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22 August 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:51pm

An unflattering reflection: how seeing a cinema audience in a film impacts real-life viewers

The Eighties Australian exploitation movie, Dead-End Drive-In, uses this trope to challenge viewers.

By Ryan Gilbey

Much is made of the escapist properties of cinema – its ability to transport us to other worlds and experiences. But the screen isn’t only a portal. It’s also a mirror. That’s never more apparent than when cinema audiences find themselves watching cinema audiences.

Think of the rapacious critters going berserk in the cheap seats in Gremlins. The undead clientele of the Piccadilly Circus porn cinema in An American Werewolf in London. The bereft patrons at an old picture palace’s last-ever screening in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Or the on-screen audiences that have made cameos in Martin Scorsese movies such as Taxi Driver, Cape Fear and The Departed.

The effect in most of these cases is like catching sight of your reflection from an unflattering new angle. Is that really how I look? Well, yes. It isn’t pretty.

In the 1986 thriller Dead-End Drive-In – an unlikely gem from the Australian exploitation (or “Ozploitation”) scene – the cinema audience is under attack from sinister government forces in the lawless near-future. Anyone familiar with 1980s exploitation cinema will take it as read that the lawless near-future is the setting for the movie but it’s as well to spell it out for the uninitiated.

You could have thrown a Walkman in a video shop during that decade and chances are you would have hit a movie about gang violence in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Dead-End Drive-In is the same – but different. It puts forward some trenchant satirical points about the use and abuse of pop culture. It’s also funny. And so pertinent that it makes you say: “Ouch.”

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The film’s main location, a dustbowl drive-in cinema, becomes a kind of holding-pen for those whom the government consider delinquents and undesirables – in other words, the young and the unemployed.

Once the audience is safely inside, their cars lined up in front of the screen that shows violent action movies all night, the authorities remove their tyres, leaving them stranded. They can’t escape – the place is fortified – and nor can they reach the outside world.

At least the youngsters can keep their strength up by buying healthy meals from the on-site canteen. Or so they think. But all that is on offer is concession-stand fare: burgers, milkshakes, pop. For a special treat (“while the picture’s on”) they can have banana fritters. Junk food will keep them docile. Eventually they won’t feel they deserve any better. Job done.

This is brilliant satire. The more savage it becomes, the more directly it seems to address us. To curb the captives’ taste for rebellion and escape, a distraction arrives in the form of a large group of Asian prisoners who are also to be held in the drive-in. This incenses many of those youths who are already there, and a racist demonstration flares up, with a furious refrain: “Asians out! Asians out!”

The government has successfully converted any rage at its own behaviour into an attack on a vulnerable ethnic group. Rather than trying to punch up – a move that always comes with the risk of reaffiriming one’s own feelings of impotence – the crowd is encouraged to punch down, at those even more disenfranchised than themselves. Sound familiar?

I suppose the film’s challenge to us is to break out of our own stupor. To choose which sort of audience we want to be and which sort of movies we’ll fight for. Dead-End Drive-In is a good place to start. It’s a B-movie that gets an A for attainment.

Dead-End Drive-In (Arrow Video) is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 12 September.