Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)

Deadbeat at Dawn is directed, written and created by Jim Van Bebber, a film student who decided to make a low budget feature film in the tradition of Evil Dead and other drive-in blockbusters that were hugely popular in the 80’s and made a lot of money. He created Deadbeat at Dawn with his fellow students and friends, and finally his first feature film was completed in 1988, and what a film that is!

Bebber himself plays Goose, a leader in street gang who decides to quit the violent and dangerous gang life and start a peaceful life with his girlfriend Christy. Goose’s gang is Ravens and the rival gang is Spiders. Spiders don’t like Goose quitting the gang life and they arrange Goose’s murder. That doesn’t succeed, instead, they murder Christy in brutal way while Goose is on his final drug deal somewhere in dirty streets of Ohio. When he finds her beloved girlfriend killed and savagely mutilated, he starts the savage fight for life and only one thing in mind: revenge.

I had extremely high expectations on this film, and then I finally ordered the expensive DVD and watched the film. I must say I’m not disappointed, but still the film is not as great as I hoped. My all time favorite US underground film is Buddy Giovinazzo’s incredible and ultra disturbing masterpiece Combat Shock, which is still far more powerful and relentless than Van Bebber’s film. Deadbeat at Dawn is very grim and dirty, but it is not as relentless and emotionally powerful as Combat Shock or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Deadbeat at Dawn relies on savage brutality and the result is interesting and definitely works in its own genre.

The settings are very dirty and scummy as there are drug users, prostitutes and all kinds of diseases found in big cities and modern society. Goose is only little “better” than the bad guys in this film, and the bad guys are REALLY bad and revolting, and all the actors (mostly amateurs) made incredible job in this film as the most fierce moments were improvised and developed when the camera was already rolling. The scene, where Bonecrusher swears how he hates people: “I hate people!! I really fu***n’ hate people!!” is very menacing as this guy is really nuts and dangerous and he is equally bad as the film’s main villain, Danny, the leader of the rival gang. The only positive characters in the film are the two females, Christy and her sister, and according to director Van Bebber, that is one of the film’s themes: Goose had the possibility to start a better life with the help of this element of peace and beauty, Christy, but since he didn’t understand it in time and couldn’t realize its/her value, he finally lost Christy and had nothing left, only anger and willing to revenge. He knew this all might end badly for himself, too, but that didn’t matter since he had lost the light of his life; after the revenge there would be nothing.

The film has also bits of social commentary. Van Bebber has said that at least the scenes at the garage and little boys pretending to shoot at each other have a meaning and criticize our society and world in different ways. The garage scene says something about how easy it is to get a gun in US as everyone seems to have one, even old people and seemingly peaceful persons. This film depicts the world and society that has been created this horrible and ugly by its inhabitants themselves. This film is very rough as it shows the ugliest sides of modern day life and things that we and films in general (especially mainstream) don’t usually want to accept or talk about.

The various fight scenes are shot and edited pretty stylishly. Couple of scenes have perhaps little fast edits and thus become too restless, but mostly this film is greatly mace with the very low budget. The soundtrack is also very menacing and ominous at times, and it adds much to the atmosphere. This film proves the talent of Jim Van Bebber, and shows what kind of results can be achieved with talent and innovation.

Not only this film is grim and ugly in its scenery and world it takes place, it is also ultra violent and graphic. The gang fights are as bloody as possible and nothing has been left to imagination. All strokes of nunchukas and knifes are visible and they hurt as if the viewer was hit himself. Only act of violence that’s left to imagination is the beating and killing of Christy, and Van Bebber said that it was intentional as “sometimes less is more” and he definitely didn’t want to make this horrible scene graphic and full of on screen blood, and I think it is now as brutal as possible. The violence in Deadbeat at Dawn is very strong especially during the film’s last fight, when Goose finally gets face to face with the gang members who killed his girl and caused this mayhem. People are sliced with blades, hurt with throwing stars, blasted by guns with ultra gory wounds, beaten to shapeless, killed by ripping off a throat/larynx – a scene that is perhaps even more graphic and off putting than the finale in Japanese Sonny Chiba’s legendary Street Fighter (1974), a film which has also a similar throat ripping scene. Deadbeat at Dawn is so over-the-top violent and gory piece of independent cinema, I think this will and alienates many fans of marginal cinema, too, as I know many so called film fanatics specialized in B films and underground, that simply HATE Deadbeat at Dawn and speak very badly about it! Deadbeat at Dawn is so gritty and violent (mentally and physically) that it is far too hard to take for most of the people. Of course it’s true that cinema this underground has always small audience so it’s not any surprise so many hate this film. I don’t hate this, but don’t like it as highly as I wanted to. Maybe I had too high expectations after experiencing Combat Shock so many times before Deadbeat.

Deadbeat at Dawn is pretty immoral film since the violence and act of revenge feels pretty gratuitous at times, but that can still be interpreted as a very brutal bit of commentary about life and society. This film is so full of hate and anger, it definitely means something and shocks the senses of the viewer. Still, the film is somewhat shallow and relies maybe too much on these fierce scenes of violence, and if the film had such a strong message and emotional elements as Taxi Driver, for instance, this would definitely be a great masterpiece of independent cinema. Therefore I give this 8/10 instead of more, and recommend this film ONLY for very tolerant film fans and people who like and understand underground cinema of Jörg Buttgereit and Abel Ferrara, for instance, and films like Combat Shock, Baise-Moi, Last House on the Left and other extremely grim and depressing films, films that demand a lot from the viewer.