Roger Corman was one of the best producers when it came to finding talent and giving them early opportunities. As a result, he produced a lot of wonderful material for New World Pictures during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. However, you can’t have hits all the time – and even Corman was prone to grinding out the occasional clinker in his search for cost-effective thrills. Smokey Bites The Dust is a noteworthy example of what could happen when the New World machine was lean on inspiration.
This is a shame because Smokey Bites The Dust has a decent enough premise for a drive-in programmer: Roscoe (Jimmy McNichol) is the hotshot driver at his local high school and Peggy Sue (Janet Julian) is the school’s homecoming queen. She also happens to be the daughter of Sheriff Turner (Walter Barnes), who is wildly overprotective towards Peggy Sue and can’t stand Roscoe. Thus, it’s inevitable that Roscoe will break up the homecoming celebration to kidnap Peggy Sue and speed off in the homecoming vehicle. The Sheriff gives chase, as does a colorful gang of locals – including Kenny (William Forsythe), a deeply religious quarterback who is sweet on Peggy Sue. Cue a car chase and keep repeating it until you reach the end credits.
Unfortunately, all these elements are thrown onto the screen in the least inspired manner possible. Max Apple’s script is slapdash in its execution, learning on weak humor and never taking any interesting direction with the stock characters and situations. The height of invention here is a subplot involving a jailbird trying to sell a synthetic oil formula (based on moonshine, of course) to a sheik named Habib A-Boo-Ha-Bee-Bee-Boo-Boo. You don’t get any bonus points for guessing the Sheik speaks a fractured version of English.
The chaotic direction from Charles B. Griffith doesn’t help. Griffith was very important to Corman’s early success as a writer but as his work on Up From The Depths proved, he wasn’t much of a director. The good news is Smokey Bites The Dust is more exciting than that film because it’s basically one big chase after its set-up and is thus periodically dotted with vehicular mayhem that will wake the audience up. The bad news is Griffith substitutes frenetic chaos for a snappy pace and films it all in a cheap-looking, poorly-choreographed style. The end result moves fast… but between the bad jokes and limp direction, it will lay waste to your brain cells.
The few bright spots in Smokey Bites The Dust come from the young performers in the cast. McNichol and Julian aren’t convincingly rural for a second but they’re a likeable pair with decent chemistry – it’s a shame that the script gives them little to do in terms of performance. William Forsythe is amusing as a religion-obsessed quarterback but again the script fails to give his inspired work the support it needs. Elsewhere, Barnes seems to be channeling Strother Martin (in an uninspired way) and Kedric Wolfe is a lousy as he was in Up From The Depths as a dimwitted deputy.
Simply put, Smokey Bites The Dust represents the car-chase comedy at the end of its creative rope. Any randomly selected episode of The Dukes Of Hazzard is slicker, better produced and likely more inspired than anything going on here. Unless you’re a genre completist, you can pass this one by.