Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry is an exercise in simplicity. A bulldozer gains a murderous sentience and begins killing people. It’s perfection. This week’s film is sometimes cited as the probably inspiration behind Stephen King’s short story “Trucks” (and later film Maximum Overdrive), but it’s not really that simple of a line between the two. More on that connection below, but for now let’s just jump straight into the ridiculous genre gem that is Killdozer.
When: February 2nd, 1974
Like most things of value, our story starts in outer space. A meteorite rolls through the cosmos before crashing down on a small island near the African continent. Some time later six construction workers arrive by boat to begin building an airstrip and utilities for an oil company’s production base. The six are a mix of friends and acquaintances with a work-focused foreman named Kelley (Clint Walker) in charge. He runs a tight ship despite the crew not having a boat on which to escape the island when things go sideways, and sideways do things go. They try moving the space rock from its resting spot, but when the bulldozer’s shovel touches the meteorite a glowing presence is transferred into the machine.
The bulldozer becomes sentient and murderous… it becomes… a killdozer!
The first couple of deaths look to the others to be accidents or unusual illnesses, but soon the remaining men see the man-made machine rolling towards them with no one at the controls and the truth becomes clear. They’re fucked! Sure it’s a slow-moving machine that in no world could possibly sneak up on a person, but it’s still a scary situation. The metal beast rolls through their camp, crushes their radio, destroys some of the food/water supplies, and generally makes something of a mess. With no way to call for help — and no way to explain their situation even if they could reach the outside world — the men are forced into a fight for survival against a ten-ton steel monster.
Director Jerry London and writers Ed MacKillop, Herbert F. Solow, and Theodore Sturgeon (adapting his own novella) tackle the inherently goofy premise with a serious hand, and while it’s never truly scary — Killdozer! — its treatment as a real threat gives weight to its menace. The men are understandably frazzled and nearly driven mad with one essentially killing himself seeing no other recourse. It’s a good time for all (aside from the aforementioned men) as the mystery of the presence hangs unanswered in the sweltering air.
Its connection to King’s short story “Trucks” is even murkier. The tale premiered in the June 1973 issue of Cavalier magazine, and this movie aired eight months later, but Sturgeon’s original novella? It was published in 1944. Everything in the film is basically in Sturgeon’s story with the exception of the meteorite/space aspect. That’s not in King’s story either, but when King adapted “Trucks” into Maximum Overdrive in 1986 he added an explanation in the form of a passing comet. It’s probably a safe bet that he was at least partially inspired by Sturgeon’s story before writing his own, and he may have given the adaptation a nod when bringing his own to the screen. Happily, they’re both entertaining films in their own right with the former taking the premise seriously and King’s film going off the coke rails to the delight of viewers. Could Killdozer have gone a sillier route? One that’s more in the spirit of its excellent title? Perhaps, but it works played straight which is more than many horror films can claim.
Killdozer is a tight horror thriller that gives time to its characters before unleashing its rumbling hell, and that helps raise tensions and suspense as the already small cast dwindles beneath the bulldozer’s deadly tracks. The outcome satisfies despite not ending up exactly where genre fans might expect, and it’s enough to make you look over your shoulder next time you pass a construction site at night on an island.