Joe Niemand (John Matshikiza), a Sangoma near Spitzkoppe in Namibia, begins a tale that states "back in the first times, in the time of the red light, Desert Wind was a man like us. Until by mischance, he grew wings and flew like a bird. He became a hunter, and like a hawk, he flew to seek his prey. Taking refuge in those far corners of the world where magic still lingers. But having once been a man, so does he still suffer the passions of a man, flying in the rages sometimes, and throwing himself down like a child, to vent his wrath upon the earth. The people of the great Namib have another name for those violent winds that blow from nowhere. They call them Dust Devils."
A middle-aged man (Robert John Burke) walks on a road in the desert, and pulls over a car with a woman named Saarke (Terri Norton) driving in it, who takes him back to her house. while the two are making love, the man snaps Saarke's neck, killing her. Meanwhile, in the town of Bethanie, Sgt. Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae) receives a phone call with strange voices speaking, as does Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the morning, the man burns down Saarke's house, inside which he has drawn many strange symbols and pictographs. he then gets into Saarke's car and drives away. In Johannesburg, Wendy's husband Mark (Rufus Swart) accuses her of cheating on him, causing her to leave him and drive to Namibia. Meanwhile, Mukurob receives a call about Saarke's house and drives to investigate with his superior, Capt. Beyman (William Hootkins). Mukurob visits Dr. Leidzinger (Marianne Sägebrecht), who tells him that the incident may be a part of a strange witchcraft ritual.
Wendy runs her car off the road and finds an abandoned camper (which Dust Devil had hitched a ride with at Bethanie) with a strange man, who she asks to help her push her car out of the sand. She then sees Dust Devil on the side of the road, and stops for him. Cpl. Dutoit (Russell Copley) and Cpl. Bates (Andre Odendaal) find the abandoned camper with dismembered body parts inside. Mukurob drives to Joe's home, the former Bethanie cinema, and asks him about the symbols that were in the house. He responds that it was the work of magic, to which Mukurob scoffs. Wendy and Dust Devil continue driving and pass another hitch-hiker, but Dust Devil tells Wendy not to stop. As they pass the hitch-hiker, Dust Devil disappears from the car.
Beyman tells Mukurob that he has to take him off the case and hand it over to the U.N., but says that he can give any information to him. Wendy stops at a small motel for the night and tries to cut her wrists, as Dust Devil waits with a razor outside the bathroom door, but Wendy does not commit suicide. She goes to her car the next morning and finds Dust Devil inside, who tells her that she was asleep the day before.
Meanwhile, Beyman gives Mukurob a pile of documented murders similar to the one he is following. Wendy and Dust Devil reach the Fish River Canyon as Wendy's husband Mark, arrives in Namibia. Mukurob has another of his recurring nightmares and is visited by Joe, who tells him to go with him. Mark arrives in Bethanie and asks about Wendy, but is beaten up by some of the people at the bar. Joe takes Mukurob to a small mountain cave and tells him that the murders are the work of the "naghtloper", a shape-shifting demon who gains power over the material world through ritual murder. Joe explains that the naghtloper must keep moving to work the ritual, but if he is tricked to step over a kierie stick, he will be bound to one spot and his power can be taken. Joe then gives Mukurob a kierie and a sacred root to burn to prevent the naghtloper from possessing him after it is killed.
Wendy discovers human fingers among Dust Devil's belongings and he tries to kill her, but Wendy knocks him out and escapes. Dust Devil then chases her and causes her car to crash, forcing Wendy to run across the desert. Meanwhile, Mukurob releases Mark from prison and together they search for Wendy. As they try to drive through a dust storm, Dust Devil attacks them, causing the car to flip over. Mukurob handcuffs Mark to the car and heads into the storm, telling him that he has a chance since the naghtloper only takes those who have nothing to live for. Wendy reaches the abandoned town of Kolmanskop where Mukurob finds her and searches for Dust Devil. He runs into Dust Devil, who stabs him. Wendy then finds Dust Devil and tries to shoot him but the gun jams. As Dust Devil walks toward her, Mukurob takes the kierie and puts it in front of Dust Devil as he steps forward. Wendy picks up Mukurob's shotgun and kills Dust Devil as he says, "I love you, Wendy". Wendy then walks into the desert past Mark and the car, lies on the road and pulls over a fleet of army Casspirs.
