After listening to a few podcasts that covered some post-apocalyptic movies, I remembered that I bought this magazine off eBay years ago and had never gotten around to reading it. While I don't agree with all of the author's views in this article, it is quite an interesting read. So, here's the article from Halls of Horror Issue #29.
After The End:
The Post Apocalypse Action Movies
by Kim Newman
"Mad Max stands alone." Writes Danny Peary in his excellent Cult Movies, "the first and only film of a genre that could surely be explored and exploited, with interesting results, by action-oriented filmmakers. It is extremely probable, I believe, that if Australian filmmakers began churning out similar violent, futuristic car-motorcycle films full of spectacular crashes - films in which the stuntmen are the stars - it could be the start of an international craze to equal that caused by Italian westerns and Chinese kung fu movies a few years back: While the current plague of il cheapo Italian future schlockers proves that Peary was right about the potential popularity of an end-of-the-world action movie genre, he was not entirely accurate in his suggestion that Mad Max's venture into a near future world of anarchy, punk, leather, chrome and violence is without precedent. Quite apart from the film's obvious debt to the Dirty Harry (1971)/Death Wish (1974) rogue cop/vigilante film in its story of an obsessive lawman who tracks down and wipes out the gang of degenerates who raped and killed his wife and child, Mad Max (1979) was merely the breakthrough movie for a genre that had been developing since the birth of the cinema.
In the 1890s, the branch of literature that was then known as the scientific romance became influenced by the millennialism that always comes about with the imminence of a new century. Despite the complete arbitrariness of the convenient gradations civilized man has put upon the passage of time, the fact that a century is drawing to its close appears to stir up the belief that accepted views are about to be turned on their head. In earlier times, fanciful thoughts had tended towards the Second Coming, but the rise of Darwinism had brought about a climate of agnosticism which led Victorian science fiction writers to conceive of the Secular Apocalypse, a series of scientifically rationalized Ends of the World (or, at the very least, Complete and Utter Ruinations of Human Civilization) . Turn of the century fiction gave its readers cause to fear, not the Wrath of God, but a comet on a collision course with the Earth (Camille Flammarion's Omega: The Last Days of the World, (1893-4), invading Martians (H .G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, 1898), world war (Wells' The War in the Air, 1908), the fading of the Sun (William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land, 1912), poison gas from outer space (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt), the atomic bomb (Wells' The World Set Free 1914), or a genocidal pestilence (Jack London's The Scarlet Plague, 1915). After that, World War I, which is what these Apocalypses were really prophesizing, was almost a relief.
During the silent era, the cinema lagged behind literature, locked by fundamentalists like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille into the early Victorian ideas of the Bible belt. Silent spectacles were only too pleased to present crazed visions of mass devastation in religious epics like Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Demille's first The Ten Commandments (1923) and Michael Curtiz' Noah's Ark (1929), but God-fearing mid-west audiences could relish the pagan orgies, crashing temples and smitten multitudes safe in the knowledge that they were too righteous ever to suffer the fate of the Sodomite and Babylonian extras cheerfully slaughtered en masse by megaphone-weilding directorial demagogues in riding britches. The main attraction in these films, which incidentally became popular all over again with mass audiences during the nuclear-conscious 1950s, was a combination of spectacular carnage and the spectacularly carnal goings-on that brought down the ire of Jehovah in the first place. When Abel Gance came to film Flammarion's The Last Days of the World in 1930, the comet was explicitly linked to the Judgment of God, and there was much stress on the ribald excesses of doomed humanity in the shadow of doom. For this reason, the film was drastically shortened for release outside traditionally libertarian France, and most extant versions have been disowned by the director. The more moral Americans, reeling under the Judgments of the Wall Street Crash, Prohibition and the Depression, replied with a modern flood, Deluge (1933), in which New York is swept away by a tidal wave to make way for a particularly wet three-way love affair.
