Muir's Law of Nostalgia # 3: Some "gems" (both cinematic and earthen...) are better left unexcavated.
Or to put it another way: not everything you remember from your youth is a treasure. Sometimes it's just...poopie.
The 1974 hit TV-movie Killdozer -- another touchstone from my disco decade, mis-spent youth -- proves (like 1960's dreadful Dinosaurus!) a prime example of this theorem.
I'm sad and disappointed to report that under the microscope of critical viewing, this old made-for-television movie is a bit of a bust. Yep, Killdozer is stuck perpetually in idle.
And yes, this is a film that was constantly joked about on MST3K (for good reason, I see...). And no, I was not expecting great art upon my recent viewing.
On the contrary, I was simply expecting to have a good time; to be entertained on the level of a production such as Duel, Trilogy of Terror, Gargoyles, Snowbeast, Someone's Watching Me, Death Stalk or Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Those are all 1970s TV-movies that hold up pretty darn well in 2008, given budgetary and censorious limitations. Unfortunately, Killdozer doesn't make the grade. By a long shot.
That's a bit of surprise, because the source material is strong stuff. Killdozer is based on a great and highly-suspenseful Theodore Sturgeon novella first published in Astounding Magazine back in 1944. Sturgeon's tale concerned a malevolent alien intelligence waging war against humanity (particularly a small work crew) by possessing a bull dozer.
The TV-movie pretty closely hews to that simple outline, but lacks the most basic sense of craft to bring to life the bizarre premise. To wit, Killdozer features a dearth of action, impossible-to-distinguish characters, and is poorly filmed. In short, it makes Maximum Overdrive (1985) look like King Lear.
Think of The Thing by way of comparing the ingredients: isolated location (here an island two hundred miles off the coast of Africa), few characters (all male...), an alien menace (not a shape shifter but "pure energy"), and a fierce battle for survival.
In fact, Killdozer's opening shot is one quite similar to John Carpenter's vastly superior The Thing (1981) remake. It's set in Earth's near-orbital space. Instead of a flying saucer crashing into the Antarctic snow 200,000 years ago, we see a meteor crash to Earth on that isolated island shore...time indeterminate.
We then cut to a small construction team working for Warburton Oil Resources. There are six men on the team, led by a recovering alcoholic named Kelly (Clint Walker). Before long, one of the workers, Mac (Robert Urich) spies an eerie blue glow transfer from the meteor to a bulldozer...and then he promptly dies of something like radiation poisoning.
An alien hum (like one emanating from the meteor), is soon detected in the bulldozer's bucket blade, but gritty mechanic Chub (Neville "Eaten Alive" Brand) can't pinpoint the source.
Before you can say "Bob the Builder," the alien-controlled bulldozer goes out of control. Its first act is to crush the team's one and only radio (clever girl...).
The next thing it does is go after the film's token African-American, Al (James Watson). Al's death is an especially absurd scene: I mean, how hard is it to outrun a slow moving bulldozer, when there are trees not far distant?
And answer me this: if you were being chased by a malevolent construction vehicle, would you stop in the vehicle's path to hide in a hollow pipe?
Sorry, but to quote Killdozer, "pain makes me snide."
The remainder of the film's seemingly eternal running time (74 minutes) is devoted to a lackadaisically-paced and poorly-orchestrated man vs. machine war.
Unfortunately, the machine seems to possess the upper hand here in terms of intelligence, and the construction team members are killed one-at-a-time in mostly idiotic fashion. For instance, the bulldozer pushes an avalanche of rocks down a mountainside onto one unlucky man who doesn't have the wherewithal to look up.
Then another character spontaneously decides to go joy-riding in a jeep on the beach...only to be surprised that the bulldozer is waiting on the shore for him, having sprung a trap.
I have to admit, this latter moment is hysterically funny. Staged as a shocking surprise, the film cuts suddenly to the bulldozer on the beach... just waiting to strike as the joy-rider appears on the scene. You have to ask yourself: how did the malevolent bull dozer know exactly where the jeep would show up on the vast shore line, and then park there undetected? Do bulldozers have stealth mode? How, precisely, can a loud bull dozer "sneak up" on someone?
I often joke that in horror movies, human beings do not possess peripheral vision. In Killdozer, human beings also do not have the capacity to hear, apparently. Ears are purely decorative. For example, there's a moment in which the parked bulldozer raises its mechanical blade (to smash a worker), while an imperiled character stands cluelessly in front of the machine, just inches away. Does he hear anything and turn around? Nope. Not until the bucket smashes at his feet. (Yes, the killdozer conveniently misses his target...).
The dialogue in Killdozer is mostly atrocious too, a piss-poor stream of endless lines like "machines don't just run by themselves!"
Well, if you are trapped on an island and your comrades are being murdered at an alarming rate, are you going to cling to that particular theory or believe your own lying eyes?
Obviously the damn bulldozer is running itself!!! Jeez! The movie tries to squeeze some mileage out of the fact that Kelly is a former drinker, and therefore he doesn't trust what he sees, but come on, Killdozer...don't insult my intelligence! How many people do you have to see crushed by a self-operating bulldozer before realization starts to dawn?
But Killdozer's biggest deficit remains that, from a visual standpoint, it is a remarkably ugly film. The island setting is chalky and dusty -- not exotic at all -- and there is no variation (therefore no relief) whatsoever in location. From start to finish, the movie looks as though it were filmed in a quarry somewhere. The scared work men drive back and forth from one chalk pit to another, trying to come up with a plan to kill their nemesis. After dynamite doesn't do the trick, electrocution proves efficacious (a nod to Hawks' The Thing?) But even the iconic battle between crane and bulldozer is visually underwhelming. A clever filmmaker might have tried to play up the beauty of the location; making a distinction between the natural beauty of the island and the mechanical ugliness of the bulldozer.
Total honesty requires that I admit one thing. I did feel a plesant flush of nostalgia while watching Killdozer (especially during the yellow-lettered, Universal Studios, 70s-style opening credits). In particular, I remember how I first encountered it as a little kid (as a Saturday Afternoon Super Spectacular or some such thing...). But the happy glow of nostalgia fades quickly during this monotonous TV-movie and the audience is left with the realization that these interchangeable characters are so dumb, so slow-witted, that they deserve to die at the hands (or gears) of the killdozer.
The best part of Killdozer is the clever title. However, the operative syllable there is "doze."