DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988)
Directed by Jim Van Bebber
He quit the gang. They killed his girl. He became… Deadbeat at Dawn. Or so the tag-line for Jim Van Bebber’s blood drenched thriller would have you believe. But this isn’t a straightforward Hollywood revenge storyline and things are a lot weirder and a lot messier. Just looking at it will tell you this isn’t a mainstream action movie. It’s an incredibly filthy piece of work and there are even certain visuals that might be more at home in a release from Arrow’s earlier American Horror Project. Even purely as a gang warfare narrative things are a lot less cohesive than you might expect, both in terms of the storytelling and the performances that everything hangs on. It’s a strange and disjointed eighty minutes to say the least. But is it entertaining? I guess that depends on what you’re after. Get your ninja throwing stars ready as we venture into the sinister underbelly of… Dayton, Ohio.
The first act of the story is the shakiest aspect of the whole film, and it’s certainly something that will put off potential first time viewers. Dark and grainy 16mm photography is present for the whole thing, as are the kaleidoscopic scene transitions that are sometimes employed. But the real problem is that it doesn’t often do a great job of setting up what is happening as the story jumps between our hero Goose (Van Bebber), his girlfriend Christy (Megan Murphy) and his scumbag rival Danny (Paul Harper). There are a lot of jarring edits and the immediate inclusion of attempted rape doesn’t help the story hit the ground running. But strangely as things progress the film becomes both weirder and more competent.
The underlying premise is that Goose is having second thoughts about his lifestyle choice when a turf war begins to escalate between his gang The Ravens, and their enemies The Spyders. There is at least a taste of things to come as the two factions square off in a local cemetery (a recurring location that was probably nice and quiet for the production) where the film makers express their love for nunchucks and severed fingers. But Goose is later convinced by Christy that all of this is a terrible way to live. Or he eventually comes around to the idea at least, since he takes some talking into quitting. Then the stage is set for tragedy as the couple go through a laughable romance montage… and the criminal elements begin to move against them.
The whole ‘bad guy going straight’ trope is very predictable but the execution, as with most of the plot, is very lacking. Christy is very interested in the occult for reasons that are never clear since it doesn’t come back around later on, outside a few interesting visual elements. It also doesn’t help that the use of a Ouija(TM) board to predict her own demise is too funny to be dramatic. The thing looks like it came brand new from the local toy store. The clean break is also questionable when Goose seems to be making money selling cocaine in dirty back alleys instead of actually moving on with his life. Most of these elements should have been revisited when things go awry instead of being dropped. However, this is all about to take a veer into good-bad territory as Danny’s goons (who all have great names like Asphalt and Bonecrusher) foul up their revenge on Goose for his earlier actions.
These secondary characters are what make this a fun. Do you enjoy strange indie film dialogue delivered by odd people that aren’t actors? This has it in spades. Bonecrusher himself (Marc Pitman) sets the tone by giving a drug fuelled speech about how much he hates everyone and how much he loves killing. He also likes talking about how intestines look like snakes, so I have to wonder why the far less interesting Danny is the leader. Later when things go horribly wrong Goose decides to visit his father, who gives another performance that feels like the actor has dropped in from another planet. He rants about beer in between paranoid delusions about the outside world while wearing only a pair of trousers. Later the third act offers old ladies yelling about guns while café patrons declare that they’re having breakfast with ‘The Lord’. Why? I have no idea. But these are just a few examples of the Thespian treats on offer as the movie goes off the rails.
Eventually Goose is rescued from his self destructive tendencies by his second in command… Keith (Ric Walker). Maybe he was just too cool already to need a scary nickname? But instead of helping him get revenge he demands that Goose help out during an armed robbery. Their old rivals The Spyders offer a truce during the heist, but of course things are not quite what they seem. It’s here that I give them credit for not doing the tired one man on a quest for vengeance cliché, but on the other hand perhaps some of this other stuff is too off-the-wall. It’s pretty memorable at least, as the story becomes a mixture of The Warriors style chase scenes and Street Trash style splatter effects. Is that a graffiti sign that just says ‘Milwaukee’ on it? Did a news report just say these thirty-five year old men were in a teenage gang? Was that a store advertising cold beer and worms?
It’s best to just sit back and enjoy the madness as the story takes multiple detours into the grimiest back streets of the American Midwest. There’s even in a Nightmare on Elm Street style hallucination during one sequence before it starts to become all out car stunts and knife fights. It’s a rickety and often shambolic piece of work that contains a lot of material that exists purely because someone thought it was the epitome of cool. And yet there is a kind of ramshackle charm to it all, with not one bad dummy effect in sight. Their attempt at telling a simple one man against the odds underdog story often fails completely and the characters are all pretty unlikeable. But as things go on you might find yourself rooting for the director and star as they attempt crazier, gorier, and more dangerous looking set pieces. It’s strange and often unconventional, but sometimes that’s just the right mixture.
Notes on the remastered edition from Arrow Video
This was never going to be a masterpiece but the new 2K transfer is much cleaner and colourful than you’d expect from the source material. Interiors are often dark and dingy which adds to the mood but unfortunately doesn’t help the watching experience. However exteriors and sequences filmed on the many industrial areas of Dayton are at least fairly clear despite a lot of grain. The film is more impressive during the various gang hideout sequences in which a lot of green lighting is employed to make everything as garish as possible. Goose’s nightmare and his random encounter with working girl Iris (Maureen Allisse) have plenty of strong visual reds and blacks, and the opening titles are pretty nice looking. All of the various gore effects and action scenes are about as eye popping as you could hope for, which is what counts in this sort of low budget insanity.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
• Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements, supervised and approved by writer-director Jim VanBebber
• High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
• Original uncompressed PCM mono audio
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• Brand new free-wheeling audio commentary with Jim VanBebber (’Goose’, The Ravens’ Gang Leader), actor Paul Harper (’Danny Carmodi’, The Spyders’ Gang Leader) and guest Cody Lee Hardin, moderated by filmmaker Victor Bonacore (Diary of a Deadbeat: The Story of Jim VanBebber)
• Jim VanBebber, Deadbeat Forever! – a brand new retrospective documentary on VanBebber and the Deadbeat legacy by Filmmaker Victor Bonacore, featuring first-time interviews, super-rare footage, VanBebber’s college films and much, much more!
• Archival 1986 behind-the-scenes documentary – Nate Pennington’s VHS documentary on a failed Deadbeat shoot
• Outtakes, newly transferred in HD
• Four newly-restored VanBebber short films – Into the Black (1983, 34 mins), My Sweet Satan (1993, 19 mins), Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin (1994, 14 mins) and Gator Green (2013, 16 mins)
• Jim VanBebber Music Video Collection, featuring never-before-seen Director’s Cuts
• Chunkblower – promotional trailer for an unfinished Gary Blair Smith-produced gore-soaked feature film
• Extensive Image Gallery – Never-Before-Seen Stills!
• Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Scott Gabbey and Graham Rae