Even those with a passing familiarity with independent cinema know the story behind the making of El Mariachi (1992). Since it’s still one of the most successful low budget films ever made, the almost unbelievable story of the young film-maker putting himself through seven months of drug testing in order to pay for film stock is legendary amongst movie aficionados and aspiring film-makers.
It’s the ultimate underdog story, but the part that gets cut out every time the story gets repeated is the fact that, in addition to the $7000 Robert Rodriguez used to finance the film, the studio added an additional $200,000 of post-production work and another $2 million in advertising. Not to piss on his achievement, but we wouldn’t be talking about El Mariachi today if the studio didn’t fix it.
That film isn’t the only independent success story that had a bit more help than people realize. Melvin Van Peebles was given a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to help finance Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971); Tom Hanks and his wife produced My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2003); and Steven Spielberg suggested they change the ending to Paranormal Activity (2007).
My point isn’t that these films wouldn’t be successful without the additional help, nor am I insinuating that these films don’t deserve their accolades. It takes a village to make a film. The fact that all of those films are among the best examples of films being successful outside of Hollywood is what makes Deadbeat at Dawn all the more impressive.
Written, produced, directed by and starring Jim Van Bebber, Deadbeat at Dawn should have been the ne plus ultra of independent cinema. In a perfect world, he (along with his film) should be the poster boy(s) for no-budget filmmaking. But, since this isn’t a perfect world, it isn’t.
History only remembers the winners and since this film made no where near the amount of money as the previously listed titles, it was eventually forgotten about. Which is a goddamn shame considering it’s pound-for-pound the most entertaining film made for no money.
After winning a scholarship to go to film school, Van Bebber either grew impatient or learned as much as he needed to in a year because instead of graduating, he took his second year student loan and put it toward making a movie. Over the next four years, and on a budget of around $10,000, Van Bebber slowly pieced together what would eventually become Deadbeat at Dawn.
The film is a mixture of The Warriors (1979), Death Wish (1974) and arcade beat ’em ups such as Double Dragon and Street Fighter. It’s about Goose (Van Bebber), the leader of a gang called the Ravens who, after an almost deadly confrontation with a rival gang, gets an ultimatum from his old lady: quit the gang or they’re done. He chooses his old lady but since this is a revenge flick, that choice proves to be disastrous for everyone involved.
The story is bare bones, but plot isn’t what you come to watch in a revenge film. Nor is it the reason anyone would recommend this film. When you watch a micro budget film, you have to grade them on a curve. Most of the time, you’re going to have to excuse poor acting, bad special effects, terrible dubbing and/or a messy script but the ones that are memorable, transcend their limitations to become something special.
Films that are considered “so bad, they’re good” are the easiest example of this. While I don’t think Deadbeat at Dawn fits in that category, it definitely shares a lot of similarities with films that do. It’s very amateurish and, like the best guilty pleasure movies, you can feel the passion of the director in every frame. However, more importantly, there’s a raw, undeniable energy pulsing through the film that few others have.
It’s an insane 80-minute non-stop action thrill ride (there are two stunts Van Bebber does that made me audibly gasp) that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.
All hail the new patron saint of independent cinema. All hail Van Bebber.