Bringing you the best of Grindhouse cinema (without the sticky floors).
This month’s triple feature: Deadbeat At Dawn, Combat Shock, and Switchblade Sisters.
This month you are in for a special treat. We have Jim Van Bebber’s DIY gang masterpiece, “Deadbeat at Dawn”, followed by Buddy G’s hallucinatory Vietnam vet pic, “Combat Shock” and last but not least, “Switchblade Sisters”, by my favorite exploitation director- Jack Hill.
So grab your popcorn and your favorite beverage, the first feature is ready to begin.
DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988)
When one thinks of cinematic hot spots, Cleveland Ohio doesn’t necessary jump to mind. But it was here that the outlaw film director Jim Van Bebber, directed his first full length feature film, “DEADBEAT AT DAWN”. Shot on 16mm, Deadbeat took over three years to make and was a homage to the AP biker films of the 70’s, such as Tom Laughlin’s “Born Losers”.
Its plot is simple- There are two rival gangs, the Ravens and the Spiders. Each one is vying for control of the streets. Goose (played by Van Bebber himself) is the leader of the Ravens. Goose is in love, and decides it’s time to leave the gang and settle down with his girlfriend. The only problem is, they’re broke and all they can afford is a shitty little slum apartment that doesn’t even have a proper lock on the door. For some strange reason, all it has is a hasp and a padlock on the outside of the door. I guess that’s ok if you want to lock the door while you are away, but what about when you are home? Do you move furniture against the door or maybe wedge a chair up under the doorknob? I don’t know, but considering they live in a bad part of town, they are not very security conscious over at the Goose household. Even though he’s a bad ass mofo, Goose has a tender romantic side as well. He decides to take his girlfriend away for the weekend. So he takes his nunchucks, whacks a guy over the head, steals his motorcycle, and then picks up his girlfriend for their weekend getaway. After having a romantic tryst in the woods, Goose tells his Girlfriend that he is quitting the Ravens, but that he needs to do one last drug deal in order to get enough money for them to live happily ever after (where have we heard that before?) But, as in life, things don’t necessarily go as planned. Goose locks his Girlfriend in their apartment as he goes off to make his deal. While he’s gone, the Spiders pry open the lock and murder his girlfriend. This starts Goose’s downward spiral of violence and madness, that ultimately leads him to take on the Spiders in a massive Kung-fu showdown.
The cool thing about this film is that Van Bebber takes DIY to the extreme! He acted in and directed the film, he did all his own stunts, and he even did the special makeup effects. Speaking of makeup effects, Van Bebber couldn’t afford to use squibs for the bullet hits, so instead they filled condoms with fake blood, and then had someone with a good pitching arm throw a baseball at the actor and explode the blood pack. Then during the editing process he cut out any frames that showed the baseball.
Like others in our generation, Jim van Bebber was highly influenced by Drive-in Movies. In fact, one of his first jobs was working at the local Drive-in. And while other directors such as Quentin Tarantino were heavily influenced by working in the local video store, Jim van Bebber was soaking up the movies of the Drive-in circuit, particularly the films of Bruce Lee and other Far East Exploitation fare such as Five Fingers of Death. But it wasn’t until he saw “THE EVIL DEAD”, that he decided that he was going to make his own feature film. That year, in college, Jim van Bebber started making a series of fight scene vignettes which ultimately grew into the feature length “DEADBEAT AT DAWN”. Originally conceived as a movie for the Drive-in circuit, the Drive-in as we know it was pretty much extinct by the time the film was finished, three years later.
Watching this film again, I definitely picked out a heavy Abel Ferrara influence, particularly “Ms 45”, if I ever run into Jim van Bebber; I will have to ask him about that. Another little piece of trivia concerning this picture, “DEADBEAT AT DAWN” was the last film to be put on the Video Nasties list and banned in Britain.
DEADBEAT AT DAWN is unfortunately out of print, but you might still find a copy on E-Bay or Amazon.
