Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

One day, the world's population falls down dead wherever it stands (at least in that corner of the world we get to see in the movie), as if struck by a poisonous gas pumped out by unfriendly aliens.

A small group of survivors - manly man test pilot Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), the gangster-ish tough guy Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price), his girlfriend Peggy (Virginia Field), alcoholic Edgar Otis (Thorley Walters), his lover Violet Courtland (Vanda Godsell), and later on the young couple of pregnant Lorna (Anna Palk) and her first pouting, then competent husband Mel (David Spenser) - all of whom have for some reason or the other not breathed the air when the end of the world was taking place, find themselves thrown together in a small, pretty English looking village.

As if it weren't already difficult enough for a group this badly mixed to keep together and themselves away from doing some sort of violence to each other, they are from time to time very politely attacked by slow-moving robots who look like cigars that have been pressed into space suits. Unimpressive as the machines' speed is, they at least have the ability to kill people with a mere touch. What's worse is that these robots - or their potential unseen masters - are able to revive the bodies of killed humanity to do their bidding zombie-style.

The survivors' only hope is the fact they are taking part in the sort of movie that can't end in anything other than optimism, and is willing to give them the easiest way out of their predicament you could possibly think of.

When Terence Fisher wasn't making films for Hammer, the director lend his immense talents to other production houses too. In the case of the beautifully titled The Earth Dies Screaming, Fisher was working for the company of Robert Lippert, an American who had moved his B movie production machine from the USA to the UK to save some bucks.

It's pretty obvious that Lippert was really into this not giving his films much of a budget thing, and so The Earth Dies suffers from quite a few problems that could have been avoided in an even only slightly better financed movie. As it stands, the end of the world takes place exclusively in a small British village, and while that's certainly a good idea to emphasise the characters' isolated position and helps explain why there are so few robots and zombies attacking them, there's something a bit too un-apocalyptic about an empty village street with only a few bodies lying around, and something much too polite and convenient about how the apocalypse turns out for the characters. This politeness in the face of the end of the world is quite typical for British apocalypses of the time (and of decades before, too), but for my tastes, it robs The Earth Dies of some of its potential punch, leaving its audience (or at least me) with the appearance of a film nearly ready to push things in horror/SF cinema truly forward.

There are some (obvious) parallels between some of the scenes here surrounding the not-zombies and the basic humanity under siege set-up, and Romero's later classic Night of the Living Dead, but if Romero (who may or may not have seen this film at all) had learned something from the earlier film, then it was to put more energy into the character work, and to stop pretending that everything's always going to be alright, even after the end of the world as we know it. At least the script is clever and consequent enough not to explain its monsters.

That doesn't mean Fisher's movie is bad. Though I would have wished for a bit more complexity in the film's characters, the cast gives solid performances throughout, keeping the stock character types they are working with pleasantly two-dimensional. The script - while missing out on taking that decisive step towards honesty - has its moments whenever it's called on to set up one of the film's few, yet effective scenes of suspense and terror. The film's monsters - both the silly but effective robots and the completely effective white-eyed zombies - are fine in concept and execution, though I suspect some may find it difficult to overlook the robots' glittery stiffness and won't be able to just go with it and enjoy the conceptual creepiness of their design.

Fisher was of course one hell of a director, even when he had to cope with budgets and shooting times that must have made his circumstances at Hammer look absolutely luxurious. Although his classic horror movies at the bigger studio were shot in colour, Fisher had years of experience in black and white work (including some British noirs and thrillers for Hammer), and had no problem going back to black and white for this one. This experience working in black and white helps the director create some wonderfully creepy effects through the use of stark shadows and the play of light that work especially well with the not-zombie attacks.

In the end, Lippert probably got more bang for his buck from his director than he wanted or could appreciate.


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