Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Crabs, cars and Peter Carey

  • 11 December 2008

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

Of 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,