Starring Jim Van Bebber, Paul Harper, Megan Murphy, Marc Pitman
Directed by Jim Van Bebber
Distributed by Arrow Video
Jim Van Bebber, the writer / director / editor / makeup effects department / stunt choreographer of Deadbeat at Dawn is a true visionary, even if his vision is a little skewed, a little mad. In the early 80’s he won a scholarship to Wright State in Dayton, Ohio (his hometown), but dropped out in his third year, using his $10,000 student loan to finance Deadbeat, the money primarily going to purchase film stock. A friend of his who was still attending Wright “borrowed” the film department’s 16mm camera for Bebber to use. For this and other reasons, the movie took four years to shoot.
Van Bebber’s style is dreamlike, with intentionally one dimensional characters and over-the-top violence that smashes up against the hardscrabble realism of the streets of Dayton. Van Bebber explains in the commentary track to the new special edition Arrow Video Blu-ray that he wanted to make a “hyper-realist cartoon.” In this, he certainly succeeded. In his quest for the ultimate hyper-stylized exploitation movie, he puts many of the more well known exploitation genres in a blender and out comes Deadbeat at Dawn. Kung-fu, biker movies, gang films — they’re all here. Even if you don’t like his style, it’s hard to argue that Van Bebber isn’t one of the most creative voices in the history of the movies. I promise, I ain’t kidding. Van Bebber realizes, unlike so many other directors, that a movie can be anything, especially the product of one person’s imagination. Movies don’t have to reflect our own reality at all. In this, Van Bebber has the temperment of a surrealist.
The plot, such as it is, involves Danny and Goose, leaders of two Dayton gangs. Goose (Jim Van Bebber) is the leader of the Ravens and Danny (Paul Harper) leads the Spyders. The two decide to meet in a cemetery, their respective gangs behind them, to settle some undefined issues. The two face off in a knife fight, and it’s in the fight that follows where we see Van Bebber doesn’t intend to pull any punches as far as the violence is concerned. Knife wounds pour waterfalls of blood. This movie ain’t playing around.
Drugs, violence, and abuse of all kinds are treated as a matter of course. There’s certainly no good guys here. Goose, the film’s protagonist, deals crank to people who sell it to kids. He’s also fond of hitting people over the head with his nunchucks and stealing their motorcycles. And that’s just in the first act. There is a kind of redemption arc for his character as his girlfriend convinces him to leave the gang and start a normal(ish) life with her. After a bit of fighting, he finally agrees, telling her that he’s going to sell some crank to get some money to kind of prime the pump so that they’ll have some money to start out with. While he’s gone, though, his girlfriend is killed by two of Danny’s acolytes, one of whom is a psychopath who goes by the awesome name of Bone Crusher (Marc Pitman). Bonecrusher later marvels that when he pulled the girlfriend’s guts out, they looked like snakes. Well then.
There’s a lot of weird details like that scattered throughout the movie. Goose and Danny wear masks to the cemetery brawl, but they take them off for their knife fight. Danny does choose a Batman mask, so points there for sure. A bunch of the Spiders wear jock straps over their jeans for no discernable reason (though Van Bebber admitted in the commentary that it was an homage to A Clockwork Orange). And who stacks two TVs on top of each other that are tuned to the fuzz between stations? Goose and his girlfriend, of course. And when Goose finds his girlfriend’s dead body, after mourning for a while, he decides to wrap her in some blankets, toss her into the back of a garbage truck, and crush her. As one does.
These are all great weird details, of course, but my favorite has to be the random guy in a cafe arguing with his waitress. Even though he’s the only one at the table, he’s giving her hell for not bringing him two breakfasts. So who is the second breakfast for? The Lord, of course! This leads to one of my favorite lines in the film: “Go to the kitchen and make him some breakfast, ya heathen bitch!” Well. I hope he gave her a good tip, at least.
All of these surreal details are in service to Van Bebber’s very unique artistic vision. He was single mindedly focused on this project for over four years, and was willing to do whatever it took it see it get made the way he wanted, including doing some dangerous and sometimes highly illegal stunts. Luckily for the other actors, Van Bebber does the major stunts himself, including rappelling down the side of a parking garage in broad daylight. I can guarantee there weren’t any permits for that. There’s also a scene where Van Bebber is hanging out the side of a car that’s barrelling down an alley. It’s shot at an angle that makes it look like his right arm is getting its skin ripped off, but it very easily could have led to Van Bebber actually getting hurt. Or worse. That was a real car going down a real narrow alley with an actual human hanging off the side.
There’s also less dangerous, but no less guerilla shots where the characters break out of the world of fantasy and into reality. In a way, at least. That parade that the gang runs through? Well, there’s no way that Van Bebber had the funds to hire a marching band and pay extras, so that’s really a bunch of maniacs running through an actual parade, followed by a cameraman. I guess you’d wonder what people thought about all this if their reactions weren’t already captured on camera. Their puzzled looks are now immortalized on Blu-ray.
As you might expect, the performances weren’t going to win an academy award, but everyone acts the hell out of their parts. My favorite performance has to be that of Charlie Goetz. He plays Goose’s alcoholic / drug addict / Vietnam vet dad with PTSD. Goetz, a local community theater actor, knew that he was basically playing a caricature, so he hammed it up, chewing the scenery like the goddamn pro that he is. It’s…unbelievable. You really have to see it. Over the top screaming, totally out of his mind, paranoid, always freaking out and shouting. You expect the guy to fall dead from a stress related heart attack at any moment. “You drank my last beer!” is a refrain heard more than a few times. Look, I’d never recommend heroin, but hopefully it at least has a calming effect on the guy. Jeeze. It’s no wonder Goose turned out the way he did. And what of his mother? She’s never mentioned. Probably left as soon as she had the chance. Perhaps in the dead of night, screaming, “I’m free!”
On a technical level, the film is often a mess. The lighting is not always great, and some of the guerrilla shots that had to be taken on the fly don’t look so wonderful, but that’s kind of to be expected when you’re literally on the run. Sometimes, though, there’s flashes of some truly beautiful imagery. Many of the more or less still shots of gravestones in the many graveyard scenes are almost breathtakingly beautiful. This Arrow Video special edition is packed with special features, none of which are filler. The best supplement is the almost hour and a half documentary called Deadbeat Forever!, which covers not just Deadbeat at Dawn, but Van Bebber’s filmography as a whole. There’s also a commentary and some additional interviews, but what I liked best were the four short films that were included. This makes the disc a great introduction to Van Bebber’s work as a whole. Watching these films, made over various periods in his career, proves that Van Bebber knew from the beginning what kinds of movies he wanted to make and succeeded in doing so. There’s no greater accomplishment for an artist.
- Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements by Arrow Films, 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)
- 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
Deadbeat at Dawn is the the best 70’s exploitation film made in the mid-80’s. As with most Arrow Video releases, this is the definitive version of the film, with enough supplementary material to keep viewers entertained for days.