by Ben Gray (with thanks to Dr. Rebecca Johinke)
You know, for a movie that's apparently all about cars, Dead-End Drive-In sure doesn't involve a whole lot of driving. Topless women with crazy hair-dos? Yes. Shanty towns made out of car parts? Yes. Actual driving? No.
And have you seen anything quite like it? Probably not.
It might be worth thinking back to the world of post-apocalyptic 80s movies for a minute. The most obvious connection is to Mad Max (technically a 70s movie, but close enough), in which really dirty-looking dudes drive around the desert all day, killing people with their cars, looting stuff, and generally doing incredibly awful things to each other, all the while screaming “NIGHTRIDER!!!” at the top of their lungs (Ever played the “Nightrider” Mad Max drinking game? You can probably imagine what it entails. Only to be played with qualified physicians on hand).
The weird thing is, though, in spite of all the obvious parallels to Mad Max – gangs of violent car-driving youths, weird punk rock-looking people, dirt everywhere, Australia – the two movies don't really have all THAT much in common. Practically all of Dead-End Drive-In takes place within a 100 yard radius, all the cars are busted, and the female characters are basically just there to take off their clothes; in Mad Max, on the other hand, there's a vast desert, everyone's car is super-ultra-badass, and the female characters... ok well, I guess they do have that in common.
My point being, instead of everyone's badassness being presented by how awesome their cars are (as you would expect out of car movies – see everything Burt Reynolds did in the 70s), that's exactly the opposite of what's happening here. You know how feeble and lame these dudes are because of the bustedness of their cars.
Really, it's more like watching Escape from New York, but on a much, much smaller scale. Here's all these people (unemployed young people) who the government sees as a threat, so their cars get busted up and they can't leave what's essentially a post-apocalyptic prison. It's The Man holding down kids by taking away their cars, just like any teenager who didn't get to go to prom because their parents are afraid that they'll end up drinking and losing their virginity. Or well, in this case it's more that they're worried the teenager will kill somebody and loot the victim's car.
Even with Escape from New York, though, the parallel doesn't work so well. In Dead-End Drive-In, the prison turns out to be a kind of a paradise, especially in a post-apocalyptic world where food, jobs, and gasoline are all scarce. You get fed (several flavors of milkshakes), you have a place to live (your car), and nobody's very likely to try to kill you. That is, unless you're the protagonist of the movie - “Crabs” - but that's only because the only one who isn't willing to play ball. Frankly, it's hard not to sympathize with these people. Hell, if I ever got trapped in a world full of free food and hot women, I might be tempted to wile out my days playing cricket, doing drugs, building stuff out of car parts, threatening newcomers, and having sex in the backseat of my customized Chevy too.
Ok, well. But that's not the conceit of the movie. This movie is about how the people who make that choice – who decide to just settle into a kind of communal child-like bliss – aren't really men. Nope, to be a man in this world, you have to stubbornly demand to drive your badass car around, be rude to The Man and anyone who decides to deal with him, and get real emo with your girlfriend if she isn't as stubborn as you are. You have to doggedly seek out the restoration of your busted car to its former badassness, even if it means shooting some people in the gut with a shotgun (but they're adults anyway, so whatever).
Oh, and the other thing you have to do (according to the non-protagonist residents of the drive-in), is protect “your women”. It's kind of surprising to us in 2011 when a violent post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie is filled with women covered in body paint and with industrial springs in their hair, and not even one of those women turns out to be a gun-toting murderous badass that knows martial arts. That, alas, was the standard back in 1986. Instead, the women in this movie spend their time doing their hair and demanding that the men protect them from outsiders.
“Outsiders”, in this case means Asians, and “protect them” means from being raped. It looks a little weird if you're not familiar with the situation, so it might help to realize that well... first of all, Australia is like 90% white (no I mean literally 90%), second, Australia is like, pretty close to Asia, and last, that Australia had a heavily restrictive immigration policy (explicitly mentioned in Dead-End Drive-In) called the White Australia Policy in place until 1978. That is to say, for most of the 20th century, Australia had in place a policy that didn't allow Asians to immigrate. At all, ever. The reason given was that the “productivity” of Asians would mean too much competition for the white Australians, but of course that “positive” racial stereotype had its counterparts in more negative beliefs – here, that Asians are violent and sexually uncontrolled. When the policy was repealed (very gradually over many years, but many people see it ending in '78), a lot of anxieties remained about what all these new people would mean for Australia. Thus, the residents of the drive-in accuse any white person not willing to persecute Asians in the name of protecting white women from rape of being “not a man”.
When our protagonist declares that “they're not the enemy”, what he means is that Asians aren't a threat, the white adults are. You know, the ones that are running the prison. Which seems obvious enough except that those same white adults are the ones letting these kids screw around all day and providing all their food and drugs. At any rate, Crabs says to hell with that and ignores the Asians most of the time (as does the movie) – partly because he doesn't see the Asians as a threat, and partly just because he's too busy trying to get new tires.
Even all that aside, though, it's a damn weird movie to watch. Here's a population of people who've submitted to being walled into this little tiny space and just saying “whatever”, or even “awesome!”, and there's exactly one guy actually trying to leave. You know exactly how he feels. Seems like they could easily get out of there if they all tried, it just happens that no one wants to.
Still, I wouldn't mind spending like a week in that drive-in, maybe. I wanna try one of those milkshakes.