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From cult movies and comedy to Metallica concerts, drive-ins are back
Yeon Sang-ho's 'Peninsula.'

If you want proof of how thoroughly drive-in theaters faded from the public consciousness over the last few decades—and how they're making a comeback in the era of Covid-19—look no further than the questions the staff of San Jose's Capitol Drive-In are getting asked lately.

"There are a lot of people who don't know what a double feature is," says Tony Maniscalco, vice-president of marketing for West Wind Drive-Ins, which owns Capitol. "So they'll say, 'Okay, you're showing Black Panther and Jungle Book, but I only want to see Jungle Book. Can I come after Black Panther and just see Jungle Book? And of course we tell them they can. They're unsure of how drive-ins operate. We answer all those questions. We get hundreds of them per day."

West Wind also owns the Solano Drive-In in Concord, the Sacramento 6 Drive-In and the Santa Barbara Drive-In, as well as two in Nevada and one in Arizona. For years, all of them have relied on a cult of devotees—mostly families and other bargain hunters looking to pay as little as half (or a quarter, if you consider the double feature) of what they would for tickets in a cineplex.

"The customers we normally have are extraordinarily regular customers. I see the same people all the time. I kind of know some of them," says Maniscalco. "Our regulars, they don't even look at what's showing. They know there's going to be something for them, and they show up every week."

Since the pandemic started, however, a new audience has been showing up—for fans of the moviegoing experience, there's nowhere else to show up.

"We are seeing a lot of people rediscover us, remembering that we're here," says Maiscalco about Capitol Drive-In, which opened on May 25, 1971 as a four-screen drive in, and later expanded to six. It's a trend nationwide, and even around the world; the headlines drive-ins have gotten in the last couple of months read like the hype that once adorned the posters of the films they played at their peak from the late 1940s to the 1960s—if you add an exclamation point to them. "Drive-in Movie Theaters Around the World Are Having a Renaissance Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic!" "The Drive-In Cinema is Making a Comeback!" "The Drive-In Theater Thrives, For a Time!" (OK, the Associated Press' heart wasn't in that last one).

"What's happening with us is happening all over the country," says Maiscalco. "However, I do think we're one of the most innovative drive-in companies out there. We used to be Century Movie Theaters; the family I work for started Century Theaters 70 years ago and sold that business in 2006. We were pretty innovative in that regular theater space, and we've taken that philosophy to the drive-in."

To that end, Capitol will be hosting an unusual event this week when it hosts the U.S. premiere of Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (also known as Train to Busan 2 and simply Peninsula), the sequel to the 2016 South Korean cult zombie-flick Train to Busan. The original from director Yeon Sang-ho was hardly seen in its brief theatrical run in the U.S. four years ago, but became a cult sensation here when it began streaming on Netflix, priming a huge audience for a sequel. Train to Busan debuted as a midnight movie at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and the plan was to release the sequel—also directed by Yeon—at the 2020 Cannes festival. Cannes was cancelled, however, after Covid hit, and while Peninsula was released in South Korea at the end of July (earning $20 million, the first time the worldwide box office had raked in more than $1 million since the pandemic began in March), plans for a U.S. release were up in the air. Now Peninsula will premiere in San Jose for an exclusive three-day run Aug. 21-23. It will be shown with the original Train to Busan in what the world can now once again, with confidence, refer to as a double feature.

A Brief History of Sitting in Cars for Hours

For many years, the first drive-in was credited to New Jersey's Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., who was given a patent for what he called a "new and useful outdoor theater" that he would open as the 400-acre "Automobile Movie Theatre" in 1933. He did use the phrase "Drive-In Theatre" on his marquee, along with the grammatically puzzling claim "World's First Sit In Your Car - See and Hear Movies."

It turns out, however, that Hollingshead was not the first to conceive of the drive-in. The Theatre de Guadalupe in Las Cruces, New Mexico opened in 1915 and ran for a year with spaces for dozens of drivers to watch a movie from their car, in addition to auditorium seating. Comanche, Texas granted a permit to a drive-in entrepreneur in 1921, and others experimented with the format, too.

So why is Hollingshead still incorrectly called the "inventor" of the drive-in, including on Wikipedia? Well, besides the patent, he simply had the best story—his tale of coming up with the idea after stretching a bed sheet between two trees in his backyard and showing a movie on it plays perfectly into the American obsession with the humble origins of great ideas and spontaneity as the spark of genius.

