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


Fist of Further Reading: Kiai Kick

When I want a top shelf bourbon, I go for Woodford Reserve. When I want a good steak, I get something grass-fed. When I'm not drinking bourbon and eating red meat and I want reviews of martial arts films from all over the globe -- from muay thai to taekwondo, from Billy Blanks to Billy Chow -- I go to Kiai Kick. Michael, the writer/filmmaker/martial artist behind the website, not only has an appreciation for a highly technical fight scene but also for the campy fun of pure chopsocky. A recent post portends a small drop-off in activity, but rest assured: there is plenty of content on the site to guide your viewing for months to come.

Q: What is a first-time reader most likely to notice about your writing style?
A: Readers will notice a laid back, informal style. Like if we were sitting on the couch talking about the movie we just saw, but I'm always evolving how I write reviews.

Q: Which of your posts or ongoing features will give readers the best feel for your site and movie fandom?
A: Just going to the reviews or the Kiai-Kick All Stars, where I shine a spotlight on the famous, the infamous, and the esteemed group known as "that guy".

Q: What was the first martial arts movie you remember seeing?
A: Chang Cheh's The Water Margin. The Mountain Brothers and Young Dragon were my first real heroes, super or otherwise. Fav Moment: "Watch out! The Triple Kick of Death!"

Q: Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme, and why?
A: I'll go with ol' JCVD on the one, and for three words: Hard. Target. Mullet. Steven Seagal ain't got the brass ones to make that film, brother.

Q: You've encountered a gang of mean dudes in denim jackets and Zubaz pants in an empty warehouse. You can arm yourself with a samurai sword, nunchucks, a baseball bat, or whatever is in the mystery box (no guns). Which do you choose and why?
A: I won't take anything. My fists of fury are enough. That and taking their own weapons and using it against them. It's both painful AND embarrassing. First guy that comes near me gets a spinning back kick.

China O'Brien
American Ninja
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation


Night Hunter (1996)

PLOT: A moody vampire hunter must destroy a brood of undead bloodsuckers before a lunar eclipse threatens to increase their ranks. Can he finish the job before motion sickness destroys his will to live?

Director: Rick Jacobson
Writer: William C. Martell
Cast: Don Wilson, Melanie Smith, Nicholas Guest, Maria Ford, Vince Murdocco, Vincent Klyn, Sophia Crawford, Cash Casey, James Lew

Historically, very few directors have dared to combine the vampire film with martial arts -- the entirety of this subgenre could probably be written on the back of the Famous Jewish Sports Legends leaflet. The Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers 1974 collaboration Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires marked the first official attempt, and it would be another decade before Mr. Vampire hopped into theaters. Stateside filmmakers didn’t really warm up to the concept until the success of the first Blade film. But predating even that effort was a Don “The Dragon” Wilson vehicle called Night Hunter. Director Rick Jacobson’s 1996 horror-actioner is disturbing if you’re prone to motion sickness, horrible if you have photosensitive epilepsy, and absolutely terrifying if you have both.

In the world of orphaned vampire hunter Jack Cutter (Wilson) you can’t trust anyone. Some asshole betrayed his parents and left them to die at the hands of a ruthless gang of vampires, and young Jack was forced to flee. Now the last of his kind, Cutter is gradually crossing names off a list of destroyed vampires in the handy, leather-bound reference guide left to him by his father. The mythic means of garlic, stakes, and sunlight won’t cut it against these bloodsuckers though; the only way to kill them is to break their necks. Or their backs. Or maybe it was their left ACLs. The story is a little inconsistent in that regard.

After Jack annihilates a group of American vampires out for a celebratory dinner at a Los Angeles restaurant, a high-ranking British vampire, Bruno (Guest), and his remaining disciples are on alert. When they’re not hot on Cutter’s heels and trying to kill him, they’re cooling down in upright coffins kept at a refrigerated L.A. warehouse lair. The vamps aren’t the only ones after Cutter, though. The L.A.P.D. wants him for the restaurant “murders” -- Vince Murdocco plays a prominent investment banker vampire, after all -- and a curious reporter (Smith) crosses paths with him in search of a scoop.

