Here is a look at catastrophes in film, in the mid to late 20th century. Please don’t expect a review or a coherent analysis; I’ve been working on this project, patriotically, since the Fourth of July, but I can’t get it together and thus am slapping the whole mess up, willy-nilly, on my blog, for some sort of conclusion. It’s long, probably my longest post ever, so please don’t feel obligated to read the whole thing.
I’m including GOG (the name refers to some kind of made-up laser) in my catastrophe in film survey because it offers an early, crude look at “secret” underground government labs, which feature in two other movies I’ll discuss. (So secret that the scientists are security cleared via checking their fingerprints against a projector screen carbon copy). The catastrophe—communists stealing the laser and destroying democracy—never actually comes to pass.
GOG opens with a difficult scene: a nerdy scientist (badly fitting lab coat, coke bottle glasses) and his lesser female assistant (wearing a house dress and a wave) freeze a very cute monkey (Pepe) and then bring him back to life. The monkey is the most endearing member of the cast. First Dr. Nerd and then Dr. Female Assistant dies, within ten minutes of the movie’s beginning. Pepe’s status is unknown at this point, unfortunately. And with that, the whole bungled operation is off and running.
This movie is unmemorable; twenty minutes in I realized I’d seen it before. But it’s early in the chain of catastrophe movies and sequestered brainiacs, and so I include it here. They took the lockers in the secret locker room from a nearby high school; in fact the whole thing could have been filmed at a nearby high school. Russia, the Soviets, the Communists; they are the enemies de jour of 1954. The second best character, after Pepe the monkey, is a lady scientist wearing a permed gray wig to make her look older, even though she’s probably younger than the homely female protagonist. I think this lady then gets outed as a commie pinko bastard, but I’m not sure; I could only get through half an hour of GOG this time, it was just that bad.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, The Andromeda Strain is probably my favorite of all these movies. The fear of the day was biological warfare, alongside of the Cold War, naturally. The premise of the story: a satellite containing an alien contaminant crashes into some small town in New Mexico, and everyone in the town promptly dies. Can the brightest minds in modern science save us?
What follows is a frightening, evocative tableaux. When the government scientists in their spaceman protective suits descend, via helicopter ladder, to the little town, they find the following brand new corpses:
small boys with a basketball
and an old man and dog
a priest on the church steps, falling out of the church
a mailman clutching his chest
beautiful naked woman lying on a bed with a peace sign necklace
country doctor, sitting at his desk
man in a barber’s chair, with bib on
creepy old man with a hearing aid
mechanic slouched over an open hood of some muscle car
These scenes have the feeling of a museum, a wax museum even. Such small, quiet homes with corpses waiting quietly. The scientists look in the windows and doors like the scenes are a diorama, and this is how they are presented onscreen, little pictures, not the whole scene, sharing a divided screen with the scientists, who are looking in at them. It creates a feeling of detachment. Unreality. This is the scariest way I’ve seen dead bodies presented on film. The old woman hanging from the stairwell with a dead cat at her feet.
In this plague town there are crows, some alive and some already dead. The only living creatures besides scientists. And then a baby appears, a very loud baby who cries through the rest of the movie. Unlike many other movies, The Andromeda Strain doesn’t vilify the scientists, only the government. Especially the leading bureaucrats, who are bumbling and overly fat. Possibly because the story was written by Michael Crichton, who liked scientists more than bureaucrats.
Wildfire, the underground government secret operations base, is thoroughly convincing. The technology still feels mod, despite being some forty-odd years old. The best lines of this movie, for me, come early on, when the wizened old scientist and the forthright female scientist arrive at the base. There’s a “crow flies at midnight” exchange in the “Department of Agriculture Office,” a cover for the entrance to the real, underground operation. Here it is:
“Howdy,” says the “agriculture” office man.
“Howdy doody,” says the gray haired kindly scientist.
“You got the time?”
“My watch stopped at 11:46.”
“Must be the heat.”
And then the two scientists are buzzed through, walk down a hallway, and step into a garden shed, which hides a secret elevator that goes down, down into the bowels of the giant germ warfare lab far below.
The Omega Man (1971)
I watched this movie for the first time on the 4th of July (which is also when I started writing this mammoth piece). It was both better and worse than I expected. I’ll assume you’ve seen this one and not rehash the plot. (It bears noting that The Omega Man was the second of three adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel, I am Legend. I’ve seen the first, The Last Man on Earth, but not the most recent remake, the one with Will Smith).
