Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on July 12, 2012
I’ve been thinking a lot about dune buggies lately. It all started a few weeks ago while I was watching HEAD (1968) on TCM starring The Monkees. This psychedelic blast from the past has many memorable moments including a scene where the iconic pop band drives a bright yellow buggy through some sand dunes while being chased by a giant-sized Victor Mature.
Dune buggies are custom-made cars usually pieced together from a kit or by scratch depending on how mechanically inclined the owners are. They became increasingly popular after WW2 and evolved into a west coast phenomenon in the early ‘60s after a California engineer and surfer named Bruce Meyers revolutionized the buggy. He built what’s now called a Meyers Manx that had a custom fiberglass body and a Volkswagen Beetle frame. The cars were originally designed as all terrain vehicles for racing in the California deserts and taking long drives down sandy beaches but their popularity quickly caught on and for a brief period they became hugely popular around the world. As James Hale points out in his book The Dune Buggy Phenomenon, these lightweight colorful cars that could be made by anyone seemed to represent the free spirit of the swinging sixties and Hollywood took notice. Dune buggies appeared in countless movies made throughout the ’60s and ’70s until their popularity began to wane. Rising gas prices, new driving regulations and safety issues led to the dune buggy’s demise. And as the country became increasingly conservative in the 80s there seemed to be no place for the youth orientated dune buggy that was associated with pop bands like The Monkees. But the Monkees weren’t the only music idols that drove a dune buggy.
In 1968 Elvis Presley took to the road in LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE while driving a dune buggy. In one of the film’s best scenes Elvis heads to the beach in his buggy and we get to watch the King of Rock and Roll crash through waves and catch air while his buggy bounces all over the sand dunes. Dune buggies were also prominently featured in some Disney films like THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969) starring a young Kurt Russell and THE MILLION DOLLAR DUCK (1971) with Disney regular, Dean Jones. Both movies contain lengthy chase scenes involving dune buggies. The buggies in these Disney films resembled clown cars and were used to generate lots of laughs. But the dune buggy wasn’t just a laugh mobile. It became an extremely versatile vehicle in the movies.
Just ask Steve McQueen who starred in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968) opposite Fay Dunaway. McQueen thought dune buggies were sexy cars and he insisted that his character would drive a red dune buggy instead of a jeep, which was originally written into the script. The speed-obsessed actor was so adamant about it that he ended up co-designing the custom buggy that appears in the film. This memorable red dune buggy seems to briefly take on a life of its own in the movie as McQueen races down the beach with Dunaway’s character by his side. The car eventually offers the two would-be lovebirds an escape route to a peaceful isolated spot where their romance can take shape against the backdrop of the sand covered dunes. We tend to associate the color red with passion so it’s no surprise that McQueen chose that color for Thomas Crown’s car. The red dune buggy comes to represent the very nature of McQueen and Dunaway’s tumultuous relationship.
Another film that exploits the erotic side of the dune buggy is Stephanie Rothman’s THE VELVET VAMPIRE (1971). The movie takes place in the Mojave Desert where a beautiful vampire (Celeste Yarnell) lives in isolation surrounded by sand covered hills. Her only car is a dune buggy that she uses to drive her two unsuspecting house guests (Sherry Miller and Michael Blodgett) around the sun kissed desert. This low-key horror film is surprisingly adult so it’s not too much of a stretch when the velvet vampire begins to seduce one of her would-be victims with a little verbal sparring. The playful side of this atypical horror film is exemplified by a conversation shared between the vampire Diane and her male guest, Lee.
That tongue-in-cheek conversation makes Lee’s girlfriend (Sherry Miller) very angry because we know that the two future lovers are talking about much more than just a car and unfortunately for Lee, he takes Diane’s bait. But who can blame him? Dune buggies are seductive cars! They seem to naturally promise potential drivers a good time.
Coincidentally, Sherry Miller would go on to appear in another horror film that made use of a dune buggy, THE TODD KILLINGS (1971). In the movie’s particularly effective opening montage we watch as a group of young people bury a dead body. While they’re hiding evidence of an apparent murder the camera suddenly cuts to the distressed mother of a missing girl while she discusses her daughter’s disappearance with authorities. The two events seem to be connected and while the horror of these moments begins to wash over viewers the murderous teens are seen making their getaway in a green dune buggy. The buggy is an unexpected element that’s both visually jarring and strangely out of place. Dune buggies represented youth, exuberance, rebellion and freedom but when their drivers are bloodthirsty psychopaths they suddenly seem much less innocuous. Dune buggies can even appear downright menacing.
In ONCE YOU KISS A STRANGER (1968), Carol Lynley plays a homicidal woman who lives in a Malibu beach house and owns a blue dune buggy. As this unusual adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train unfolds, Lynley’s character becomes increasingly unhinged and ends up using her buggy as a weapon in a dangerous chase scene that takes place on the beach. She almost runs down Martha Hyer but some unanticipated rocks trip Lynley and her dune buggy up before she can do any serious damage. TERROR ON THE BEACH (1973) also features dune buggies driven by a bunch of Manson Family types that terrorize Dennis Weaver’s family while they’re trying to enjoy a beach side vacation. Roger Corman also effectively used dune buggies in his post-apocalyptic farce, GAS-S-S-S (1970). The movies features a bunch of fascist football hooligans who call themselves “The Warriors” and terrorize a small town while driving buggies. These films all do a good job of making dune buggies seem surprisingly threatening even though Corman’s film goes for laughs instead of outright scares. One of the most memorable buggy chases can be found in the James Bond film, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981). In the movie Roger Moore is tormented by a group of dangerous drivers led by the intimidating Michael Gothard. A lot of filmmakers seemed determined to use buggies as ironic symbols of ’60s and ’70s excess while directors like Al Adamson and Mario Bava used dune buggies to represent characters who were young, innocent and ultimately doomed in SATAN’S SADISTS (1969) and BAY OF BLOOD (aka TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE; 1971).
Although we rarely see dune buggies used in movies anymore, they have an iconic place in film history. It’s almost impossible to think of California in the ’60s and ’70s without being reminded of the dune buggy. It became a fixture in beach movies and a fascinating symbol of the times.
There are countless other movies that made use of the dune buggy that I haven’t mentioned so feel free to share some of your own favorites below.
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