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Crabs, cars and Peter Carey

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Dead End Drive-in (1986): 88 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith. Starring: Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Ollie Hall

Dead End Drive-inOf the so-called Ozploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s — those taboo-busting, low-budget genre flicks that crowded drive-ins and flipped the bird to Australian cinema's venerable New Age — few would feature 'social commentary' as a selling point. But then, few have the distinction of being based on a Peter Carey short story.

Indeed, for most of its running time the 1986 film Dead End Drive-in transposes with almost slavish literality the events of Carey's early short story 'Crabs'.

The story, in both Carey's text and the film, takes place in a post-apocalyptic near-future, and concerns the plight of protagonist Crabs (in the film, Jimmy 'Crabs' Rossini, played by Manning), who becomes stranded at a movie drive-in after the wheels are stolen from his vehicle. Such thefts are common — committed, if not by prowling, reprobate gangsters known as Karboys, then by corrupt cops looking to augment their salaries.

A community of castaways has sprung up on the lot — people resigned to the fact that they are not allowed to leave on foot, and cannot drive out in their stripped vehicles. Crabs and his girlfriend Carmen (McCurry) are the latest members of the community. But while Carmen is happy to adapt to their new lifestyle, Crabs isn't willing to just settle in. He hopes that he might one day be able to obtain new wheels, and drive to freedom.

Often, short stories make for strong film adaptations, as there is not an abundance of plot to be negotiated. By the same token, the best film adaptations adopt as their starting point the essence of the source material, to which the filmmaker applies their own distinctive vision.

Trenchard-Smith certainly brought his own vision to the project. The aesthetic is a kind of Mad Max-lite; all hotted-up vehicles, harsh industrial landscapes, B-grade acting and over-stylised punk fashion. But this film is an example of how literality of translation can result in the sacrifice of the story's essence. The film is fun on its own terms, but much of the nuance and irony that lend 'Crabs' its magic are simply lost.

'Crabs' can be read as an allegory for the nature communities; how they adapt and then become accustomed to their environment, to the point of institutionalisation. The drive-in is an oppressive location, bounded by high, electrified fences. And yet the castaways, essentially prisoners, come to jealously own their prison, resenting, for example, the arrival of a truckload of Asian migrants, whom they regard with hostility and fear.

In Dead End Drive-in, the need to substitute pictures for words proves problematic. For example, consider this: Crabs' brother Frank is a tow-truck driver — a revered and well-paid profession at a time when car collisions occur frequently. There is fierce competition to be the first to reach the scene of an accident, and if the accident was severe enough the tow-truck driver, as one of the first people on the scene, will get his face on the news.

In Carey's story, this is communicated in a single sentence: Crabs, envious of his brother's trade, imagines 'himself driving at 80 mph with the lights flashing, arriving at the scene first, getting the job, being interviewed by the guy from 3UZ's Night Watch'. A lot is left to be read between the lines.

There's no reading between the lines in the film. We witness Frank, with Crabs along for the ride, burning rubber in his monstrous tow truck. We see him screech to a halt at the scene, and engage in a shouting match with another driver and a waiting police officer about who arrived first and therefore has claim on the wreckages. All this while the collision's bloodied victims dangle from their mangled vehicles.

Finally, after the ambulance and news crew arrive (simultaneously), Crabs and Frank, armed with oversized spanners, find themselves fending off a gang of Karboys who've arrived to try to pick the car carcasses clean.

Such seedy spectacle is typical of Dead End Drive-in: it's darkly comic, vaguely satirical, glib, and over the top.

The film's greatest diversion from the story also marks its most notable thematic difference. Carey's climax, an exercise in magic realism, underscores the story's allegorical nature: Crabs, having had the epiphany that the only way to escape the drive-in is 'to be a motor car or vehicle in good health', decides to become a tow truck.

By the power of his will, he transforms, and drives to freedom, only to find the outside world is dark and deserted. Despondent, he returns to the drive-in, but discovers that he is locked out. The tension, then, is between the desire for freedom, and the need to belong — in Carey's story, a difficult tension to resolve.

Besides the practical difficulties of reproducing this ending on film with a low budget, it simply doesn't fit with Trenchard-Smith's visual or thematic aesthetic. Instead, in Dead End Drive-in we get a bona fide action finale; a car chase, blazing weapons, and explosions, as Crabs blasts his way to freedom.

It's an unadulterated celebration of rebellion — of breaking loose of the conformities of society.

Dead End Drive-in on DVD (Madman Entertainment)

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, dvd review, Dead End Drive-In, by Brian Trenchard-Smith, Crabs, Peter Carey



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Another exciting review. (I had to get out my dictionary.)

Les | 11 December 2008  

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