If you want to please Satan, you slaughter a goat or two. If you want to please directors like Paul Greengrass and Sylvester Stallone, you sacrifice your fight scenes at the Altar of Shaky Cam. After the work on display here, there may be a special place in Cinematic Hell reserved for Jacobson and cinematographer John B. Aronson because they made every effort to assure that the fight scenes were as incomprehensible and nauseating as possible. While it’s easy to blame what was, at that time, a growing production trend in Hollywood, the filmmakers are responsible for the stylistic choices that end up on the screen. Jacobson and Aronson unfortunately betrayed the talents of their performers and fight choreographer Art Camacho, and caved to convention by employing a lame camera technique. For a battle scene in a war movie like Saving Private Ryan? Sure, go nuts. For fight scenes involving actual martial artists, though, you need to check your filmmaking flair at the door and let the fights themselves provide the tension and visuals.

In a film rife with odd technical choices -- shaky cam, oversaturated shot composition, flickering lights in clubs and bathrooms, undercranking selected vampires’ movements, and a very conspicuous dummy fall -- the strangest may have been the repeated use of upbeat Spanish guitar music during almost every action scene involving Cutter. As far as I can tell, Cutter wasn’t Latino. Was Jacobson trying to appeal to the Los Lobos fanbase? Was he making a subtle social comment about the city of Los Angeles as a melting pot of diversity? I honestly have no idea, because any time the cast wasn’t primed for a flamenco dance-off, Jacobson went for a grandiose orchestral sound. It was the most confusing combination of sounds I’ve heard since Jack White teamed with the Insane Clown Posse.

Wilson is surprisingly adept at playing guarded and brooding. Between the messy mid-length hair, black duster, and faraway glare, he looks like a roadie for Alice in Chains, but the grungy, Crow-inspired ensemble is a nice change of pace for an actor known for playing straight-laced and fairly plain characters. The brother-in-law of Jamie Lee Curtis is just fine as head vampire Bruno but it would have been amazing to see Matthias Hues in that role. Smith is perfectly fine as the curious and concerned journalist, and Casey is all kinds of awful as a skeptical cop, but the real revelation is Maria Ford as Tournier, the French bloodsucker. Not only does she put on a fairly believable accent, but she wore a black sequined beret, the kind you’d find at a second store (if it were raspberry). I was halfway expecting her to break out the baguettes and brie, but when’s the last time you saw a vampire eating bread and cheese? It’s quirky performances like these that can really elevate a film and it makes you long for Ford in more over-the-top roles like this.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the casting of Sophia Crawford in this film. A seasoned veteran of the golden age of Hong Kong action film and a player on WMAC Masters, Crawford is one of the more underrated and underseen females in the action genre. She’s carved out a long career doing stunt work, and has around 40 acting roles to her credit. Thus, I was pretty stoked to watch this film to see how Crawford was utilized in a Stateside production. The answer, which should surprise no one, was, “poorly.” As one of the American vampires, she has a short fight scene with James Lew and others in the opening scene, and is phased out within the first 15 minutes of the movie. “I am disappoint” doesn’t begin to describe my frustration with that choice, but then again, Crawford may have taken the role as a favor to a producer, or to hang out with her martial arts friends for a few days. Not every casting like this is going to make you all sweaty in your Zubaz.

An uneven genre hybrid like this is practically begging for puns -- “I couldn’t sink my teeth into it,” “it sucked the life out of me,” and “I hope Wilson didn’t have too much stake in this as a co-producer” -- so I’ll just say that I was really let down by the way some of the actors were utilized and by the technical choices for the action scenes. Watch it for the Ford performance and the decent shootouts. Wilson completists are encouraged to check it out for a different look at the Dragon, but this might scare you off Rick Jacobson movies for the rest of your days.

It's out there, lurking in the shadows of Amazon, EBay and Netflix.

3 / 7

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