Posted by Richard Harland Smith on July 18, 2014
To hear the 80s tell it, all one needed to survive the Apocalypse was a crossbow, shoulder pads, and a kickass attitude. (The stylish survivalist might accessorize as well with leather, a samurai sword, and a headband.) We have MAD MAX (1977) and its sequel, THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982), to blame for this, as their international success spawned a host of imitators. Those copycat Italians really ran with the ball on this one, spinning postapocalyptic yarns on the order of THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982), ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983), ENDGAME (1983), WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND (1983), THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983), 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983), EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000 (1983), A MAN CALLED RAGE (1984), and RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR (1984) — to name a few. And let’s not even get into the ROAD WARRIOR clones from New Zealand (BATTLETRUCK ), the Philippines (WARRIORS OF THE APOCALYPSE ), Canada (DEF-CON 4 ), France (LE DERNIER COMBAT ), and even America (SAVAGE DAWN , AFTERMATH , LAND OF DOOM , STEEL DAWN ). What a time! I was in my mid-to-late 20s during this period of relative peace and prosperity in the world, between the cooldown of the Cold War and only minor rumbles from the problem area that is now Iraq and Afghanistan. We were all feeling pretty good between 1982 and 1988 and so our fantasies about the end of the world were focused less on the tactical problem-solving of scratching out a living on the blasted shell of what was once Mother Earth and more on how great we’d all look.
It’s not 1982 anymore. It feels more like 1962, the year that gave us PANIC IN YEAR ZERO. Directed by and starring Ray Milland, PANIC seems more prescient now than it did fifty years ago, focusing as it does on personal anxieties in the face of global events and on the struggle of one family to keep it together after an atomic blast. It’s a film about maintaining order, both on a personal and a societal level, about responsibility and self-reliance. In light of those very important tenets I’m going to shift the conversation away from wish fulfillment adventures like THE ROAD WARRIOR and its imitators on to films that deal, successfully or otherwise, with life without rule of law (WROL).
I was in a survival supply store in the San Fernando Valley recently and there on the shelf in front of me, alongside respiration masks, water filters, folding shovels, and chemical toilets was a Zombie Survival Kit. Mind you, it’s not a gag gift, it’s an actual survival kit, full of tools and things you might need if you ever found yourself down in Apocalyptic territory — a knife, cordage, a first aid kit, hygiene items, maybe even a water purifier, probably not a 9mm — all packed into an olive drab fanny pack. Even as a horror fan it stuns me how ingrained zombie culture is in the every day fabric of society today, how fully integrated is the terminology, and how much people think about what they would do, where they would go, and how they would act during the Zombie Apocalypse. And that’s all down to George A. Romero and his collaborators on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), the ultimate “bug-in” apocalypse movie. If you’re not conversant with the verbiage of calamity, I’ll simplify things to say that in times of global or even regional disaster, one has the choice to bug-in or bug-out, meaning to stay home and board up the windows or to get the hell out of Dodge. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD isn’t the first bug-in apocalypse movie…
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964) with Vincent Price had a direct influence on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Both of these landmark genre pictures are indebted, I suppose you could say, to countless westerns that came before them, in which settlers were forced to barricade and defend themselves against Indian attacks, and also to movies, such as KEY LARGO (1948), in which a disparate assortment of characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, are forced to keep close quarters as they wait out a storm. THE LAST MAN ON EARTH was based on Richard Matheson’s trim and influential novel I AM LEGEND, and the plot particulars were respun and reworked in THE OMEGA MAN (1971) with Charlton Heston and I AM LEGEND (2007) with Will Smith. The bug-in need not be so pulp-flavored, of course…
Smack dab in the middle of production of all those Italo-Apocalyptic adventures was the American-made TESTAMENT (1983), in which Jane Alexander plays a suburban Mom who must act as the head of the family, chief cook and bottle washer, doctor and mortician when nuclear war devastates the US of A and her husband (William Devane) never makes it home from work. There are no mutants, marauders, crossbows, or spandex leggings in this searing but underplayed drama, in which the protagonists sit still because there really isn’t anywhere safe to go. The bit that never fails to cut me off at the ankles is when Alexander, who has nursed her youngest (Lukas Haas) through radiation sickness and buried him in the garden, surveys his empty room, the floor of which is littered with STAR WARS toys. For some reason, seeing those brand name consumer items (rather than, say, a comparatively anonymous baseball glove or tricycle) lying there, never to be played with again, really sells the horror of it.
A more recent bug-in movie is the French-financed (but English language) THE DIVIDE (2011), in which a New York City building super (Michael Biehn) lords over the formerly upwardly-mobile tenants who flood his bomb shelter hidey hole after the nuclear hammer falls. It’s a classic set-up that recalls Arch Oboler’s FIVE (1951) and Roger Corman’s DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955) but the movie that THE DIVIDE seems to hold closer to heart is SALO, or THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975), so convinced as it is that the end of days is going to usher in unparalleled perversity. Even watching half of this stinker will have you pining for the comparable joie de vivre of Jean Genet. I’m not going so far as to say that WROL won’t bring out some of our more negative traits but THE DIVIDE is so hellbent on shocking us that it never gives its characters a chance to breathe, let along live or assert themselves. It assumes we will all fall prey to our baser instincts and while I appreciate that concept in the service of a cautionary tale/worst case scenario, this is a long 112 minutes to spend on being told survival ain’t worth it.
