Jim Van Bebber, 1988
Starring: Jim Van Bebber, Paul Harper, Megan Murphy, Ric Walker
My heat is broken, I'm sick, miserable, and exhausted. And yet, thinking about a recent viewing of Deadbeat at Dawn still brings a smile to my face, if not an outright laugh of disbelief. Written, directed, produced by, and starring Jim Van Bebber, Deadbeat at Dawn is not like any movie you will ever see, anywhere. Whether this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen, but I watch it every five years or so and my mind is blown every time.
Deadbeat at Dawn somehow combines elements of trashy grindhouse cinema; specifically there is a lot in the production value and tone that reminds me of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Maniac. There is a also a heavy dose of '80s gang films like The Warriors, plus some West Side Story, and Street Fighter/Double Dragon thrown in for good measure. That doesn't sound like it makes any sense, but I can assure you that it absolutely does.
Goose (Van Bebber) is the kung fu-practicing, shuriken-throwing, nunchuk-swinging leader of the Ravens. They get into regular fights with the Spiders, a rival gang. After one particularly terrible fight in a cemetery, Goose's New-Agey girlfriend Christy tells him to pick her or the gang. In a move I didn't see coming, he retires and devotes himself to her, though not for long. The Spiders send their biggest guns/muscle over to Goose's house when he's away from home to get revenge. They rape and torture Christy, eventually killing her. The heartbroken Goose disposes of his true love's body in a trash compactor, visits his alcoholic Vietnam vet father, and goes on a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol, grief, and violence. He is convinced by the new leader of the Ravens to temporarily join them in a big job where they will join forces with the Spiders. Obviously the Spiders are planning to double-cross and destroy them, but can Goose wreak havoc and vengeance before the end?
Fuck yeah, he can.
There are a lot of things about Deadbeat at Dawn that completely fail -- production value, dialogue, script writing, the characters are all flawed -- and yet it doesn't matter at all. I don't understand how or why, but I really don't care that parts of this film are so bad. I love it anyway. There is something about Van Bebber's sheer force of will and belief in cinema that allows him to operate outside of any normal cinematic rules of "good" or "bad." Normally, the fact that he wrote, directed, produced, starred in and did most of the stunts himself would make me cringe at the sheer hubris of it all, but it works. I can't imagine what it must have been like on that set though.
Like a number of other '70s and '80s films, Deadbeat at Dawn is nihilistic and ugly. There is a certain inexplicable pathos, despite the sheer hatred that is expressed on screen as frequently as possible. There is a strong connection between city life, poverty, violence, and perversion. There is a certain sense that emotion is a luxury shed repeatedly in the name of survival and survival frequently means rape, murder, and torture. Most of the characters have been through and/or committed some kind of extreme trauma, which gives the film a weird, misanthropic shell-shocked feeling.
Though it might be an acquired taste, but I have to strongly recommend it. Try to go into it with no expectations whatsoever. There's a special edition that includes outtakes, an interview and Van Bebber's short film "My Sweet Satan."