Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Killdozer! (1974)

Many years ago, when I was a fresh faced child with a full mop of unkempt hair, my parent's account at the local video store was set up so that my sister and I were unable to rent R-rated movies. (A few years later I discovered that this "parental lock" did not apply to unrated films, but that is an entirely different story.)

My dreams of watching Return of the Living Dead 2 or House shattered, I turned to the public library, where I settled for reading Lovecraft and non-fiction books about horror. One tome in particular, a horror movie encyclopedia of some sort, was incredibly influential on my pre-teen gray matter. Importantly, it was the first time I learned that a movie existed where the hero is forced to chop off his own hand and replace it with a chainsaw in order to fight demons.

I quickly became familiar with the basic premises of a great number of obscure films, though I often cannot remember the titles. To this day I spend occasional sleepless nights mulling over half-remembered synopses of cool sounding movies that will undoubtably disappoint if ever tracked down.

One such disappointment is the inaugural winner for my "Best Title for the Worst Movie" award: Killdozer! A microbudget '70s TV movie, and the least distinguished member of the 'Killer Inanimate Objects' subgenre (itself subdivided into mobile and immobile killer objects), Killdozer! is almost exclusively remembered for its sweet title and self-explanatory premise. The classy exclamation point doesn't hurt, either.

I finally got around to seeing the film after casually mentioning it to a co-worker. The pure unadulterated awesomeness of its title and premise overwhelmed his system and infected him with a strange sort of madness. He spent weeks perusing eBay for bootleg copies, forgoing food, water, and human contact. There were plenty of available copies, but they were all "too expensive for a stupid movie." (Madness cannot overcome cheapness, apparently.) Eventually, he found a copy at a reasonable price and watched it. Disgusted, he handed it to me as a "Christmas Present" and lapsed into his new lunacy: an iPhone.

The movie's packaging was not encouraging.

Apparently, today's video bootleggers can't afford color printers or proper disc duplication. The movie comes on a partially full, single layer, purple DVD-R in a case with a poorly printed sheet of paper hastily shoved into the cover. I'm surprised they bothered with a label on the disc; "KilDozar" written in semi-legible sharpy seems more appropriate.

Popping the disc into my progressive-scan, upscaling DVD player yielded no surprises. The quality hovered around sub-YouTube levels and was riddled with fascinating video-compression errors, such as blue globs of color floating around inside of people's shirts. This is especially annoying considering the movie's liberal use of crappy "blue globs of color" special effects. I would make a drinking game out of trying to guess which floating blue globs are intentional, but I'm not willing to watch the movie enough times to determine for sure which is which. Truly this is the reason why I sprang for the big TV and sound system.

Can you tell which is supposed to be there?

Furthermore, the whole movie has some sort of Sci-Fi channel logo in the corner the whole time. (I'm reasonably certain it's not the Sci-Fi Channel.) So someone must have taped the movie off of a Sunday morning movie special and uploaded it to YouTube or a torrent site, where our bootlegging friend leeched it to make DVDs with the recently installed LightScribe burner in his G4. The result: an easy $5 in pure profit.

This looks significantly better than my DVD copy, I shit you not.

All right, enough beating around the bush, Killdozer! sucks. Hard. The filmmakers were clearly suffering from the same "Killer Bulldozer! OMG!!!11 Nom nom nom TEH PIZZA!!!!!" derangement as my coworker when they decided to start production. A derangement that blinded them to the central dilemma of making a totally rockin' killer bulldozer movie: wouldn't an evil, killer bulldozer be incredibly slow and ineffective at killing people? The answer, unless you are refering to Killdozer at the Assisted Living Center, is a resounding Yes. Upon freeing your mind from Killdozer-itis, you should become gradually aware that bulldozers are slow, unwieldy beasts that, while terrifying to even the most powerful stationary objects, are not much of a threat to anything nimble enough to walk a few feet to the side as it goes by.

The setup of Killdozer! does what it can to mitigate the structural flaws of the premise: a group of construction workers are working on a remote island when their bulldozer is granted malevolent sentience by ramming into a hunk of space rock.

So they have limited supplies in their struggle and no help is coming. Fair enough. Let's also give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the dozer is magic and won't require fuel or regular maintenance. I'm still putting my money on the characters with opposable thumbs and the ability to turn 180 degrees in under a fortnight.

Luckily for the hapless 'dozer, his potential victims are all dumber than boxes of paint-chip eating rocks. Perhaps television mega-star Robert Urich might have been resourceful enough to defeat their glacial tormentor, but he is killed in the first couple of minutes by the evil, blue radiation emanating from the weird space rock that they decided to ram with their bulldozer.

