Directed by Jim Van Bebber. Starring Jim Van Bebber, Megan Murphy, Paul Harper, Marc Pitman, Ric Walker, Charlie Goetz. Action, USA, 80 mins, cert 18.
Out now in the UK on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 22nd October 2018.
The 1980s was a wonderfully colourful and varied decade for cult movies but there are cult movies that everyone now loves through dewy nostalgic eyes – THE THING, LABYRINTH, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, THE GATE, etc. - and then there are ‘proper’ cult movies – the ones that really only ever appealed to a minority of underground movie fans and barely even gave the mainstream a thought, and DEADBEAT AT DAWN is one of the most notorious.
The brainchild of film school dropout Jim Van Bebber (THE MANSON FAMILY), the plot of DEADBEAT AT DAWN is a simple revenge tale of street gang leader Goose (played by Van Bebber) whose girlfriend Christy (Megan Murphy) wants him to leave his violent past behind him so they can set up a life together. Goose agrees but his old gang The Ravens and rival gang The Spiders won’t let him leave so easily, and after The Spiders kill Christy when Goose is out doing one last drug deal the former gang leader spirals back into his old ways, culminating in Goose getting gruesome revenge against his old rivals.
You can tell from the off that DEADBEAT AT DAWN is the work of someone with talent and passion but no budget. Made for around $10,000 across four years and eventually released in 1988, this is punk rock filmmaking at its rawest and most exploitative with Van Bebber throwing everything into the mix, apparently fully aware that he may never get another chance to make a movie again. The kinetic energy that drives the action set pieces is almost palpable as Goose moves from a bad situation to an even worse one, culminating in one of the nastiest and bloodiest climactic fight sequences in grindhouse cinema – heads get squished, throats get ripped out and Goose gets dragged around and beaten as most of that meagre budget is laid out on the screen in all of its 2K restored glory. Yes, you can see the joins in the latex but that’s all part of the fun, and it still looks pretty damn good for something done on the cheap.
But before we get to the final battle there is the matter of the rest of the film to get through and DEADBEAT AT DAWN, despite having a even more simplistic take on the DEATH WISH formula than that movie’s sequels, does at times feel a bit longer than its 80-minute running time thanks to a lot of padding. The acting isn’t great at the best of times but having to sit through dragged out scenes of Goose moving in with his drug addict father after Christy’s death is quite painful as Jim Van Bebber mumbles his way through the most basic of dialogue as Charlie Goetz does the opposite and overacts the hell out of the scene as Goose’s father. Marc Pitman as brutal gang member Bone Crusher also gets a ton of self-congratulatory monologues that he delivers with an OTT machismo that is so ludicrous it becomes laughable (a style he would take it to the extreme as Charles ‘Tex’ Watson in THE MANSON FAMILY a decade later) but despite the poor performances the attitude comes through and that is clearly what Van Bebber is going for.
As a package DEADBEAT AT DAWN is fairly loaded as far as a collected works of Jim Van Bebber goes as it includes not only the main feature but also the filmmaker’s almost-as-infamous shorts ROADKILL and MY SWEET SATAN plus the lesser-known INTO THE BLACK and GATOR GREEN. As if that wasn’t enough there is also a brand new audio commentary from Van Bebber and actors Paul Harper and Cody Lee Hardin, an 80-minute Jim Van Bebber retrospective featuring brand new interviews with the man himself and many of his alumni plus rare footage, Van Bebber-directed music videos from metal bands Pantera and Superjoint (Phil Anselmo is clearly a fan), a promotional trailer for unfinished film CHUNKBLOWER, outtakes and stills gallery, which all goes to bolster up a film that deserves its place in cult exploitation cinema alongside the grimy works of Abel Ferrara, H.G. Lewis and Frank Henenlotter just for the sheer force with which it hits the screen and leaves you breathless once that savage final act is over. DEADBEAT AT DAWN is clearly never going to find a place amongst mainstream audiences and that is a big part of its endearing charm, and hopefully one day Jim Van Bebber will get to complete the long-awaited sequel DAY OF THE DEADBEAT which is teased in the documentary on this disc, but if he doesn’t this true cult classic has at least been immortalised on an HD disc to enjoy for all time, if ultra-violent trash is something you find enjoyable, of course.