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TV Terror Guide: Smash-Up on Interstate 5 (1976)

Air Date: Dec. 3, 1976 (ABC)

Production Companies: Filmways Television

Running Time: 100 min.

Available on: YouTube

Written by: Eugene Price and Robert Presnell Jr.

From the novel Expressway by Trevor Dudley Smith

Directed by: John Llewellyn Moxey

Cast: Robert Conrad, Buddy Ebsen, David Groh, Scott Jacoby, Vera Miles, Donna Mills, Harriet Nelson, Terry Moore, Tommy Lee Jones

Rating: 6 vintage televisions (out of 10)


With Independence Day approaching, it’s coincidental that this week’s 1970’s TV movie is Smash-Up on Interstate 5 (1976.) It depicts a 39-vehicle pile-up on the freeway on July 4. The film is bookended with some decent crash footage; however, as Sergeant Sam Marcum (Robert Conrad) of the California Highway Patrol narrates at the beginning, the story is really about the people involved in the accident and what brought them to this specific place and time.


During his narration, Marcum lets us know the statistics. Besides the 39 vehicles involved, there will be 63 people injured and 14 people dead. Soon after, we see the accident with slow motion sequences and freeze-frames. (At the end, we see the accident in “real” time.) Each segment following breaks where commercials would have been, we see countdowns on the screen such as “Saturday morning… 23 hours before…”


Sandwiched in the middle are the characters and their stories. Let’s start with Marcum. His buddy, Officer Hutton (Tommy Lee Jones), is having a baby with Barbara (Sian Barbara Allen), whose sister, Laureen (Donna Mills), would be Marcum’s sweetie pie if she weren’t worried about the dangers of his job. She’s got a good point, considering what happens to throw this group of characters into emotional turmoil.


Al Pearson (Buddy Ebsen) and his wife, June (Harriet Nelson), are an elderly couple who’ve remained deeply in love for many years. She keeps clutching her chest and emitting a high-pitched cry, but we’re not sure if Al is aware of her condition. Then, when he buys them a beach house and actually cleans up after lunch, we figure there’s a pretty good chance that he does.


Erica (Vera Miles) is a divorced woman of a certain age who meets Dale (David Groh), a younger man who gave up being a doctor to become a truck driver, when he saves her from harassment by a motorcycle gang when she runs out of gas. She’s on the way to San Diego to spend the holiday with her daughter, but takes a detour to his hotel and bed when he puts on the charm.


Lee Bassett (Scott Jacoby) is a young driver who’s hijacked by a couple on the run after their gas station robbery attempt goes bad. Pete (George O’Hanlon Jr.) is shot and making a mess in the back seat while holding Lee at gunpoint, but that’s OK. It’s not his car. He’s also on the run for stealing it. Penny (Bonnie Ebsen, Buddy’s daughter) is simply a hitchhiker caught up in the drama.


Those are the main characters. The familiarity and likability of the actors portraying them provide Smash-Up on Interstate 5 with most of its mileage, although some melodramatic plot turns threaten to stall the proceedings. The accident is shot well and worth seeing twice. Of the 14 who die, a low percentage is someone we’ve gotten to know, but it’s a tough death. Since we didn’t have texting in the mid-70s, the ultimate catalyst for this disaster is simply love.


Visit the TV Terror Guide: 70's TV Movies playlist at ClassicHorrors.Club TV on YouTube to watch Smash-Up on Interstate 5 as well as all the great movies from this series...

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