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Durham's Starlite Drive-In wants to bring back yesteryear with a series of retro classics

Growing up in the 1970s and '80s, I always wanted to take in a drive-in movie. I would see television shows and films, invariably set in the 1950s, in which teenagers would gather in their cars, put speakers in their windows and sit back to take in films about biker gangs, bloodsucking freaks and monsters from the muck. Some people would actually watch the films, but others would crawl into the back seat, pull out a flask and start rounding the bases. But I never got to live my teenage years in such style.

Now, many years later, I have my chance. Three local film collectors, Matt Pennachi, Adam Hulin and Michael Snipes, are producing monthly drive-in retro spectaculars at the Starlite Drive-In on East Club Boulevard in Durham. Calling their partnership Cinema Overdrive, these men, all in their mid-20s, have been collecting discarded prints of old films, including some indisputable classics like Deliverance, and others that are considerably more downscale, like Seven Brothers Meet Dracula.

Local cinephiles may already be familiar with this trio's curatorial work through their monthly Retrofantasma series at the Carolina Theatre in Durham (last week, the offerings were Motel Hell and Madman). Now that Retrofantasma has become a popular institution, Pennachi, Hulin and Snipes are making good on a deal struck with the owners of the Starlite to program movies once a month, from April all the way through a planned triple-feature blowout for Halloween. In March, before a packed parking lot, the series kicked off auspiciously with a double feature of two exploitation classics: Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000 and Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Supervixens.

Last month, I took in a double feature of Death Wish and Seven Brothers Meets Dracula. After parking my truck, I tuned my radio to the frequency that carried the film's soundtrack. (Radio simulcasting has replaced the old speaker-in-the-window. Not only is this more convenient, but it's less expensive: My mother told me recently that in her day, people were prone to driving off with speakers still attached to their cars.) Perhaps because of the unseasonable coolness of the evening, the turnout was modest. Still, many people had set up lawn chairs and beer coolers, as they smoked cigarettes and watched Charles Bronson go off on his sadistic killing spree. It was hard to tell whether their interest was ironic contemplation or genuine enthusiasm, but a huge cheer went up at the film's climax.

As the film played, I chatted with Pennachi, a friendly, garrulous man with glasses, untidy black hair and an apparently bottomless knowledge of films ranging from Citizen Kane to Bucket of Blood. A conversation with the Pennsylvania native gives a hint of what an encounter with Quentin Tarantino must be like, in his genuine and infectious enthusiasm for the obscure and the unfashionable. As the second film of the doubleheader, Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, played on the screen, Pennachi discoursed at some length on the film's provenance, describing a now bygone film culture in which certain movies were made specifically for drive-in audiences. Today, Pennachi points out, Hollywood is churning out $100 million movies that are, in the end, only expensive drive-in movies, but inferior to the classics of yore.

"This film," Pennachi says, gesturing at the Asiatic mayhem up on the screen, "is better than Armageddon. Armageddon was piece of shit. And how much money did they spend on it?" EndBlock

On Thursday, June 27, Pennachi and friends will be bringing a glorious double-feature celebration of 1970s internally combustible redneck schlockto the Starlite Drive-In: Smokey and the Bandit and Evel Knievel. Tickets go on sale at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. Call 688-1037 for details.

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