I'm aware that they came to the island for the specific purpose of bulldozing things, but my first reaction upon seeing a giant ball of shiny metal ore that Robert Urich cannot identify would not be to smash it. (My first reaction would be "Woo! Space Rock! I'm rich!") Also, if you are reading this and find yourself becoming excited about Mr. Urich's top billing (misleading and misspelled as it may be) you are most likely my mom.

Hi Mom! It's that TV guy you like.

It would be too much to ask for the movie to get down to brass tacks and begin the ultimate battle of man v. machine, so '60s TV Western staple Clint Howard must spend the next fifteen minutes not telling anyone about his suspicions that their bulldozer has developed a homicidal streak. Apparently he is a recovering alcoholic and afraid that his wild tales will convince his men that he has fallen off the wagon. (Not that they seem to care. There's even a scene with them trying to get him to drink.)

At long last the Killdozer lives up to its name and slooooowly takes out one of the workers. It then goes on a "rampage" through the workers' camp site. Tents collapse, equipment is smooshed into the ground, Science-Fictiony bleep-bloops play on the soundtrack, and garbage is strewn about wildly as Killdozer ravages the shanty town with the ferocity of The Incredible Hulk on Quaaludes.

Forced to abandon their camp for the safety of a shallow grade, (slight inclines are the garlic and crucifixes of the sentient bulldozer world) and finally convinced of the evil machine's intent, the men set aside their petty squabbling to formulate a plan of attack. Unfortunately, their "plan" consists of ramming the bulldozer with a pickup truck full of explosives. (It's time to fight smashing with smashing.) And they don't even do it right! Killdozer ambushes them and they ram their pickup sideways into the damn thing's scoop, killing half the remaining characters. That's like trying to defend yourself from a tiger by ripping off your shirt and trying to shove your beer gut into its jaws: perhaps it will choke to death, but I doubt it.

Freed from the baggage of its cast of useless red-shirts, Killdozer! can finally get to the main event: Clint Walker trying to kill a bulldozer with a crane.

High. Fucking. Octane.

Killdozer ends the worlds largest scale (and somehow most boring) episode of Battlebots by pinning the crane shovel under its blade. Their giant, mechanized game of thumb-wars over, the surviving humans abandon ship to try and think of a better plan. In an amazing turn of events, they do! A few poorly edited moments later, they've constructed a giant electrified grate that they use to send Killdozer to that great big pile of gravel in the sky. Too bad no one will ever believe poor boozy Clint Walker's story and he has to resign himself to the fact that his construction career is over and he will likely be tried for murdering his crew. The End.

The biggest thing Killdozer! is missing is the MST3K guys down in the corner making wisecracks. The movie is absolutely riddled with poor acting, poor filmmaking, and continuity errors. Unless, that is, the evil blue glow that animates Killdozer also causes the sun to rise and set at wildly random times, for it is rare that a scene goes by in the film without at least one radical and unexplained change in the time of day. The characters are all sort of annoying and only exist to look scared, hold still, and get flattened. One guy, his jeep stalling as Killdozer approaches, just closes his eyes, when he could have easily gotten out and walked briskly into the nearby forest. The damn 'dozer is the smartest of the bunch; it sets up ambushes, destroys their radio, and even puts out an attempted signal fire.

This scene takes place during the day, if you can believe that.

I don't want to sound too negative, but there is only one solitary redeeming factor to Killdozer! (Other than the excuse for me to write the word killdozer over and over again. Killdozer.) The '70s boop-beep music truly kicks ass, even if it is tacked on in a transparent attempt to give the titular machine an "otherworldly" feel. It often reminded me of "Commingled Containers," the only Stan Brakhage movie I ever saw with a score. That or something that Hal 9000 would put on his iPod.

After watching Killdozer! and determining to write a review on it, I did some research and was shocked to discover that the filmmakers were not the originators of Killdozer-itis, but early victims. The story dates back to a 1944 novella by obscure Sci-Fi author
Theodore Sturgeon. I've yet to pick up the copy I reserved at my local library (the Netflix of the 19th century) but you can read the marvel comics adaptation (which is supposedly more faithful to the book) right here. (Just scroll down past the massive banner.) The basic structure is the same, only with a more elaborate backstory for the animating power. Of course any backstory whatsoever is more elaborate than "space rock make 'dozer bad." Also, the cover is terribly misleading, even if the story inside is more interesting than the movie. (Again, just about anything is.)

Just for kicks, here is a Killdozer video-game adaptation that is amazingly faithful to the pacing of the source material. Here is the inarguably necessary Christmas themed sequel. Enjoy!

I've also learned that Killdozer-itis has spread to a new generation, with the upcoming indie horror, Crawler
, which attempts to get around Killdozer's stumbling blocks by giving the eponymous evil machine the ability to shoot lightning and make zombies. Or something.

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