Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)

Every time I hear the title of this film, I think of Evil Dead. I just can’t help myself. It immediately turns into a chorus of “Dead by dawn, dead by dawn!” And then it turns into a chorus of bloody violence. Though now having seen it, that’s no longer Evil Dead violence. Oh no, this movie has more than enough on its own.

Goose is the leader of the Ravens, a gang of teenage hoodlums, criminals, and drug addicts in Dayton, Ohio. Their biggest rival are the Spiders, led by the sadist Danny. While these may not be the most intimidating names, we are talking about the mean streets of 1980s Ohio here. But their actions more than make up for the names; when Goose leaves the gang life at the behest of his girl, Christie, Danny sends his guys around to kill his former rival. Unfortunately, they only find Christie and butcher her in a drug-fueled rampage. And I do mean butcher. We get a great scene midway through in which a very high gang member named Bonecrusher recounts how her intestines reminded him of snakes.

With Christie dead and not sure who killed her, Goose goes on a raging bender, and gets recruited back into gang life by Keith, Goose’s former second-in-command. Keith reveals the Ravens and Spiders are joining forces for an armored car heist, and Goose gets the main job of attacking the car from above. But once the job is over, Danny betrays his former foes and has his gang massacre the Ravens. He then goes after Goose, who fights and kills his way across town as he tries to get the stolen money to Christie’s little sister. The end result is a bloody and savage beat down that leaves pretty much no one standing. It’s an amazing experience.

Yeah, Deadbeat at Dawn is a nasty little picture. There are gratuitous levels of bloodshed and violence as gang members stab and slash each other, attack regular folks, and even occasionally gun each other down. The amount of drug and alcohol abuse is near-constant, with characters openly snorting cocaine and even injecting heroine. There’s misogyny, with Danny attempting to rape Christie and later smacking up a woman he’s impregnated for laughs. And then there is the attitude; society sucks, fuck people, I hate everyone, and I don’t care.

It’s also low budget, with outdated camerawork that looks like something from the cheesier end of 1970s blaxploitation, along with performances from a group of student filmmakers and amateurs, because that’s who these people were. And you know what? It works. When you factor in the deteriorating locations and filthy city streets of Dayton, the collapsing slums and graffiti-covered hideaways of the gang, and the seemingly endless industrial urbanity that is only broken up by a large cemetery, this movie oozes grunge and sleaze. And it bolsters the message, that society really is fucked up.

What do I mean by that? Well, the sole authority figure in Goose’s life is his heroin addicted Vietnam vet father, who abuses drugs to keep his PTSD at bay and is already wallowing in his own filth. Goose isn’t at home to help Christie because he’s out selling a brick of cocaine to some guy in a nice suit, who flat out tells him he’ll either be selling the crack to kids or addicts and who is Goose to give a shit. At one point, Goose tries to escape a gas station where he drank a soda without paying, and a kid who looks like a Mormon missionary pulls a gun and blows the gas station attendant away at the behest of his grandmother in her Sunday best, because they’re trying to stop the criminal. Good guys with guns save the day, right? The film is a massive indictment of the reality of American society, and it does so with a largely white cast, not even having to bother to focus on issues of race to show the cracks in 1980s Reagan Americana.

But the best part of the film is probably Bonecrusher. Actor Marc Pitman gets some of the nastiest violence and some of the best lines, but the moment that pretty much sums up the film is a rant he goes on after huffing something out of a small nozzle. To the chorus of police sirens, Bonecrusher compares getting high to the rush of killing someone and then defiantly declares how he hates people and doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks. This addled, bizarre, and psychotic rant sums up the movie’s energy and outlook in one glorious, crazy moment of declaration. It’s pure attitude, and combined with the rest of the picture, it paints a massive portrait of how much we all do suck.

While the reviews have generally praised Deadbeat at Dawn for its pace and energy despite the fact it was pretty much a no-budget student film, distribution hasn’t been so easy. Jim Van Bebber managed to get a theatrical release in Dayton and a brief VHS run but then had trouble finding companies that wouldn’t just jerk him around over distribution rights for nearly 20 years, and even then he didn’t feel truly vindicated until Arrow Video handled the Blu-ray release in 2019. This plays into a long quest for me that lasted for several years in the 2010s where I struggled to gain access, and here we are in 2021, and I was only just now able to watch this movie. Yeah, Deadbeat at Dawn qualifies as a pseudo white whale, not as bad as my 20 year search for Gunhed, but still harder to find than it should have been.

Look, do you like shocking levels of violence? Do you like surprisingly great fight choreography on something made with shoestrings? Do you notice the failings of society and sometimes feel the need to tell the world to fuck off? Then Deadbeat at Dawn is the movie for you. It’s raw, it’s brutal, and it’s honest. It’s a tribute to what young, new filmmakers can bring to the art form as well as a condemnation of the world around us, one willing to peel back the curtain on American society and point out the ugly mass writhing within. That’s what makes it fantastic and well worth your time.

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