Saturday, 11 February 2012

Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)

Ohio born and bred Jim Van Bebber was an inspiring filmmaker from a very early age making many a movie in high school with his Super 8 camera. One of these 8 mm epics was the kung fu flick ‘Into the Black’ that won him a scholarship to study cinema at Wright State University. The martial arts love letter would become the prototype for Van Bebber’s debut feature. After attending film school for only one year rather than use a student loan to pay for a second he dropped out to set up with several other colleagues the independent production company Asmodeus Productions. 

Encapsulating the true spirit of an indie production with a DIY guerrilla filmmaking work ethic shooting began on ‘Deadbeat at Dawn’ in 1983 on a very limited budget of a measly $10,000. Filmed on 16 mm over four years Jim Van Bebber wrote, directed, edited, created the SFX, did all of his own stunt work and starred in the lead role of the street gang leader Goose. In order to garner interest from a distributor he shot the last 40 minutes of ‘Deadbeat’ first which contain most of the hugely entertaining ultra-violent fight set-pieces. Taking the footage to New York and finding a distributor Van Bebber went back to Ohio to raise funds to make the rest of the movie. However, after post-production was completed he found out upon his return to New York that the interested distributor had gone out of business. Soon afterwards, though, he sold the film to be shown on the circuits of the grindhouse and drive-in theatres.

Described by Jim Van Bebber as a “simple revenge kung fu film” the simplistic plot makes for effective pacing by holding together the sequences of the urban street violence cohesively. All the scenes in-between feature situations that results in the action. Set in Dayton, Ohio Goose (Van Bebber) is a dab hand at kung fu and the leader of the street gang The Ravens that have a bitter longstanding feud with their rivals The Spiders led by scumbag weasel Danny (Paul Harper). He is a sadistic misogynist who gets kicks out of slapping around his pregnant girlfriend. After Danny’s attempted rape of Goose’s girl Christie (Megan Murphy whose character oddly wants to be a gypsy), the first street brawl of the movie between the two leaders occurs when The Spiders enter into The Ravens’ turf with Danny coming off worse. Loving the thrills that his criminal lifestyle brings him Goose’s way of life causes a conflict in his relationship with Christie who tells him to change his ways or she will leave him. Realizing that he loves his girlfriend more Goose quits The Ravens leading to a falling out with his right hand man Keith (Ric Walker) who takes over the gang.

Goose makes one last big drug deal to get the money together to start a new life away with Christie. While this is happening, Danny has arranged for their murder. Members of The Spiders gang one of which is the psychotic Bonecrusher (Marc Pitman) and another thug breaks into their apartment and brutally murders Christie. Finding her beaten bloodied broken body upon his return a distraught Goose places her corpse into the apartment building’s trash compactor. Grieving he moves in with his junkie father (Charlie Goetz) that takes all of the money he earned from the drug deal. Leaving his father he sinks into a suicidal deep dark depression drowning himself in alcohol. Goose is found by Keith who forces him to get his act together as The Ravens and The Spiders are joining forces for a security truck heist and could do with Goose’s skills. After the job is done, Goose anticipates a double cross from Danny and arms himself to the teeth before heading to a meeting to split the money between the two gangs. Sure enough, Danny double crosses The Ravens and it is up to Goose to take the money and run and get it to Christie’s only living relative her sister. He takes bloody revenge on Danny, Bonecrusher and the rest of The Spiders in the process.

‘Deadbeat at Dawn’ has something that most big budget Hollywood studio action films sorely lack - a low down dirty attitude with plenty of piss and vinegar with an irresistible punky energy. Jim Van Bebber is a real independent filmmaker and his passionate enthusiasm for genre cinema really triumphs here with uncompromising vigour. The fight sequences are brutal, intense and mean spirited with Van Bebber applying genuine martial arts moves and bravely performing all of his own risk taking stunts for the sake of his art. Despite his limited acting skills as an amateur performer, he is a convincing tough guy anti-hero spitting out venom with such lines as “You're on our turf, scum fuck.” and “Fuck your noise!” The rest of the amateur cast here do fine and achieve what is asked of them most notably Pitman as the insane Bonecrusher and Goetz as Goose’s pitiful father. 

Defying the limitations of the cheap budget Jim Van Bebber pulls off some very impressive gore effects and the splatter is plentiful. The run down locations of filthy alleyways, abandoned buildings, cemeteries and train yards serving as the backdrop to the urban violence adds to the natural authenticity of the street life presented here. The cinematography is very grimy capturing the harsh nature of the street supplemented by a Carpenteresque electronic tinged musical score making for a distinct atmosphere.

Although the entertainment notch is turned up high and the movie is a huge achievement in being the epitome of indie filmmaking it is unsurprisingly flawed in places taking in account the nature of its production. While Van Bebber makes for a convincing hardman due to the limited capabilities of his acting talent he fails to elicit emotion in the scenes depicting Goose’s descent into an alcohol-fuelled depression in his grieving for Christie. Thankfully, these sequences are not too drawn out. Jim Van Bebber also makes the nonsensical decision as director to employ the use of a bizarre psychedelic kaleidoscopic image that first appears after the opening title sequence and annoyingly reappears another several times throughout the short 80 minutes runtime serving as an unnecessary transition between scenes and closes the film. The comic book images Walter Hill used for his director’s cut of ‘The Warriors’ (1979) do not work either as they really interfere with the pitch perfect pacing but at least the said artwork was relative to the story and the comic book nature of the movie. While not tampering with the pacing here it is though a baffling effect adding nothing at all.

Gripes aside Van Bebber made the kind of film here he wanted to see being a cinematic enthusiast for all things Grindhouse taking all the conventions that made 70’s action movies of this urban gang ilk so damn enjoyable and having the ingenuity in working with very limited resources to make it pay off. This is well worth investigation by lovers of cult cinema. Unfortunately for British fans ‘Deadbeat at Dawn’ remains banned so if you are interested in seeking it out and if you have a region free DVD player get the Dark Sky Films Special Edition American release.

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Digging the blog, great review! We did an interview with Marc Pitman(Bonercrusher) a while back. Thought you might be interested in hearing it.

  2. Thanks very much, mate. I'll be sure to give your podcast a listen.

  3. Brilliant review Dave, and yes a fantastic film, really one of the very few early 80's exploitation films that felt like it had arrived 5 years earlier. 70's retro is mostly done badly, but this one felt genuine. I remember first reading about this in the Deep Red Horror Handbook, with the late Chas Balun raving about how good it was, and seeing it some years later, it did not disappoint. It's a real shame Van Bebber isn't making regular films (so too Jorg Buttgereit). I think he has real talent. I really loved Charlie's Family. I have a bit of a Manson fascination and felt it was done very well. He could have been an American Gaspar Noé...

    1. Thanks again, Wes M. 'Deadbeat' gets it right to a T with the homage to 70's exploitation. Yeah, it's a dam shame Van Bebber doesn't make more films. I hope he can find financing for more projects soon.

  4. Good review. I saw this film as a childand thanks to a special friend I could remember,...opened a wound in me.

    A movie that deals with extreme violence and revenge films of street gangs.

    Even the characters seem to have been treated from the very conception bizarre of the director and also have a few twists that give it a mystical character in the film, some esoteric references to legends, protective amulets, amazing revelations in a cemetery and a sequence psychedelic that seems to mark the division into segments of the movie.