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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Earth Dies Screaming

The title of this little British sci-fi drama doesn't quite fit, but it is grabby. There are a few screams, but the earth doesn't die. In fact, the heros seem to prevail. The story is a recasting of Target Earth ('54) set in a quaint English village instead of a large American city. A few survivors discover that almost everyone has been killed. Aliens are the cause. 50s-style apocalyptic stories still had an appeal. Director Terrence Fisher gives The Earth Dies Screaming (EDS) a fairly tight and moody feel, despite the evidently very low budget.

Quick Plot Synopsis
People all over are passing out or dropping dead. Trains, cars and planes crash. Bodies litter the silent streets. A lone American drives through the village. He stops to get a radio and look for food. In an inn, he is confronted by Quinn Taggert, with a gun, and Peggy. Three survivors becomes five with Otis and Violet. They share back stories of being in control-air spaces, so survived gas attack. Young couple drive into town too. Mel and his very pregnant wife Lorna. Alien robots trudge through the streets. Violet runs out to greet them, think it's army clean-up crew. She is touched and killed. Later, as the rest plan where to go in the morning, Violet awakens as a zombie. Taggert shoots her. The group searches the village armory, finding only some hand guns and explosives. Robots seem bulletproof, though. Taggert knocks out Jeff as he stood guard. Taggert takes Peggy to flee north. Peggy escapes him but is almost captured by more zombies and robots. Jeff rescues her and returns to the others. Lorna has her baby. Jeff figures the aliens are using earth radio towers to control the robots. He and Mel triangulate to find it. They set explosives and blow it up just as robots converge on them. Zombie Taggert and robots break into the armory. Just as they are about to get the women and baby, they fall over (because the tower was blown up). Otis shoots zombie Taggert. The six plan to fly south in search of more survivors. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
For a simple, low-budget film, the pacing and mood are good. The 50s vision of a nuclear apocalypse (with aliens as nuke surrogates) was still alive and well in the mid 60s.

Cold War Angle
On the overt level, there is vague talk of "enemies" that would be familiar to people in the Cold War era. On the more subtle level, is the symbolism of an invisible enemy who has agents in the country, turning citizens into "one of them." The loyalists must fight former friends and neighbors.

Theme Retreads -- The most obvious bit of recycling is the theme from Target Earth ('54) in which a few survivors find themselves alone in a landscape controlled by enemy robots. There is a bit of Day of the Triffids ('63) in having most people stricken by a strange alien force. There is a bit of Last Man on Earth in that most other people are dead, but some of the dead come back as zombies.

Ed Wood: Visionary -- Director Ed Wood Jr. gets ridiculed for his wacky Plan 9 From Outer Space ('59), but was, perhaps, just a bit ahead of his time. He had his aliens animating dead humans, the zombies to aid in the invasion. People laugh, but zombies were becoming box office gold in the 60s. EDS's zombies were well done (the eyes are great), but Ed Wood was there before them.

X-Bots -- The robots in EDS look like tall versions of the little alien in The Man From Planet X ('50). Why robots need space helmets is a bit puzzling. Lippert (the producer) had two robot suits made up. This is better than the producers of Target Earth who had only one robot suit to represent a supposed army of robots. Two robots were more than twice as effective at looking like an invasion force on screen.

Grandpa's Angst -- The presumption of the aliens using a "gas attack" on earth has a curiously anachronistic feel to it. Maybe they didn't use gas, but all the survivors talk of it. This seems to be a durable sensitive nerve in the British psyche, dating back to the early days of World War One. Gas was, then, the new horror weapon. (the nukes of its day) As a weapon, though, gas could not live up to the hype. It was hard to control and undependable. For those reasons, all the combatants (who all tried some gas attacks) gave up on gas as a tactical weapon in a couple years. Yet, the abject fear of gas attack was apparently still alive in the British culture, even almost 50 years later.

Ambiguous Ending -- Jeff and Mel were able to deactivate the alien robots in their local area by toppling the radio mast which the aliens were using to control them. Those controlled by other antennae would continue with whatever they were doing. Jeff is confident that they can stop other robots by similar means. But, the hostile and highly advanced aliens are still out there. Would they always be so easy to thwart? Perhaps the writers were leaving seeds for a sequel, Invasion 2.0.

Bottom line? EDS will disappoint viewers who need fancy special effects. It is, however, a rather well done apocalyptic invasion story, told briskly. It has a very 50s flavor to it, so fans of the golden decade's B films, can appreciate the art.

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