When discussing the lengthy and expansive array of “killer car” movies, a true cineaste must consider the question of “automobile used as homicidal weapon” vs. “automobiles that are somehow not only sentient but also bloodthirsty.” It’s an important distinction that…
Nah, I’m just kidding. Most “killer car” movies are enjoyably silly junk at best—wildly bizarre curiosities for people who love genre cinema and automotive mayhem in equal measure. Some, of course, are just plain terrible. Let’s break down the essentials (and a few obscurities) from the realm of killer car cinema.
The Citizen Kane of killer car thrillers, which is sort of a cheat because the antagonist in this rock-solid Steven Spielberg TV movie is actually a massive tractor trailer that terrorizes Dennis Weaver across the highways of the California desert. The movie was so well-received that Universal even released it in theaters after it had played on network TV. Not only did this kickstart the career of one of the best filmmakers ever born; it also marked the beginning of a weird little trend in genre cinema.
MODEL: 1955 Peterbilt 281
See what I mean? It didn’t take long for TV producers to realize, Hey, if a malevolent tractor trailer can dazzle the home viewing audience, just imagine what a nefarious bulldozer could do! Clint Walker, Neville Brand and Robert Urich are construction workers who are tasked with building an airstrip on a remote island. Also there’s a rampaging bulldozer that’s been possessed by some sort of invisible alien spirit. Yes, this is an actual (TV) movie.
MODEL: A giant bulldozer!
DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)
One of Roger Corman’s best! It’s the year 2000 and there’s this crazy race in which you get points based on how brutally you mow down pedestrians! Yes, really! This tongue-in-cheek post-apocalyptic action satire still earns fans thanks to its dark humor and badass automobiles—plus it got a decent remake in 2008 that generated a bunch of sequels—plus it’s plain old fun to watch David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone as happily homicidal motorists.
MODEL: The wacky collection of vehicles were custom-made on the frames of several Volkswagen models, a Fiat Spider, a Chevy Corvair and a Ford Mustang.
A deservedly obscure yet oddly entertaining low-budget knock-off about a possessed car and the messed-up family it screws with. Notable mainly as an early effort from prolific schlock master Charles Band, or possibly for the lead performance by José Ferrer. Yeah. He did some really bad movies late in his career.
MODEL: 1968 Chevy Camaro
THE CAR (1977)
The citizens of a sleepy Utah town (including James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd and R.G. Armstrong) find themselves under siege from a huge (badass) black (creepy) sedan. While the premise is absurd—as it is in almost all of these movies—this one is widely considered one of the “cult classic killer car” flicks, so if you check this one out and don’t like it, you probably won’t like 90 percent of these wacky movies.
MODEL: 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III
DEATH CAR ON THE FREEWAY (1979)
Eight years after Spielberg’s Duel hit it big, network executives were still playing the copycat game. This one’s an early effort from stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham (who directed numerous car-crazy movies like Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run), and it’s sort of like a combo between Duel and a slasher flick, with a tacky side order of creepy misogyny and/or female empowerment, depending on your perspective. The cast is pretty wild (Peter Graves, Shelley Hack, Frank Gorshin, Dinah Shore, Abe Vigoda and George Hamilton?) but the movie loses logic points because the antagonist drives a death van, not a death car.
MODEL: 1977 Dodge Ram Van
THE HEARSE (1980)
A young woman moves into her dead aunt’s old house, only to discover that her dead aunt was probably a witch, and also that she’s being stalked by a mysterious man behind the wheel of a hulking hearse. Pretty generic stuff, even for 1980, but it does offer a few well-crafted jolts and, usual for this era, a fairly colorful cast that includes Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten and the very young versions of Christopher McDonald and Perry Lang!
MODEL: A big ol’ hearse! Who even makes these things?
If Spielberg’s Duel is the Citizen Kane of killer vehicle movies, then John Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine has to be the Casablanca. Not only does Carpenter avoid the inherent silliness of a “possessed car” story, but he and screenwriter Bill Phillips somehow managed to deliver a movie that’s both legitimately scary and unexpectedly touching. The lead performance from Keith Gordon (who goes from silly nerd to creepy freak) is a large reason why the film works so well, but let’s not overlook the eerie score, the effective period design, and the amazing special effects in the film’s most eye-popping sequence.
