School of Wreck

Matthew Phenix

// 1966, color // THE THIRD KILLER

BACKSTORY: This one's got real cinematic style - and, believe it or not, a wisp of a plot. It follows the machinations of one Mr. Rellik (TV actor Robert Simon), a "salesman" of death. Facing the decline of his top two accounts (heart disease and cancer), thanks to all those meddling doctors and their medical advances, Rellik pursues the third killer - traffic fatalities - by giving hapless motorists bad advice that results in their deaths.
DEADLY DIALOGUE: "Well, you've got one of those new X-2 supercharged motors, haven't you? They're supposed to take a milk truck up to a hundred and thirty. Why don't you open it up on the way home?" "Hmm. I might."
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: Mr. Rellik ("killer" spelled backward, get it?) standing on a highway overpass, madly swinging his attaché case and hurling curses at the passing traffic. ("Run, you fools! Make my third account the bloodiest in the history of the world!") He scares us.
POSTMORTEM: The Highway Safety Foundation clearly sank a bundle into this one, and it shows. Did it make better drivers? That, unfortunately, isn't so obvious.

// 1950, black and white // LAST DATE

BACKSTORY: Although it predates Wayman's cinema verité gore flicks by almost a decade, Last Date is famous as the first film to single out the teenage driver as a roadgoing menace (it was bankrolled by an insurance company, after all). There's star power here, too, with a young Dick York (known for his role as Darrin in Bewitched; above, second from left) as bad-boy-with-a-lead-foot Nick, whose reckless charm lures our good-girl narrator, Jeanne, into the passenger seat of his snazzy '32 Ford hot rod. Bad idea, Jeanne; it ain't called Last Date for nothing.
DEADLY DIALOGUE: "Do you have to take corners on two wheels?" "Why not? Two wheels are better than none - that's what my old man always says."
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: Permanently disfigured after merging with the windshield of Nick's Deuce ("My face! My face!") and no longer able to stand the sight of herself, narrator Jeanne - filmed entirely from behind - smashes her bedroom mirror with a hair brush and collapses in a fit of weeping.
POSTMORTEM: Last Date introduced "teenicide" to the safety-film lexicon, and the term was later pirated as the title for another driver's ed flick.

// 1971, color (with extra red!) // DEATH ON THE HIGHWAY

BACKSTORY: Made by an organization calling itself The Suicide Club, Death on the Highway is pieced together with less finesse than Richard Wayman's films, but it nonetheless could be the most shocking driver's ed film of all. It's got the usual flashing-light accident scenes (lots of them) mixed with some positively eye-popping still photos (most of them, like the image below, luridly and unnecessarily splashed with red paint for extra shock value). The narration is just about perfect: appropriately understated ("Burning is a horrible way to die . . . ") and a little bit pissed-off ("Consider the possibility that every other driver you meet on the road may be drunk, blind, or just plain stupid . . . ").
NOTABLE NARRATION: "A lot of people don't realize it, but you cannot see as well at night as you can in the daytime."
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: How about the young man whose upper body (sprawled out on the pavement) took leave of his lower body (still seated behind the wheel), after an 80-mph crash?
POSTMORTEM: Even after sitting through more than a dozen of these blood-and-guts highway safetyfilms, Death on the Highway - with its ghastly parade of pulverized, dismembered, blood-soaked, charbroiled, armless, legless, headless, and altogether luckless motorists - made this writer distinctly green around the gills. In this company, however, that's high praise.

// 1979, color // OPTIONS TO LIVE

BACKSTORY: One of the last highway-safety films, the ironically titled Options to Live amounts to something of a greatest-hits compilation of dead, dying, and merely maimed accident victims from previous films by the Highway Safety Foundation, narrated to deadpan perfection by the jowly Karl Mackey.
NOTABLE NARRATION: "A nice shiny car, a few drinks, a beautiful summer day: a combination that ended in death."
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: A hapless motorcyclist lies belly-down dead in a ditch, sans helmet and, apparently, sans head.
POSTMORTEM: Indisputably grim, but like all best-of compilations, this film suffers from the curse of been-there-done-that. Moreover, you have to imagine that when this film debuted in 1979, scenes of wrecks featuring cars from the 1950s, no matter how harrowing, were starting to seem almost quaint, like outtakes from Happy Days.

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