HUMAN HIGHWAY. The Wizard of Oz on acid

An absurd musical comedy by Neil Young and Dean Stockwell from 1982.

Maciej Kaczmarski

13 September 2023

HUMAN HIGHWAY The Wizard of Oz on acid

You don’t need drugs to trip – just watch this absurd cinematic oddity filled with irradiated nuclear power plant workers, shady restaurateurs, and deranged chefs.

The action of Human Highway takes place in the provincial town of Linear Valley, overshadowed by a nuclear power plant. Otto, the new owner of a roadside restaurant and adjacent gas station, implements a series of budget cuts to save his failing business. In reality, Otto wants to set fire to all his assets to collect insurance money and leave town. The desperate entrepreneur must keep this nefarious plan a secret from his employees: the dim-witted car mechanic Lionel, who dreams of a music career, his clumsy buddy Fred, the eccentric chef Cracker, and the good-natured waitress Charlotte. The area is also visited by the mysterious rock star Frankie Fontaine and employees of the nuclear power plant, where a dangerous leak occurs, threatening nuclear war and a global catastrophe.

HUMAN HIGHWAY Neil Young Russ Tamblyn Dean Stockwell dennis hopper Sally Kirkland

Human Highway is Neil Young’s pet project, a Canadian guitarist and singer who financed the production costs with his own money, totaling 3 million dollars. Filming began in 1978, but the entire project was only completed four years later. The set design, which included a restaurant, gas station, and nuclear power plant, was constructed according to Neil Young’s specific instructions. The musician not only directed the film (under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) alongside Dean Stockwell but also played the role of the bumbling Lionel. The cast also included Stockwell (Otto), Russ Tamblyn (Fred), Dennis Hopper (Cracker), Charlotte Stewart (Charlotte), and members of the new wave group Devo (nuclear power plant workers). Gerald Casale, the band’s leader, recalled that there was a lot of alcohol and drugs both on and off set, a sentiment that Dennis Hopper later confirmed.

HUMAN HIGHWAY Neil Young Russ Tamblyn Dean Stockwell dennis hopper Sally Kirkland Charlotte Stewart

Therefore, it’s no wonder that Human Highway is shrouded in an otherworldly, hallucinatory atmosphere, with a sparse plot that essentially consists of loosely connected sketches. In the second half of the film, it transforms into a lively and musical extravaganza, only to conclude as a somber post-apocalyptic movie. The stylistic and narrative fragmentation should come as no surprise, considering that the screenplay was credited to five people – in addition to Young and Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Jeanne Field, and James Beshears also contributed. Perhaps the greatest strengths of this peculiar film are the songs performed by Young and Devo, as well as the hyper-realistic set design, which, on the one hand, anticipates the work of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and, on the other hand, resembles a Wizard of Oz, except it’s the Wizard under the influence of heavy doses of powerful LSD.

HUMAN HIGHWAY Neil Young Russ Tamblyn Dean Stockwell dennis hopper Sally Kirkland Charlotte Stewart

“It’s such a bad movie that it will be famous!” – one of Young’s collaborators is said to have remarked, but his predictions didn’t come true at all: Human Highway had a very short life in theaters, suffered a commercial failure, and received poor reviews from the few critics who saw it. It was only many years after its premiere, when the re-edited film was released on VHS (1995) and later on DVD and Blu-ray (2016), that it was looked upon with a slightly more favorable eye. Today, it’s merely a curiosity: an anti-nuclear artifact from the Cold War era, a downright absurd and semi-amateur production intended for fans of Neil Young and Devo, but certainly with the potential to become a cult classic. In this regard, it resembles The Evil Within – another poorly made film directed by a non-professional filmmaker that’s worth watching.