The first obvious ancestor of the modern post-apocalypse movie is the middle section of William Cameron Menzies' Things to Come (1936). In Hollywood, economy-conscious producers took heed of the failure of Deluge and vented their urge to destroy the world through the rampages of machine-gun toting mobsters or back-from-the-dead monsters, but H.G. Wells had devastated the planet in print so many times that he was used to it, and itched to put his vision of the End of the Old World on the big screen. The first half of his novel The Shape of Things to Come uses a worldwide war to reduce civilization to the ruins out of which the utopian technological city of the future will rise. Set in 1970, the central scenes of the film find Everytown (Wells' London) smashed by aerial bombardment, and populated by plague-ridden savages perpetually at war with the hill tribes of the home counties. The ruler is Ralph Richardson as The Boss, a fur-coated militarist barbarian who rides in a horse-drawn limousine and conducts himself like the ancestor of Isaac Hayes' Duke of New York or Mad Max's gayboy Huron bikers. Instead of Mel Gibson, the film has Raymond Massey in a black leather outfit, the representative of a scientific community that drops him on Everytown to deliver the first draft of Klaatu's Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) warning - make peace or die. Mad Max Rockatansky is "the only law in a world gone mad", but Massey's John Cabal is the harbinger of a rule of sanity which will displace the Boss' revolver-waving tyranny with a suspiciously fascist but eminently sensible world state.
...only the beginning
With World War II satisfying anyone's appetite for destruction, the apocalypse movie went underground, but the war's Big Bang finale provided the science fiction boom of the 1950s with something really scary to worry about. The twin fears of The Bomb and The Commie rats proved a powerful inspiration for many visions of smoking, radioactive ruins. In Rocketship X-M (1950), the first of the Awful Warning films, mankind Learns Its Lesson by taking a trip to Mars, where the astronauts take a tour of a civilization that has wiped itself out in a nuclear war. The plot was reused in The Island Earth (1955), Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983). More popular is the story about the present day people who travel into a ravaged future Earth, whether deliberately, as in The Time Machine (1960) and The Time Travelers (1964), or accidentally, as in World Without End (1955), Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), and the Planet of the Apes series, in which astronauts return from space to find themselves in the far future. Terror From the Year 5000 (1958) rings the changes slightly by having a mutated survivor of a nuclear war travel through time to the present in search of virile types to repopulate her world.
The imaginative visions of these atomic exploitationers are limited to a variation on the Settler Versus Indian conflicts of old-fashioned westerns, in which purebred, Aryan-looking Good Guys are being threatened by hideously mutated, radioactive, scuzzbag Bad Guys, but are saved when the macho intruder from our world chips in with some good old scientific know-how and a few strong right hooks to hairy jaws. The hero usually finds an unmarked, beautiful, usually dumb, savage woman to settle down with. It is probably not coincidental that these films sprang up when Broken Arrow (1950) and Apache (1954) were forcing real westerns to take a more liberal attitude to real Indians. As yet, no one has made a post-armageddon Soldier Blue (1970) in which peace-loving three-eyed monsters are massacred by intolerant human beings. However, Captive Women (1952) a cheap, lurid, moderately exciting tale of tribal warfare in what is left of New York in the year 3000 does have the novelty of an ending in which a not-terribly hideous Mute (Ron Randell) marries a hubba-hubba Norm girl and unites humanity, and, in The Last Man on Earth (1964), the stake-brandishing hero (Vincent Price) is captured by the race of vampires who have succeeded humanity and put to death because of the havoc he is wreaking on their unusual but functioning new society.
The first serious treatment of nuclear warfare in the cinema was Arch Oboler's chatty Five (1951), the bleak little story of an ill-matched group of survivors who are soon whittled down by radiation sickness, murder, and poetic justice to a more manageable Two, the first of many new Adams and Eves to settle down at the fadeout presumably with the intention of breeding like rabbits. Five is the archetypal Serious Nuke Movie, the direct ancestor of everything from On the Beach (1959) through The War Game (1966) to The Day After (1983), and very boring it is too, although the now familiar visions of lone figures walking through rubbish and skeleton littered streets have a momentary buzz of horror. With The Day the World Ended (1956), Roger Corman made the Non-Serious Nuke Movie his own province, doubtless because deserted landscapes and dry ice radiation clouds are very cheap. Throwing in Paul Blaisdell in a mutant suit ("its skin looked like rubber," says a character in a canny speech, "but it was hard as steel!"), The Day the World Ended is less pretentious than Five, and was followed up by Teenage Cavemen (1958), with Robert Vaughn as the post-holocaust mixed-up kid discovering the origin of his world, and The Last Woman on Earth (1960), with Anthony Carbone and screenwriter Robert Towne arguing over Betsy Jones-Moreland.
