In the 1970s, in the days before mini-series and cable TV productions, American television churned out a regular stream of made-for-TV movies. Some of them were very bad indeed, a few were rather good, but most were just bland and forgettable. Among them were a good many fantasy offerings and in the early to mid 80s they turned up regularly on British television, often just the once before vanishing again back into the footnotes of books about genre television. They rarely appeared on video either and the more obsessed among us eagerly taped them all, knowing that the chances that we would ever see them again were slim.
Among the strangest of the ABC Movies of the Week (one of the highest profile made-for-TV umbrellas) was Jerry London's Killdozer. What made it of immediate interest was that it was co-written by legendary science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, based on his own novella of the same name. Sturgeon was no stranger to television writing, having already penned a couple of scripts for Star Trek (Shore Leave (1966) and Amok Time (1967)) as well as individual episodes for The Invaders (The Betrayed (1967)) and Out There (Mewhu's Jet (1951)) but this was the first time that one of his own works was being adapted.
A regular fixture in the classic science fiction anthologies (during the 1950s he was said to be the most anthologised author in the world), Sturgeon was a short story writer par excellence, with a poetic turn of phrase and wild imagination. He has been cited as an influence by such genre luminaries as Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut Jr, who allegedly based his fictional author Kilgore Trout on Sturgeon.
The TV version of his novella Killdozer (first published in Astounding magazine in 1944) was first broadcast on 2 February 1974 and boasts one of the more ridiculous plots of any movie of the week. A group of hard hats on remote island off the coast of Africa find their humdrum lives under threat when one of their giant bulldozers is possessed by an alien force that has arrived aboard a large blue meteorite! Various 'dozer related deaths occur until one of the frankly rather dull and non-too-bright construction workers figures out what to do. By the cringe-worthy male bonding session at the climax, neither they nor we are any the wiser as to why the alien force took over the bulldozer nor why it's so determined to kill everyone off.
All as daft as a brush of course, filmed in that typically flat and uninvolving manner that was the curse of 70s made-for-TV movies and unconvincingly acted by a cast that really doesn't seem to have it's heart in it. You really feel like you should like Killdozer - if only for its unforgettable title and barmy premise - but it has a pace that moves with all the fleeting grace of the titular 'dozer and which invariably relies on the rank stupidity of its characters to keep the plot moving.
The chief problem is that although it seemed to work well enough on the printed page, the very idea of “bulldozer as serial killer” is just too ridiculous even for those of us who watch more celluloid silliness than is probably good for us. The Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer used in the film is 8.1 metres long, weighs a whopping 48,784 kg / 107,550 lbs and trudges along at a measly 11.9 kph. Yet somehow, this lumbering, noisy monstrosity is constantly sneaking up on its victims, catching the dim-witted hard hats unawares and even laying in wait, ambushing innocent passers-by!
Mind you, the characters are such a tedious shower that it's hardly surprising that the Killdozer manages to make such short work of them. They're the usual sad collection of TV movie clichés (the alcoholic, the stoical, no-nonsense hero, the token black) that are so monumentally stupid that they pretty much deserve everything they get. Those who do make it through to the end credits only do so because Killdozer wears itself out after a less-than-titanic struggle with a digger machine and conveniently disappears into the jungle long enough for the boneheads to work out a trap.
Which brings us very neatly to the question of special effects. It's not that a film like Killdozer actually needs many effects - the title machine itself should be enough - so you'd expect that the producers could at least spring some extra budget to make the few effects sequences stand out a bit. But evidently the Killdozer itself cost a lot more than we realised (it probably had a better agent than the rest of the hapless cast) and drained the budget of everything but the few cents it clearly cost for some badly aligned optical work and the handful of firecrackers that are meant to represent the Killdozer being electrocuted at the climax. Indeed the final destruction of the rampaging machine (look, I'm not giving anything away here, you'll see the ending coming very early on) is so feeble and anti-climactic that it actually takes a second or two to realise that it has indeed been stopped, quite literally, in its tracks.
That said, Stephen King was clearly a fan of the film - his short story Trucks bears more than a passing similarity to Killdozer. Astonishingly the two film versions of the story (King's own Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Chris Thompson's Trucks (1997)) are even less fun than London's effort – at least it has the excuse of being a minimally budgetted made-for-TV effort…
Thanks to its sensationalist title (and, no doubt, the Marvel Comics adaptation which no-one ever admits to ever having read now but which was a regular playground talking point in the mid 70s), Killdozer's reputation has been greatly over-inflated. It barely turns up on TV anywhere any more and if it ever had a video release it was a very small, low-print-run affair that has similarly vanished from sight. So is it a great loss to the world of film and television fandom? Only if, like me, you simply have to see it all. It you at all value your sanity, have a shred of self-respect or have anything even remotely resembling a life you simply won't care. Which is no more or less than this rather sorry effort deserves. It's back to the darkest, furthest corner of Kev's Cupboard for this one…