More appealing to me was the same year’s TAKE SHELTER (2011), starring Michael Shannon as a regular Joe Sixpack who begins to intuit signs of the pending Apocalypse. Of course, this makes him look like a big goon (okay, well… more so) to his wife (Jessica Chastain) and coworkers (among them the always welcome Shea Wigham) and he suffers mightily for his visions (the scariest of which involve strangers who attack his car like zombies, pulling his screaming daughter out of her booster seat). TAKE SHELTER is a Prepper movie in which the protagonist may or may not have all his marbles but you have to admire his persistence, even when he uses vacation money to buy an industrial storage container to convert into a fallout shelter. TAKE SHELTER compares favorably to PANIC IN YEAR ZERO, chronicling the desperate decisions made by its father figure, agonized as he is over making the right decisions.
Bug-out movies will always be the more popular variation on End of the World Cinema because traveling is, even on just an aesthetic level, more visually stimulating. An early example of Post-Apoc cinema is DELUGE (1933), in which a survivor (Sidney Blackmer) of a flood of Biblical proportions attempts to return to a sense of normalcy with a fellow survivor, an Adam and Even reboot complicated by the sudden appearance of the wife the last man on earth thought dead. (DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS hedges its bets by offering up two competing storylines, one a bug-out and the other a bug-in scenario, set in a lighthouse.) Less melodramatic and reliant on pulp curlicues is the Soviet THE END OF AUGUST AT THE HOTEL OZONE (1967), in which a group of teenage girls are shepherded through the dead world by a middle-aged woman (Beta Poinicanova), the only one of the bunch old enough to remember what happened. Largely plotless as it follows these women across the empty earth, THE END OF AUGUST… is an at times difficult movie to watch, etching the Children of the Apocalypse not as mythic warriors but as societal scraps, uneducated and uninterested in being educated, quick to anger and prone to violence. (In the film’s most controversial scene, a character toys with a harmless snake before tearing it apart out of boredom, a shocking moment that is all the more disturbing because the violence is not faked.) It’s not an empowering film and the final frames do very little to alleviate the crushing sense of futility, that nothing again will ever grow in this place of dead ends.
Somewhat more uplifting (somewhat) is the recent German language HELL (2011), in which an uptake in the Earth’s surface temperature has all but destroyed life on the surface, wiping out crops, drying out oceans, and sending the survivors of the resultant shut-down into the mountains for the promise of water. There are a slew of recent WROL movies and HELL is among the best, beating out big budget pablum like THE BOOK OF ELI (2010) and even indie fare such as THE COLLAPSED (2011), which attempts something different with the subgenre but bungles the fine details that sell the scenario. HELL is about trust and caring and scavenging and putting the miles behind you. In this way it recalls NO BLADE OF GRASS (1971) but instead of running into territorial rubes in their flight from the city to the country, the protagonists here meet a hilltop sect (led by Angela Winkler, star of such German New Wave classics as THE TIN DRUM and THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM) all too willing to welcome them in — and you might easily figure out why.
Equally worth your time, and even more devoid of sensationalism, is TIME OF THE WOLF (2003), a surprisingly subdued French language film by German filmmaker Michael Haneke. A hazily-defined global event that occurs before the first frames has sent a Paris family (led by Isabelle Huppert) to the safety of their rural pied-a-terre… but unfortunately for them by the time they roll up the place is occupied by refugees who have claimed the cottage for their own… and who promptly kill the father of the family as a means of discouraging debate. Huppert must then truck her children through the blighted countryside, where food and uncontaminated water is scarce. Society survives in this tale that is less one of the end of the world than the end of the world as we knew and enjoyed it. Towns and villages endure, but turn the protagonists away, unable as they are to house or feed them. Huppert and her children eventually end up at a train depot, where they make friends with other refugees who have retained a sort of skeleton society and trust that a train will be along any day to bring them to safety. In this way, TIME OF THE WOLF recalls the Polish apocalyptic film O-BI, O-BA: THE END OF CIVILIZATION (1985), in which survivors of the End Times wait for Noah’s Ark to rescue them. In its simplicity and honesty, TIME OF THE WOLF also recalls the French MALEVIL (1980), in which a handful of provincial types survive a nuclear holocaust from the safety of a wine cellar and reemerge into a world that needs rebuilding… but according to whose plans?
Based on the acclaimed novel by Cormac McCarthy, THE ROAD (2009) is an especially worthwhile entry in the cinema of post-apocalyptic survival. For me, it pushes many of the same buttons that TESTAMENT did, focusing on a single parent who hopes to bring his only child to a safe place before he dies, hopes that something good exists in a world gone cold and feral. The story tips close to genre at times, as the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) cross paths with other survivors who have turned cannibal, culling their fellow man like muledeer and warehousing their harvest in an fetid underground lair that would gag Buffalo Bill from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). The bulk of the film, though, is taken up by simple tasks: waking and scrounging for food and walking and making camp and then doing the same thing the next day, and the next, and the next, and the next. The Man does what he can — and does surprisingly well — but he’s no Mad Max and he suspects that he is dying. If you really want to feel as though the world is coming to an end, scroll the IMDb message boards about this movie and read the received wisdom of its detractors, many of whom hate the Boy for being 10 and free with his emotions (many of the more loud-mouthed and condemning Doomsday Prepper types hate children, though they seem to have a maturity level that never got beyond 12 or 13) or the Man because he didn’t have a better gun or a machete or a crossbow; it’s astonishing how many experts there are on a topic that hasn’t even happened yet. But never mind them – they have THE WALKING DEAD and THE LAST OF US and all those other role playing games about shooting people in the face. THE ROAD is a movie I value and revisit whenever I can because I find the father-son relationship so touching and because it makes me wonder how I’d rate in a world without rule, how well I’d defend my family, how well I’d provide and inspire the next generation to keep moving, to keep trying, to survive and, even better, to live.
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