The film ends with Joe saying, "The desert knows her name now, he has stolen both her eyes. When she looks into a mirror, she will see his spirit like a shawl blowing tatters around her shoulders in a haze. And beyond the dim horizon, a tapestry unfolding of the avenues of evil, and all of history set ablaze."John Matshikiza as Joe Niemand (also the narrator)
Robert John Burke as Dust Devil
Terri Norton as Saarke Haarhoff
Chelsea Field as Wendy Robinson
Rufus Swart as Mark Robinson
William Hootkins as Capt. Cornelius Beyman
Zakes Mokae as Sgt. Ben Mukurob
Russell Copley as Cpl. Dutoit
Andre Odendaal as Cpl. Botes
Luke Cornell as Soldier 1
Philip Henn as Soldier 2
Robert Stevenson as Rifle Boy
Peter Hallr as Marist Monk
Stephen Earnhart as Camper Driver
Marianne Sägebrecht as Dr. Leidzinger
Richard Stanley's previous film Hardware was made for £1 million, and grossed over $70 million world-wide. Stanley stated that Hardware was made to prove to producers that he could make a commercial film after finding that he was rejected by producers from his first scripts. Dust Devil was shot entirely on location in Namibia, and re-interprets the story of a South African serial killer known as Nhadiep. The story of Nhadiep had previously been the inspiration for the British film Windprints (1989 by David Wicht. Dust Devil was made from a previous work of Stanley's, an unfinished 16mm student short film about bizarre murders taking place around the town of Bethanie. The authorities never caught the serial killer which led to locals believing the killings were caused by a supernatural force. The police eventually returned to town with a body of a man they believed was the killer but was without a head which made identification with locals impossible. The man was later buried in a town with a grave marked "Nhadiep".
Stanley felt his film was not initially a horror film, but admitted the film had traits of the genre. As well as acknowledging Italian gialli films as an influence, he also felt the film was influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo, Luis Bunuel's Simon of the Desert and Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West as influences.
Filming in Namibia became possible after following independence in March 1990. Stanley presented his script to producer JoAnne Sellar who he had previously worked with on Hardware. Sellar was able secure 2.8 million pounds for Dust Devil The script was also sent to Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Namibia for approval. Sellar was also able to use South African personnel and equipment in the production making the films crew a combination of British, American, South African and Namibian.
Post-production of Dust Devil began in 1991 in London. Stanley initially had a 120 minutes cut of the film, which was tighened to 110 minutes. Stanley was hoping that this edit would be appropriate for the British financers for release in Europe and the United Kingdom. This was not the case and test screenings showed versions that were cut to 95 minutes in Wimbledon. Stanley stated that the audience was "clearly confused" as many of the cut had taken out parts of the first third of the film. Following this screening, further cuts were made which gave Dust Devil a running time of 87 minutes. In April 1992, Palace had financial problems which no longer made them the distributor of the film in the United Kingdom. Stanley who was adamant that the previous cut of the film was superior, pushed for a "extended European cut" of the film which would run between 110 minutes and 120.
Dust Devil was initially set to be released in the United Kingdom in December 1992. Dust Devil was released for one week in one cinema in the United Kingdom before being released to home video.
The American cut of the film released by Miramax removed about 20 minutes of the film.
In 1993, Stanley acquired the Miramax print as well as the excised material and self-financed a cut which would resemble his original version. This version, suitably dubbed as The Final Cut, ran at 105 minutes, and is said to be only one sharing most of the scenes and the general storyline with the original cut. It was released on video in the UK by PolyGram, with the co-investor Channel Four airing it in their network on occasion. Stanley has also personally presented it in various film festivals. The state of things has improved greatly since then, as the German publisher Laser Paradise have released their Dust Devil DVD. It features the final cut of the film, based on the same master as the British VHS. Recently, Optimum Releasing has released a more sophisticated DVD version of the film, basing it on a newer digital master and including a commentary track by the director. Subversive Cinema has released a special edition DVD in North America. Alongside the final cut, the release features a restored workprint of the original director's cut, running at 114 minutes. Stanley recently has recorded commentaries and interviews not only for the film, but also for three rarely seen documentary films he has directed over the last decade and a half, Voice of the Moon, The Secret Glory and The White Darkness.
In Sight & Sound, Kim Newman described the film as a "more personal effort than Hardware", and that "for all it's lean boogey man strengths, this is mainly a hallucinatory picture: Stanley delivers the requisite shocks with a buff's care and enthusiasm, but is obviously more interested in eerie desert images like a valley reported created by the slithering of a giant snake at the dawn of time and other unsettling touches." Newman concluded that on viewing any of the different several different edits of the film, that Dust Devil was a "considerable and remarkable film."
In his book Horror and Science Fiction Film IV, Donald C Willis stated that Dust Devil was "handsomely photographed" but also "pretentious" with a "tired" ending.