Directed by Krishna Shah
Starring Emily Longstreth, Patrick Kirton, Phil Fondacarlo
By 1985, when this film was released, the American drive-in was already in decline, suffering deep and fatal blows from the then-burgeoning VHS rental market. Although outdoor theaters do still exist in various spots all over the country, the drive-in as a lifestyle is long-gone, which raises this screwy movie from mere curiosity to a rare cultural artifact. Sure, the plot and gags are exaggerated, but the film's basic elements and the cross-section of everyday Americans who frequent the theater are very much in tune with the real drive-in movie experience. A night at the drive-in wasn't usually this exciting but, you know, it was close.
Probably the most remarkable thing about this movie is the head-spinning change in tone it takes by the second act. It begins in very typical 80's teen sex comedy fashion, introducing us to the cast of wacky characters that we'll be spending the night with: an uptight Mayoral candidate and his put-upon family, a group of fried chicken-gobbling fatties, two confused old women, a midget, a flamboyant gay couple, a half-assed biker gang, and our protagonists, city boy Jack (Patrick Kirton) and country girl Bobbie Ann (Emily Longstreth), a constantly-squabbling couple out on a date-from-hell. The movie everyone is there to see is none other than the infamous Hard Rock Zombies, a brain-boiling heavy metal horror that just happens to be director Krishna Shah's previous film. Cleverly, Shah recycles Hard Rock Zombie's mercilessly cheesy musical cues here, cutting away to the action on screen and it's slashing MOR keyboards and schmaltzy hairspray rock every time he needs to noise-up the action at the drive-in. Also borrowed from Hard Rock Zombies is its diminutive star, Phil Fondacaro. He's here to enjoy his own performance in Zombies as pint-sized Nazi henchman, which provides ample opportunity to show yet more footage from Shah's previous feature.
Elsewhere, there's councilman Winston (John Rice), forcing his children to try and buy drugs from the biker gang so that he may expose the drive-in as a cesspool of criminality, there's the boozy projectionist (Please Don't Eat My Mother's own Buck Kartalian at his wooziest) checking in every so often as a mumbly sort-of Greek Chorus, there's the car-load of horny teens in carnal embrace and the greasy-fingered chicken eaters embracing their own sort of carnality, and all the other colorful buffoons and losers you'd expect in this sort of environment. But things go decidedly off the rails when Bobbie Ann storms out of the van after arguing with her boyfriend and falls prey to the previously played-for-laughs biker goons. Said goons drag Bobbie Ann to some bleachers where they attempt to rape her. When Jack realizes what's happening, he rushes to her rescue, only to get beaten to a pulp. Bobbie Ann manages to escape and commandeer Jack's van; she picks him and plows through a crowd of gawkers to get out of the theater and take her broken boyfriend to the nearest hospital. Being a country girl and well-versed in firearms, she soon returns to the drive-in with a revolver, bloody revenge on her mind.
American Drive-in does such a bizarre 180-degree turn from old-lady gags to rape-revenge drama that it's hard to figure out what sort of movie it's supposed to be. Even with a reasonably happy ending, the near-rape of Bobbie Ann thoroughly kills the film's earlier mood. In Hard Rock Zombies, Shah committed a similar faux pas by introducing Nazis - and Hitler himself - into a tongue in cheek horror-comedy, which leads me to believe that the rape angle is less will-to-provoke than it is Shah's inability to understand the nuances of American culture. Still, even though it ceases to be funny at the hour point, it remains thoroughly engaging throughout, and the atmosphere is priceless. There really weren't very many films based in drive-ins, and as the years roll on, there is less and less of a chance to experience them yourself. Biker rape notwithstanding, if you can't get to a drive in yourself, American Drive-in serves as a pretty dead-on facsimile.
There are no boobs to speak of in American Drive-in, but it's subject matter and ragged, goofball charm has kept it in favor with 80's trash-hounds. Emily Longstreth, a striking young actress with penetrating eyes and a lithesome figure, had briefly become a cult icon by the time this was released. Besides this notable appearance, she co-starred with Johnny Depp in Private Resort (1985), and appeared in Hardbodies and Gimmie an F (both 1984). She had one more substantial role in Hollywood satire The Big Picture (1989), but did little of consequence afterwards. Her last known role was in 1994's Confessions of a Hitman. The trail goes cold from there, although there are hysterical-sounding internet rumors of degradation and suicide in New York City. She seemed pretty tough in this movie, though, so we're gonna assume she's happy, rich, and still sexy.
Link: Find out if there's any still-breathing drive-ins near you at the Drive In Database.
Availability: American Drive-in is available on DVD.
Buy American Drive-In at Amazon.