Horror at The Drive-In Movie Theater

Drive-in Movie Theater Showing HalloweenHorror at the Drive-in Movie Theater.

As a teenager in the 80s, I spent many long, summer afternoons plotting with friends to meet up and spend an evening at the movies. And I spent many nights watching horror under the stars at the drive-in Movie theater. To meet up and spend an evening at the movies with my friends. To pile as many bodies that could fit into one car (and the trunk) as possible. Destination horror under the stars at the drive-in theater! Guts, blood, screaming camp counselors, flying machetes, schlock, and bad acting! And Invaders from Mars (1986)!

First of all, the answer from our parents was always a resounding, “No. You better not. Maybe when you’re older you can waste your money on that evil ” Parents; so melodramatic! However, we were convincing enough to make them believe we were going to the mall. Clearly, the trade-off of seeing a later showing of a film they deemed worthy, worked too. It’s funny that our parents, in the generation of bragging about the inception of the date-night double features at the drive-in theater – Psycho, House of Usher, Carnival of Souls, The Innocents – were not keen on their kids going to the drive-in theater.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Horror Worth Every Cent of Admission

Lying through our teeth, we set off on our secret mission. Straight to see an R-rated horror movie at the drive-in theater. Murder and mayhem under the stars. The deception was worth every single cent of the admission. Billed as double features, the first film was a slow burn followed by a captivating gory fright-fest. More frightening than any of us anticipated.

We didn’t feel guilty, knowing we would get away with seeing “family-friendly” Gremlins (1984), however, watching the B-horror masterpiece, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), and semi-disaster horror must-see Phenomena (1985) would have grounded us for life.

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

Girl Power Horror Hour at the Drive-In

Keeping your friends close and your enemies closer couldn’t ring more true. A handful of titillating female horror antagonists so appeared in some of the most classic 80s horror films. These femme fatales would go on to help create some memorably gruesome jump scare moments.

Actress, Melissa Sue Anderson, famous for her turn as Mary Olson on Little House on the Prairie, stepped out of Walnut Grove and into a little horror treat that to this day stands the test of horror time!

Anderson plays Ginny Wainwright in Happy Birthday to Me (1981). The film’s poster boasted “Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see.” No spoiler alerts, except to say that the popularity of eating roasted meat and vegetable kebabs declined after the movie’s release.

The Initiation (1984)
The Initiation (1984)

Unexpected Endings: A Drive-In Theater Horror Manifesto

A weekend at a mansion on a private island for Spring Break holds the plot for the unpredictable horror film April Fool’s Day (1986). Released on April 1, 1986, the film is light on gore but heavy on making audiences yell at the characters on screen about to die. A first-of-its-kind, April Fools Day must be seen without distraction. Because if you blink, you’ll miss the Easter eggs, and a supreme horror under the stars film, with one of the genre’s top-10 ultimately shocking surprise endings.    

College campuses, girls in silk nightgowns, and a psychotic murderer running rampant is a great setting for horror films! The T&A-fest that is The Initiation (1984) has to be one of the most celebrated drive-in theater horror films of all time. Critically, the film has been debated for decades. However, most critics agree on one thing. Film School Rejects blog post titled 31 Days of Horror, writes of the film, “it has all the hallmarks of being an awful movie without being an awful movie… it’s fun, and that should count for something.” If drive-in horror had a math equation, that quote would be the sum.

The Funhouse (1981)
The Funhouse (1981)

Perfect Macabre Horror at the Drive-in Theater

Locked in a haunted mansion overnight with a deranged lunatic on the loose and the Alpha Sigma Rho college frat boys playing pranks, get lots of blood spurting in the widely celebrated, cult favorite, Gothic-themed, Hell Night (1981). Starring Exorcist (1973) alum Linda Blair and an all-star cast of blinding-white, Chiclet-toothed, bad B-list horror actors, with enviable shiny feathered hairdos, the film would stay in drive-in theaters, mostly dedicated to a midnight showing for over a year after its initial release. It’s celebrated as the perfectly orchestrated “really bad horror film” with an amazing cult following.

One of the other most celebrated drive-in theater horror films is director Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981). After witnessing the gruesome murder of a carnival employee, and stealing money from the Funhouse cashbox, four teenagers, willingly locked inside, find themselves desperately looking for the exits, only to discover that two deranged carnies with serial killer instincts show no mercy on innocent carnival patrons. The film is slick and well-paced and the jump scares are unpredictable and perfectly timed!

Drive-in Popcorn and Drive-in SpeakerPopcorn Horror – So Bad, So Good, So Gory!

Drive-in theaters were also notorious for showing horror under the stars that movie theaters wouldn’t touch. The Italian horror film StageFright (1987) aka Deliria features one of the creepiest killers in horror film history. A troupe of stage actors bribed with a cash incentive, lock themselves inside a theater in an attempt to perfect their rehearsal. The show is a musical about a murderer known as the Night Owl. Suddenly, a sadistic person in a freakish Owl costume starts a murder spree in the theater. Weapons of choice: a knife and power drill.

A is for Apple, B is for Bed. C is for Coed, D is for Dead. F is for failing to keep your head. Welcome to Night School (1981). A pretty foreign exchange student, flying heads, and a weirdo on campus with a machete wearing all black on a motorcycle. Lots of beheadings and grizzly discoveries in this schlock masterpiece.

If you want extra credit, and a “crash course in terror,” volunteer to close a condemned dormitory over the Christmas holiday. The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982), reviewed in Legacy of Blood: A Comprehensive Guide to Slasher Movies, author Jim Harper writes “one of the best of the low budget eighties slashers.[1]

Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Drive-in Theater Deadly Double Feature

From Memorial Day through Labor Day, between 1981-1989, with my car’s trunk full of friends, and a laundry list of white lies (sorry, mom). Horror movies at the drive-in theater are lodged in the recesses of my summertime DNA. Like Freddy Krueger’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) razor glove.

Well, as a teenager I certainly wasted a lot of my allowance on evil. For example,  The Fog (1980) The Fun House (1981), Poltergeist (1982), The Hunger (1983), Psycho II (1983), Night of the Comet (1984), Fright Night (1985), and the homicidal machines in Maximum Overdrive (1986). Additionally, there was Blood Diner (1987), Monkey Shines (1988), and Puppet Master (1989). It may just be the nostalgia of it all, however, even today, horror under the stars, at the drive-in theater, with a carload of friends, looks and feels much better on an outdoor movie screen[2]!


[1] “Legacy of Blood: A Comprehensive Guide to Slasher Movies ….” https://www.amazon.com/Legacy-Blood-Comprehensive-Slasher-Movies/dp/1900486393. Accessed 8 Aug. 2021.

[2] “The coronavirus emptied movie theaters. But it’s resurrecting ….” 5 Jun. 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/coronavirus-emptied-movie-theaters-it-s-resurrecting-drive-ncna1225121. Accessed 8 Aug. 2021.