And Then We Ate Cheeseburgers and Sat in the Cold to Watch Movies


I watched 7 movies at Riverside Drive-In over the two days of April Ghouls “Drive-In” Monster-Rama”. (8 scheduled, but …well, I’ll get to that.) It would be entirely unlike me to not at least comment on them. Here, then, is my account of seeing horror films in their natural habitat — the drive-in!

NIGHT ONE – FRIDAY, APRIL 5

It was absurdly cold, and it only got worse as the night wore on. Jessica brought cookies, Tim brought cake, and I kept getting cheeseburgers and hot chocolate to warm up. I also got an ice cream bar before the show started, which made me hardcore according to Mike.

Friday the 13th

Say what you will about the sequels, “Friday the 13th” is still a pretty neat movie. Coming before the establishment of the slasher genre in American horror, it drew heavily from the giallo films of Italy. These were largely spree/serial murder movies in which typically only the gloved hands of the killer were seen by audience until the final reveal (much as in the old Killer in the Mansion flicks). The focus was on gory death scenes and detection.

Similarly, Sean Cunningham’s killer remained largely hidden, with the camera aimed at the victims. The reveal is a bit clumsy, but I always preferred this identification of the audience with the killer to the spectacle of indestructible ghouls on a rampage.

It was a good solid movie with which to start the event, and it prepared us for the camper killing to come.

The Burning

Released around the same time as “Friday the 13th”, “The Burning” is (I found out later) based on a camp story from the New York area. In it, a maintenance man named Cropsey is accidentally burned by campers who were trying to play a trick on him in revenge for his being a bit mean.

The movie starts with this incident, then fast forwards about a decade to Cropsey killing the shit out of a bunch of campers. It’s an interesting early slasher, as the victims actually behave pretty sensibly once they notice the killings. It’s also strange because the “final girl” is an asthmatic dweeb who seems to be a budding sexual predator.

A flawed movie in a lot of respects, it was still well worth seeing. I enjoy watching the formation of genres, while the rules are still malleable and the edges are rough.

Return of the Living Dead

When gratuitous nudity is not the highlight in your zombie movie, you’ve done something very right. Dan O’Bannon’s “Return of the Living Dead” is a masterpiece of dark comedy, with all the social commentary and inevitability of breakdown of George Romero’s work.

In the legal kerfuffle over the rights to Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, co-writer John Russo wound up with the rights to use the “Living Dead” name. Having lost all rights to the original movie, Romero continued make sequels, dropping out the word “Living”. Russo’s script was finally attached to O’Bannon (co-writer of “Alien”), who worked it over and directed it.

The result was spectacular. The zombie designs (by artist William Stout) are gruesome, the peril escalates every time our heroes act, and the dialog is eminently quotable. The acting is sporadic, but anchored by experienced pros Clu Gulager, James Karen, and Don Kalfa.

This is one of my favorite movies, and it was a treat to see it with an appreciative audience — even if by then we were beginning to feel like the cadaver in the warehouse freezer.

Day of the Dead

The lesser entry in Romero’s first three Living Dead movie, I’m still quite fond of “Day of the Dead”. Bub is a joy, and his very existence raises serious questions about just how dead the zombies really are. I had been looking forward to seeing this again.

However, by this last movie of the night (morning?) there was frost forming on my boots. The very fact that I had seen it before made it easier to decide to crawl into a warm bed and save my strength for the following night.

Vampires, zombies, depravity, and a slumming Oscar winner!

Vampires, zombies, depravity, and a slumming Oscar winner!

NIGHT TWO – SATURDAY, APRIL 6

It was still cold this night, but never so much as the night before. We sat quite comfortably and let the images play over us.

Scream, Blacula, Scream

I think that the success of  “Blacula” had surprised everyone. What could have been a forgettable (and regrettable) exploitation film had been granted unexpected gravitas by the performance of William Marshall as the diplomatic prince, cursed by Dracula himself.

This sequel is a brazen attempt to recapture the magic (and box office) of the original. What saves it is the inclusion of Pam Grier as the voodoo priestess attempting to restore Blacula’s soul before his “children” get out of control. There are problems, to be sure, but the combination of Marshall and Grier is killer.

I just wish the projectionist had fixed the framing earlier. There was a lot of ceiling for a reel there.

Sugar Hill

There was a lot to love in this line-up, but “Sugar Hill” is what made me decide that I had to attend April Ghouls. It’s not that I hadn’t seen it before — I had, several times — but that I had to support anybody who was showing such a remarkable film.

On the surface, it’s a movie attempting to cash in on the brief fad for blaxpo horror. The astonishing thing  about the film is it’s constantly empowering plot. Strength always comes through weakness in this story. Sugar herself continues to use her nickname, although it could be seen as diminishing. Dead slaves, dumped in the swamps of New Orleans, provide the muscle. Baron Samedi, master of the dead, often assumes guises of service (taxi driver, gardener, etc.) to get close to the targets. Plus, it’s just a fun movie!

The highlight of the entire trip, for me, was hearing first-time viewers exclaim their enjoyment of this gem.

Blood and Lace

I can’t say that “Blood and Lace” failed to deliver shocks. In actuality, there’s an escalation of outrageousness throughout the runtime that leads to an inevitable and hilariously depraved revelation in the final seconds. It was as though every few minutes the filmmakers asked “How can we make this more twisted?” I can readily think of at least three friends who should probably see this (if they haven’t already).

My problem with the movie is two-fold: there’s nothing to the movie outside of the efforts to shock, and the time between shocks feels interminable. A movie this packed with strangeness shouldn’t be so dull. Coming directly after “Sugar Hill”, this did not fare well with us.

Still, I’m glad to have seen it. I’d never even heard of the thing, and now I can make jokes about pulling corpses out of the freezer for head counts.

The Thing with Two Heads

Speaking of heads…

I’m a big fan of Ray Milland and of cheesy movies, and “The Thing with Two Heads” is a big part of why. It wasn’t the first Ray Milland movie I ever saw (that was probably “Escape to Witch Mountain”), and it wasn’t the first movie I loved for not being any good (“Caveman”, maybe?), but it was one of the first bad movies I loved to talk about and the first movie in which I consciously noticed Milland.

It’s hard to miss him in this; he’s the cranky, white-dude head on Rosey Grier’s shoulder.

That’s about it, really. There isn’t much else to it, except for a two-headed ape (that disappears after a brief escape), a motorcycle race, and… nope, that’s pretty much it.

Cranky, white head on Rosey Grier’s shoulder. Probably muttering about his Oscar between takes.

Revisiting that turkey made a perfect end to two nights of drive-in movies.

They’re talking about adding a fifth movie each night for the fall show, specifically so the first night can be all of the original Planet of the Apes series. It may just be more awesomeness than I can handle!

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