Sunday, January 1, 2012


 A movie about a bulldozer that gets possessed by an alien intelligence and goes on a rampage sounds awesome and rife with destructive possibilities. Just thinking about a killing machine that can't be bargained with, can't be reasoned with, doesn't feel pity, remorse or fear, and absolutely will not stop ever until you are dead makes me shiver with delight. But best of all, it can't later run for governor. The notion of a heartless, intelligent, unstoppable killing machine didn't start with James Cameron's The Terminator. It may have begun all the way back in 1944 with Theodore Sturgeon's novella Killdozer which would subsequently be adapted into an ABC movie of the week 30 years later. The difference between the movies is Cameron took an idea about a relentless killer machine, threw in a time travel element (courtesy of Harlan Ellison) and ran with it, while the makers of Killdozer basically just squandered a great premise by somehow making it boring. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

At the age of 13, I was heavily into science and speculative fiction in a big way. From legendary writers like Asimov and Heinlein to modern day scribes like Ellison, Silverberg, Bova, etc, I loved 'em all. Adaptations from of these type of writer's works for movies and television were pretty rare, so when I saw a TV guide ad for the Theodore Sturgeon penned Killdozer, I couldn't believe it.

I mean, how could this movie not be the greatest of all time? To an undiscerning adolescent with a budding love of fantastic literature, the movie delivered. There was indeed an alien possessed bulldozer that did scrunch some guys and squish their encampment and vehicles. To my 13-year old entertainment pallette, it was mission accomplished for Killdozer. Thirty seven years later however, I re-watched the film with a bit more of a critical eye and found it wanting in a big, bad, boredozerish way. 

Synopsis: A six man construction crew on a remote island is menaced by an alien-possessed bulldozer.

I can and will forgive a lot in 70's made-for-TV movies, but Killdozer was produced in such a lame hackneyed fashion, it's impossible to look the other way when it comes to its glaring flaws. First and foremost is the awful 70's-type sci-fi electronic music. I'm not talking about cool John Carpenter-like or Tangerine Dream-ish synth stuff, it sounds more like 'be-deep, boop, beep' rocket-to-Mars generic crap. It reminded me very much of the awful beep-filled music from another 70's TV-movie I'd just watched the week before called The Questor Tapes. Sure enough, it was from the same composer - Gil Melle. Melle has done a ton of music for movies and TV with The Night Stalker and The Six Million Dollar Man being among his best works, but he really phoned in the sparse and ridiculous composition for Killdozer. It's the rare soundtrack that is actively annoying but somehow still missed when absent. But for what's suppose to be a suspenseful, action packed thriller, the appropriate soundtrack just never shows up. Instead, Melle lays on the 'be-boop' whenever the supposedly menacing bulldozer shows up, thus rendering it a lot less menacing. If there were ever a sound that is stuck firmly in the 70's/early 80's, it's that science-fiction-y synth sound which as it turns out, Melle helped to pioneer. Thanks a lot Melle.

TV directors tend not to get a lot of the credit for the great shows they work on, but also tend to avoid blame for the clunkers as well. Jerry London was a recognizable director for me just for the sheer amount of television fluff his name has appeared on in the opening credits of mediocre shows over the years. Prior to Killdozer he mainly directed sit-coms like Hogan's Heroes, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. It's clear he was out of his element in directing suspenseful action as the above shot was about the only inspired set-up in the entire movie. There was a distinct lack of tension throughout the film as most of the danger was made predictable by long shots of the killdozer (along with the banal music cues). There needed to be much more inventiveness by the director to create suspense especially when dealing with a piece of heavy equipment which has a diesel engine that can be heard coming from miles away. Sadly, however, London also seemed to have phoned this one in without much thought creating dull and at times ridiculous set pieces.

The one thing I'm very curious about is the writing. Sturgeon's name appears on the teleplay along with someone named Ed MacKillop who's lone credit is Killdozer. Herbert F Solow came up with the adaptation which is one of only three writing credits for him. I have a tough time believing Sturgeon, who wrote classic stuff for television like the Amok Time, Star Trek TOS episode, is mostly responsible for this teleplay which features some very sparse characterizations along with some fantastically bad non-sequiter dialogue. At one point in the story, apropos of nothing, a character blurts out that he once played in the Cotton Bowl. OK, but what's that got to do with the story or character? Maybe, if there were more odd moments like this, the film may have at least been an unintentional campy delight. But the characters were underwritten to such a degree that such information only occasionally bubbles up, likely from a previous draft. For most of the story, the main players just argue a lot and go into denial about what is clearly a rogue bulldozer. The relationships between them are not fleshed out very well at all. Similarly, the action scenes are weak, underwritten or just not thought out. These guys are on an island, but no one suggests avoiding the dozer by going in the ocean. It seems an obvious respite, even if only a temporary escape. How about digging a trench with the other construction equipment? There seemed a lot of alternatives, but the characters always seemed to make the oddest, nonsensical choices.

Lastly, the look of the film was terrible. Indian Dunes is a great place to go off-roading, however, it is a butt-ugly place to shoot a film. With a lot of gray and beige colors, it makes the movie look even more washed out then three decades of film degradation. With a lemon yellow bulldozer and a lush desert island backdrop, the movie should have sported some real eye candy. As is though, it is a seriously drab  and dusty affair.

Warning - the following section contains spoilers.
The lone bright spot, outside of the concept, is the nice cast of the movie. Clint Walker, in the lead role, is a serviceable, tough leader-type accompanied by veteran character actors James Wainwright and Neville Brand as the two main construction crew members. Carl Betz is a kind of Dr McCoy sidekick/conscience type character and Robert Urich appears early as a young "red shirt" member of the crew. Speaking of which, black actor James A Watson also appears briefly to prove comedienne Franklyn Ajaye's point that the brothers tended not to last long in 70's horror movies. The ensemble as a whole do the best they can, but the script is so scattershot, it often makes them appear goofy, especially Wainwright whose character is all over the place.

I hate to rag on a film that I still have a lot of nostalgic love for, but Killdozer just doesn't deliver on its great premise. There are moments here and there, but for the most part, the film is just dull and predictable with character's making some very lame choices. The movie is not completely without merit, but it could have been so much better it those involved had cared a bit more about what they were making. It is available on YouTube in its entirety at the link below.

Score 5/10

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