Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached a new low for the movies of 1976. No matter how cheap, how poorly acted, or how shoddily crafted some of the flicks from our spotlight year have been, none of them have been or will be as bad as Drive-In Massacre. This ultra-low budget horror movie sets the bar so low that it makes other horror movies look like masterpieces. Yet, it further supports my thesis that 1976 was a hotbed of creativity with a very diverse selection of movies that each had a unique feel that reflected their filmmakers’ individual style. Sometimes, as in the case of Drive-In Massacre, that style is trash, but trash can still have something to offer a hungry movie fan.
Shot in four days on a budget of 30,000 dollars (almost none of which seems to be on the screen), Drive-In Massacre depicts a drive-in movie theater in Southern California that is being terrorized by a sword-wielding maniac. Two cops that look almost identical are investigating the murders, and it’s through them that we meet our very small list of suspects. That’s about the whole of it. Couples drive in, start to pork, and get killed in gruesome ways. The cops say “we’ve got another one!” Then there’s twenty minutes of police procedural until the next murder. There are really only three suspects: a mentally-handicapped guy who used to work at a carnival and looks like Bing Crosby’s third cousin, a pervy peeping tom who likes to watch couples making out through their steamy windows, and the greedy, grumpy manager of the drive-in theater who is more concerned with profits than the body count. He might as well say “You yell ‘shark,’ we’ve got a panic on our hands on the 4th of July!”
And yet, there’s not a ton of nudity in this movie, nor is the gore all that impressive. It also doesn’t have a structure. It follows this pattern: murder, investigation, murder, investigation, murder, investigation, showdown in a warehouse, investigation, CREDITS. The showdown in the warehouse, as it turns out, has absolutely nothing to do with the drive-in murders and is a complete throwaway. It might as well be the climax from another movie. The filmmakers realized that their picture was too short so they filmed this awesome, tense cat and mouse scene that is probably better than anything else in the rest of the flick. It feels like an accident.
Friday the 13th formula (although this movie makes Friday the 13th look like Lawrence of Arabia) of naughty people getting dismembered in creative ways. I’m not suggesting it’s the first, because it’s absolutely not; there are at least a dozen horror films that pre-date this one and still have the same formula, but for a slasher horror fan like myself, the hallmarks of the genre all over this thing. Because of this and because of all the low-budget cheese, Drive-In Massacre has somehow found quite a bit of acceptance from the cult horror community. I’m surprised it doesn’t have its own Fright Rags collection.
Another thing that makes this movie slightly more notable is its setting. The drive-in theater had really seen its peak in popularity during the sixties. But the time of this movie, drive-ins were in serious decline. Due to the energy crisis of the mid-seventies, cars were getting smaller and more economical, meaning automobiles weren’t going to be a destination for very much longer. Though we still have a few drive-in theaters around today, the seventies was sort of the end of the line for them as being a popular, viable way to watch movies, though it amazes me that they ever were. The theater in this movie looks like a run-down dump, and I have to imagine that’s the case for most drive-ins by this period. It almost seems like the serial killer was the least of this place’s problems. Spoilers: the real killer is gonorrhea.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!