Jim Van Bebber/ USA/ 1988/ 80 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 22 Oct 2018
The history of cinema has been littered with a surprising amount of mavericks given the risk-averse corporate hold the studio system exerts over the industry. Sometimes they reach mainstream appeal and genuine legendary status; the likes of Roger Corman, John Waters, and David Lynch to name a few. More often they remain firmly in more rarefied esteem; embraced as cult favourites, such as Herschell Gordon Lewis, Brian Yuzna, and Frank Henenlotter. The name Jim Van Bebber very much belongs in the latter company, producing grimy, grungy fare that’s the very definition of DIY filmmaking. His debut is something of a minor cause célèbre, with the young Van Bebber dropping out of film school and using his student loan to fund his own vision. Filmed over four years with a total budget of around $10,000, Deadbeat at Dawn is a down-and-dirty slab of pure exploitation that’s rough as sandpaper, yet shows undeniable directorial flair and is an obvious labour of love that is difficult to dismiss as mere trash.
Goose (Van Bebber) is the leader of the Ravens, a vicious street gang at constant war with the Spiders, led by the psychotic Danny (Paul Harper). After one-too-may altercations he’s convinced to leave his life of crime behind by his girlfriend Christie (Megan Murphy). After she is murdered by Danny’s gang he’s hauled back into the life, and he plans his revenge.
With its nihilistic depiction of urban squalor, Deadbeat at Dawn feels like The Warriors crossed with the renegade punk energy of Alex Cox‘s Repo Man, with a hint of the surreal, post-industrial howl of Eraserhead. In Van Bebber’s hands his hometown of Dayton, Ohio is a diseased, decayed hell-scape and as director and star, he’s both Dante and Virgil in the journey through 80 mad minutes of gang violence, junkies and insane levels of macho posturing. The story is as simple as they come, and the piecemeal way it was assembled occasionally shows in shonky continuity. The dialogue and most of the acting is also nothing to write home about, but no-one comes to this type of grindhouse fare expecting towering soliloquies. What Deadbeat at Dawn does have is attitude and a sense of ambition way above its origins.
This shows primarily is some satisfyingly nasty and proficient practical gore effects which make a mockery of the tiny budget. Van Bebber also injects impressionistic, surrealist touches such as a horrifically effective dream sequence. This leaves the film as a curious mix of genuine art and the vanity project of a mad kid loose with a tool set, yet somehow, for the most part it works. With his obsessions worn firmly on his sleeve – kung-fu, nunchucks, ultra-violence, serial killers – its probably just as well Van Bebber has this outlet rather than being loose on the streets, but America’s Most Wanted’s loss is genre cinema’s gain.