Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)

PLOT: A gang leader tries to give up the thug life to be with his woman, only to have his rivals kill her. Desperate and vengeful, he has two options: kill the gang that killed his girl, or go to community college to get an associate’s degree in nursing.

Director: Jim Van Bebber
Writer: Jim Van Bebber
Cast: Jim Van Bebber, Paul Harper, Marc Pittman, Ric Walker, Megan Murphy, Bill Stover

Plenty of folks will see this title pop up in their feeds and say, “why the hell is my favorite 1980s cult-psych-gang war-druggie-based-in-Ohio-gore fest getting play on Fist of B-List?” On its face, Deadbeat at Dawn is not the kind of movie that jumps out as a logical candidate for inclusion on a site focused on golden-age DTV martial arts films. There are no martial arts actors in the cast. Woo-Sang Park didn’t direct it. Art Camacho didn’t do the fight choreography. There’s no Zubaz whatsoever and not a stunt mat in sight. What this film does have, however, is the kind of zany, independent fighting-and-filmmaking spirit that we dig around these parts.

In the interview featurette on the movie’s Dark Sky release, director Jim Van Bebber concludes by saying that it "never aspired to be Kafka or Shakepeare -- it's a simple revenge kung fu movie." I’m not sure many folks will watch the movie and immediately think “kung fu” in the same way they’d watch Chinese Connection and think “kung fu,” but it’s a definite nod to the genre with some unique flourishes informed by a young-and-hungry cinematic vision. It also has the greatest goddamn nunchucks-training-in-a-cemetery-scene ever filmed.

New York City’s roughneck landscape in the 1970s nor Detroit's post-boom dystopia can hold a candle to the urban decay of Dayton, Ohio in the 1980s. Crumbling tenements separate seedy adult video stores, and in the alleys between buildings, itchy drug dealers sling crank, the local drug of choice. Elderly women pack heat in their car consoles, and if the police force is even visible, it's totally impotent. The economy is in the tank and gangs of masked maniacs run wild in the streets.

Well, two gangs, anyways. The Ravens are led by Goose (Van Bebber) a fearsome punk whose love of martial arts and knife-fights is equaled only by his love for his girlfriend, Christy (Murphy). Goose’s exploits as a gang leader have given the couple a degree of independence -- they share a decent apartment with a kitchenette! -- but Christy wants her guy to make a clean break from gang life so the couple can join the Peace Corps and assist African villages with access to clean drinking water. (Kidding, I think they wanted to move to Chicago or something).

The Ravens’ rival gang is a collection of misfits and speed freaks known as the Spiders. Their murderous ways and sartorial choices -- leather, flimsy masks, tighty-whities worn OVER their jeans -- are a clear signal that these guys give no fucks. Main muscle Bonecrusher (Pittman) captures the gang’s credo during an amazing drug-induced rant, screaming “I just fucking hate people.” That brand of hatred is on full display in every frame of shared screentime between Goose and the Spiders’ leader, Danny (Harper). Cinematic heroes are only as good as their villains, and Danny is as dickish and devious as they come. He’s the overlap portion of the Venn Diagram between moustaches and the products of fatherless homes. He attempts rape, screws over allies, and orders a hit on Goose that leads to Christy’s horrible death. As a tearful Goose lowers the bloody corpse of his love into a trash compactor during a de facto funeral scene, the audience will be clamoring for payback. Vengeance is sure to come, but at what cost to Goose? To the Ravens? To the good people of Dayton, Ohio?

What a film. The fight scenes lack a certain technical sophistication -- Van Bebber practiced martial arts and I have no idea if he would self-identify as a martial artist -- but the ebbs and flows to the fight scenes have a rompy tone to them. The filmmaker also performs a number of impressive and dangerous stunts. He jumps into reservoirs, lowers himself down the side of a multi-story parking garage, and hangs out of a moving car by his arm as it speeds through a tight alley. Did I mention the robbery scene where he tosses the most comically-sized throwing star in the history of cinema? It’s the size of a damn Frisbee.

Some of the final blows are brutal and lively (think loud thwacks and crimson gushers) and Van Bebber uses the one-versus-many convention with aplomb. The circumstances surrounding Goose’s exit from gang life and new lone wolf status are hammered home in the dynamics of the fight themselves. In the climax especially, we buy the hopelessness of his situation, and his desperate antics -- from his near-decapitation of a thug with nunchuks, to ripping out an enemy’s throat with his bare hand -- seem an appropriate response to his dead end.

The film might also seem an odd choice for the month of October given that the prior review of Night Hunter was an intentional attempt at being seasonally spooky. Though it wields some of the aesthetics and budgetary marks common to exploitation film in a general sense, Deadbeat at Dawn is not a horror film in the traditional sense of the word. However, the creative vision of this menacing industrial gangland where trash compactors comprise funerial proceedings and drug-fueled nihilism reigns is indeed a nightmarish proposition.


With films like this and Fighting Spirit, I have some trouble articulating why I love them so much. Both bear a grimy, gritty, violent, and slightly shoddy quality, yet far surpass martial arts b-movies that tried to create a slick technical sheen only to fall flat on the enjoyment factor. Deadbeat at Dawn knows what it is: an indie exploitation fight film fueled by vengeance, leather, narcotics, mesh, and nunchucks. Recommended.

Wide. Amazon, Netflix, EBay, YouTube.

5 / 7


  1. Like you said, it comes down to enjoyment. I'm definitely a fan of this film, which works as both a crazy exploitation film and as an inspirational El Mariachi-style indie. After watching Deadbeat, I wonder if he had ever considered going the journeyman route with what would eventually become the DTV circuit. I mean, I'm sure this movie could've worked as a demo reel and who knows, maybe he could've been PM's star director or something. That would've been something to see.

    But hey, The Manson Family was pretty good, so I'm not hating on the guy for following his muse.

  2. Great movie, only discovered Van Bebber's work a year ago. Started off watching him in a super nutty , gory, offensive flick, The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell (a sequel to The Last House on Dead End Street (1977).

  3. DEADBEAT delivers from start to finish and hell what a finish that is! The final fight scene starts from over the top and just keeps on going.
    Deadly blow after deadly blow. Cracked skull after crushed bone. The sound editing in these last 10 minutes just goes in with full force. It sounds as if Bebber went to an slaughterhouse to capture this recording and then he worked on it with an Cartoon-FX-Filter or something. The cutting of those action scenes just shines with old school DIY-Rawness and has such gruesome brutal imagery on display that you just bite your tongue, staring in repulsive wonder.
    Its like The Raid only filmed with an videocam.
    Two broken limbs up!


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