by David Beard
(Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 22, 1981, p. 1-D)
Every so often, something unspeakable occurs in the safest of places, something that in one day shatters forever an entire community’s illusions of security.
The unspeakable happened Saturday in Wickliffe.
At 7 p.m., carloads of people started to congregate just east of Denny’s restaurant, slowing traffic. By 8, nearly 2,000 people had gathered -- dating couples, high-school buddies with beer and wine. Something was in the air -- anxiety, perhaps, or violence.
Leonard J. and Kathy G. were there, on their first date. Within minutes, they had witnessed a murder. By 9:30 they had seen 10 more die and had heard a police order to “Burn them, bludgeon them or shoot them in the head.”
They loved it. They paid $3.50 each to see it.
They were at the Euclid Ave. Outdoor Theater, 28737 Euclid, watching NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the first of five blood-filled horror films in a dusk-till-dawn show. They drank white wine from plastic tumblers as walking corpses began eating lead characters on the screen.
“It would really be gross if it was in color,” observed Kathy, 26, of Euclid. “This film is a classic.”
She turned her head for a moment -- and checked to see if her door was locked.
“We’re gory people. We like kinky things,” dead-panned Leonard, 24, of Willowick.
They weren’t alone. Manager Philip G. McCauley called it one of the busiest nights of the year, as he watched a steady stream of cars and vans pour through the entrance gates.
Radio and newspaper ads had labeled it “a date with death.” After DEAD would come such sterling features as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT PART II, MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH, THE RATS ARE COMING, THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE, and, as a finale, THE FLESH GRINDERS, the sad story of a struggling cat food company.
“Last night we had as many people as we had all last week,” McCauley said. “Tonight there are even more. We’ve had cars tonight with seven and eight persons crammed in.”
The five features ran three nights, Friday through Sunday.
“Don’t ask me why, but in the fall, horror movies do tend to draw the most,” McCauley added. “A year ago, when THE AMITYVILLE HORROR was playing, we had cars backed up for a mile. We had to send ushers out to turn them away.”
As he spoke, the area came alive with a crescendo of car horns. McCauley shook his head and smiled.
“It could be (a problem with) the audio,” he said. “That, or else somebody got murdered. I can always tell when there’s a gory part by the honking.”
On the screen, a sheriff’s posse worked its way toward a graveyard, shooting walking corpses in the head. Outside, couples snaked their way toward the concession stand, trying to beat the crowds to the popcorn and to the restrooms. In the back row, not a soul appeared above the dashboard.
“I don’t think too many people are watching the movie,” said the projectionist, Thomas C. Draper, 33. “This is their last fling before school, before the summer ends.”
“Look at this,” he added, indicating the red-eyed crowd angling for Cokes and popcorn. “The munchies.”
As DEAD ended, a group from Euclid lit a charcoal grill and talked of horror flicks.
“Before this, the last one I saw was TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE,” said James A., 20, as he stoked the coals. “In this last (movie), I was getting kind of sick with all the people eating intestines. But I’m up to some sausage now.”
James brought lawn chairs and a cooler of beer for his friends. The circle decided horror movies are good because “they got girls scared” and guys had to be brave to sit through them. They said that after one or two killings they get numb, and everything starts to seem funny.
“I try to see the humor in it all,” said Walter A., 21, as he hugged his girlfriend. He looked up to see the first minute of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT PART II, in which an elderly woman in a wheelchair is hanged by an unknown assailant.
“Wow,” exclaimed Walter, “I never saw that before.”
LAST HOUSE squeezed in 15 murders before it ended. Then came MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH, in which a likable loner gets mad at some bullies and decides to blow them up. Then there are more bullies – and more bombs. Finally, near the end of the film, the hero concludes that everybody in the school is a bully.
The high school is in California. The drive-in crowd hated Californians. The horns honked.
Even Leoanrd and Kathy were worn out after MASSACRE.
“We’re going to Denny’s,” Leonard yelled over his idling motor.
Kathy recommended tonight’s showing of SALEM’S LOT on WJKW Channel 8: “It’s on TV, and it’s still scary.”
By the time frenzied house cats had chewed up the villain in FLESH GRINDERS, the night’s carnage was complete: 55 murders, not counting a few walking corpses.
About a third of the original 1,928 patrons stayed until the bitter end at 3:20 a.m. Ushers tried vainly to awaken half of them. A lone police car waited outside the drive-in.
As manager McCauley walked toward the exit gate, he spotted a man leaning out of a speeding car.
The man was screaming, “Not enough blood!”