Drive-In Massacre Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
It’s a hot summer night in southern California and the local passion pit is packed with patrons. But, when a sword-wielding psycho begins carving up customers, it’ll unspool a grubby cavalcade of creepy carnies, peeping perverts, and graphic decapitations. (From Severin Film’s official synopsis)
While there are plenty of great films that happen to fall into the exploitation category, one must consider the difference between great exploitation and great filmmaking. Great exploitation without great filmmaking often involves a bad or mediocre movie that delivers an idea that is so delightfully wild, weird, or downright stupid that it might as well be considered brilliant. These films ask the questions ‘normal’ movies fear are too stupid to seriously entertain. What if nuclear proliferation causes mutant monsters to rise out of the sea and crush our cities? What if our loved ones rose from the dead to eat our flesh with no explanation? What if a cheerleading squad had sex with most of a major metropolitan area in an effort to raise money for a friend? Stu Segall’s sometimes forgotten 1977 slasher, Drive-In Massacre, fits this bad movie/great exploitation mould. Bereft of his own talents and the talents of those around him, the co-writer/producer/director came up with a perfectly succinct concept: what if there was a killer stalking the grounds of a dilapidated drive-in movie theater, murdering horny teens as they watched terrible movies? And what if that movie could be shown in similarly dilapidated drive-ins across America, where horny teens could witness their own hypothetical demises?
Segall made a name for himself in television production and most of the films he directed were of the sexploitation variety. His skillset is, shall we say, “passable,” as in he understands concepts like linear storytelling and eyelines. With Drive-In Massacre, he managed to tap the as yet undefined early slasher market – though he was obviously aping the success of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ ghastly splatter films, rather than the more stylish gialli or proto-slashers that helped define the subgenre, such as Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1976). It’s not surprising that his film didn’t have the impact of John Carpenter’s vastly more competently made Halloween, which was released two years later in 1978, but it should be known that Segall was ahead of Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) in its use of graphic gore. That gore isn’t Tom Savini-levels of impressive, but it’s plenty gruesome and definitely propels the film through the doldrums of its stiff, uneventful storyline.
The screenplay was forged from a story by Segall by famed character actors John F. Goff and George Buck Flower, who are both known for appearances in Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS (1975), The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976), and a number of John Carpenter favourites. Employing three people to write such a thinly plotted script may seem excessive, but Goff & Flower do a half-decent job doling out mundane dialogue to fill space. Unfortunately for them, Segall was running short on content, so those passable character interactions are hopelessly extended, until about 80% of the film becomes about 70 minutes of long-winded police investigation and bickering couples watching movies at the drive-in. At his most desperate, the director pads out the runtime with several minutes of a supporting character wandering around a county fair, smiling at the rides, while dialogue from earlier points in the movie echo over the soundtrack. Funnily enough, while culling filler, Segall forgot to connect all of the plot points, so the central mystery of the killer’s secret identity ends up making no sense. Like it or not (or love to hate it?), Drive-In Massacre is a relatively important stepping stone in the history of slasher cinema. It isn’t any good, but it set some historical precedent for the slasher genre.
Drive-In Massacre seems to have had some copyright issues over the years, because it has been released on non-anamorphic, VHS quality DVD from several budget-label companies (Mr. Fat-W, Reel Classic Films, Cheezy Flicks, Desert Island Films, et cetera). The same transfer was used by Vipco in the UK and Retrofilm in Germany. This marks its first widescreen and HD release stateside. According to Severin’s press release (and the back of the box), someone discovered the original camera negative in the ruins of the recently demolished Sky View Drive-In in Oxnard, California. It all seems too specific to be a lie, so let’s assume it’s true and not a load of exploitation ballyhoo. That negative was used to create a brand new 1080p HD transfer, presented in 1.78:1 widescreen. I assume – but do not know for certain – that this is the same source used by 88 Films for their UK Blu-ray, which mentions a 2K scan. As in the case of other Blu-ray titles Severin and 88 Films have shared release on, the transfers themselves are different, meaning that each studio performed their own clean-up and digital mastering. Overall, this is another one of Severin’s better efforts. There are hints of digital noise that may have been caused by the telecine process, but none of the fuzzy discoloration that mars many Italian HD releases (from various studios, not just Severin or 88 Films). This is more apparent during brighter sequences, where the edges of softer backgrounds have a bit of a “mosquito” quality. Drive-In Massacre is a junky, cheap movie, so grain is expected and can chunk-up a bit during the darkest sequences. Still, dingy sequences aside (the opening, for example), I’m still surprised by the amount of detail the transfer is able to squeeze out of the amateurly-shot and badly lit production. Whereas the ‘budget’ releases appeared muddy and flat, this Blu-ray is sharp and balanced enough to reveal significant details, even during the most dimly-lit sequences. Black levels are smooth without pooling and color quality is relatively vibrant, especially the warmer hues. Severin seems to have punched-up the reds while remastering the scan. Some shots exhibit what might be DNR effects, but, often, this could simply be shifty focus on the filmmakers’ part. Print damage is notable, but minor, consisting largely of white dots, short black scratches, a couple of jumpy frames, and a hair or two in the gate.
Drive-In Massacre is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio and its original mono sound. The cheapness of the production rears its head during any outdoor sequence, where the natural buzz and ambience can squeeze clarity out of dialogue. Generally speaking, performances are pretty muffled all-around, but the sounds of the outdoor theater wreak havoc with the words. The music is then layered very loudly over production audio and dialogue, sometimes becoming quite shrill, yet never exhibiting any distortion effects. There is no credited composer, rather, Lon John Productions, which I assume means that they bought pre-recorded music – both score and songs – from a library. It’s funny, because parts of the score are so weird and badly composed that I assumed they were made specifically for the film.
Commentary with director Stu Segall – The co-writer/director discusses the movie, its inception, the ongoing lives of the cast & crew, and his other projects (he and his company had shot four exploitation movies in a row and Drive-In Massacre was one of them). The track is laid-back and self-deprecating, but also quite informative and Segall doesn’t lose too much steam, thanks to an unnamed moderator who pops-in a handful of times.
Drive-In Days (16:18, HD) – Actor/co-writer John F. Goff talks about his long career as, well, an actor and writer.
Norm Sheridan Recalls Drive-In Massacre (11:45, HD) – An interview with another of the film’s actors, who also recalls his early career and attempts to remember his time on the film.
Making the Massacre (6:32, SD) – A short interview with Segall taken from the 88 Films release.
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps. The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray’s image quality.