As much as I enjoyed Drive-Invasion at the Starlight Six in Atlanta last Labor Day, the primo drive-in experience of 2009 -– for horror movie fans, anyway -– occurred the very next weekend at the Riverside Drive-In in Vandergrift, PA. The third annual Drive-In Super Monster-Rama provided two exciting nights of quadruple-bill horror programming and was easily the best time I’ve had at the movies since my friend Harry Guerro of Exhumed Films hosted an all-night Italian horror fest at the now defunct Pioneer Theater in Manhattan back in 2004. Not surprisingly, Harry is involved with Monster-Rama as well -- four of the eight prints screened last year were from his personal collection -- but the real mastermind behind the event is DVD Drive-In founder George Reis. Several years ago George e-mailed all the surviving drive-in theaters in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and proposed a weekend-long dusk-to-dawn festival similar to Drive-Invasion but more streamlined, dispensing with the live music and concentrating solely on horror movies of the 1960s and ‘70s. The only respondents to his query were Riverside Drive-In co-owners Emma Ross and Todd Ament, who welcomed the idea with open arms, and the inaugural Drive-In Super Monster-Rama took place in September 2007. George tried to get me out to Vandergrift for that first program, as well as the sophomore one in ’08, but my plans were thwarted both times by work schedule conflicts. Last year I made an extra effort to attend and ended up having such a great time that I was immediately sorry I’d missed it the first two years. I’ll be there this year and hopefully every year after that, ‘cause this event’s just way too cool to miss.
After a harrowing 8-hour drive in torrential rain, including 20 minutes heading in the wrong direction thanks to a construction detour with crapola signage, I arrived in Vandergrift in a terribly depressed state, convinced the whole weekend would be a literal washout. My foul mood wasn’t lessened one iota when my tired, bloodshot eyes fell upon the Riverside’s screen, which at first glance resembles little more than a whitewashed Stuckey’s billboard nailed across ten telephone poles. Luckily things started to look better once I got inside and was greeted by Harry and George. I snagged a cold beer and some barbecue chicken pizza and was introduced to Emma and Todd, who have owned the Riverside since 2005 (The theater was previously known as Lee’s Woodland Drive-In and the Galaxy Drive-In). Todd is also the projectionist, and a damn fine one at that. Any concerns I had about the screen promptly vanished once dusk arrived and the show began, and although the rain came down off and on during the first two movies, it never approached the severity of what I had endured earlier in the day.
The early birds (left to right: Chris Poggiali, Harry Guerro, George Reis)
Todd begins each evening at the Riverside with a short film of the National Anthem and instructs everyone to step out of their vehicles and properly pay respect to the Red White & Blue. Because the first night of Monster-Rama '09 happened to be September 11th, he asked that we also have a moment of silence for the 2,976 people who lost their lives on 9/11/01. I can’t remember what was shown right after that, but rest assured that Harry and George packed both nights with all sorts of goodies. There was a wide array of vintage monster movie trailers in between each feature plus cartoons, Three Stooges shorts and classic concession stand advertisements. The four feature attractions screened on Friday were WITCHFINDER GENERAL (a British print, uncut except for a few seconds), SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (another British print, featuring footage not included in any of the versions previously available), THE CRIMSON CULT, and TERROR CREATURES FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. All the prints looked great on the drive-in screen. During the intermissions we hung out around the concession area, where Ron Adams of Creepy Classics had a dealer table and was selling DVDs, t-shirts and posters.
The show ended about 4:30 a.m., and everyone took off except for a few of us who stuck around to see the first reel of a faded BLUE SUNSHINE print that Harry wanted to run for inspection. After that, I said goodnight and headed for bed -– or rather, the backseat of my car. I was one of a handful who had paid the extra $10 to camp out at the Riverside overnight, instead of risking death by falling asleep at the wheel or getting lost trying to find a motel at that hour. Others had pitched tents, but my idea of “camping out” was to crawl into the backseat with pillows and blankets and pass out for a few hours.
The next afternoon, after Emma made breakfast in the concession stand for the campers (“Was I dreaming, or did I really stick my head out of the tent flap and see BLUE SUNSHINE playing at like five o'clock this morning?” one guy asked in between bites of eggs and French toast), I joined forces with another camper - “Pete from Cleveland” - and the two of us went off on a used bookstore hunt. We quickly found ourselves stuck in horrendous traffic approaching the nearby Monroeville Mall (more likely hordes of back-to-school shoppers and not DAWN OF THE DEAD fans), so we headed back to Vandergrift to hit the public library and instead stumbled upon the Reads, Inc. Bookshop (171 Washington Avenue, Vandergrift, PA 15690). An hour later we left with two bags of paperbacks and made our way back to the Riverside to have lunch and hang out until dusk. Michael San Giacomo showed up to sign copies of his excellent graphic novel Tales of the Starlight Drive-In (Winner of the 2009 Comic Buyers Guide Fan Award for “Best Graphic Novel of the Year”), and we helped him set up shop next to Ron in the concession stand.
Saturday's program was "Hammer Studios Night" consisting of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (the beautiful MGM archival print), THE 7 BROTHERS MEET DRACULA, COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE and VAMPIRE CIRCUS. There were more trailers, more cartoons, more Stooges shorts, more concession stand ads…and more rain, unfortunately, but not enough to spoil the show for anyone (Well, except for the two folks who ran their windshield wipers too long and had to get their cars jumped at 4:30 in the morning. D’oh!). When I regained consciousness around 10 a.m. I was the only patron left. Emma and Todd wished me a safe trip home, to which I replied “See ya next year!” and on that note I hit the road.
Two uncomfortable nights spent sleeping in the backseat had nearly done me in, and by the time I got back to New York I had spent - by my best estimate - nearly 50 hours in my car that weekend. I had a great time though, and I'll be the first one in line for Drive-In Super Monster-Rama 2010 this September. I just have to reserve a hotel room this time or remember to bring a tent!
For more information about DRIVE-IN SUPER MONSTER-RAMA 2010, go HERE.