I thought about making a movie once. I didn’t get very far—about four pages into the script. Before looking at it I said out loud, “Oh this SUCKS,” and went back to playing Civilization 6. But I like to think I have a microscopic understanding of how hard it is to get a film off the ground. I certainly don’t understand it as well as Jim Van Bebber, though. Through sheer effort alone, the writer, director, star, editor, makeup effects artist and stunt choreographer of the super-low-budget epic Deadbeat At Dawn qualifies for a place in the independent cinema hall of fame.
A film student at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, Van Bebber was sick of professors continuously reminding him and other students that it would be highly unlikely they would ever make a film. In an effort to show up the professors, he dropped out of WSU, took what was left of his student loan with him and began production on the blood-soaked, grimy story of dueling gangs. At the time of filming, Dayton was in a massive economic downturn and the film uses that to its advantage—the city feels raw and desperate, just like the movie itself.
Deadbeat At Dawn probably isn’t the only film ever created out of spite, but it’s probably one of the best, especially if you’re a fan of exploitation films like I am. Van Bebber plays Goose, the scummy leader of the Ravens gang. After humiliating the leader of the rival Spyders gang, Goose tries to quit the gang life and get away with his girlfriend Christy, played by Megan Murphy. You probably understand where this is going. Christy is pulverized and killed by the massive Spyder goon named Bone Crusher (Marc Pitman), who is a furious, coke-fueled mountain of meat and bad hair. This causes Goose to spiral into despondency, boozing and crying across Dayton until learning that the Ravens are planning on allying with the Spyders to pull a heist on an armored car. Pretending to fall back in with his old gang, Goose plans out a revenge to screw over both parties and get $10,000 in the process. However, these sorts of things never go according to plan and the last third of the film is one gargantuan, open-air brawl as Goose fights tooth and nail against every other scumbag in the city. Of course, he’s got something they don’t—nunchuck training.
This movie makes me understand why nunchucks got outlawed—every time they appear on-screen in Deadbeat at Dawn, someone’s skull gets cracked or split completely open. I never dreamed I would see a film where ninja weapons serve the same purpose that spinach does in a Popeye cartoon, but here we are. To Van Bebber’s credit, the stunts and action scenes are very well choreographed and the cinematography is great for someone without professional training. These elements really elevate the film from a cult oddity to a truly great piece of indie filmmaking. Deadbeat at Dawn is a must-see for anyone who is a fan of movies that can be described as “scummy,” “filthy” or “grimy,” or anyone hankering to see some sick nunchuck action.
Eventually, I’ll go back to that four-page script I was working on. I don’t think I’ll be exploiting the student loan system to pay for it, but this film has certainly inspired me to write some bone-crunching action sequences. The film is available on Blu-ray thanks to the saints at Arrow Video and will be streaming on Shudder this month.