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Good Road Movies (1975-80): Pedal to the Metal

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Michael Taylor itcherRoad films of the 70s helped define the decade, from comedies like ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ and ‘The Blues Brothers’ to horror films like ‘The Car’ and post-apocalyptic thrillers like ‘Mad Max.’ But there are many underrated road movies ripe for rediscovery, including ‘The Driver,’ ‘The Big Bus’ and ‘Damnation Alley.’ ~ Michael Taylor

Strap Yourselves In

While the road films of the early 70s celebrated a wanderlust that emanated out of a disillusioned America, the second half of the decade showed a transition into highway spectacle, sparked by blockbusters like ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars.’

This meant bigger chases, bigger thrills, fancier cars, and a sense of style that encompassed a variety of sub-genres including comedy, crime, sci-fi and horror, all bound together by a need for speed.

With this in mind, let’s uncover some lesser-known good road movies worth a look.


High Octane 70’s Road Movie Recommendations

‘Race with the Devil’ (Jack Starrett, 1975)

“What the hell happened to your van here? Your back window is all busted up!”

One of the greatest guilty pleasures of the 70s, ‘Race with the Devil’ mixes car chase thriller with occult horror.

Roger (Peter Fonda) and Frank (Warren Oates) are motorcycle salesmen off for a week of skiing with their wives Kelly and Alice (played by Lara Parker and Loretta Switt, respectively) in a new state-of-the-art RV.

But their vacation is put in peril after they witness a murder at a Texas campsite, and then relentlessly pursued by the satanic cult responsible for the crime.

But they soon realize the cult is a wide-reaching organization across the state, making for a treacherous path to freedom, culminating in a thrilling car chase sequence.

‘Devil’ never takes itself too seriously, and that’s to its credit. It’s a fun horror flick with some impressive stunt sequences, making for one of the wonderfully weirdest movies of the era.

‘The Big Bus’ (James Frawley, 1976)

“The aerodynamics work! He’s breaking wind at 90!”

This parody of disaster movies takes place on an atomically-powered superbus named Cyclops, capable of traveling non-stop from New York to Denver.

But its maiden voyage goes horribly wrong after an explosion kills its drivers and critically injures the scientist who created it and understands it’s operational powers.

It’s up to his daughter, Kitty Baxter (Stockard Channing), to avert disaster, reluctantly reaching out to an old boyfriend, Dan (Joseph Bologna), a former driver disgraced after a nasty bus accident (and falsely accused of cannibalizing the victims).

Adding to their dire predicament is a nefarious oil tycoon determined to destroy Cyclops, alongside a motley crew of disruptive passengers who make Kitty and Dan’s task all the more arduous as they attempt to avert disaster.

‘The Big Bus’ is a deliriously over-the-top spoof of disaster films, and its arch tone alienated critics upon the time of its release. But it’s been reappraised as a cult oddity that notably influenced another disaster spoof: ‘Airplane’.

‘Damnation Alley’ (Jack Smight, 1977)

“This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. I repeat: KILLER COCKROACHES!”

This vibrant post-apocalyptic road flick (based off the novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny) balances world-weary cynicism with big action set pieces and an undercurrent of hope.

After surviving a nuclear assault, a group of soldiers (led by Jan Michael Vincent and George Peppard) take two massive armed personnel carriers from California to Albany, New York – thought to be the last refuge of civilization.

But it’s easier said than done: to reach it they must first venture across “Damnation Alley” a treacherous, irradiated wasteland filled with giant mutant insects and violent marauders. Can they make it to the Promised Land, alive and unscathed?

Full of stirring adventure, practical effects and stylish vehicles, ‘Damnation Alley’ is an entertaining B-movie that bombed at the box office and has unfairly languished in obscurity ever since.

‘The Gauntlet’ (Clint Eastwood, 1977)

“You’ve got fluff in your brain and I’m afraid the only way you’ll ever clean it out is to put a bullet through it.”

Eastwood directs and stars in this gritty thriller, playing grizzled cop Ben Shockley, in charge of escorting Augustina Malley (Sondra Locke) from Las Vegas to Phoenix.

Malley is a prostitute drafted as a key witness as a mob trial, and her insider knowledge makes the duo sitting targets for a seemingly endless procession of violent bikers and crooked cops, leading into some exciting action set pieces.

The novel combo of car chase thriller and rumination on police corruption elevates ‘The Gauntlet’ above its garish genre thrills, which helped set the stage for the gritty cop films of the 1980’s.

For whatever reason, the rest of Eastwood’s filmography has overshadowed it, leaving it in forgotten gem territory.

‘The Driver’ (Walter Hill, 1978)

“I respect a man that’s good at what he does. I’ll tell you something, I’m very good at what I do.”

In this lean mean thriller, Ryan O’Neal plays a man only known as “The Driver,” who expertly drives getaway cars for heist jobs. But hot on his heels is “The Detective” (Bruce Dern), a dogged police officer determined to end his criminal reign.

Can “The Detective’s” sting operation bait the “Driver” and put him behind bars? Not if “The Player” (Isabelle Adjani), a seductive temptress with major crime syndicate connections, can help it.

Featuring masterful car chases, cagey dialogue and Hill’s stylish direction, ‘The Driver’ was a cross between an art film and genre thriller.

This, unfortunately, made it commercial poison, but its influence is felt in Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ and Quentin Tarantino’s filmography.


Let’s Refuel

While the 70s were ending, the road movie was still a vibrant genre. Invigorated by the eye-popping visuals of George Miller’s ‘Mad Max’ and popular comedies like ‘Smokey and the Bandit’. It would continue to thrive into the 80’s.

Coated with a fresh paint of excess and neon visuals, it would explore the themes of that decade as it defined its own identity. Speaking of which, check back soon, when I’ll be revisiting the best road movies from 1980-1985.

But let’s revel in the glorious seventies for a bit longer, shall we? What other road films from that era would you add to this list? Be sure to tell me in the comments.

And be sure to check out my list of Good Road Movies from 1970-1975, along with a list of honorable mentions below.

Honorable Mentions:Sorcerer,’ ‘The Blues Brothers,’ ‘Mad Max’, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘Every Which Way But Loose,’ ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, ‘Grand Theft Auto’, ‘The Car’, ‘Crash,’ ‘Convoy,’ ‘Night Drive.’

My name is Michael Taylor and I′m your go-to source for finding the best in Alternative rock in all its various genres, such as Goth, Grunge, Post-punk, Shoegaze, Britpop and Electronica, with some metal thrown in for good measure. Film-wise, I′m all about sci-fi and horror, comic book movies, and cult classics. I love checking out all the best concerts and film events in my hometown of Austin, TX. I′ve written for sites such as Cracked, and I cover all my various pop culture obsessions on my site
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