Falling between the Serious and Non-Serious strains are Albert Zugsmith's hysterically anticommunist diatribe Invasion U.S.A. (1953), which had the distinction of scaring the pants of Louella Parsons, and Ranald MacDougall's oddly unforgettable The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1960) in which Mel Ferrer, Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens. as the remnants of humanity after a war fought with radioactive gas (?), sort out their racial and sexual prejudices and invent an entirely new kind of family unit. If nothing else, The World, The Flesh and The Devil has the best depopulated city footage with Belafonte dragging a child's cart full of canned food through the concrete canyons of early morning New York. Unquestionably the worst of the Nuke Movies is Lary Buchanan's static, rotten remake of The Day the World Ended, In the Year 2889 (1965). Most of these films end with a title reading "This Is Not The End ... This Is Only The Beginning", and are distinguished by a dismal view of humanity that suggests there is something to be said for the destruction of mankind after all. Let's face it, who wants to live in a world populated by descendants of Richard Denning and Lori Nelson?
More expensive science fiction found the prospect of World War III so unbearable (or uncommercial) that they substituted a world-destroying natural disaster or an alien invasion for the mushroom cloud in order to present images of the destruction of civilization. In When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956), The Mysterians (1960), The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1962), and Day of the Triffids (1963), the skyscrapers came tumbling down, tidal waves surge through New York, alien aardvarks rampage in Tokyo, London fries, and humanity descends into savagery with an almost monotonous regularity. These films present a particularly bleak picture of our civil defense measures which are not only unable to deal with the Martian war machines but handle the rioting survivors very badly - in War of the Worlds, desperately needed medical supplies are trampled by a mob, and in The Day The Earth Caught Fire, Chelsea beatniks greet the end of the world with a jazz party that gets out of hand. "You know, I'm beginning to think that these disasters only bring out the worst in people," says a minor character in Earthquake (1974) when National Guardsman Marjoe Gortner uses his badge to get local punks who used to hassle him summarily executed, and even attempts to force himself on Victoria Principal. The film may be silly, but the point is well made.
As usual, the most affecting images of desolation come from the cheapest, lousiest movies. War of the Worlds and The Mysterians may be fine when it comes to noisy battles, but cheapskate quickies like Target: Earth (1954), The Earth Dies Screaming (1964), Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966), and Where Have All the People Gone? (1974), unable to afford explosive special effects, have a few unsettling moments of quiet despair amid the boring B-movie dialogue. The second Dr Who film, if not quite as effectively depressing as the original TV serial, makes particularly good use of blitzed London locations to suggest a decayed city of the future. By now, the central purpose of the holocaust in these films was evident. For all the anti-nuke platitudes, the catastrophes of these movies were designed not to put over a message, but to get rid of all the boring people in the world. With heroes and villains alike removed from the constraints of civilization, there are no legal niceties to get in the way of entertaining, no-holds-barred, shoot-'em-ups. After the apocalypse, the world becomes the large scale equivalent of those "wide open" lawless frontier towns that need a Wyatt Earp to clean up and make safe for the womenfolk.
How I learned to stop
worrying and love
As the world heaved a collective sigh of relief after the Cuba missile crisis, the movies' attitude to the apocalypse became more flippant. In 1962, Ray Milland could seriously suggest in his exploitative Panic in the Year Zero that Mr Average Joe American can survive a nuclear war by taking his family into the hills, drinking bottled water, and shooting any leather jacket types who look like troublemakers. The absurd side of all this was obvious, but it took Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) to make it work on the screen. After seeing Slim Pickens whooping it up as he rides into oblivion with a hydrogen bomb bucking like a bronco between his legs, it was difficult for a while to take the Big Hot One seriously. "So long, mom, I'm off to drop the Bomb!" sang Tom Lehrer, and CND's straight faced followers only had Sidney Lumet's slightly ironic version of Strangelove, Fail Safe (1964) to tide them over until Peter Watkins' still-shattering The War Game came along to restore the balance of terror. This was the era of zero-degree cool and radical chic, and the only nuclear conflict imaginable in Strangelove, Fail Safe and The Bedford Incident (1965) is accidental. In Corman's Gas-s-s-s or: It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1970), the U.S. President manfully goes on television after a spilled bioweapon has killed off everyone over twenty-five, and admits to "a simple human error that anyone could have made."
