Monday, April 8, 2013

The Drive-In Movie Experience




        Though I can’t see them, raise your hand if you’ve been to a drive-in movie theater. If I had asked you to do that last week you’d have one up on me. Yes, believe it or not, Mr. “Horror and Exploitation” himself is new to the drive-in experience.

Where I grew up in Southern West Virginia, the drive-in was long deceased by the time my momma brought me into the world. That was nearly 24 years a go! Upon doing some research I discovered that the drive-in concept was introduced in the early 1930s and by the 1970s they were on their way out. But fear not, a few nostalgic cinema fiends have managed to hold onto their real estate, keep their ticket booths open, and keep the concessions cooking. If an add I saw yesterday before the show at my local drive-in is correct, there are less than 400 of these big outdoor movie screens still in operation. At the peak of drive-in popularity there were supposedly around 10,000. That’s a giant decline in operations!

Okay, let’s back up a little bit. Like I said, I grew up in Southern, West Virginia. About 4 years ago I packed my bags and headed to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to get my college education. I stayed in the city after graduating because I found it offered more opportunities in my chosen career and I very much enjoyed the convenience of having a Wal-Mart, a record store, a shopping mall, and dozens of restaurants just a couple minutes from home. While here I discovered that there were actually 2 drive-in theaters within reasonable distance of my apartment. I had heard tales of the good times had by my mom and Uncle Dave at the drive-in as children and I had seen characters go to drive-in shows in various movies from the 50s, 60s, and 70s but again, I had not had the pleasure. After a few years of wonder, research, and coaxing by books like Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In, I decided to buckle up and head over to the drive-in.

A couple months back I got a flyer for The Riverside Drive-In’s April Ghouls Weekend. On the bill: Friday the 13th, The Burning, Return of the Living Dead, and Day of the Dead on Saturday and The Thing With Two Heads, Sugar Hill, Blood and Lace, and Scream, Blacula Scream on Sunday. I owned the movies on DVD but nothing beats seeing some of your favorite flicks on a big screen with all the cracks and pops and film grain you get from a 35mm projection. This is especially true of horror and exploitation films and it was a sentiment I had heard shared by many a cult film aficionado. I had to see these movies the way they were intended; 40 feet high, from the comfort of my own car, in a Friday the 13th t-shirt and a Burning hoodie, with a bag of popcorn and a Coca Cola.

It was just as Joe Bob Briggs (Drive-In movie critic and author of the book I just talked about) described it. I pulled into a front row parking spot right of center and made my way to the concession stand. As I was walking toward the little building that housed said concessions, I could see through the open door, there were Universal Monster t-shirts hanging from the ceiling inside. I quickened my pace in excitement and bursting through the door I was confronted with a barrage of horror film memorabilia and merchandise. Now usually, Drive-Ins aren’t packing merch like this but this was a special weekend, April Ghouls! I looked at all the DVDs, model kits, and books before picking up what had caught my attention in the first place, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Wolf Man shirts. Next I made my way to the concession stand where I claimed a hotdog, a small popcorn, and my coke. I had food and I had stuff so I was ready to see Friday the 13th projected on that huge white screen a few hundred feet from my car.

I’m not going to bore you with the details of the movies because 1) they’re classics and if you haven’t see them, what the hell is wrong with you? 2) That’s a lot of writing. I watched 4 freakin’ movies. 3) This is about the experience, not the content. 4) And finally, as if you were planning on being there anyway! So, back to the experience. Wow! You know I’d heard stories, like of the late great William Castle, and how theaters used to have audience participation. That was very true at the drive-in. There was an announcer who would introduce intermission cartoons, advertisements, and “coming soon” trailers for old exploitation and horror flicks. He would also ask patrons to flash their headlights if they enjoyed the show. After each show everyone flocked to the concessions area because it was kind of a chilly night and the atmosphere was very film fan friendly. Discussions about the previously shown feature, the next feature, and horror films in general were all over the place. Nice to hear other weirdoes talking about the same stuff that used to get me death stares in my rural home town. Another thing I found really attractive about the whole drive-in deal was the fact that the movie’s sound was on a radio frequency which I tuned into in my car. This was great because one can adjust the volume to their own liking. Oh, and you can put on a blanket and take a damn nap if you so desire. I was much too awake for that though!

I’m going to say it, and mind you this is coming from a guy who owns a few thousand horror movies on DVD, the drive-in is the way to watch cult movies. It’s not like I’m going to give up DVD collecting; to the contrary, I’ve picked up my habit! Shit, it’s difficult to resist cheapies in the Amazon marketplace. Joking aside, if I had a chance to see just about anything in my collection on the big screen with missing reels, pops, and grainy film, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I will be visiting the drive-in again in my near future, I know that much. When my drive-in announces the film lineup for the September Ghouls fest, I’ll already have my windshield cleaned, my gas tank filled, and my concession cash set aside. I urge you, cult film fans, go out there and support a drive-in. There aren’t many left and if you’ve been privy to the magic that happens in those places, you know why we have to fight to hold onto the ones we have. If you haven’t been to one, get off your ass and visit They got a list of every drive-in in your state. As Joe Bob mightily roars, the drive-in will never die!


  1. This is excellent. A piece of American history fell to the wayside when drive-in theaters closed. Back in the day, a Saturday I think, it was about social interaction that didn't include Facebook or Twitter. Going to the drive-in was a group experience and I miss those days. Thank you for the nudge to take yet another stroll down memory lane.

  2. Absolutely love this! Chris, going to the drive-in was a wonderful part of my growing up experience. We had a large family and since back then you didn't have to pay for kids..the drive-in was the way to go for entertainment. No seat belts back then either (not saying that is a good so six little girls piled into the back seat of the old Chevy and away we went for loads of fun! There were times we had to collect and sell beer and pop bottles to get enough for the adult fares...but even that was fun to do together. We loved the old westerns and then Elvis arrived and seeing 2 or 3 Elvis movies in one evening was just about the best for us girls (we were teeny boppers by then). Oh, and we did get to see some horror flicks back then, too...though by todays standards they would seem tame...we could scream with the best of them! We all cried watching the old "King Kong" too. As your mom said, thanks for the trip down memory lane...I may have to make a trip across Atlanta to the nearest remaining drive-in left in this area!