As you cram half a dozen of your friends into the trunk and roll up to the ticket booth with deception in your heart, the hope and promise of a mischievous evening at the drive-in dawns even as the sun sets. Giant monster movies and teen sex comedies were covered in PART ONE, while PART TWO went deep into spaghetti westerns and martial arts films. Before the projectors flip on to chill us, thrill us, and fulfill us, a parking spot must be found- a daunting task considering most drive-ins have rules restricting larger vehicles to the rear half of the rows.
So what is the optimum vehicle for attending the Drive-In then? That's really going to depend on the number and composition of your group. As nearly all of these facilities have evolved beyond the tether of speaker poles, offering stereo sound through the car's speakers, folks are no longer bound to the inside of their ride to enjoy the film. Since I normally attend with a car load of adults these days, we come prepared with a heavy duty blanket and camp chairs. In this way we're able to relax in front of the car with a portable radio and take in a movie under the stars.
A popular strategy for patrons with children is to park the family SUV backward with the hatch open and some sleeping bags in the back. Once in a great while a classic station wagon can be spotted aligned this way. Of course for dates nothing can compete with the wonder of the front row, in a convertible with the top down, under the stars (unless you don't plan to watch the film, then back row it is!). No matter what your preferred ride to the Drive-In, I highly recommend you arrive early to get the best row available. Let's wrap up this series on staple Drive-In genres with two types of movies that put plenty of focus on the characters' conveyance.
Biker flicks are road films preoccupied with the unbridled freedom of the open road and obsessed with the conflict created when the these ultimate avatars of the unrestrained life get pushed around by the square notions of the man. It was these wound tight Johnny Q. Laws who represented the order of civilization, keeping anarchy from becoming the status quo. Of course we didn't root for the rotund deputy inflicting his D20 of justice upon the biker gang of the week. Nor could we sympathize with most of these roving packs of booze and rape, who in their hedonism shed all remaining decency.
So what then is the pleasure in watching a biker flick? The devil may care, reckless abandon which these movies exude strikes a magic chord with teens. It's a message that many were embracing in the 60's and 70's, mixed with a strong desire to find one's self while discovering the world. Before the interstate system allowed motorists to bypass small towns completely and see only their end destination, the highways of America led many places. Not all of them savory, but all of them interesting - which seems like the perfect tag line for the genre.
This 1973 British produced action-horror-thriller is a bit of cheat as a choice; that I'll fully admit. But it is so worth your time and a great bit of fun too (I think you'll find it in your heart to forgive me once you see it). Also known as The Death Wheelers, this sometimes zombie film centers around a biker gang called The Living Dead. They're fairly small potatoes, causing havoc around town and generally acting the worst sort of punks until their leader Tom discovers a method of reanimation which renders him unkillable. He's already dead, of course, and soon the rest of the gang follow him into zombie biker-dom.
The stunt driving here is impressive, with plenty of "ow" and "damn" moments sprinkled throughout to add reality to the high speed chases. There's an ethereal air to the entire film, which the opening credit sequence sets from the get go and which carries throughout the run time. Among the Living Dead are some colorful characters with nicknames such as Hatchet and Chopped Meat, and equally individualized jackets to match. Psychomania is about as memorable and stylish a time as you're likely to have with a biker flick
Here I am doubling down again, two biker movies in a row, trying to cram as many genres into one segment as possible. 1970's Black Angels is a rare bird indeed, combining measure of both blaxploitation and biker gang cinema. This slice of the the depraved life sees rival gangs, one white and one black, played against each other by a law man out to take them both down. With that simple enough premise, we're whisked off on a brutal sojourn of blood, booze, and drugs.
There's more than a touch of camp present, which allows the audience to really dig this one without feeling quite so sleazy. There's also an amazing twist which you simply will not see coming. See it for the chases, see it for the cheese, and see it for the absolute laugh riot song choice "Cigarettes" by Smokey Roberds. Take a good long shower afterwards.
With so many worlds to conquer, so many aliens to combat, so many social issues to study through the lens of "future", is it any wonder so many star struck drive-in patrons kept these lessons learned with them long after the projector cooled? The 50's saw a boom of other worldly threats descend from the heavens to frighten film goers with menace originating close to home and yet simultaneously from light years away. I've always found it ironic that our most introspective genre centers around beings from the distant cosmos. Long time Shock-O-Rama readers know I'm a humongous fan of The Blob, but given its infamous theatre run out sequence, I left it out of the examples of classic Drive-In fare.
Invaders From Mars
This 50's science fiction classic is the very embodiment of the genre's best from the decade famous for it. If there ever was a film I wish I could has seen from the back of a station wagon as a child, hiding being a tightly clutched blanket, it's Invaders from Mars. The protagonist David is a young boy who witnesses a spaceship crash landing near his house. When his father goes to investigate, he's sucked beneath a sandpit. It's obvious upon his return that something is wrong; that he's a different person. As more and more people are lured up to the sand, the odds begin to stack firmly against David.
The now plain-Jane aliens were genuinely terrifying when I first saw this as a child. While not scary today, the alien design retains a measure of nostalgia but the immobile head in a jar still gives me the willies. In searching for a version to watch, the American theatrical release with its original ending is vastly superior. The ambiguous insinuation that David is possibly trapped in a recurring nightmare, may be having a premonition, or is crazy (my pet theory) offers a spectacular jumping off point for discussion.
Queen of the space babes! Believe it or not this legendary film was not popular or successful upon initial release, even at the Drive-In! Despite that, this hyper sexualized interplanetary romp was profoundly influential; it meant a great deal to those who would go on to make and create in the future. The opening sequence, which sees Jane Fonda as Barbarella undressing in zero gravity is artistic, tasteful, provocative, and magical. It's actually one of those filmmaker tricks I wish I hadn't learned the secret behind (don't look it up!).
The plot sees Barbarella tasked by the president of Earth. He orders her to track down Doctor Durand Durand, a scientist who has invented the positronic ray, a weapon of unparalleled violence. Along the way she'll meet an angel, crash land on an ice planet, and become an iconic sex symbol (in the film and in real life). This is perhaps the first feature length comic book movie (though other comics had been adapted into the shorter serial format previously). Every genre fan needs to have seen this film, it's pivotal. And besides, how many films threaten the lead by placing them in a climax to death piano?
With that this three part series on genres influential among the history of the Drive-In draws to a close. There are certainly more genres to explore, but I'll save them for another time. I hope you've enjoyed these as much as I have, and hope they've helped some develop either a newfound love or respect for theater under the stars. Please drop your thoughts in the comments below or hit me on Twitter.
See you next Wednesday.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.