In Gas-s-s-s, Corman gave the hippies the holocaust they were looking for, and proceeded to disappoint them with a hit-and-miss satire on the counterculture values. Reversing the conventions of Panic in the Year Zero, Corman has Hells' Angels become the new middle class, while all-American football teams turn to looting and rapine. "Frankly boys," says a coach in a pep talk, "I don't know if you're are good enough to sack El Paso." Gas-s-s-s was much hacked about by its distributors, and Corman was driven to stop directing and set up his own production company, but it remains a funnier view of the End of the World than Richard Lester's goonish, overrated The Bed Sitting Room (1969) and sharper in its look at pop art amid the ruins than Jim McBride's offbeat, semi-underground, pretty dull Glen and Randa (1971). It is perhaps the first post-holocaust action/adventure fun flick, and Corman would be instrumental in furthering the genre with his productions of Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000 (1974), a cartoonish, violent, and thrilling tale of gladiatorial combat on Transamerican freeways, and Deathsport (1978), the far-future template for lousy movies like The New Barbarians (1982), which has lots of bikes blowing up and strongly stupid performances from heroine Claudia Jennings and villain Richard Lynch.
In 1968, a kind of worldwide apocalypse seemed likely, as a conventional war in South East Asia escalated in pace with student unrest in the western world. The dawning of the Age of Aquarius was greeted in the cinema by two important films, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes. Like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969), Duane Jones in one film and Charlton Heston in the other go in search of America. Unfortunately for them, they find it. Romero's film is a masterpiece, the most influential horror movie since Frankenstein (1931) and Psycho (1960), but, since it was disguised as a cheap exploitation grindhouse item, it was initially overlooked by critics who praised Planet of the Apes for its obvious, misanthropic satire. The film takes its redneck posses and burning bodies from Vietnam newsreels, and Romero paints a grim picture of humanity by having his living characters tear at each other in useless argument, while his dead ones yearn to tear at them in ravenous feasting. Planet of the Apes is a twisted version of the Norms Versus Mutes story with hairy-chested Chuck Heston dumped in a future ruled by stuffy chimps. While its overkill has worn less well than the cruder Romero films, Planet of the Apes finally comes up with the goods with its image of the shattered Statue of Liberty. The film ends with an anti-nuke howl that must now cause staunchly Reaganite Heston some embarrassment. While Night of the Living Dead and Planet of the Apes are both funnier than they sound, they signaled a return to a more serious approach to the apocalypse.
They don't make 'em like that any more...
is what Charlton Heston mutters to himself as The Omega Man (1971) while watching his favourite film, Woodstock (1970), summing up the brainless apocalypse/action movies of the mid-1970s. No Blade of Grass (1971), Logan's Run (1975), Damnation Alley (1977), The Ultimate Warrior (1975), A Boy and His Dog (1975), and a slew of Planet of the Apes sequels made the ravaged post-holocaust landscape familiar to audiences who were more worried about Watergate or the oil crisis. The end of the world was even safe enough for TV, as demonstrated by Survivors, the Logan's Run spinoff, and Gene Rodenberry's pitiful attempts to get a post-Trekkie series on the air (Genesis II, 1973, Planet Earth, 1974, Strange New World, 1975). The films had decent budgets, and so they could afford to come up with impressively devastated cities (the subterranean stock exchange of 1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the corpse-littered L.A. of The Omega Man, the ivy-covered Washington monuments of Logan's Run), but they all cheapen interesting source novels into wars between ecology-conscious hippie communes and contaminated violence freaks. Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley has a Hells' Angel hero who "looks at the world through crap-coloured glasses" and reads like a badass holdover from a biker movie, but, in Jack Smight's drippy film, he becomes Jan-Michael Vincent, a blue-eyed, clean-cut air force officer whose blow-dried hair is unaffected by fallout.
The Omega Man is a vampire-less remake of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (which had been The Last Man in the World) that has a great opening with Heston machine-gunning caped mutants and holding out against the world in his luxury penthouse, but goes bad with the introduction of a multi-racial creche for whom Heston finally sacrifices himself. The Ultimate Warrior and A Boy and His Dog are tougher, in the first, survivalist Max Von Sydow tells hero-for-hire Yul Brynner that if he has the choice between saving the girl or a packet of seeds, he should stick with the seeds, and in the second, the hero feeds his girlfriend to a telepathic dog who sticks by him as he wonders through America buried under twenty feet of sludge. Even these ratty epics, which borrow their ethics from spaghetti westerns and cycle crazy movies like Angles Hard As They Come (1972), are not free from peace and love platitudes that clog the rest of the mainstream end of the world movies. The Bomb wipes out the straights, radioactive red necks get creamed in the aftermath, and the future belongs to the Beautiful People. If there was any vitality left in the genre, it would have to come not from Hollywood glossies but from ragtag stickies like The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which would have been the first post-apocalypse western only Wes Craven couldn't afford to depict the breakdown of society; so it stands as the wildest of the backwoods massacre movies, with a bunch of Norms fighting back when the desert-dwelling Mutes attack them. With The Hills Have Eyes and Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1979)' the horror movie took the apocalypse about as far as it could, and the world was ready for an avenger in black leather to put it to rights.
