This post-apocolyptic tale was director Roger Corman's first sci-fi movie. While post-nuclear-war movies would become common over the years, in 1955, they were still comparatively new. A few others looked at a post-nuclear world or a post-global destruction world. Only Five ('51) looked at a small group of survivors in the days immediately after a nuclear war wiped out everyone else on earth. Day the World Ended (DWE) is the tale of an ad hoc group of survivors in a tiny oasis of the old world, surrounded by the horrors of the new. The "world" which ended was not the planet (obviously) but world we (in the 50s) knew.
Quick Plot Synopsis
The story opens with some heavy-handed narration and stock footage of the Bikini Atoll test. Through the ground fog, a few survivors stumble upon Jim Maddson's house sheltered in a steep valley. He and Louise, his daughter, are joined by Tony (the hood), Ruby (Tony's girlfriend and burlesque dancer), Rick (the geologist), Pete (the prospector) and Radick (the radiated businessman). Jim had only planned enough supplies for three, not seven. Tensions immediately begin between Jim, Rick and Tony. A rivalry develops between Rick and Tony over Louise. Radick is changing into a 'new' atomic man which needs raw meat to eat. First Louise, and then the others, become aware of a stranger (a mutant) stalking the valley. Radick steals Pete's burro in order kill it and eat raw meat, but he himself is killed by the strange clawed mutant. Pete, despondent, goes over the crest, into the deadly fog and dies. Jim tries to stop him, but only gets a lethal dose of radiation. Meanwhile, Ruby argues with Tony about his fixation on Louise. She pulls a knife on him, but in the struggle, Ruby is killed. That night, the creature "calls" to Louise. She leaves the house and the creature carries her off. She awakens from the 'trance', screams and splashes into the pond. The creature won't follow. Jim arrives with a big rifle, but the creature cannot be shot. Rain comes, however, and subdues the creature. The clean rain water is proof that the world is healing itself. Meanwhile, back in the house, Tony takes sick Jim's gun and plans to kill Rick so he can have Louise. Jim had a hidden gun and shoots Tony dead. Rick and Louise arrive just before Jim expires of radiation sickness. He gives them his blessing, then dies. They trudge off over the ridge, like honeymooning hikers. The big words "The Beginning" flash on the screen. (The End)
Why is this movie fun?
Where Five was thoughtful and artistic, DWE touches on more of the fear people felt in the nuclear angst age. You didn't just die, you turned into an ugly mutant. The acting is pretty good for a low-budget film, and Corman does a good job of keeping the mood tense and claustrophobic.
Cold War Angle
DWE is a classic of the Cold War angst mindset. It depicts the nightmare vision of what would happen if the Cold War ever erupted into a global nuclear war. There's no nationalist finger pointing. The nuclear destruction and contamination are just given facts. The movie opens with these words on screen, "What you are about to see may never happen...but to this anxious age in which we live, it presents a fearsome warning..."
Good Guy / Bad Guy -- Like Five ('51), and Invasion USA ('52), and others, DWE uses a small group, (seven people) as a lens on society. In this case, we have pairs of opposites. Jim, the father, is authority and order, Tony, the hood, is lawlessness. Rick, the geologist and Tony, are distilled opposites of the American male. Rick is brave, virile and heroic. Tony is selfish, rude and arrogant.
Good Girl / Bad Girl -- Louise is a quick distillation 50s vision of what the idealized young woman should be. She's young, pretty, trim and blonde, but she's no air-head. Louise is courageous and compassionate. Louise is the "good girl" which fathers hoped their sons would find for brides. Ruby, on the other hand, is an over-the-hill striptease dancer who smokes and drinks and is implied to have led a loose life. Ruby is cast somewhat more sympathetic Tony was, but she's not what fathers wanted their sons to bring home.
Thin the Herd -- Purge society of its undesirables? It's a very old notion. God wiped out all the wicked undesirables in the great flood, saving only Noah and his family (and the animals, of course). At one point, Jim even says to Rick that his little valley is like Noah's Ark. Radick, representing the business world, was lost from the beginning. Tony kills Ruby, and then is killed himself. Only the idealized "good" people (Rick and Louise) emerge as the post-nuclear Adam and Eve. In this, there's actually a sort of eugenicist's dark optimism that a global nuclear war could be "good" for mankind. It'll thin the herd of undesirables, leaving only the young, blonde and buff.
Rubber Monster -- Paul Blaisdell created the mutant monster costume, mostly out of foam rubber. Blaisdell had a brief, but active, stint as a sci-fi monster maker. He worked cheap, which is why Corman liked him. The mutant doesn't hold up well in extended viewing. The monster's appearance was already revealed on the poster (no mystery there), but Corman limited his camera time for most of the movie, to shadows or glimpses. He erred in letting us see too much towards the end. When we do get a good look, it's predictably disappointing -- like a sculpture of an illustration. Corman would repeat this error in some of his later movies too. Most notably, It Conquered the World ('56).
Love Conquers All -- Love is stronger than even massive mutation. A recurring trope in sci-fi (and horror genre) is humanity lingering within the monster. In DWE, this is seen in the mutant 'calling' to, and then carrying off (not eating) Louise. We're left to presume that the mutant was actually her fiance, Tommy. Despite the radiation turning men into savage flesh eating monsters, a kernel of loving Tommy was stronger.
Divine Judgement? -- A fairly common notion in 50s (and 60s) American christendom was that God might use a global nuclear holocaust to end the current age. A narrator quotes a commonly cited Bible verse used to support that view: 2 Peter 3:12. "...of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat..." Escatologically, this is pretty shaky, but it was a popular notion anyhow.
Atomic Adaptation -- The underlying theory in DWE, is that Nature quickly adapted some creatures to life in an irradiated world. The whole "Matsuo Test" thread sets this up. The massive radiation triggered mutations give creatures armored "atomic skin," claws, horns and the ability to eat radio-actively contaminated food. A barbaric new "after" world is hinted at with mutant Tommy, Radick and the other business man who stumbled into the valley telling of "others, out there." Radick coyly tells Rick that "there are wonderful things happening out there" (beyond the ridge), but won't elaborate. A brave new mutant world?
Purity Prevails -- The new mutant world did not last long. With the coming of pure clean rain water, mutant-Tommy dies. It's presumed that the pure rain kills off all the other mutants too. Louise says, "Man created him, but God destroyed him." Purity, symbolized by the water and personified in "good" Rick and Louise, prevail to reclaim the earth.
Bottom line? DWE is certainly worth a couple hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It's a B film, but has reasonable acting and enough action to keep the plot moving forward. It's also a good example of the nightmare (and bunker mentality) that lurked through the 50s.