The 1980s, forever recalled with a mixture of fondness and regret as that spandex-clad, white glove, tufted hair and jumpsuit riddled decade taste forgot, was as much a transitional period for special effects cinema as it was the fleeting fashion for which it is best remembered.

Stop-motion slowly began a descent into the realm of the technologically retrograde while primitive digital assemblage gave us our first real taste of what would become CGI. An animated flying owl in the opening credits of Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986) presumably wowed cinema audiences, and there’s no doubting the oomph of Steven Spielberg’s unforgettable composite of a man rapidly growing old during the ground-crumbling conclusion to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

Throughout the ’80s extravagant “real” sets were still de rigueur, however, and would be for some time. The full-scale use of green screen was more than a decade away and blockbusters – or even films erring on the side of the loud and colourful – needed real objects, places and characters to convincingly capture physical properties.

It’s impossible to know if English-born auteur Brian Trenchard-Smith, whose low-brow oeuvre occasionally dabbles in deceptively sophisticated concepts, would have coated the mises-en-scène of his most iconic features – all bar one (The Man From Hong Kong, 1975) made in the ’80s – in a computer veneer if the CGI paint shop were open for business. It’s hard to imagine a spectacle-heavy film like Turkey Shoot (1982), Trenchard-Smith’s macabre futuristic survival story that pre-empted genre descendants such as Batoru rowaiaru (Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) and The Hunger Games (Garry Ross, 2012), not benefiting to some extent from better effects.

On the other hand his 1986 magnum opus, the grungy Dead End Drive-In, masters a visual realisation of the unreal that looks as good now as it did then – a perfectly gloomy fusion of physical objects juxtaposed with the story’s otherworldly elements and creepy dystopian undercurrents. The film’s lack of “unreal” special effects coupled with an audacious narrative and setting forced innovation, particularly in one tremendous moment, is etched in the canon of crazy-good Australian cult filmmaking.

In the film’s iconic final scene, the lead foot of protagonist Jimmy (aka “Crabs”, played by Ned Manning) hoons a hijacked police van towards a neon sign that reads “Star Drive-In”. The van roars up a (conveniently located) ramp, lifts into the air and soars right through it, a spectacular shower of sparks, lights and broken timber spraying on and around the airborne vehicle. “Bewdy”, Crabs yells as the van makes a perfect landing and moves onto a highway, into the dirty dawn light and a skyline marked by splotches of cold industrial edifices.

How did we get here? What, if anything, does this spectacular automobile breakout scene – one part Thelma and Louise, two parts The Great Escape and a whiff of Blade Runner – signify other than a triumphant money shot?

Wind your wheels back an hour-and-a-half and we meet our gear-shifting protagonist. Crabs jogs in a daggy tracksuit down barren city streets full of vacant lots littered with rubbish. Before the story begins, intertitles provide grim information about how this world came to be. One reads, “The great white massacre, 103,000 die. Gold & diamond exports cease.” The others are similarly post-apocalyptic. Shots of TV news inform us that violence is rife. An early sequence depicting two crashed vehicles and the subsequent men who arrive on the scene bartering for what is left of them establishes cars as a kind of currency; a precious commodity in a world where the economy has collapsed and crime waves sweep through cities.

Crabs secretly borrows his boss’ souped-up car, a ’57 Chevy, and takes his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) to a place he will come to loathe and she will come to depend on: Star Drive-In. The titular “Dead End”.

A podgy man in the ticket booth says “enjoy yourselves” with the faintest glimmer of a smile after Crabs purchases entry; he knows the trap has been set. When wheels are stolen off Crabs’ car the couple is left stranded and the large gates to the outside world remain locked. Crabs is anxious and livid, desperate to return to “normal” life. The people around him presumably used to be in a similar mindset but have moved on, so to speak; the drive-in is their home, their community.

Trenchard-Smith shifts the meaning of the venue from its traditional function as a place of recreation to a society in itself. The drive-in becomes a microcosm of society, with layers of class, infrastructure, jobs, competing clans and political environments.

Much of the plot concerns Crabs’ failed attempts to escape, of all which is action foreplay, rolling towards that spectacular conclusion when the bird too colourful to remain caged flies off into the night.

Writer/director John Hughes’ Saturday detention sentimental favourite, The Breakfast Club (1985), concluded with the iconic image of Judd Nelson, who plays the jock-hating badass, punching the air. In broad strokes the message is the same as Dead End Drive-In’s crash-out: an ’80s rebel celebrates breaking free from the establishment, marking the occasion with a physical response.

Nelson’s gesture was subtle and partly internalised; conversely, in Dead End Drive-In, the sparks flew, and those sparks – unlike the splattering of CGI flourishes we tend to see nowadays – were real. Two-and-a-half decades later, that terrific sequence still grinds the gears of anti-establishmentarianism with high-powered electric energy.

About The Author

Luke Buckmaster is the film critic for crikey.com.au, Australia’s largest independent news website. He has written about cinema since 1997 and has contributed to a range of publications including The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Spook Magazine and Filmink Magazine.