We're going to give them back their heroes
In Mad Max, a post-holocaust police chief tells his Number One man, "there are no heroes any more, well, we're going to give them back their heroes." The vaguely liberal eco-catastrophe films had emasculated their Chuck Hestons, but the flourishing apocalypse. action film needed colourful, larger-than-life Marvel Comics style characters to strut their stuff in the ruins. Possibly the first of the heroes is Harry Crown (Richard Harris) in John Frankenheimer's lurid 99 and 44/100% Dead, the fixer who is called into a futuristic American city run by gangsters to deal with Marty 'Claw' Zuckerman (the incomparable Chuck Connors), a hitman who replaces his missing hand with snap-on implements that range from a champagne-cork-popper to a machine gun. He was followed by Walter Hill's Street gang in The Warriors (1979), a bunch who define themselves solely by the mythic types (cowboy, Indian, Zulu warrior) whose costumes they ape, Mel Gibson's Dirty Harry-cum-Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in the Mad Max films, and Kurt Russell's Clint Eastwood-croaking Snake Plissken in John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981).
Since Mad Max is the only law in a world gone mad, the film 's poster insists that we "pray he's out there." Although the film can be cited as the inspiration for the current craze, it has several severe problems. It opens with a dynamite chase, featuring spectacular stuntwork and razor-sharp editing, as the cops tackle an insane killer on the old Anarchie Road. "I'm a fuel injected suicide machine," screams The Nightrider just before he goes up in a massive explosion. Unfortunately, Mad Max's first impression is the strongest - not only does the rest of the film fail to come up with a villain to equal The Nightrider, but none of its subsequent action scenes are quite as exciting as its first. Indeed, there is a particularly soggy stretch in the middle of the film when Max quits the force for a soft focus idyll with his wife and child. The Nightrider's vicious gang kill them and maddened Max is soon back on the road in his Interceptor Vehicle on the vengeance trail, but the damage has been done and the story limps along to its sadistic punch line (Max cuffs a minor thug to a wreck and tells him to saw his foot off or perish in the explosion) without recapturing the spirit of the opening sequence. Because the film was made cheaply in horrendous conditions, director George Miller had to redub the Australian cast with bland, mid-Atlantic voices, and was never really satisfied with the finished product, which is why he leaped at the opportunity, when the movie became an international success to make a sequel and do everything right.
By the time of Mad Max 2, civilization has decayed even further. The police force no longer exists, and Max roams the deserts in his battered Interceptor, accompanied by a mangy dog and a loopy autogiro captain (Bruce Spence in long johns, Richtofen helmet, and sunflower buttonniere). An old-timer narrates the legend of the Road Warrior who threw in with the hippie good guys against the punk/monster villains in order to clear the way for the reestablishment of civilization. While the first film presented Max as a rogue cop, Mad Max 2 has him as the kind of doomed western hero John Wayne plays in The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the man of action who is prevailed upon to help lesser mortals destroy the only world he is capable of living in. like Wayne, Mad Max finally disappears into desert obscurity. The sequel is actually a ninety-minute action sequence, which rather cramps the style of several intriguing supporting characters who are introduced and then brushed off, but Miller handles the whole thing with the verve of the first twenty minutes of Mad Max. Mad Max 2 was retitled The Road Warrior in the United States (the one territory where the first film flopped), and served to establish Miller as a director of note (his segment of The Twilight Zone, 1983, is worth the rest of the movie put together), Gibson as an international star, and the futuristic action/adventure as the genre flavour-of-the-month.
On the streets
The key ingredients of the post-holocaust action movie are weird costumes and ultra-violence. Stanley Kubrick proved in A Clockwork Orange that the cinema could have these without needing an expensive-to-simulate nuclear war. In Kubrick's version of Anthony Burgess' novel, the future has become hell through simple deterioration. With inner city decay and a rising crime rate, it is not hard to envision the kind of near-future world in which Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a droog in a white boiler suit, bowler hat, and eye make up, can lead his gang of thugs through a decadent, violent London. The scariest thing about A Clockwork Orange, quite apart from the very dubious morality of its ambiguously anti-violence message, is that most of it was shot on authentic 1970s locations. "We are the future," declares the leader of the pack in Class of 1984 (1982), "and nothing can stop us." Recently, the movies have turned away from the futuristic consequences and begun to linger over the present-day tide of violence which will eventually lead to the horrors of Mad Max or Escape From New York, unless the reactionary heroes of The Exterminator (1980) or Class of 1984 get their way and drive the scum off our streets with flamethrowers and meatgrinders. These are the rightwing backlash films, and, personally, I find their solutions more frightening than the problem.
