The Film: Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)
The Principles: Written, directed, edited, choreographed by, and starring Jim VanBebber. Also starring Paul Harper, Megan Murphy, Ric Walker, and Marc Pitman.
The Premise: Goose is the leader of the Ravens, a violent street gang in Dayton Ohio. Their rivals are the Spyders, led by a sadistic creep named Danny. The street life offers Goose plenty of opportunities to sling drugs and practice busting skulls with his nunchucks, but his psychic girlfriend Christie wants him to leave the gang behind for the trappings of domesticity. Realizing he loves Christie more than the Ravens, Goose leaves the gang but first he’s got to make one last drug deal to get their nest egg going. But after he leaves his posse behind, Danny calls open season on Goose and our anti-hero will be lucky to get outta Dayton alive.
Is it Any Good: It’s better than good. Deadbeat at Dawn is a paper bag filled with dogshit, rusty nails, piss and vinegar left burning on Hollywood’s front steps. You can take all those contemporary action star pretty boys and shove them up your ass – Goose is the real deal. This film’s got crucial ingredients lacking in action films nowadays, most prominently authentic griminess and genuine sincerity. And people getting their necks torn open with nunchucks. And the filmmaker rappelling down a four-story parking garage with no safety harness. And an antagonist named Bonecrusher.
VanBebber’s love of action and kung fu films vibrates through every frame. At the risk of bodily harm and financial ruin, the filmmaker shot Deadbeat at Dawn on 16mm over the course of four years. He shot the last 40 minutes first, including the raging train station rumble, and used that footage as sort of a demo reel to show potential backers what he was capable of. A distributor in NYC was highly interested and told VanBebber to go back to OH and make it a full-length. That company wound up going outta business, leaving VanBebber high and dry. Eventually though he was able to sell it on the grindhouse circuit.
Speaking of “high,” the character of Goose snorts a lot of crank in the film. VanBebber has explained that while he admired the heroes portrayed by cats like Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal, he wondered why they could never be flawed. Why can’t the hero kick much ass and also be a recreational drug user? With the character of Goose, VanBebber created a highly flawed but immensely offal cocaine-fueled karate commando.
The beginning of the film always grips me. We first meet Goose as he’s sitting in a candlelit room, making dum-dum bullets with a huge combat knife. He gets the call that the Spyders wanna throw down in the cemetery, so he blows out the candle, lights a bit of flash powder, and heads out to fuck shit up. When he gets to the warzone, he’s wearing a little black bandido mask that his girl Christie takes off him right before the battle. I don’t entirely understand this ritualistic opening, but it’s always fascinated me with its badass matter-of-factness.
The action in the film, choreographed by VanBebber, is raw and seriously impressive at times. The man clearly has martial arts chops and studied his Peckinpah editing. The aforementioned train station rumble is particularly kickass. Goose takes on a grip of Spyders all by himself, with only his nunchucks and a steely determination to get revenge on everyone in the world. The camera movements, angles, editing, and fight choreography are top-notch in this scene – a definite highlight of the film that’s more thrilling than most Hollywood set pieces.
The violence is pretty damn graphic too and the palpable atmosphere makes it all the more unsettling. Even the marketing for the film used a shot of Goose’s arm grated raw from being dragged along a brick wall by a car. In comparison, most action film posters are pussies.
There’s some trippy shit in the film too. When Goose hides out from the Spyders he seeks refuge at his old man’s crumbling apartment. His dad’s a shirtless junkie who’s only relieved to see his son because he might have some cash he can shoot up in between his toes. The dad’s drunken diatribes are delivered in a dizzingly hallucinatory manner as Goose struggles to hold onto sanity. When our anti-hero starts throwing back brews, the film takes on a further psychedelic presentation. And when Goose is really at his lowest, there’s a graveyard hallucination scene that’s disturbing no matter how many times I’ve watched it.
Miraculously, none of these sequences come off as a film student jacking off. VanBebber only seems interested in entertaining his audience, not showing off for them with some artsy bullshit. The entire film is a gritty, filthy ball of raw hatred and violence. The romance between Goose and Christie is what sets off the tidal waves of blood and despite the layers of cynicism, Deadbeat at Dawn contains an underlying and stalwart message of dying for what you believe in. And it’s apparent Jim VanBebber was willing to take a bullet for this film. Or get dragged by a car. Or go bankrupt. It’s not possible to say that about a lot of contemporary films, but this one is a passionate, kinetic rebel yell that’s really, really special to me as a film lover.
Is it Worth a Look: Does a bear shit in the woods? Any fan of action, kung fu, exploitation, and genre as a whole should dig Deadbeat at Dawn. The Dark Sky Films DVD release contains lotsa goodies too, including the VanBebber’s silent short film Into the Black, which is an inspired predecessor to Deadbeat. BUY IT FROM CHUD!
Random Anecdotes: Under the bank’s nose, VanBebber dropped outta film school and used his student loans to initially finance the film.
I thought “fuck that noise” was a relatively contemporary saying, but Goose says “fuck your noise” in the film.
VanBebber is one determined S.O.B. Deadbeat at Dawn took four years to complete, but his true crime epic The Manson Family took almost a decade. He;s a filmmaker who always seems to be kicking against the pricks.
Marcello Games, the actor who plays Charles Manson in VanBebber’s The Manson Family, is the road worker who gets hit by the car.
During the train station fight, when Goose finally manages to pick up some nunchucks, he BREAKS them over a Spyder’s head. You can only see it for split second, but the nunchucks actually split over the guy’s head. BRUTAL.
Cinematic Soulmates: The Warriors, Evil Dead, El Mariachi.