One of the key elements to the explosion of the drive-in culture of the 1950’s-70’s was the fact that these places offered something for everyone. Not only could the Drive-In theater provide a one stop family entertainment destination, it could also provide the perfect location to hang with some friends or spend some romantic times with a significant other. Very few entertainment venues can check off all those boxes at once. The key to being able to service all these different demographics comes down to one simple concept: VARIETY!
This was a fact that many film producers at this time recognized, creating the “independent” film company explosion. People like Roger Corman led the charge of the noveau filmmakers/producers that were looking to make movies cheap and fast to meet demand. Genre films exploded during this time, since they provided cheap alternative storylines compared to expensive Hollywood films loaded with expensive sets and talent. These companies employed unknown filmmakers and actors to keep costs low. It was a win/win for everyone involved since these low budget genre features were allowing the next generation to cut their teeth in low-risk endeavors.
Out of this era we see the emergence of Al Adamson. Much like his contemporaries of the time, Adamson realized the potential of the genre drive-in fare that was so popular at the time. Low risk, high reward projects that allowed for creativity to shine through… this was the hallmark of this era. It was also the era of building hype through great titles, popular casting, and excellent posters. These elements were the key since most genre films never truly match the hype of their marketing materials. Corman and Adamson became the kings of this idea, riding the wave through the 60’s and into the 70’s with great fury.
Adamson’s calling card is simple: Make people want to see the film through amazing poster art, great young stars in the cast and hype. By the time the film came out, it was already a can’t miss event. Everyone was so stoked to see it that they never actually minded when the product itself was low budget and terrible. As a matter of fact, the more schlocky these films were, the more popular they became! For the younger generation of fans these films became a can’t miss event, with the Drive-In serving as the grand oasis for them to congregate at.
Adamson was one of the kings in this era, mostly since there was not really any film he wouldn’t make. He came up in the industry working for his dad in the western genre and witnessed firsthand how popular genre films could be. He partnered with another young film distributor, Sam Sherman, to start Independent-International Pictures. This company became the distributor for all his films, including such legendary works as “Blood of Ghastly Horror”, “Satan’s Sadists”, “Horror of the Blood Monsters” and “Dracula vs Frankenstein” (my personal favorite film of his).
What makes an Adamson film unique is the fact that they all share some interesting commonalities that define his style. Rock music is always on full display alongside trendy clothing of the era. Adamson was very much in tune to the younger crowd and never passed up an opportunity to include the newest trends into his work. Adamson also loved the ladies, making sure that his films were LOADED with a bevy of gorgeous females that the audience would certainly remember. Finally, Adamson was never afraid to push the envelope on what was acceptable or expected at the time. Al new that if he pushed boundaries people would always be talking about his films, although they were generally not very good.
One of the ways Adamson created this was through the employ of his own personal stable of regulars. These character actors would pop up in Adamson’s films through the years, providing the crowds with familiar faces to recognize anytime they were taking in an Adamson feature. Two of these regulars were the legendary old Hollywood icon John Carradine and a young Russ Tamblyn. Carradine would make quite a second act to his illustrious film career by becoming an exploitation era icon. He would go on to make a bunch of films with Adamson as well as reestablish himself as staple in the horror genre during the 70’s & 80’s. Tamblyn would go on to have a 60+ year career as a character actor, but his most well-known role would be the real life one of dad. His daughter, Amber Tamblyn, is a popular actress in Hollywood today.
As far as Adamson’s work goes, the man is the quintessential exploitation filmmaker. He always churned out cheap films that looked much better than the cost should have allowed. These films were always outshined by their excellent trailers, use of music and excellent posters. One time he contracted comic book legend Neal Adams to draw the film poster for one of his features (Horror of the Blood Monsters). The result was an amazing poster for a pretty shitty film. But by the time the audience found that out their money had already been tendered at the ticket booth. Since Adamson always delivered on the over-the-top nature of genre exploitation films, people were happy to be duped again when his next film came out.
All in all, Adamson directed 33 feature films. He traversed the topic train with great expertise, always looking to genre bend whenever possible. Many of his films start out as one thing and end up being something different. “Blood of a Ghastly Horror” (1971) starts out as a crime film, but by the end we are in full fledged zombie mode… with a stop at the science fiction station in the middle. “Horror of the Blood Monsters” (1970) jumps around genres as well, featuring sci-fi elements (time & space travel) as well as vampirism (horror) and Caveman/Dinosaurs settings as well. A little something for EVERYONE!
Later in the 70’s Adamson would make his mark on another sub-genre, Blaxploitation films. “The Dynamite Brothers” (1974) is a classic odd couple story, pairing Stud (Timothy Brown) and Larry (Alan Tang) as an unlikely pairing of kung fu fighting heroes. This was not the first time that duos of different nationalities were paired together in a film, but it is hard to watch future movies like the Rush Hour franchise (featuring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan) and not see the influence. “Black Samurai” (1977) features the great Jim Kelly in the titular role. Hot off the success of Enter the Dragon/Black Belt Jones/Three the Hard Way, Kelly is a bad motherfucker in this awesome martial arts masterpiece. The next year Adamson and Kelly would reteam for “Death Dimension” (1978), which was billed as “The only film that James Bond himself would go see!’. This kind of marketing, and the inclusion of a past Bond (George Lazenby) in the cast, was enough to make the film more well-known than it deserved to be. That was the magic of Adamson. No matter how bad the films might have ended up, you were made to think you were walking into a cinematic masterpiece of epic proportions!
In the end the most ironic thing about Al Adamson was the way he died. In a story reminiscent of one of his exploitation films, Adamson was murdered by his contractor. The men had a dispute over money and Adamson ended up dead. The contractor, Fred Fulford, then buried Adamson under the floor of the house that he was working on. He poured cement and laid tile over the body, concealing the ghastly murder while the search for Adamson continued. His housekeeper noticed the new work and the absence of a hot tub that used to be in that room, so she tipped off the cops as this could be the possible location of Adamson’s corpse. When they broke up the floor and discovered his corpse Fulford was immediately arrested. This bizarre true crime story seems like it was pulled right out of a 70’s exploitation spec script. The documentary film “The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson” (2019) is an excellent film that details Adamson’s colorful career as untimely death.
Thankfully we have Adamson’s large body of work to remember him by. An excellent blu-ray box set was released by Severin films in 2019 featuring 31 out of 33 Adamson features. The documentary about his death is also featured along with a large book detailing his work. This will help bring Adamson’s work to a whole new generation of fans who have never attended a Drive-In once in their life. This may not be the way Al Adamson initially gained prominence in the film making world, but at least it keeps his work in the public conscious. The appreciation of exploitation and genre films of the 50-70s continues to grow more and more, immortalizing the innovators of the era like Adamson for all time. I am sure that puts a smile on his face wherever he may be.
(Originally Published in All We Need Is Sleeze: The Sleeze City Drive-In issue published in June 2022)