The most common kind of future society in the cinema is a variation on ancient Rome, in which the bloodlust of the masses is slaked by state sponsored gladiatorial sports. In The Tenth Victim (1965), private citizens are licensed to join the Hunt, and Ursula Andress swans around a pop art Rome in search of Marcello Mastroianni, the tenth victim, who will win her untold wealth and fame and the star role in a television commercial for Ming Tea. Elio Petri's film has a funny premise (from a Robert Sheckley short story), and plenty of bizarre bits of 1960s futurism (an 'antique' pinball table, a first edition Flash Gordon, and Andress' bullet-firing brassiere). but falls apart in the finale, which has all the characters jaunt around the countryside popping off harmless shots at each other in lieu of an actual ending. Rollerball (1975) does much to popularize the black-leather-and-chrome-studs outfits that have become essential dress for future heroes, but its condemnation of a colourless world where the only excitement comes from an extremely violent motorcycle/ roller derby/roulette/hockey/football sport is somewhat compromised by the fact that it is a colourless film whose only excitement comes from the Rollerball sequences. Recently, The Prize of Peril (1983), from another Sheckley story, proposes a TV game show in which the contestant has to stay alive for four hours while killers track him down. Despite Michel Piccoli's enthusiastically ghastly incarnation of a Bruce Forsyth-type game show host ("and you have an unusual hobby?" he asks one of the psychos who has volunteered to kill the hero), the film suffers from the fact that its action sequences are so ordinary that any sadistic audience would prefer to switch over to some old Hanna-Barbera cartoons instead. French television has a worldwide reputation for its dull respectability, so the makers of The Prize of Peril, unfamiliar with the horrors of American and British quiz shows, can perhaps be excused from missing Sheckley's satirical point and making a dead straight, dead boring film of his witty, pointed story.
The most serious of the future sport horrors comes from doomwatcher Peter Watkins, who has world war replaced by a single combat in The Peace Game/The Gladiators (1969), and the National Guard hunting down hippie radicals for the practice in Punishment Park (1970). Watkins' fake documentaries overstate their case habitually (Punishment Park ends with the off-screen voice of Watkins shouting at the top of his voice that life is unfair), but remain genuinely horrifying. Both these visions have had some influence, with The Peace Game reworked for American TV as The Challenge (1970) in which Darren McGavin and Mako settle World War III between them, and Punishment Park providing the inspiration for the terrible Turkey Shoot (1982), a lurid Australian exploitationer with camp commandants hunting political prisoners Steve Railsback and Olivia Hussey through the outback. Explosive crossbow bolts, a Neanderthal man, quantities of ketchup, and Michael Craig as an Establishment villain called Thatcher are variously involved.
The punk explosion of 1977, which had been sort of anticipated by A Clockwork Orange,
emphasized that the horrific future of unemployment, misery, no-hopers and, of course, weird costumes and ultra-violence was already with us. There were a few punxploitation pics, but only Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1977) attempts to depict the apocalypse that The Sex Pistols swore was about to happen. A time-tripping Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) and her alchemical sidekick, Dr Dee (Richard O'Brien) take a tour of a post-breakdown London, encountering many oddball characters, and lots of horrific, pram burning, barbed wire tightrope-walking, sickeningly violent imagery. Jubilee is a hectic, bad mannered adaptation of Michael Moorcock's Romances of Entropy, with a few startling performances from Runacre, Little Nell, and Orlando to make up for embarrassingly amateurish ones from Adam Ant, Toyah, and Jordan. (Note without comment: very few people in the cast of Jubilee cared to use their real names.) Ruined London made a comeback as the setting for Piers Haggard's The Quatermass Conclusion (1978) and the very curious Memoirs of a Survivor (1982), but by now there is depressingly little to distinguish these backdrops from the locations for documentary-style, serious contemporary dramas like Mike Leigh's Meantime (1983).
