Mesopotamia may be the cradle of civilization, but Australia is the birthplace of the apocalypse. Ever since George Miller unleashed “The Road Warrior” on an unsuspecting public in 1981, its feral, stripped-down version of post-Armageddon life has been the go-to setting when movies take place at the end of the world. “Post-apocalyptic” has become synonymous with rusting DIY war machines and dusty leather bondage gear, thanks to the Aussies. That’s why it’s surprising and refreshing to find a movie like “Dead End Drive-In,” another Ozploitation production that shares a lot of elements with the world of Mad Max but nevertheless has something very different to say about what it would mean to live during the end of the world.
Like “The Road Warrior,” “Dead End Drive-In” begins with a brief preamble that describes the state of things at the present time. After a series of environmental and economic disasters, Australia and the rest of the world are teetering on the brink. But while civilization has completely collapsed by the time “The Road Warrior” begins, in “Dead End Drive-In” it’s merely resting its eyes. Sure, the streets are overrun with marauding gangs who have flamethrowers mounted on their cars, and tow truck drivers clash on the highways to claim the still-burning remains of fatal car crashes, but at least the video stores are still open.
One of those tow truck drivers is Crabs, who lives with his older brother and mom and seems to be taking the apocalypse in stride. Both he and his girlfriend Carla don’t seem concerned about much except sneaking his brother’s ’56 Chevy out to the drive-in without getting caught. That’s what they do one night, only to find out when they wake up the next morning that their wheels have been stolen and they can’t leave the movies.
Crabs and Carla eventually find out that the Australian government is using the drive-in as a kind of internment camp for the unemployed and other undesirables. With no chance of escape, the young people being held prisoner have converted the drive-in into a makeshift Neverland where they spend their days lounging around or fighting and their nights drinking and screwing under the big screen.
As far as apocalypses go, it’s a fairly cozy one. The concession stand keeps everyone fed with burgers and milkshakes. Carla becomes fast friends with the girls who spend all day doing their hair and makeup in the ladies’ bathrooms. Johnson, the manager of the drive-in and administrator of the prison, takes Crabs under his wing and offers him beer while they shoot the breeze.
But although Carla accepts her fate pretty quickly, Crabs continues to look for a way out, either by finding new wheels for his brother’s car or by convincing Thompson to let them leave. Crabs is anxious to get his brother’s car back home, and he’s not at all interested in joining the little society that has taken hold inside the drive-in, especially after the arrival of some Asian refugees causes things to get ugly very quickly.
Soon, the mostly-white Australian kids in the drive-in start organizing rallies where they rail against the refugees for fear that they’ll start raping their women. The refugees, who are never depicted as anything other than mute, shell-shocked, and docile, never really factor into the rest of the movie except to drive the final wedge between Crabs and Carla. From that point forward, Crabs is determined to get out of the drive-in by any means necessary. The drive-in is transformed into a demolition derby, Crabs gets some revenge a la shotgun, and a car is jumped through the drive-in’s towering neon sign.
Although the world of “Dead End Drive-In” resembles the world of “The Road Warrior,” it’s working from a very different definition of the apocalypse. Human beings are living off rat meat in George Miller’s vision, but Crabs and Carla can still enjoy a burger and a milkshake while they watch music videos. The problem, as Crabs discovers when he asks for an orange juice, is that they can only enjoy a burger and a milkshake, and the music videos never take a break. Crabs is presented as a young man without dreams or plans for the future, a guy who is living in neutral and is happy with it. However, the second someone steals his wheels, he becomes obsessed with breaking free, even though there’s nothing different waiting for him on the outside. In the world of Mad Max, the apocalypse is when the world runs out of gas. In “Dead End Drive-In,” the apocalypse is when all the roads are closed.
Even if the action is limited to basically a parking lot, that doesn’t mean there’s limited action. I always appreciate when older movies like this are populated almost entirely by junky cars, because it usually means those cars are going to be smashing into each other eventually. That’s certainly true in the final sequence of “Dead End Drive-In,” where Crabs hijacks a few police vehicles and eventually jumps one straight through the drive-in’s marquee. Legend has it that the jump was a world record at the time, and it certainly looks more impressive than the average “Dukes of Hazzard” jump, especially the aftermath where the car bounces a few feet off the ground after impact and manages to hit the ground running again.
“Dead End Drive-In” isn’t your typical post-apocalyptic smash-em-up, that’s for sure. The end of the world it envisions isn’t one where the heroes fight to survive, but one where they fight to feel like their survival is worth something, even if it’s not true.