As with so many things in America, the drive-in wouldn't truly take off as a cultural phenomenon until the GIs came home from making the world safe for democracy in 1945. Before the war, there were 15 drive-ins in the U.S.; just six years after it ended, there were over 4,000.

"Along with the pioneering shopping malls, drive-ins led the post-World War II rush to suburbia," writes Kerry Segrave in Drive-In Theaters: A History From Their Inception in 1933, which seemed to set off a wave of nostalgic books about drive-ins when it was published in 1992. "Both catered to families who didn't want to return to the city at night—it was too much of a hassle. But these families were ready to drive to a mall or a drive-in. The latter was ideal, as the family practically didn't have to set foot out of their car once they entered it in their driveway."

Drive-ins became a place where adults knew they could let their kids run around—piling on the savings for the night with cheap entry fees and no need for a babysitter—and a place teenage lovebirds knew they could go to make out in relative privacy. What could go wrong?

The Sun, It Burns

Drive-ins were known for packing silly B-movies like The Horror of Party Beach and The Blob into their double features, but in general they stayed family-friendly through their peak years. By the late '60s though, a downright bizarre combination of cultural factors began the drive-in decline. One big factor was the Uniform Time Act of 1966 that made Daylight Savings Time a (mostly) national standard. More daylight meant later start times for drive-ins—not ideal when your target audience is families with kids. TV was also taking a massive bite out of the movies in general, with more people getting color televisions and eventually cable. And lastly, skyrocketing land prices made selling drive-in businesses, which were covering hundreds of acres on the outskirts of towns across America, pretty enticing.

When the going got tough, drive-in movies got tougher. Exploitation films became the primary drive-in fare, from the Roger Corman movies that kept things reasonably respectable to the extreme stuff like H.G. Lewis' runaway drive-in hits Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965). These were the first gore films, and a new drive-in audience with a harder edge went crazy for them. Later masters of horror like George Romero (1968's Night of the Living Dead) and Tobe Hooper (1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) would find their breakthrough successes at the drive-in with films that challenged their audiences in new ways.

By the late '70s, drive-ins were disappearing, and so were the taboos for the ones that remained. One of the most notorious distributors to stay in the business was Hallmark Releasing Corporation, which put out crazy and controversial stuff like the rape-revenge shocker Last House on the Left (director Wes Craven's first film), Mark of the Devil and Tombs of the Blind Dead throughout the decade. One poster for Mario Bava's 1972 film Carnage (also called Twitch of the Death Nerve and considered by many to be the first splatter film) perfectly captures the vibe of drive-in movies at the time: "Warning!" screams a banner across the top. "A special ambulance will be available to assist any patrons overcome by the explicit scenes of horror in this movie!" The address of the Parkway Drive-In in Massachusetts is printed at the bottom.

George Mansour, who worked at Hallmark at that time, told David A. Szulkin in Szulkin's definitive book on Last House on the Left that, "We always had trouble with the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America, which gives movies their ratings], but we didn't care. We didn't care whether these pictures were rated or not. It was really the Wild West."

Heavy Metal Parking Lot

By the 1990s, drive-ins had an air of nostalgia about them, and had become more of a cult phenomenon than a mainstream place to see movies. DIY drive-ins began to spring up; the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In (which started in 2002 and continues today) is one of the most famous.

There are still 330 drive-in movie theaters like those run by West Wind around the country. But the concept of "drive-in" itself is rapidly expanding for a live-entertainment-starved world. Drive-in comedy shows have sprung up nationwide, including in Santa Cruz, where a weekly event in a downtown parking lot has comedians on a small stage delivering their act via FM transmitter to the audience, who flash their headlights in approval since the performers can't hear them laughing inside their cars. Concerts, too, have gone drive-in, none bigger than Metallica's upcoming "Encore Drive-In Night" on Aug. 29, for which they're recording a full set that will be broadcast exclusively to over 300 screens in the U.S. (including West Wind's Solano). A $115 ticket admits a carload of up to six people, and includes four digital copies of the band's upcoming S&M2 album.

STAYING ALIVE: Koo Kyo-hwan is the sinister Captain Seo in 'Peninsula,' Yeon Sang-ho's sequel to his hit zombie film 'Train to Busan.' The films play as a double feature Aug. 21-23 at San Jose's Capitol Drive-in.

All Aboard

Specialty events like that are helping to boost the profile of drive-ins, but in the end it comes down to the movies, and there's something special about a movie like Peninsula premiering at Capitol.

On the one hand, Yeon Sang-ho's original Train to Busan called back to drive-in history with its continuation of the modern zombie-film tradition that started with Night of the Living Dead. But it also pushed the boundaries of what zombie films have managed in the half-century since Romero laid down the template.

