While the immediate Mad Max comparisons are obvious from the Australian accents and the gangs riding about in garish junkers, Peter Weir's first feature is a little more difficult to define. Some of the poster art shows bloody lettering and a monstrous Volkswagen adorned with metal spines, the sort of thing the first act of Fury Road gave a nod to. And yet this isn't a pure horror story and the vehicles are not the centre of attention. If I had to pigeon hole this at all it would fall into the broad category of 'weird people in backwater towns doing weird things' and with align it with other strange places in the middle of nowhere that film characters wish they'd never stumbled across. Paris is a rural place with a lot of secret goings on, and after a suspicious car crash (that was definitely an accident) which kills his brother, timid protagonist Arthur realises it is going to be difficult to leave.
The film is mainly a character piece, with a variety of odd eccentrics living in their own frontier town. A few of them seem to have a strange obsession with this way of life, as if they are settlers in the outback wilderness - others actually wear dusters and wide brim hats in some scenes. However their little economy is fuelled by a single industry - causing car accidents at night and stealing everything left in the wreckage like vultures. The mayor of the town is particularly obsessed with this idea; even his children are from past wrecks and he continually tries to keep Arthur around by giving him work and taking him into the family.
Almost everyone has something strange about their behaviour, whether it's relatively normal residents like the doctor (who seems to work exclusively on "research" with brain damaged survivors) or the child like killer Charlie (Bruce Spence) who collects hood ornaments from his victims and makes a fuss when he doesn't get his share. They're all in on the roadside death business - outsiders like the local priest are treated with disdain. Arthur's isolated situation is no less unsettling when he gets the position of 'parking officer' during a meeting with the mayor who takes a shine to him. The juxtaposition of this nightmare scrap yard and the inane town hall politics is what lends the whole thing its dark but quirky tone. The conflict hinted at in the film's title also comes from the same clash of ideals as the local youths begin to press back against the increasing rules and regulations.
The lack of focus is probably the major issue here as it meanders between gory crash inspection and bickering locals. The build up as the young ruffians and the elders being to irritate each other isn't really the focal point which affects the pacing and lacks tension. Most of the time is spent with Arthur as he slowly takes in the creepy activities over his recovery time. As a kooky black comedy the elements that work provide a lot of bizarre moments; and the idiosyncrasies of the community Arthur has to deal with while overcoming his own neuroses are all pretty entertaining. But maybe the title should have been something else (and not The Cars That Eat People either). Still it kind of works just as one of those stories that makes you think twice about what normal looking people get up to on back roads after dark. It's a weird, eerie film which is not great by any means but probably remains essential cult viewing.