Dead-End Drive-In

Originally published: Australian Film: 1978-1992: A Survey of Theatrical Features, 1993, p. 189. (1)

Dead-End Drive-In (2) is adapted from a Peter Carey story, and went into production in the same year that Bliss (Ray Lawrence), adapted from a Carey novel, was released. The opening titles set the scene: race wars in South Africa, a second Wall Street crash and huge riots during Australia’s bicentennial year, a prelude to the use of emergency powers by the government.

In urban Australia in the 1990s, the streets are combat zones, dominated by marauding gangs of ‘Karboys’, vultures on wheels. Their only competition is provided by parasitic tow-truck drivers and television crews who rush from accident to accident.

Crabs (Ned Manning) is eager to be part of the tow-truck scene like his muscle-bound brother, Frank (Ollie Hall). Slight, enthusiastic, puppyish, he exercises and builds up his body so that he will be strong enough for a stint on the trucks. After a trip out to an accident scene with his brother – an energetic, comical scene that sets the tone for the whole film – he borrows Frank’s Chevy to go to the drive-in. But during the show, as Crabs and his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) make out in the back seat, the wheels are stolen.

The unctuous, unflappable manager, Thompson (Peter Whitford), tells an outraged Crabs to stay the night. The next day Crabs finds that he is part of a captive audience: the drive-in is a kind of containment camp for the young. They will remain there “until the government decides what to do with you”, Thompson tells them.

So the Star Drive-in becomes a kind of punk suburbia, a holiday resort with an electrified fence, a caravan park-prison. The cars are converted into dwellings, and the only fuel is fast food at the Eazy Eatin.

Production designer Larry Eastwood brought in local graffiti artists to help give the abandoned Sydney drive-in the authentic late 20th-century tribal look, a punk bowerbird style that could be called Delinquent Domestic. Carmen adapts to the environment, to the food vouchers and the subcultures that spring up: she finds companions who tell her that she is better off inside than outside. But Crabs chafes. He is not prepared to stay in the camp, and he plans his escape.

As he plots his departure, Asian families are brought into the camp, and the Star’s inhabitants respond by forming a White Australia Committee and holding a rally. Crabs does not become involved. It is not that he is particularly tolerant or understanding; rather, his whole life now revolves around escape and he sees the new arrivals in one light only: “They’re not the enemy. They’re prisoners just like us.”

Dead-End Drive-In is faithful to the tone and many of the details of Carey’s story, although the escape attempt, in the hands of an action director like Brian Trenchard-Smith, is prolonged and exciting, with a terrific climactic stunt. The film is full of sharp, witty touches that are never gratuitous. One example is the drive-in fare: several of Trenchard-Smith’s films can be seen on the drive-in screens, notably Turkey Shoot, his far more violent 1981 feature about a futuristic prison camp.

The film was one of four productions in 1985 to be assisted by the New South Wales Film Corporation. At that stage, Michael Jenkins, who had directed the mini-series Scales of Justice, was named as director. The film was underwritten by merchant bankers Capel Court Corporation Ltd and CCF Australia Securities Ltd. It was Capel Court’s first venture into film underwriting.

The film was acquired by New World at Cannes in 1986. But unfortunately Dead-End Drive-In did not find the Australian audience it deserved, and it disappeared after a short theatrical release. In mid-1987, the film’s actors got together to promote the film, approaching independent cinema owners to screen it. Lead actor Ned Manning criticised the distributor, Greater Union, for not giving Dead-End Drive-In enough support. It had received a two-week season in Sydney and equally brief seasons in Adelaide and Brisbane. In Melbourne, ironically, it was a supporting feature at the drive-in.

Dead-End Drive-In will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Saturday 2 August at 7:15 PM and Sunday 10 August at 1:00 PM.


“Anyone Can Do a Stunt Once …”, an article on the stunts by Nick Roddick, Cinema Papers, No. 56, March 1986, pp. 17-20.

“A Horse for all Courses”, an article (with quotes) with Brian Trenchard-Smith by Brian Jones, ibid, pp. 26-8.


  1. Scott Murray (Editor), Australian Film 1978-1992: A Survey of Theatrical Features (Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with The Australian Film Commission and Cinema Papers, 1993). A subsequent edition has the first part of the title changed to Australian Film 1978-1994.
  2. Editors: Dead-End Drive-In is one of the most famous cases of journalists and critics wrongly rendering its title. The screen reads: DEAD-END Drive-In. But, just to show lousy proofreading isn’t only a modern phenomenon, in the end credits the first hyphen is dropped. Other films that invariably have their titles wrongly recorded are Starstruck (two words, not one), Roadgames (two words, not one), Luigi’s Ladies (no apostrophe), The Race for the Yankee Zephyr (not Race to), Dawn! (the exclamation mark usually AWOL), ‘Breaker’ Morant (the single quotes dropped), “Crocodile” Dundee II (the double quote marks dropped), … Maybe this Time (the ellipsis ignored), The More Things Change … (ditto), Ghosts … of the Civil Dead (ditto), Peter Kenna’s The Umbrella Woman (the Peter Kenna’s thrown away in anger – why do journalists and critics so hate film titles with authorial possessives?), Mad Max 2 (not II), et al.

About The Author

Philippa Hawker is a writer on film and the arts. She is working on a book about Jean-Pierre Léaud.

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