Scene two or three: watching Charleston Heston watching Woodstock in an empty movie theater—like a plane crash, I can’t look away. What sort of things does an Omega Man do? Steal a lot of cars, watch movies, kick stuff in the street. The “reward” for surviving the apocalypse is a fleet of muscle cars and a luxury apartment. I’m surprised how much of Los Angeles they were able to cordon off for shooting, or, if not, how advanced the backlot was. It’s strange to watch Charlton Heston piss away his time and fight off technology hating mutants, which is perhaps what the director (Boris Sagal) wanted. It seems this was the starting point of demonstrating the danger of technology and capitalism: it pits the luxuries and comfort of technology (in Heston’s apartment, in the government labs) against the aftermath of technologically induced mass extinction (the release of biological warfare, and the breakdown of most of the remaining technology).
The Omega Man is very good at showing the hedonist, broken aftermath: there are rich houses with dinner tables set, decorated with crystal wine glasses, bones, cobwebs. Dry, dry skeletons collapsing in velvet chairs. I think this movie may have informed Charlton Heston’s politics. His tommy gun is the second character for much of the movie, his constant companion and accessory piece. There’s a scene where it’s stripped from him, during the crucifixion by fire and albino zombies; this must have been a difficult, vulnerable scene. He was strapped down and taunted, tied to a stake. After that, I imagine he just wanted his gun back and he wasn’t ever going to let it go again. The albino zombies are “the Family;” they’re baby powder mutants renouncing the techno past before the plague, and for some reason they can’t tolerate light, the plague burned out their retinas or some such. It’s like a midnight, zombified Medieval Fair in the streets of L.A.
The female protagonist, who appears more than half an hour into the movie, is very pretty, but by the end of the movie there are several pounds of baby powder in her hair, amplifying the limits of special effects in 1971. There is a tangible lack of chemistry between this young African American actress and the older, slimier Charlton Heston.
I liked The Omega Man; despite the bad soundtrack and occasional over-acting by most of the cast, it creates a scary vision, and a particular weirdness. Every movie I’m “reviewing” here has these two things, but in such time specific shades and stripes.
Finally, I give you…
Night of the Comet (1984)
Ominous narration: “The citizens of Earth would get an extra Christmas present this year.”
This movie offers a hard look at the gluttony of the 1980s: it takes you to post apocalyptic arcades, movie theaters, and malls, with their respective lights, sound effects, and boomboxes still blasting. The empty highways and skyline of Los Angeles are tinted an unsettling burnt-out red.
It’s an obscure movie, so I’ll give a brief plot synapsis: a passing comet somehow turns people to dust, except for a few plucky teenagers. There’s a secret group out in the desert (not explicitly government), which has been holed out preparing for the aftermath. They’re really evil scientists, not connected to any government. More creepy illuminati feeling. These men are brilliant but not very street smart, and get beat up by both female protagonists, in turn. Also they left the ventilation system running when the comet went by, so they all caught mild cometitis and need the blood of survivors to live.
What else is important about Night of the Comet? Well, be on the lookout for spandex, leotards, pompoms and leg warmers (I was a little girl in 1984, and have a special fondness for all of these, except spandex). There are neighborhood orgies, I mean, comet parties, where everyone and their shoulder pads are obliterated. This movie offers harsh criticism of the excess of the time, probably on purpose; like the earlier Omega Man and Andromeda Strain, it has penetrating shots of the lonely aftermath. BBQ party plates left out, toys in a pool, empty Italian leather loafers. The zombies in this movie are completely unexplained, as is who survives the comet and who is turned into red astro dust. The main characters are two uppity white sisters and an older Latino named Hector. The sisters are lovable because they are tough, and not so much part of the 80’s consumerism tidal wave. But they are central to the candy pop culture part; as they dance badly in an empty mall to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” you can’t not appreciate this special cheese (provided you were alive in the 80s; otherwise, it’s just cheese).
There’s some mild 80’s racism towards Latinos, that awful generalization “humor” (“Date night in the barrio?” the bitchy white girl retorts), but Hector turns out to be a hero, while all the white guys die off, except for one punk with a perm, at the very end. The finest line of this movie comes from the younger sister, a gum chewing blonde cheerleader: “I’ll be taking requests from all you teenage zombies on the hit line.”
No one has to eat in this new reality, but, as in most post-apocalyptic movies, everyone drinks and drives abandoned sports cars. The scariest survivors the sisters encounter are not zombies, but mall rats gone mad with power, perhaps another commentary on materialism. All in all, I find Night of the Comet a decent watch; it was nowhere near as goofy as it could have been, given the era’s music, hair and makeup.
What didn’t make the cut (but I’ll include in a post-script, I guess):
The Stand (1991), even though it is one of the only post-plague that acknowledges the smell of the festering corpses. One of the better recent efforts, but the plague is not the focus of this book and TV miniseries, it’s just the device to rid the world of all but a few hundred people. The story really starts after America is cleared of millions of people; the survivors seem so arbitrary, at first. Might be my favorite made for TV movie series; yes, I said it, I’ll …stand by it.