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Richard Kuipers takes a trip back to the era of the drive-in.

Left: An old road sign signifies the location of the closed drive-in at Moree, New South Wales. Photo courtesy of Drive-ins Downunder.

At the time of writing, less than 20 drive-ins, or ‘ozoners’ as they are known in industry jargon, remain in Australia. Property values, home video and the emergence of multiplexes are the chief factors behind the sharp decline in numbers but it’s hard to imagine that the Australian drive-in will ever become extinct.

In a heyday that lasted from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, Australia was one of the biggest drive-in markets in the world, ranking alongside the US and Canada. In Western Australia, more than 100 drive-ins sprung up, making it the drive-in capital of the world. For many Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, the drive-in holds fond memories of pre-multiplex days when most suburbs and nearly every country town had a cinema, and sneaking into the drive-in hidden in the car boot was a teenage rite of passage.

The major players in drive-ins were the Village and Hoyts Skyline chains, with Greater Union operating a smaller number. Many drive-ins, particularly those in country towns, were run by independent operators. Of the tiny number of ozoners left in Australian cities the best known is the Village Coburg in Melbourne. Closed between 1984 and 1987, Coburg is an extremely rare example of a thriving 3-screen drive-in. Its main screen is a staggering 33 metres wide (see Drive-ins Downunder).

Apart from the obvious attractions for young courting couples, drive-ins offered good value for families. All had restaurants (of varying size and quality), many had children’s playgrounds and double features (sometimes even triple-headers) were shown. It was not unusual for much older films to feature on the lower half of the bill. Australia’s extremely tough censorship laws were relaxed in 1971, permitting the importation of racy overseas films that previously stood no chance of exhibition. In the early 1980s, the Australian film Stone (1974), itself on its fourth or fifth re-release, topped a triple-bill with American biker film Born Losers (1967) and the saucy 1968 French-UK production Girl on a Motorcycle, starring Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon.

The drive-in was the ‘grindhouse’ of Australian exhibition in the ‘70s. Many films that received little or no exposure on the mainstream cinema circuit played to great success outdoors. Drive-in managers were able to measure the success of films not just by admission numbers but by the volume of car horn honking during the movie. The more honking, the more the audience approved. One of the biggest ‘car horn’ hits of the era was the 1979 Italian horror-shocker double feature Zombie Flesh Eaters and Island of the Fishmen (‘see a man turn inside out’, screamed the poster.)

Technical innovations were also employed to attract customers. ‘Cine-fi’ sound was an alternative to the basic sound quality offered by speakers hooked onto car windows from poles (and often torn off by forgetful drivers!). Powered by a low-wattage AM transmitter, cine-fi gave patrons the chance to listen to the movie in glorious mono on car radios. One drive-in fitted with cine-fi was the Chullora Twin in Sydney. In 1977 it hosted the premiere of The FJ Holden (1977). Free entry was given to anyone driving an FJ or FX-model Holden.

Drive-ins have featured in many Australian films. The raunchy comedies Alvin Rides Again (1974) and Melvin, Son of Alvin (1984) contain chase scenes involving its libidinous protagonists. Love in Limbo (1993) shows Aussie teens at a ‘50s drive-in that’s screening Frank Tashlin’s rock’n’roll-era classic The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), and Accidents Happen (2009) – an Australian feature shot in Sydney and set in American suburbia in the 1980s – has a memorable scene of teenage angst that takes place on a drive-in screen while a film is playing. The 1991 crime thriller Fatal Bond made extensive use of the abandoned Warriewood Skyline in Sydney. The location was rented for $1,000 per week, which included permission to blow up a shed constructed for the movie.

The best known is Dead-end Drive-in (1986), a satirical futuristic action film in which troublesome youth, the unemployed and unwanted immigrants are herded into a drive-in converted into a detention centre. Filming took place at Sydney’s Matraville Drive-in.

The Matraville Drive-in was demolished shortly after Dead-end Drive-in (1986) was completed, joining the hundreds of Australian drive-ins to suffer a similar fate in the 1980s. The few still operating in Australia and elsewhere may seem like anachronisms but there is something so charming, simple and old-fashioned about the drive-in experience that there is every chance Australians will continue to take their cars to the movies for many years to come.

Titles in this collection

Dead-end Drive-in 1986

In the 1990s authorities convert a drive-in into a jail for unemployed youths. Falsely imprisoned with his girlfriend, Jimmy ‘Crabs’ Rossini attempts to escape.

Fatal Bond 1991

Fans of iconic 1960s cars will be able to see a Valiant S series take on a Citroen Goddess in the final scenes.

The FJ Holden 1977

When The FJ Holden premiered at the Chullora Drive-in in 1977, anyone driving an FJ or FX Holden got in free.