MODEL: 1958 Plymouth Fury
MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986)
A group of wholly unlikable assholes hide out in a highway rest stop after the world’s machines revolt and start massacring everyone. Not just cars, either! Steamrollers, lawnmowers, hell even soda machines commit murder! WTF?!? This garish, sweaty and consistently unpleasant adaptation of a Stephen King short story marks the first (and last) time the legendary author would climb into the director’s chair, and while it’s gone on to earn a small cult following, well, it’s an undeniably bad movie. Wait until you get to the part when the terrorized humans are forced to refill the gas tanks of their mechanical attackers.
MODEL: Several, but everyone’s favorite seems to be the Western Star 4800 semi truck with the giant Green Goblin head on the front grill.
THE WRAITH (1986)
A bunch of rotten punks with souped-up cars terrorize a small Arizona town but earn the attention of a mysterious killer in a super-keen vehicle after they commit murder. It’s little more than a “misfit strikes back” revenge thriller combined with a Corman-ish “car gang” story, but this obscure 1980s relic does feature names like Charlie Sheen, Sherilyn Fenn, Clint Howard and Randy Quaid. I thought this movie was badass when I was 16. Turns out I was wrong.
MODEL: The bad guys drive some pretty cool stuff—Firebird, Corvette, Daytona. etc.—but the central automobile was a custom-made, $1.5 million prototype known as the Dodge M4S, which you couldn’t own even back in 1986.
Eleven years after Maximum Overdrive hit theaters and left a big, nasty skid mark, some intrepid producers decided it was time to turn Stephen King’s short story “Trucks” into another movie. Timothy Busfield and Brenda Bakke star as survivors who hole up in a truck stop when machines decide to strike back in highly violent fashion. Maximum Overdrive was pretty obnoxious, but this rendition is sort of drab. Perhaps “Trucks” just works better on the page.
MODEL: Just a bunch of trucks.
JOY RIDE (2001)
Steve Zahn, Leelee Sobieski and the late Paul Walker star as three free-spirited young dummies who piss off the wrong trucker and spend several days being terrorized across the highway. The mysterious nature of their attacker is a big part of why this thriller works so well, and it doesn’t hurt that the antagonist is behind the wheel of a sincerely grimy and ominous truck from Hell. The clever screenplay, co-written by J.J. Abrams, pays a little homage to the classic Duel and then spins off into a barrage of twists and turns.
MODEL: 1985 Peterbilt 359
This little-seen car-centric Robert Harmon (The Hitcher) thriller is not all that good, unfortunately, but given that it’s about a man who seeks revenge on the killer car driver who murdered his wife, it seemed logical to include it here. The flick earns a few points for sheer audacity—the villain is wheelchair-bound and mechanically “connected” to his killing machine—and car nuts may enjoy something of the machinery, but overall there’s a pretty good reason you’ve never heard of this one.
MODEL: 1972 Cadillac El Dorado (villain) and a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda (anti-hero)
BLOOD CAR (2007)
This odd mix of sci-fi, horror and dry social satire plays a little like Mad Max and a little like Little Shop of Horrors. I mean that in a good way. In the future, gas is super expensive, so one guy figures out how to make his car run on (you guessed it) human blood. Suffice to say that this development earns our hero all sorts of attention from both new (lady) friends and nefarious new foes. Not a bad little indie, made on clearly limited funds but loaded with amusing ideas.
MODEL: 1993 Honda Civic
DEATH PROOF (2007)
Kurt Russell, clearly having a ball, is a sleazy stalker who slays his victims from behind the wheel of an undeniably badass vehicle, but (as is often the case) Quentin Tarantino manages to both homage and lampoon the 1970s drive-in aesthetic and deliver a witty, wild, and consistently unpredictable road thriller. Plus it’s just novel to see Kurt Russell playing a maniac.
MODEL: “Stuntman Mike” drives two different cars: a 1970 Chevy Nova in the first half, and a 1969 Dodge Charger in the second half. (The ladies are driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger.)
SUPER HYBRID (2010)
Now here’s a true-blue “killer” car. You have to see this flick to believe it, but the car is actually some sort of bizarre shape-shifting monster that just looks like a car. It’s insane. Trust me.
MODEL: It keeps changing! Sometimes it’s a sedan, sometimes it’s a pick-up truck, and near the end it’s just an insane monster.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
This whole damn franchise is killer car heaven. Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981). and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) all have their charms—especially The Road Warrior, but it’s safe to say we’ve never seen automotive carnage as beautifully orchestrated and lovingly photographed as what we got in Mad Max: Fury Road. Fortunately it’s also got just enough plot (and a few worthwhile themes on bravery, loyalty, and hope) to turn this thing into a modern classic. Yes I said modern classic!
MODEL: Don’t make me choose.