The Drive-In Culture

The Drive-In Culture

Across the United States there once stood thousands of towering outdoor screens in the middle of grass fields. In the suburbs surrounding Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, dozens of Drive In Movies used to function nightly. Within twenty minutes of my childhood home there was The Greater Pittsburgh Drive In (now a Walmart) and before my time Blue Dell, both owned and operated by the Warren family. Their namesake “Warren Enterprises” stood for entertainment amongst south eastern Pittsburghers. As the years go on Drive Ins are becoming simply a memory. Luckily a few still operate within driving distance, and I try to patronize them as much as possible, particularly for horror films. There is something almost decadent in viewing slashers and monsters through the windshield of your car. It adds to the ambiance and creates an experience that grossly overshadows what your conventional movie theater has to offer. From the bed of a pickup truck, seated comfortably in a lawn chair,  you can clearly observe the last remnants of the Drive In culture. A unique group of people who refuse to let their favorite weekend activity die. There is nothing passive about the hours leading up to show time. A smell similar to a carnival, funnel cakes and popcorn, drifts through the air as vehicles of all shapes and sizes begin to enter the grounds. Put on your P.J.s, grab a large soda, and don’t forget to tie down your tailgates, it is almost sundown.

Earlier in April, two different people approached me with information on a horror movie marathon at the Riverside Drive In, cleverly titled “April Ghouls”. Nestled in a patch of woods in Vandergrift PA, The Riverside is a single screen venue that has a charm all it’s own. The location is the very definition of a “night out,” directly adjacent to a bowling alley… Need I say more?  “April Ghouls” was to be two nights of horror films, vintage trailers, short films, and even camping, organized by George Reis of I myself, had no preconceived notions as the car rolled through the box office gates. As a result I was almost overwhelmed with the turn-out of passionate b movie fans. Here under a darkening sky, it was clear I was amongst “my kind of people.”  The exceptional type of clientele who know the “b” doesn’t stand for “second rate” but in fact it stands for an astute appreciation of bad taste. Families were here, children running wild and barefoot, mother’s dutifully preparing food on portable propane grills, and card tables brimming with slow cookers containing untold culinary treasures. After tuning our sedan’s radio to FM 105.3, a message about the offerings at the snack bar peaked my interest. Menu items like chainsaw chili, and a photo op with Leatherface beckoned me. Nothing could prepare me for the scene I approached. The first thing I noticed before turning into a slobbering fan boy was a classic Baley’s pinball machine, and I remember thinking “i haven’t seen one of these in years.” That was all of course before. When I finally surveyed my surroundings a barrage of images and sounds cluttered my senses. Cluttered in the best sense of the word. T-shirts hung like a wall separating the snack bar from the mini convention grounds. Images of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff available in any color you want, as long as it’s black. A giant collection of Blue Rays sat in cardboard boxes, hard to find titles alongside the Munsters model kits, all tirelessly curated by the fine people of An outfit that is apparently heavily involved with the 20th anniversary of the Monster Bash Film Festival just outside of Pittsburgh. I could hear conversations amongst patrons huddled around the glass bottle vending machine, discussing their favorite films, actors, and even their banner death scenes. The vintage feel of the environment around all of us set the tone for the feature presentation.  Now hot on the heels of dusk, anticipation was exponentially building.

    With even the regular drive in staff getting in the spirit, we walked backed to our vehicle tickled with the energy of the event. The evening’s entertainment began patriotically enough with the Star Spangled Banner, followed by a short compulsary video explaining the plight of the still functioning Drive In. Then trailers for films like Dolls and Child’s Play 2 and 3, cut through the twilight skyline with noted cheers and applause from the audience. The first film, Child’s Play, danced across a now pitch black vista. This was my first time experiencing the original Child’s Play on the big screen, seeing Chucky up there larger than life was a highpoint in my career as a professional horror fan. Being In a car the Detective Mike Norris car crash scene was particularly disturbing to watch.

Leading up to the second film were coming attractions including Gremlins, Don’t Open Till Christmas, and Silent Night Bloody Night. All hand selected to prepare the audience for Black Christmas(1974). This film starring John Saxon of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame, was a refreshing unexpected choice. Bob Clark, the director of Black Christmas, also helmed another yuletide classic: A Christmas Story. While this film has plenty of shapely legs, they aren’t in the form of lamps. Black Christmas is an obscure sorority house slasher film that was tailor made for Drive In viewing. The scenes are bookended by images of an early victim, plastic bag over her head seated in a rocking chair. A young girl dressed as this character sat patient as a saint in the snack bar; placing a plastic bag over her head every time some jeering fan asked for a selfie.

Well after midnight you begin to jump at figures walking past your foggy vehicle windows. Patrons on their way to and from the snack bar and restrooms. The unsetting trailers for Slumber Party Massacre, The Mutalator, and Silent Madness pave the way for our third feature: Madman. At this point in the evening my companion and I began to participate in some classic drive in traditions, so regrettably this author has little to say about the film as I didn’t pay much attention. The windows were so cloudy at this point that trying to watch Madman would have been an exercise in futility. Sadly we didn’t stay for the last film. Unable to procure a tent at the last minute, and not wanting to sleep in the car, we left just after the third film. Behind us lay countless vehicles, RVs and teepees awaiting the start of Trick or Treat starring heavy metal stars like Ozzy Osbourne and Gene Simmons.

On the 45 minute drive home, I couldn’t help but wonder what the morning would look like. A grand exodus of horror freaks driving out of their coveted spots. The depression thick in the air, everyone distraught in the knowledge that their weekend of fun in a veritable time machine is now over. The next event won’t come until the end of the season, just before October. Five months is an awful long time to wait. I plan to be in attendance, and when that time comes, I’ll definitely have a tent.

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