A young couple is "out spookin' around somewhere" in the woods when a giant lizard knocks their car down a hill and then gobbles them up. The male victim, Pat (Grady Vaughn), is the son of a wealthy oil rig owner Mr. Wheeler (Bob Thompson), who is apt to blame Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan), the oldest member of his son's mild-mannered hot-rodding "gang." Well, Mr. Wheeler's wrong about him. Chase is a actually a good guy; an inhumanly good guy. He works his ass off as a mechanic and tow truck driver, is taking courses to become an engineer, has a talent for music and, through it all, has had to support both his mother and his crippled kid sister Missy (who's in dire need of leg braces) since his father passed away. Chase is dating Lisa (Lisa Simone), an orphan from France who also happens to be an exchange student living with the Wheeler family. Mr. Wheeler tells her he'll have her sent back to Europe if she continues to see Chase, but she does anyway. Many seem to believe the two missing teens have probably eloped, anyway. And with an old man like Mr. Wheeler, who can blame them?
Needless to say, the nice guy town Sheriff (Fred Graham) has his hands full. He's not sure he believes the eloping theory because there have also been many recent reports of livestock missing in the area. Other people soon disappear as well, including a hitchhiker who leaves his suitcase behind after the lizard decides to give him a ride in his belly. Wherever this is, it's one dangerous place to live. Not only do you have to worry about giant Gilas, but you also have to worry about getting splattered on the road by one of the many drunks who seem to live there. When he isn't at the local soda parlor getting a "snort o' sody," Old Man Harris (Shug Fisher) coincidentally happens to be at nearly place the rampaging lizard is. But who's gonna believe him? And a Mr. Smith (Ken Knox) nearly runs poor, put-upon Chase off the road in a drunken stupor. It will later be revealed that Mr. Smith is actually famous KILT Platter Show rock DJ Steamroller Smith.
After sleeping off his bender in the shop, Steamroller is awoken to the sounds of Chase singing some song about his baby swinging "whenever I ring her ding." Mr. Smith is so impressed with chase's eloquent songwriting that he gives him his card and tells him they'll make sweet music together. The DJ couldn't have better timing, especially after the Gila runs Chase's boss Mr. Compton (Cecil Hunt) off the road while he's hauling fuel; making his truck blow up. The lizard also manages to derail a train and feasts on some of the passengers. After cutting the record, Steamroller rolls back into town to debut Chase's new record at a dance party. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, the Gila shows up long enough to stick his head through the wall and leave. The Sheriff comes up with a foolproof plan ("If we pump enough lead into that thing we may hit a vulnerable spot!"), but Chase has a better idea. He happens to have four quarts of nitroglycerine on hand just in case such an emergency like this would arise.
This is a bad movie favorite for some viewers and was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. I actually think it's more corny than all-out bad, though. Not that this doesn't have its moments of unintended hilarity. My favorite bit in how the Sheriff (who's just spoken to a scientist on the phone) tries to explain the Gila's large size. Usually it has something to do with toxic waste or an alien gamma ray, but this over-sized lizard simply has a thyroid problem because of a sudden change in diet! The Sheriff then goes into a story about how a Ukranian woman gave birth to a baby that weighed 130 pounds and was larger than she was (!?) The special effects are decidedly not special. A real Gila is used and put on a few model sets moving about and that's it. It's never once seen in the same shot as the actors. It hisses and sticks out its tongue, is incredibly slow-moving and about as intimidating as a basket full of kittens.
And, of course, one of the true charms of this movie is the music. Our hero (who also starred in THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS and TEENAGE ZOMBIES) gets to sing several songs, including the memorably hokey "Laugh Children Laugh" which is so good it is performed twice. Sullivan is likable enough and there's also an amiable performance Graham as the Sheriff. The rest of the cast is, um, sufficient. Well, aside from the leading lady, who doesn't appear to know English very well.
The names may change, but the moral remains the same...
Be nice to giant lizards or else they'll stomp on you!
The same people behind this also made the much-better THE KILLER SHREWS (1959), which is also considered a "bad movie" to some, but in reality is not. The two films played on a double-bill.
Jim Wynorski has just completed a remake / spin-off movie called GILA! (2012), which features a cameo by Sullivan and a CGI creature. SyFy Channel fodder, no doubt.