Christy (Megan Murphy) is the girlfriend of Goose (Jim Van Bebber) who is a gang leader of the Ravens in this rough part of town, and if he knew what his rival Danny (Paul Harper), leader of the Spyders, was up to he'd be apoplectic with rage, though he tends towards that state of mind naturally anyway. After Christy has one of her psychic sessions with a local wise woman, she is headed home and confronted by Danny who manhandles her into a car and tries to rape her, but is interrupted by a cop - she doesn't want to get involved with charges, so hurries away dismissively back to Goose, but this life of violence is really getting her down and she begins to exert pressure on her partner to give it up. However, the lure of combat is too much to resist...
Although The Manson Family went some way to nearly usurping it from his filmography, Deadbeat at Dawn remains the most celebrated of the works directed by Jim Van Bebber, who not only took roles in his own efforts but other people's as well, and that was down to the cachet he had earned by getting this tiny budget, shot on 16mm movie off the ground and distributed, quite a feat since it screams impoverished circumstances in every frame. It took four years to actually complete, grabbing scenes here and there whenever they had the cash and the stars were in alignment, a bunch of film school students and whatever friends they could drum up the support of, and stood as a testament to the sheer force of will some creative types would draw on.
Many would have given up in light of the hardships Van Bebber suffered, but he had a vision, and vision was to craft his own version of the action flicks he had been so influenced by, from nineteen-seventies New York-set grindhouse shoot 'em ups to kung fu movies from the same era to even Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack whose appeal as the lone master fighter taking on a gang of ne'erdowells was a great inspiration. If Goose didn't fall back on the same spirituality as Billy Jack did to inform his behaviour, then there was an elemental aspect to his life as Christy tried to use her psychic powers to their advantage, and he sought redemption after a long time in the metaphorical wilderness, achieving it in the most gruelling manner possible for a finale that has rightfully passed into exploitation cinema legend.
Not that Deadbeat at Dawn was an especially easy watch if you were more used to the slicker product that even the lower end of action movies were able to muster, not one minute went by without you being well aware that the cash flow was not exactly massive, and that could be a distraction. Another part of that unfriendliness was its sticking to Van Bebber's singular style, adding in monologues from tough guy maniacs ("I hate people!") or kaleidoscopic interstitials along with the regular bouts of enthusiastic violence, as if he was inventing a movie that if it was a person you'd cross the street to avoid. Throw in a drugs subplot where Goose, having seen his existence take a turn for the even worse, endures a drugs hell seemingly to pump up the running time, and you had a film devoted to seventies grime in a way certain entertainments from the eighties owed a debt to.
That might be in comic books where even Batman was reduced to tracking serial killers or in science fiction and horror where the idea of an approaching apocalypse in works like Stephen King's The Stand really came of age - you could see how Van Bebber may well have seen Mad Max 2 in the conception of his gangs. Although there was not much light and shade here, so you could get restless between setpieces, the fact that Van Bebber really was performing his own stunts (including ones which could have easily killed him if they'd gone wrong) and the gusto with which the skirmishes were presented meant bordeom wasn't an option, even if the grit was diluted by the absurdly over the top tone to many scenes. Once you reached that climax, with martial arts, a car chase, and a myriad ways for Goose to destroy his enemies such as whacking them over the head with nunchaku (which he is an expert in using, well, sort of) or ripping their throats out, you were not exactly wiping away a tear at the hero finally doing the right thing, but it had been an experience. Music by Ned Folkerth and Mike Pierry.