In America, the urban decay horror movie grew out of the Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood action film; both actors were considered by John Carpenter for the role of Snake Plissken in Escape From New York before he settled on his cheaper friend, Kurt Russell. In 1997, Manhattan is walled off as a maximum security prison, and police chief Lee Van Cleef has to recruit bank robbing WWIII hero Plissken to haul out President Donald Pleasence, who has crashed in the middle of the Big Apple. Carpenter established his plot with brisk, economical strokes that promise a high-energy, satirical adventure, but once all the fun characters (Ernest Borgnine as a molotov-cocktail-throwing cabbie, Harry Dean Stanton as the owner of an oil well in the public library, and Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York) have been introduced and various races against time set in motion, the film runs out of gas and degenerates into a listless series of battles, Nevertheless, the film 's scary setting - with severed heads on parking meters, a Chock Full O'Nuts that lives up to its name, and a transvestite revue singing 'Everyone's Going to New York' - is interesting enough to make one regret the lapses in script and direction.
The most elaborate depiction yet of an American city on the skids comes unfortunately in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), a film that is annoying precisely because the minutely detailed, cluttered background completely obscures the upfront story, which means that the strong plot and sly humour of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? get lost amid Scott's yellow fog, punk derelicts, Hong Kong with acid rain street scenes, advertising pyramids and irritatingly symbolic fluttering doves. Still, Harrison Ford in a trench coat, Sean Young in furs, and Rutger Hauer with dyed hair are at least convincingly artificial inhabitants of Scott's murky vision. A similarly deadbeat New York is found in the 'Harry Canyon' segment of the animated Heavy Metal (1982), a skit on The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Taxi Driver (1976) in which Canyon (the voice of Richard Romanus) drives his cab through a city of Mohawk muggers, the best cops money can buy, and incredibly available women. Recent near-futures include the technological playground of John Badham's Blue Thunder (1982), in which Roy Scheider diverts heat seeking missiles into skyscrapers and to hell with the innocent bystanders, and Francis Coppola's Rumble Fish (1983), a persuasive, poetic look at the fag end of the gang fighters of his The Outsiders (1983).
Of course it fell to the Italians to make the ultimate ripoff of the genre, Enzo G. Castellari's 1990: Bronx Warriors (1982), an unashamed blend of The Warriors and Escape From New York which takes poetic justice to its logical conclusion by stealing back all the baroque stylistic quirks Walter Hill and Carpenter lifted from spaghetti westerns in the first place - a Viking funeral complete with soaring music and tearful close-ups of the Hells' Angels extras, and a fetishist display of bludgeoning, gouging, slashing, strangling, and mutilating weapons. Castellari (best known as the actor who played Mussolini in Winds of War, 1983) is a pedestrian director, but the assemblage of off-the-wall supporting characters makes Bronx Warriors value for money. In addition to Vic Morrow as a renegade cop with a line in neo-Shakespearean rant ("let the enemy have no survivors this day, horsemen!")' the Bronx is populated by a tap-dancing Broadway chorus with deadly sword canes, 1930s gangsters, samurai, a vampire, and an s/m sister to the Wicked Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1936). It was followed up with Castellari's indifferent Bronx Warriors II (1983), Sergio Martino's 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983), Jules Harrison's Barbarians 2000 (1983), and Uncle Lucio Fulci's 2033 AD: Centurions of the Future (1983), These films tend to topline down-on-their-luck Americans like Fred Williamson and Henry Silva, alongside pseudonymous Italian nonentities like Mark Gregory and Timothy Brent.
Hell for leather
The Mad Max films borrow a lot of their hardware, costuming, cynical attitude, and overloud soundtrack engine noise from the perennially popular bike gang/hot rod rebel cycle. The genre got a kick start in 1954 with Marlon Brando as a leather-jacketed existentialist in The Wild One (when asked "what are you rebelling against?", he replies, "what have you got?"), and was responsible for such important works of art as Hotrod Rumble (1957) and Dragstrip Riot (1958). After a disappointing spell in the early 1960s when Frankie Avalon gave teenagers a bad name by being polite, looking neat, having beach parties, and sighing over Annette Funicello, Roger Corman revived the cycle thug picture with The Wild Angels, a memorable bit of gas-burning, nihilism with an all-time great cast that includes Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Gayle Hunnicut, Michael J. Pollard, Dick Miller, and Bruce Dern as 'Loser'. As in Gas-s-s-s, Corman shows a gang of drop-outs who set up a society more rigid and repressive (Fonda is addressed as 'Mr President' by his followers) than the one they are escaping from. The real-life Hell's Angels chapter who appeared as extras in the film were unsure whether to sue Corman or kill him, but nothing came of either threat, and his New World company later produced similar bikesploitation epics, Angels Die Hard (1971), Bury Me an Angel (1972) and Angels Hard As They Come (1972).