COMBAT SHOCK (1984)
One of the masterpieces of nihilistic cinema, COMBAT SHOCK combines the grittiness of TAXI DRIVER, along with the fever dream hallucinations of ERASERHEAD. Originally filmed under the title “American Nightmare”, COMBAT SHOCK follows Vietnam War vet Frankie Dunlan as he tries to reinsert himself back into mainstream America. Only problem is, Frankie’s America is anything but mainstream. His is an America filled with far reaching unemployment, shit hole apartments, nagging wives, deformed babies, drug addicts, and thugs. Far from living the American Dream, Frankie Dunlan is living the American Nightmare.
Filmed entirely in and around Statten Island (including the Vietnam War Sequences), Combat Shock is another example of DIY filmmaking at it’s finest. Buddy G gives us an unflinching look at a young soldier’s descent into madness, and leaves the viewer wondering which was the worst war, the war in Vietnam or the war at home. Some of the most compelling sequences were the Vietnam flashbacks. It was here that Buddy G really showed some inventiveness. What he did is take the Vietnam footage and project it on the face of his brother Ricky (who chillingly portrayed Frankie Dunlan) and combined that with voices and sound effects to recreate the after effects of the madness of war.
Just be warned, this is not the feel good movie of the Summer. There is not a single light hearted moment in the entire film, and I dare say the last 10 minutes of the film will leave you squirming in your seat.
Buddy G felt that COMBAT SHOCK ruined his career. He has been quoted as saying that after COMBAT SHOCK he couldn’t even get a job directing bad horror films. He said that the producers would take one look at COMBAT SHOCK and say “God forbid this guy does it again”. He may be right. For the next ten years after COMBAT SHOCK, Buddy G taught filmmaking at New York’s School of Visual Arts and New York University. Now days it looks like Buddy G is directing German Television, which I find interesting. It also explains why Corpse Fucking Auteur Jorg Buttgereit (Nekromantik), joins him on the commentary track of the COMBAT SHOCK DVD.
I think COMBAT SHOCK is a brilliant film and I would love to see Buddy G come back to the States and make another feature. Hollywood, are you listening?
COMBAT SHOCK is available in a Director’s Cut through Troma DVD.
Switchblade Sisters (1975)
AKA: Playgirl Gang, The Jezebels.
Quentin Tarantino has called Jack Hill the Howard Hawks of Exploitation films. And you know what, he’s absolutely correct. Jack Hill has made some of the best genre films ever to grace the Drive-in screen. Fans of Woman Prison movies will recognize THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE, or are you a fan of Blaxploitation? Did you know that Jack Hill directed COFFY and FOXY BROWN? Ever hear of SPIDER BABY? That was Jack Hill as well.
Jack Hill worked most of his career as a contract Director for Roger Corman and then later, Sam Arkoff. In those days, someone like Roger Corman would call you into his office and say “Jack, I’m sending you down to the Philippines to make a Women in Prison picture. You have 18 days to shoot it. Oh, and you are leaving next week.” So Jack would have to write a script, make sure he was including all the exploitive elements that were necessary for the Drive-in crowd, and make the picture in the allotted time. The cool thing about a Jack Hill movie is that it’s more than the sum of its parts. He may have been hired to shoot a Women in Prison movie, but as long as he included a shower scene and a fight in the mud, he could do whatever he wanted. And he took pride in his films and always managed to add a depth to them that couldn’t be found in your average Drive-in movie.
SWITCHBLADE SISTERS is his foray into the Girl Gang genre. Originally filmed under the title “The Jezebels”, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS follows the exploits of the Dagger Debs, the female counterpart to a male gang called the “Silver Daggers”. Lace is the tough talking leader of the Dagger Debs and the main squeeze of the leader of the Silver Daggers. Crossing their path is Maggie, a beautiful cheerleader type, who actually kicks major ass. What follows is an “Othello” like tale of betrayal and revenge, all set to a groovy 70’s vibe. An interesting side note, caustic comedian Lenny Bruce’s daughter appears in the film as the mascot of the Dagger Debs, the appropriately named “Donut”.
SWITCHBLADE SISTERS is a fun film to watch, particularly the way Robbie Lee, who plays Lace, delivers her lines between clenched teeth when she wants to look tough. Another standout is the Roller Rink shootout- classic 70’s action.
So do yourself a favor and check out Switchblade Sisters. And while you are at it, visit some of Jack Hill’s other films, you’ll be glad you did.
That’s it for now. Thank you for visiting the Grindhouse. We’ll see you again next month. – Kevin Klemm