Korean cinema has been on the cutting-edge of filmmaking for years now, long before Bong Joon-ho's Parasite shocked everyone in March by winning the Best Picture Oscar it deserved. (Incidentally, Choi Woo-shik, who played the son in Parasite, also had a small role in Train to Busan). That's especially true in genre films, where Korean directors like Park Chan-wook have been blowing minds since the early 2000s. Park's Vengeance Trilogy (2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2003's Oldboy and 2005's Lady Vengeance) sent shock waves across cinema with its brutal action, shocking twists and underlying philosophical themes. In 2013, he produced Bong's Snowpiercer, the film that brought Korean cinema to a new level of visibility around the world (and greatly influenced Train to Busan, which has even been called "Snowpiercer with zombies").

Bong's influence can certainly be felt in Train to Busan—not only the Snowpiercer vibe, but also the blend of horror themes and family drama that Bong delivered in his breakthrough 2006 monster movie The Host. Yeon pushed these extremes even further in Train to Busan, which starts with the simple premise of a group of passengers trying to stay alive on a train to Busan as a viral outbreak that turns people into rabid, sprinting zombies spreads like wildfire through the cities around them—and the train itself. Things quickly go off the rails for the central characters, and the movie manages to pull off the craziest zombie stunts you're likely to see, while at the same time being the most emotional zombie movie ever.

No Train, All Peninsula

Peninsula builds on the mythology of the first film; it's set four years after the original, and we learn that the Korean peninsula has been sealed off from the rest of the world due to the zombie outbreak still raging within its borders. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, a gang of thieves is plotting to sneak back into Korea and steal $20 million from an abandoned city—because, as the crime boss puts it, "Zombies don't give a damn about all that gold and money that's just laying around unguarded."

"I don't think it's too difficult," he tells his crew. "You just go in at night, you get the truck, you come back with the money. And don't worry about the zombies." See, it's really that last part that would give me pause. But here the sequel plays off one of the interesting quirks of the first film, which was that the zombies can't see in the dark—and when they can't see their prey, they instantly stop attacking and become confused and docile.

Before you know it, we're officially into the first zombie heist movie (that I know of), with the crooks sneaking into the peninsula by boat. There are no trains in this sequel, which is why it's just called Peninsula in its native country. But I'm fine with that; the last thing we need at the movies is another Die Hard-type scenario where the series is trying to find new excuses to get its main characters on a choo-choo.

Instead, Peninsula is more reminiscent of movies like James Cameron's Aliens—while the characters in the first film had no weapons, this time they're armed to the hilt—and John Carpenter's Escape From New York (which makes sense since Train to Busan had the feel at times of Carpenter's earlier classic Assault on Precinct 13).

It may sound at this point like the sequel has abandoned Train to Busan's fixation with personal conflict amid the zombie chaos, but just a few twists and suddenly we're right back to the emotional gut-punches and themes of personal sacrifice that made the original hit so hard. Obviously, things don't go as planned for the thieves, but main character and serious badass Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) has his eyes opened as to how those who were left behind survive in this nightmare reality, and how the impact of his actions four years before (a backstory set up in the film's prologue) is still being felt. While the sequel is definitely missing the A-list acting talents of the original's leads Gong Yoo and Jung Yu-mi, Gang is good here and the supporting characters are as quirky and entertaining as in the first film.

Nor does Peninsula have the same showstopping set pieces—it wouldn't be a Train to Busan movie if there weren't zombies falling out of the sky and piling up as they climb over each other, but there's noticeably less visual spectacle this time around, other than zombies getting hit every which way by cars. Still, Peninsula is a fun and worthy sequel—it has a bit more humor (especially in regards to how the zombies respond to flashing disco lights and K-pop), a solid story and a brilliant ending that pulls everything together just as powerfully as the first film's finale did.

Maniscalco says anticipation is high for the premiere of Peninsula.

"We show a lot of zombie movies, don't get me wrong," he says. "We're a great place to see a zombie movie. But this movie is different in that critics and the public both loved the original. It was hard to see if you were in the States, and people are waiting for this sequel to come out. The fans that I've talked to are giddy that they can see this movie."

'Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula' will show on a double feature with 'Train to Busan' on Aug. 21, 22 and 23 at Capitol Drive-In, 3630 Hillcap Ave. in San Jose. General admission at Capitol is $8.50 per person; $2 for children 5-11; kids four and under are free.