'Dead-End Drive-In" (citywide) is that increasingly rare surprise: a seeming piece of schlock that turns out to be exciting and offbeat. It's one of those strange grind-house classics worth looking for.

The plot seems outrageous--"The Road Warrior" crossed with "The Exterminating Angel": Australian teen-agers in the post-apocalyptic future, tricked into a sleazy, trash-ridden drive-in theater (the Star) and imprisoned there by their authoritarian government. But "Dead-End Drive-In" is one of the few "Road Warrior" clones that doesn't suffer much by comparison. It's loaded with oddball jokes and social satire, probably courtesy of scenarist/novelist Peter Smalley ("A Warm Gun"). And director Brian Trenchard-Smith, an Aussie adventure specialist, has given it violently kinetic action and sometimes amazing visual style, density and energy.

The Star Drive-In, shown in extravagant deep-focus moving camera shots, is a triumph of design: It has a boiling, turbulent unity (you might ask, though, why it seems so ordinary when hero Crabs and heroine Carmen--Ned Manning and Natalie McCurry--first pull in). Populated by delinquents, punks, "cowboys" and desperate unemployed youth and run by an affably seedy, unctuous, sinister manager (Peter Whitford, perfect in the part), the Star really looks like a no-exit drive-in.

Waste, laundry and fires are spread through the grounds in raffish riot, bizarre graffiti adorn the walls, the cars are partially wheeled wrecks. The audience-prisoners subsist on diets of malts and cheeseburgers, and every evening a succession of violent exploitationers pour down, sometimes mirroring the off-screen action: war, kung fu and revenge movies (Trenchard-Smith's?), films as reflectors of the population's pathological fantasies, teasing reminders of the world that has rejected them.

It's a brilliant premise, and it comes close to working completely. The parts of "Dead End Drive-In" (rated "R") that seem undeveloped--Carmen's deterioration or the climactic racial unrest--seem to be due less to vulgarity or compromise than too-high aspirations or ideas not completely filled in. It's still one of those movies which, apparently promising little, ends up giving you a lot, a comic nightmare made hellishly real. It also may be one of the ultimate movies to see at a drive-in .

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