As a child, I played with childish things; as an adult, I write about them. (Okay, I still play with them.) The ‘70s sure had its share of maniacal machinery, starting with the early Spielberg TV movie Duel (1971). Looking to recreate that success, ABC adapted Theodore Sturgeon’s novella Killdozer (1974) into its own attempt at motorized madness. It is certainly no Duel, but fun is had, and that’s all that matters.
Airing Saturday, February 2nd as an ABC Suspense Movie, Killdozer was trying to plow through the other network’s heavy hitters: CBS had M*A*S*H/The Mary Tyler Moore Show/The Bob Newhart Show, while NBC had their own Saturday Night at the Movies. I’ll go out on a limb and say that CBS crushed anyone in their path. Regardless, if you wanted to see people crushed by heavy, sentient machinery, you had to tune into ABC.
Let’s open up our ear-dogged TV GUIDE and see what we can dig (ha!) up:
KILLDOZER (Saturday, 8:30pm, ABC)
A group of construction workers off the coast of Africa have to contend with a killer bulldozer. Clint Walker, Carl Betz star.
Strap in, cause here we go: the telefilm opens in outer space, as a blue meteorite on a wire wobbles towards earth. It crashes on an island off the coast of Africa, where a construction crew led by Clint Walker (Small Soldiers) is readying the area for an oil refinery. When one of the crew (a pre-Vega$ Robert Urich) unearths the glowing rock, all of its glowy power is transposed into the bulldozer, while also killing him (sorry, Dan Tanna fans). Deeming it a freak accident, the crew soldiers on with their work, but the bulldozer has other plans for them, mainly to flatten them for good. Can they beat the Killdozer in a scant 73 minutes?
Silliness abounds in Killdozer; whereas Duel was a Man versus Machine without identity, this one assigns some sort of malevolent alien force but forgets to give it much of a personality beyond glowing headlights. Which I suppose is enough; I wasn’t expecting Thomas the Tank Engine anthropomorphism to take place, but with such a limited crew and isolated setting, it wouldn’t have hurt. (I mean, it isn’t like it could get any stupider.) Director Jerry London, a TV vet (Shogun), does his best to keep the engines chugging.
No, most of the flavor has to come from the characters, and while Walker is a touch snoozy, Neville Brand is on hand as the crew’s mechanic to offer his particular uh, brand of oversized cragginess. It’s a small cast, and they mostly do well with ample opportunity (too ample, really) to thesp in between the killings. And as this is a TV offering, no blood shall be spilled, although there is a copious amount of sand and dirt to substitute.
If I’m not exactly selling the sizzle on Killdozer, it’s because you have to meet it halfway to achieve enjoyment; you have to be willing to overlook huge gaps in logic (stranded on a remote island with one radio? And how hard is it to outrun a bulldozer?) and considerable downtime that isn’t particularly interesting. All of its goodwill is wrapped up in the goofy premise, in the hopes that you’ll go along. And if you’re a sucker for sentient machines, you probably will. This is just not something you would normally find (nor expect people to watch) on network TV.
Constant Writer Stephen King must have been watching however; Maximum Overdrive is pretty much a redux version, albeit with a larger budget, gore, and a huge cocaine per diem. The Car (1977) certainly took off from the same premise, but instead of irascible aliens it used a grumpy Satan to ruin James Brolin’s day. So putting aside Duel and My Mother the Car, Killdozer was a bit of a trailblazer, right?
Okay, now I’m being silly. But there aren’t very many angles to look at a lot of horror on TV and not wind up at silly. Budget restrictions and censor chokeholds can often hamper imagination and its reach. So sometimes you just have to settle for a bulldozer that runs over a few folks and destroys a campsite. And with an amazing title like Killdozer, I just know you’re going to watch it anyway.Next: It Came From The Tube: TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO (1977)