Charlton Heston, in The Omega Man, pioneered the use of a high power hog as a means of getting around after the holocaust, and the Harley-Davidson was joyously taken up by David Carradine in Deathsport (where the perfectly ordinary bikes are inexplicably referred to as 'Death Machines') before the Mad Max films made burning rubber as vital a part of the aftermath of civilization as radioactive rednecks and 'only the beginning' end titles. George A. Romero wrote a particularly nasty gang of future bikers, led by Tom Savini, into the finale of Dawn of the Dead, but he then reformed them and reused the props for Knightriders (1981), in which a cycle gang resurrect Arthurian codes of chivalry and set up one of the few viable alternative communities in the cinema that one would even consider living in. Mad Max 2 makes petrol the currency for the future, and Harley Cokliss' Battletruck (1981) deals with the lust for gas and the overthrow of a tarmax tyrant who rules the road with his lorry leviathan. One gets the feeling that there will be a lot of similar tales, as witness the Filippino Mad Max-imitation, Stryker (1983) - "the odds are a million to one, and Stryker's the one!"
Enzo G. Castellari struck back with The New Barbarians (1983), the high-spot of which is its ad line, "once you've survived the holocaust, you've got to be tough!" In 2019, the survivors are reduced to dressing up in stupid leather codpieces and driving their battered dune buggies around the Cinecitta rubbish dump. The baddies are a group of fanatical gay libbers called The Templars, who believe in finishing off what World War III started by killing everyone who is left before committing suicide, and just about the only remarkable aspect of the movie is that the heroine doesn't get raped, but the hero does. Amid the boredom of the exploding bodies, severed heads, flying stuntmen, and bad acting, there is one funny line, which has a disgruntled Templar ripping up a Bible and sneering "Books! That's what started this whole apocalypse!"
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983), both in 3-D, take the Mad Max 2 biker/western formula and set it on other planets. Spacehunter has Peter Strauss as a grizzled old bounty hunter and Molly Ringwald as a tagalong tomboy trying to rescue three white women from the Indians, while Metalstorm is about a sheriff trying to stop the varmint who is stirring up an Apache war and a prospector's daughter after the gunslinger who shot down her old man. Both films dress their hackneyed stories up with headachy tridvid effects, more or less imaginative mutant characters, and garbage heap sculpture vehicles, and are differentiated only by the fact that Lamont Johnson's Spacehunter is diverting trash, while Charles Band's Metalstorm is real rubbish. Incidentally, all four titles are meaningless, and Jared-Syn doesn't get destroyed. Band had already tried one 3-D ripoff in Parasite (1982), an Alien-inspired monster epic set in a Mad Maxish punk future, and should have learned his lesson by now.
The Mad Max films are fun, but perhaps the concept of the nuclear annihilation of humanity is becoming too real to be the subject of pure entertainment movies. Nothing seems more tasteless now than the After-The-Bomb hi-jinx of callous films like Damnation Alley or Panic in the Year Zero, and, with the proliferation of atomic weapons and CND-inspired debate about their possible use, the disturbing undercurrents of the 'fun' apocalypse movie have been coming to the surface. John Badham's War Games (1983) is a Disneyish fable about technological innocence, but its view of a Deterrent machine that might or might not up and decide to wipe the slate clean on its own incomprehensible whim is still unsettling. But the most up-to-the-minute nuke horror films, The Day After (1983) and Testament (1983), dispense entirely with the gung-ho showmanship of most commercial Hollywood movies and treat their subject with chilling seriousness. Neither film is free from the soap opera tinge of suburban life as seen on American television, but they both present the breakdown of a familiar world with an uncomfortable conviction.
In both films, the Bomb drops, and the survivors are not clear who started it, let alone who won. Nicholas Meyer's The Day After is a bigger movie, with more recognizable actors (Jason Robards, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams, Jeff East) and more lurid horrors (everyone goes bald and sprouts hideous radiation scars), but Lynn Littman's Testament, which concentrates on a suburban Mum played by Oscar-nominated Jane Alexander, is more insidiously disturbing. The Day After goes into the details of instant immolation, impossibly crowded hospitals, orgies of despair and glowing ruins, but Testament simply deals with loss, as the heroine loses her husband (William Devane) in the blast, and her children one by one thereafter. It isn't easy to forget Alexander calmly sowing her thirteen year-old daughter into a makeshift shroud, and, in appointed answer to the action-packed petrol grubbing of Mad Max 2, the only conceivable use for petrol in the post-holocaust world of Testament is an aid to suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
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