July 24, 2020

The Drive-in Rises from the Dead

Before the pandemic, the Great American Drive-in was on life-support, with only a little over 300 drive-ins left in the U.S. (down from a high of over 4000 in the late 1950s). Now that social distancing has become the new norm, drive-ins are suddenly cool again. Many existing drive-ins are seeing big upticks in business, and some agile theater owners and entrepreneurs are converting parking lots into makeshift drive-ins. Even some performers are getting into the act, realizing that they can still play to live audiences in a much safer environment -- and instead of applause and laughter, get car honks and flashing headlights in return.

The new pandemic-era drive-in is not without its challenges. Having enough bathrooms and keeping them properly sanitized and users properly distanced is a big headache. And getting snacks out to the cars safely -- no more hanging around the scuzzy snackbar -- requires a lot of labor and planning.

In a recent interview, America’s "foremost drive-in movie critic" and fan, Joe Bob Briggs (aka John Bloom), predictably saw a sliver of a silver lining in dark times, declaring 2020 the “year of the drive-in.” He added:
"Films were designed to be watched together. ... The drive-in is the symbol of that. The drive-in was always a place where everybody gathered. And it was all races, creeds, genders. That’s still true online as we prove every Friday night with our show [The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, recently renewed on Shudder for a 3rd season]. It’s a great thing and it’s an optimistic thing and I hope it helps the real drive-ins, the mom and pops that are still out there doing that good work keeping the drive-in alive.” [“Joe Bob Briggs Declares This the Summer of the Drive-in,” Kelle Long, The Credits, motionpictures.org, 6/1/20] 
John Bloom as Joe Bob Briggs on the set of The Last Drive-in
As long as there are people out there like Joe Bob, the drive-in will never die.

I haven’t been to a drive-in in many years, but I am (ahem) old enough to have experienced its hey-day. My first movie memory is being taken by my parents -- in footie pajamas no less -- to the drive-in to see Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I dived down beneath the dashboard when the banshee appeared. I think that early shot of adrenaline jump started my love of horror movies. Thanks Disney!

Later, shortly after high school, a good friend was hired as an assistant manager at the local drive-in, and he would give me free passes. I’d sit on a lawn chair next to the concession stand and watch second-runs like Hannie Calder while scarfing down popcorn. I fantasized about running my own drive-in, but seeing as how they were already in decline at that point, that thankfully stayed a dream.

An interesting aspect of the drive-in resurgence is that in many cases, venues are going retro, playing movies like Jaws and Back to the Future instead of more contemporary second-runs. This is proving popular, as many apparently want to see older movies to complete the nostalgic effect.

This got me thinking about the movies I would show at my alternate universe drive-in where money is no object and I don’t have to worry about losing my shirt.

My first order of business would be to show truly retro movies that few under the age of 50 have seen. Second, have fun with themes, promotions and even the concessions. And of course, in my perfect universe, there’s no Covid19, so people can hang around the grotty snackbar and kids can get out and run around all they want. Oh, what a wonderful alternate world it would be!

Tonight, this drive-in is going to the dogs!
Dracula's Dog (1977) & Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978)

All cars with leashed dogs get in half-price
Featured Snack: Hot-off-Hell's-grill dogs

The "Hot-off-Hell's-grill" dog

Posters: Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) and Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)
Two chips off the old Doc!
Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) & Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)

Promotion: Ladies’ two-for-one night at the snackbar
Featured Drink: Mad Dr Pepper

The featured drink is "Mad" Dr Pepper

Posters: Satan's School for Girls (1973) and Satan's Cheerleaders (1977)
At these schools, detention is served in Hell, forever...
Satan's School for Girls (1973) & Satan's Cheerleaders (1977)

Promotion: Half-price admission with a student ID
Featured Snack: Satan's Red Hots

Grab some Red Hots before you get dragged down to Hell

Posters: Panic in the Streets (1950) and Panic in Year Zero (1962)
Don't Panic! It's only two movies!
Panic in the Streets (1950) & Panic in Year Zero (1962)

Promotion: Every admission gets a “Panic” sickness bag
Featured snack: Bring your sickness bag to the snackbar for a free popcorn fill-up

Posters: Night of the Blood Beast (1958) and The Blood Beast Terror (1968)
Your blood will freeze when you see these beasts!
Night of the Blood Beast (1958) & The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

Promotion: Free admission with proof of blood donation
Featured snack: Bloody Red Vines

Red Vines are for sharing

Posters: It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Terror from the Year 5000 (1958)
It's about time, it's about space, it's about two terrors vs. the human race!
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) & Terror from the Year 5000 (1958)

Promotion: Show a selfie with your most terrorized face for half-price admission
Featured snack: Terror tots

Keep repeating: it's only a tot, it's only a tot...


  1. The comeback of drive-ins is one of the very few good things to come out of this terrible time. There aren't any near where I live, and I don't own a car anyway, but it was a nice feeling to know that Jaws was the #2 movie at the boxoffice during a recent week.

    My first movie was a Disney film at a drive-in too: Bambi, in September 1957. I was 2 going on 3, and the forest fire terrified me. That is probably the very first thing I have a memory of.

    1. Yes, Bambi famously traumatized a whole generation of kids. Still, you gotta love the old classic Disney, versus the current world-straddling, heartless colossus that hasn't made anything original in decades. :)

    2. I think if Walt Disney were alive today, he'd be proud of his studio's moneymaking ability, but he'd be less than thrilled with the quality of the actual product.