Manic disc jockey/voice-over king The Real Don Steele sums up the New World Pictures hit Eat My Dust (1976) succinctly in the trailer: "Darlene is into fast cars! Hoover is into Darlene! When they get their hands on 700 horses they’ve got to get into trouble! They’re off on a screaming, squealing, shattering SMASH-A-THON!"
As he explains in an interview included on the Shout Factory DVD, Ron Howard, at the time an aspiring filmmaker starring on Happy Days, agreed to take the lead in Eat My Dust in exchange for a possible chance at later directing his own movie for producer Roger Corman. So Howard threw himself into the role of Hoover Neibold, a nice kid in a civil war cap who works replacing paper towels in bathrooms around town while enduring grief from his father, the Sheriff (Warren Kemmerling). While at the local stock car races Hoover locks onto the hottest girl in the stands, blonde bombshell Darlene Kurtz, played by Christopher Norris. Norris’ first name is the only masculine thing about her, which will be obvious when you see her go-go boots and yellow hot pants ensemble (her character is introduced with a screen-filling hot pants close-up, an excellent directorial decision by Charles B. Griffith). Darlene playfully gives Hoover a hard time as he tries to pick her up, before finally asking, "Take me for a ride?" But she doesn’t want to cruise in Hoover’s paper towel delivery truck, only in the souped up stock car of champion racer Big Bubba Jones (Dave Madden from The Partridge Family). Hoover boosts the car, picks up Darlene and his goofy, co-ed gang of friends (including Clint Howard) and goes on a cruising rampage. Sheriff Neibold sends his hapless deputies to apprehend them, and eventually Big Bubba Jones and his fellow drunken racers join the pursuit ("They all drive better drunk, anyway."). The results are non-stop auto carnage. Darlene, like a film noir femme fatale (which Norris definitely would have portrayed if she had been born a few decades earlier) pushes Hoover on in a breathless, turned-on voice, urging him to drive "faster... faster... faster... faster..."
Director Charles B. Griffith is best known as the screenwriter behind some of Roger Corman’s biggest successes, including Little Shop of Horrors and The Wild Angels. A great, funny dialogue writer (see A Bucket of Blood and Death Race 2000), Griffith worked from his own script on Eat My Dust, but goes easy on the one liners. Instead, there’s a quirky, almost improvised feel at times to the dialogue scenes, which alternate with the slapstick car crashes. Griffith makes good use of authentic small town locations like the crowded race track in the opening, and, most likely because of a fluke in scheduling, has the movie take place at Halloween, with jack-o’-lanterns and festive decorations everywhere. It’s a random touch that provides multiple opportunities for on-screen destruction of pumpkins (always funny). And as light-hearted as Eat My Dust is through most of its running time, in the way of the seventies there’s some unexpectedly bittersweet moments which give Howard and Norris a chance to do something besides drive and ride, especially Norris, who gets a lot across with a look over her shoulder during the final scene.
After the success of Eat My Dust, Corman gave Howard the chance he was looking for with his directorial debut, Grand Theft Auto. It’s an entertaining, slicker movie that, while lacking Eat My Dust’s quirkiness and hot pants close-ups, does get extra points for having The Real Don Steele appear in a supporting role. Griffith’s own New World Pictures automotive destruction follow-up, Smokey Bites the Dust (1981), is pretty weak and even Steele seems to know it. "It’s Jimmy McNichol, he’s got the law in a pickle," Steele proclaims in the trailer with his trademark enthusiasm slightly subdued, and you can almost picture him shrugging.
This time our hero is teenage car thief/troublemaker Roscoe, played by Kristy’s brother, Jimmy McNichol. On the day of the big game, Roscoe pulls his biggest caper: ripping off a brand-new convertible and abducting bored Homecoming queen Peggy Sue Turner from the football field. Peggy Sue (Janet Julian) is the daughter of Roscoe’s arch-nemesis, Sheriff Turner (Walter Barnes, whom you will recognize from another memorable performance as a sheriff in High Plains Drifter), and as they tear out of town she’s mildly amused by Roscoe’s antics but wants to get back to Homecoming:
Peggy Sue: How long are you planning to hold me against my will?
Roscoe: ’Till you like it...or, ’till you decide to like me. And that shouldn’t take very long.
Roscoe is right. Peggy Sue quickly falls for him, changing into a yellow overalls/short-shorts hybrid outfit that’s pretty great (but sadly no match for Darlene’s hot pants) and learning to appreciate the anarchic joy of making cop cars flip over. "I don’t know me at all today!" she exclaims. "I’m breaking rules that I really believed in!" Joining the chase this time is an even more pathetic team of deputies and Peggy Sue’s Homecoming date, football hero Kenny (a young, clean-cut William Forsythe).
Smokey Bites the Dust sometimes pushes the looseness of Eat My Dust to its surreal limits, with weird moments like when Kenny’s legs are run over by a car and he pops back up unharmed, or Roscoe’s encounter with a guy in a gorilla suit. Among the scenes of spastic slapstick there is also a bonus subplot about a hillbilly moonshiner (Patrick Campbell) who has developed a super-fuel. In a 1997 interview with Dennis Fischer for the University of California Press book Backstory 3 (the interview is also available on the UC Press website) Griffith’s description of the behind-the-scenes issues puts things in perspective. The movie was designed as a cut-and-paste affair by Corman, to utilize car crash stunts filmed for earlier New World movies (I recognized several crashes from both Eat My Dust and Grand Theft Auto, with Chinese restaurant Chow Fong’s from Eat My Dust being destroyed again here). According to Griffith, screenwriter Max Apple wasn’t given the opportunity to actually watch the footage, though, only to work from "vague descriptions" of the scenes. Corman then had most of the character motivation scenes cut out in post-production, and the result is, as Griffith put it, "a mess, a jumbled mess!"
Both Eat My Dust and Smokey Bites the Dust are available as part of Shout Factory’s Roger Corman‘s Cult Classics line. Smokey Bites the Dust can be found on the "Action Packed Collection" along with Georgia Peaches (reviewed in CdC #16) and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (reviewed in CdC #10). Eat My Dust is featured along with Grand Theft Auto on the awesomely-named set "The Ron Howard Action Pack."