Color, 1987, 80 mins.

Directed by Jim Van Bebber

Starring Jim Van Bebber, Marc Pitman, Ric Walker, Megan Murphy, Paul Harper / Produced by Mike King / Music by Ned Folkerth and Mike Pierry

Format: DVD - Synapse (MSRP $29.98)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital Mono


A leading entry in the gutter-gore sweepstakes of the glorious 1980s, Deadbeat at Dawn quickly joined the company of films like Combat Shock and Street Trash, all very low budget films distinguished by their imaginative camerawork and extreme, hyperbolic violence. While director and star Jim Van Bebber had been cutting his teeth on short films for ten years, he decided to produce his 16mm street gang opus as a feature which ironically proved to be his only completed full length film to date.

The storyline itself consists of virtually every cliche from the late '60s or early '70s mob or gang film of your choice, then tossed into a blender. Goose (Van Bebber), the leader of a gang called the Ravens, decides to call it quits thanks to the urging of his occult-fixated girlfriend (Megan Murphy). When he learns that his boys are soon to be joined with a rival gang called the Spiders (or the Spyders, depending on which graffiti you read), Goose thinks the time is right -- at least until Murphy turns up dead despite his efforts to protect her. Determined to seek revenge and live his life without fear, Goose locks horns with his evil rival, Danny, and unleashes a torrent of streetfighting and kung fu fury on his enemies.

Adopting a visual style straddling somewhere between the crimson-drenched fever dreams of Kenneth Anger and the grimy color-coding of a Harry Novak soft porn film, Deadbeat at Dawn deliberately grates on the viewer's senses and probably won't demand repeated viewings from all but the most devoted cult film fans. However, when the action does kick in, Van Bebber delivers some amusing thrills built on dismemberment and spewing bodily fluids. Unfortunately, the fights themselves fall somewhat short of their Hong Kong and AIP models, with some clumsy tossed punches and missed kicks constantly assuring the viewer that it's only a movie. However, with this can't-miss combination of sex, action, gore, and black humor, the film's cult reputation is easy to understand and does merit its lavish treatment on DVD.

Long unavailable on video outside of the bootleg circuit (and completely banned in Britain, not surprisingly), Deadbeat at Dawn looks much better than expected on DVD. Already a notorious release, the disc came under public fire from its director, but it's hard to comprehend his problems with its presentation. The image quality looks extremely crisp and clean for 16mm, with even the most heavily drenched colors shining through for the most part. The mono audio does what it can, considering the film always sounded like it was preserved on a tape recorder. Van Bebber offers up a commentary track for the entire film (and, unadvertised, on several of its supplements), joined at various points by producer Michael King, actor Marc Pitman, and cult enthusiast David Gregory, among others. Whatever faults the film itself may have, the DVD itself is really beyond reproach, offering a host of both obvious extras and a few hidden treats as well. "My Sweet Satan," a 20 minute short film from 1992, is actually a more impressive piece of work than the main feature, offering a harsh and unsettling portrayal of the Satanic youth panic which became an American media hot spot for a few years. A very long Van Bebber filmography lists everything from his first short home movie all the way up to his notorious unreleased epic, Charlie's Family, which for some reason features a release date of 1999 (wishful thinking, alas). Other bonuses include two minutes of outtakes (mostly alternate camera angles of the fight scenes), the faux trailer for Chunkblower (a nonexistent gore film by Van Bebber), and a sample of the director's work for Skinny Puppy, the "Spasmolytic" video and an album commercial. Unfortunately, the unsettling "Road Kill" (included on a previous VHS compilation of Van Bebber's work) is noticeably absent here, due to legal reasons. Just for the wealth of extras alone, this DVD already earns a spot as one of the year's most noteworthy genre releases, though the film itself will definitely not appeal to everyone.


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