reputation for being able to cope. Two examples should outline that. The most horrendous experience was STUNTROCK where I was asked to take a six page treatment and turn it into a 90 minute stereo answer print in 44 months. Like a fool I said yes. And on TURKEY SHOOT I had my budget halved two days prior to shooting. I really was a glutton for punishment in those days.

“With DEAD END DRIVE-IN I’ve now reached the stage where I can be choosy,” he continued. “Luckily I also have this reputation for turning out action movies and as we all know action is the international currency of movie making. I put that down to my eleven year-old mentality. I was definitely influenced by all the double bills i saw when I was young-full of excitement, monsters, and fantasy

The final cost of DEAD END DRIVE-IN was $2.6 million (Australian). “Which is about $100,000 less than it really needed for the details to be just right,” said Trenchard-Smith. “We shot for 35 days with 2 days scheduled for pick-ups. Our main set was a closed down Drive-in which we rented for $20,000 and encased in corrugated iron. We then had it painted by recently arrested subway graffiti artists. We asked them if they wanted to pay off their fines!”

Brian Trenchard-Smith
Brian Trenchard-Smith

What attracted you to the DEAD-END DRIVE IN, Mr. Trenchard-Smith? Had you read Peter Carey´s short story CRABS previously ?
Brian Trenchard-Smith: No I had not read it. I got the job because the previous director was unhappy with the script, and lost faith in the project. I came in, took a week, and welded the best elements from the first three drafts together, boosting the social comment.

Lawrence Eastwood´s and Nick Mccallum´s art direction in the movie is quite impressive and really helps the storytelling with their visuals. How was it working with them?
Brian Trenchard-Smith: Lawrence and Nick were fantastic, great ideas, great execution for a 2.5 million dollar movie. Anytime they asked if a visual concept was going too far, I said go further. They deserved the award for design, but it went elsewhere.

DEAD END DRIVE-IN doesn’t seem to be interested in politics. Some of them even prefer to be inside the drive-in compared to their everyday life. Is this some sort of critic towards the youth culture of the eighties?
Brian Trenchard-Smith: Dead End Drive-In is a story of what might happen after a major economic breakdown, sparking riots, mass unemployment, and a resulting crime wave. Authorities come up with a radical new idea to deal with youth crime. Instead of throwing criminals in prisons which are expensive to run, they requisition the drive-in movie theaters, and set them up to provide young offenders with all the junk values of their culture: junk food, junk movies, junk sex, junk drugs, all without adult interference. Let them create their own society in these drive-ins, so they won’t be out in the streets, mugging, burglarizing, or whatever. The kids accept their confinement because it’s better that homelessness or living on inadequate government assistance. “Can’t you see,” says Crabs’ girlfriend, “this is all we’ve got.”

What do you think of the fact that the racism issue from DEAD END DRIVE-IN still feels relevant today?
Brian Trenchard-Smith: Definitely. Those in society regarded as “other” are always the first to suffer discrimination in economic hard times. It’s tribalism. We are seeing it currently in response to the refugee crisis. In Dead End Drive-In, the government start shipping in Australia’s unwanted Asian community, sparking angry demonstrations from the hitherto all white inhabitants. This was an element in the story I wanted to expand, but was unable to. The US distributor even edited some moments depicting racism from the finished film. They felt those moments would make their audience uncomfortable but there is enough of it left to make the point.

Directed Brian Trenchard-Smith
Produced Andrew Williams
Screenplay Peter Smalley

Ned Manning as Jimmy “Crabs”
Natalie McCurry as Carmen
Peter Whitford as Thompson
Wilbur Wilde as Hazza
David Gibson as Dave

Cinefantastique v16n04-05

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