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Tuesday, April 15, 2014


This little film lies just outside of the study’s stated boundaries, being a television release only, and more of a horror/thriller than sci-fi. However, requests from readers tapped it back in bounds — even if just barely. Since it had no theatrical release, the book cover from the original novella is shown at left. Killdozer is often cited as one of those “so bad they’re good” movies, and a member of that small sub-genre of vehicles running amok. It certainly has a cult fan base. Clint Walker (famous as Sheriff Cheyenne Bodie on the TV series Cheyenne (’55-62) stars as the stalwart construction crew chief. His crew includes Carl Betz as Dennis, Neville Brand as Chub and James Wainwright as Dutch. A very young Robert Urich (pre-Spencer For Hire) is an early expendable, as is James A. Watson Jr. as Al.

Quick Plot Synopsis
After an explosion in space, a blue meteor tumbles towards earth, landing on a small island. On a remote island 200 miles off the coast of Africa, a crew of six men is left, with their construction equipment, with orders to construct a base camp for an oil company. After a mild bit of character development (tensions, backstories and the like). The young bulldozer operator, Mack, hits a rock that won’t move. His boss, Kelly, shows him how to deal with it by ramming the rock with the big D9 Cat. The rock glows blue and hums. The glow enters the D9’s blade and Mack is zapped with excess energy. The D9 then starts moving on its own until Kelly cuts its fuel line. Mack dies awhile later of what looks like radiation sickness. Tensions mount in the group. Al takes the checked-out and fixed up D9 out to do some work, but it gets a mind of its own. He jumps off, but can’t crawl backwards with his mouth open faster than a D9. He hides in a culvert pipe. (bad move) The D9 crushes him. More group tensions. The D9 roars in and trashes their camp. The four men flee in two jeeps and a truck, headed for the hills. They plan an ambush, thinking to use fire to stop it. En route to their ambush site, the D9 ambushes them. The jeeps get away, but Chub in his 1964 F-150 is caught by the blade, crushed and blows up. The three remaining men retreat to the hills again. Dutch does a bit too much drinking and decides to go to the beach for a swim. The D9 is there waiting for him. The jeep engine stalls. Dutch keeps trying to start it, then resigns himself to being crushed. He is. Dennis and Kelly try to fight machine with machine using a big Northwest 80D cable shovel excavator. After a protracted battle, the shovel finally snaps some cables. Kelly and Dennis run away, then hatch a plan to electrocute the dozer. They hook up a portable generator to some big steel perf plates (such as those used in temporary runways). Kelly tries to bait the dozer, but it doesn’t comply until Kelly breaks one of its headlights. Then, in bulldozer rage, it rumbles onto the plates and is electrocuted. After much sparking, smoke and flames, the dozer’s blade glows blue, then fades out. The thing is dead. Dennis and Kelly both know that no one will believe them, but are happy to be alive. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The absurdity of the premise makes the film easy for mockers to mock, but it actually a fairly tightly done made-for-TV thriller. The actors turn in reasonable performances, given the material. The battle between D9 and Excavator is fascinating for the audacity of it.

Cultural Connection
Lexical Legs — Despite the relative obscurity of an ABC Movie of the Week, Killdozer managed to enter the cultural lexicon with enough “legs” to still be a relevant and understood term 30-plus years later. In 2004, a disgruntled business owner in Colorado armored up a bulldozer and went on a rampage, damaging several civic buildings and business. He eventually committed suicide when the dozer got stuck, though may have intended to do so anyhow. His armored bulldozer quickly got the media nickname of Killdozer. YouTube videos of the 1974 movie still garner thousands of hits. A punk rock band named themselves after the film. An obscure form of homage.

Sci-Fi Origins — Even though the 1974 screenplay is not particularly sci-fi, the original story, penned by Theodore Sturgeon in 1944 was more so. In the original story, the alien entity was leftover from an ancient battle between aliens and their sentient machines that involved the lost continent of Atlantis. The construction crew disturb the resting place of the alien entity, which then resumes its warlike function — killing. Sturgeon had a hand in the screenplay, though to what extent is unknown. Sturgeon also wrote screenplays for two Star Trek (TOS) episodes: Amok Time and Shore Leave.

Book - Movie Comparisons — The book was set in WWII. The men were constructing an air strip on a remote Pacific Island, not an oil company base camp off the coast of Africa. Hints of the original story show up in the film, however, with the Quanset hut that they find, left over from WWII and the big metal plates they have on hand, which were used for making temporary airstrips. The book kills off the demon dozer with aerial bombardment, not electrocution. Both end, however, with the survivors admitting that no one will ever believe them.

Bad Machines — Killdozer is perhaps the more famous of the machines-gone-bad sub-genre. These include Duel (’71) (even though it was clearly the driver, not the tanker truck that was bad), The Car (’77), Christine (’83), Maximum Overdrive (’86) and Trucks (’97). The genre as a whole, has the credibility hurdle of things big, slow, and not especially scary being jazzed up to seem scary.

Untimely Deaths? — One of the endearing (or exasperating) features of Killdozer is how something so big, loud and slow, could ever catch a victim. In this, Killdozer share the puzzlement with the carpet monster in Creeping Terror (’64) and other such films. In those films, the victims help the monster by standing in one place and screaming “No no, don’t eat me” long enough for the slow monster to get up to them and eat them. In Killdozer, actually only two of the deaths were of this sort of easily avoidable doom. Mack died of radiation. No running would have helped there. Chub died when his truck was ambushed and rolled over. Not much running there. Al, however, is one of the lame deaths, as he obligingly crawled around slower than a D9, then hid in a flimsy metal pipe. Dutch did the classic waiting-too-long to try and restart his engine. When the D9 was upon him, he just sat there at accepted his fate. Perhaps being drunk does that. So, yes, some of the deaths are lame. But half of them weren’t.

Good Ol’ Electrocution — Using electricity to kill the monster is a very old, and somewhat hackneyed plot device. It was, of course, how The Thing was stopped in 1951. It destroys the Indestructible Man in ’56. It toasts the giant energy robot in Kronos (’57). and the Crab Monsters in ’57, Colossal Beast in '58 too, and numerous monsters after that. Such a tried and true monster solution.

Marvelous Echo — Marvel Comics put out an issue of Worlds Unknown in 1974, based only loosely on the film and drawing from the original short story for yet a third variant to Killdozer. The cover was wildly sensationalized and not germane to any of the three story variations (there was no woman character, and the dozer did not have a toothed blade or angry eyebrows). But, in this, the cover is in keeping with sci-fi movie posters tradition: which must feature a menaced babe of ample proportions and something with jagged teeth and/or angry eyes.

Bottom line? Killdozer is a cultural cult icon. For that reason alone, it deserves to be experienced. As a sci-fi film, it’s pretty darned thin. As popcorn entertainment, it fares pretty well. The actors do a fair job and the director, Jerry London, does a good job keeping the pace brisk and the exposition short. High art, its not, but it’s still fun and has thousands of fans.


CavedogRob said...

Wow! I have not seen hide nor hair of this movie in many many years! I remember the comic book too! Thanks for reviewing this!

Randall Landers said...

Love it! Glad it's become a cultural icon of a sort!