DVDs Bring Drive-In Era Back to Life
Video * Two discs bring to your living room the lascivious horror films, snack-bar ads and even the sound of crickets.

By DONALD LIEBENSON, Special to The Times
The sun may have set on the heyday of the drive-in movie theater, but two new DVD collections lovingly re-create the innocent--and not so innocent--pleasures of the late-night double-feature picture show.

Elite Entertainment's "Drive-In Discs" and Something Weird Video's "Drive-In Double Feature" offer everything from vintage driver-safety tips and intermission countdowns to tantalizing snack-bar come-ons.

Oh yes, and movies too. Elite's inaugural "Drive-In Disc" contains a horror double bill: "Attack of the Giant Leeches" (1959), executive produced by Roger Corman, and "The Screaming Skull" (1958). Something Weird lives up to its billing as "the No. 1 crackpot video company" (as proudly proclaimed by founder and owner, Mike Vrany) with two "roughies" by cult favorite Doris Wishman: "Bad Girls Go to Hell" (1965) and "Another Day, Another Man" (1966).

But as with real drive-ins, the movies are only part of the fun. Taking advantage of DVD's space capacity, both discs boast a trunkload of extras that affectionately play back classic drive-in movie memories.

The Elite disc scores a coup with interstitial clips produced by Chicago-based Filmack Studios, including "Let's All Go to the Lobby," which was recently inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Anyone who ever made a mad dash to the snack bar will fondly remember the animated intermission countdown in which menu items, most memorably an acrobatic hot dog, perform circus acts.

There is also a public-service announcement cautioning "young lovers" to "not allow the Love Bug to affect your conduct while in this theater," plus two cartoons (Betty Boop and Popeye) and coming attractions ("The Wasp Woman" and "The Giant Gila Monster," one or both of which are slated to be the featured attractions on the next "Drive-In Disc," scheduled for release in March).

Ambient Noise Track Really Brings It Home
But nothing brings home the true drive-in experience like "Distorto." This optional secondary audio track on the Elite disc transforms your state-of-the-art home sound system into a low-fi drive-in speaker. Adding to the atmosphere are ambient noises recorded for this disc, such as crickets chirping, slamming car doors and tires on gravel.

Something Weird's "Drive-In Double Feature," manufactured and distributed by Image, offers no such William Castle-esque gimmicks. Its pleasures are more forbidden. This disc recalls a period in drive-in history when the drive-in, like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," was worth more dead than alive. Theaters sat on prime real estate. They also faced increasing competition from hardtop theaters and television. Many drive-ins that once catered to families converted to showing adults-only fare.

Wishman, a former distributor, was a self-taught producer, writer and director.
"Her movies," Vrany said, "are actually the epitome of what fascinates me about ultra-low-budget movies--the fact that they were ever made. The drive-ins were a place that showed this kind of material. Doris is a perfect example of anarchy filmmaking."
Wishman has a devoted following. A critic on one Wishman Web site said her films were "a profound critique of the masculine co-joining of desire and violence which subjects the world to the separation of work from play." Whatever. Suffice to say, to quote one of the lurid coming attractions for other Wishman films that Vrany has included on this disc: "If you are sensitive and cannot stand scenes of sex, perversion and horror, then we do not recommend" . . . Doris Wishman.

But worth the price of the DVD alone is an actual ad for sex manuals once sold--for $1 each--during intermission: "These books contain many actual photographs of the human body, many of them in color. If you wish to purchase these books, you may do so in the privacy of your own car. Simply turn on your parking lights and an attendant will serve you as quickly as possible."

Both companies' discs offer the option of accessing the movies and extras directly, or viewing them as if at a drive-in in one programming block.

Once upon a time in America, thousands of "ozoners" dotted the landscape. There are now only 737 drive-in screens nationwide, according to the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. Only 86 screens remain active in California.

For Vini Bancalari, president and founder of Elite Entertainment, based in Scarborough, Maine, "Drive-In Discs" was an idea whose time had come. Not only were drive-ins disappearing, but so, too, was the B-movie fare that was once master of the drive-in domain.

"We specialize in science fiction, horror and cult films--drive-in stuff," said New York-native Bancalari, who as a youth frequented the Sunrise Drive-In on Long Island--featured, he proudly noted, in "The Lords of Flatbush."

"I come across a lot of public-domain properties. These aren't the kind of movies that people spend a lot of money preserving and restoring. I thought we could showcase them as 'Drive-In Discs' so people could get to see these all-but-forgotten films that used to be on 'Chiller Theatre' and 'Creature Features' on television."

He said he envisions "Drive-In Discs" to be a 15-volume series. Private collectors who bought the first disc, he said, have been calling with priceless drive-in materials specific to various regions around the country that may be incorporated into future releases.

For Vrany, too, his "Drive-In Double Feature" collection is a labor of love. One of his first jobs, he recalled, was fixing speakers at his local drive-in. Seattle-based Something Weird's catalog already contains VHS compilations of drive-in nostalgia and exploitation film previews. He views his discs as a time capsule.

"I carry the torch for these old exploitation films," he said. "I wanted to re-create what you love and what you miss [about going to the drive-in]. This disc is as close as humanly possible to re-creating a night at the drive-in as you would have experienced it from the front-- or back seat--of your car."

Vrany has a full slate of "Double-Features" in the works. Next up is "The Defilers" and "Scum of the Earth," to be released Feb. 13. A Herschell Gordon Lewis double bill, "Just For the Hell of It" and "Blast Off Girls," follows in March.

* * ** Both DVDs retail for $30 and can be ordered from Amazon.com or Movies Unlimited (moviesunlimited.com, 800-4-MOVIES). Something Weird also operates a Web site, http://www.somethingweird.com.