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The End of Civilisation as We Know It: The 50th Anniversary

  Humanity has been predicting the end of the world for millennia, and we're still here - The Book of Revelation was written some time around A.D. 90, and has not come true yet. However, when the End Times prey on the minds of the world, which they have done increasingly since the 1990s in the run up to the milometer of time reaching 2000 A.D., then attention becomes focused on how we will all meet our maker, assuming we have any maker to meet. But even this was nothing new, for in the 1970s there was a spate of pop culture which considered humankind meeting its demise, or at least coming in for a very hard time, notably in the movies. Countless books mulled over the apocalypse in works like John Christopher's The Death of Grass, John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up and Stephen King's The Stand: around two decades of doom from the fifties to the seventies to inspire.

Some of those texts were adapted into films, and by 1970 producers were casting around for efforts to deliver the post-hippy fear that society was about to break down for good. In those first couple of years of the seventies, Christopher's novel was translated by actor-turned-director Cornel Wilde for a British-American co-production under the new title No Blade of Grass. It detailed the mass panic that occurs when an environmental catastrophe hits the world, starting with a virus from China which proves fatal to grass, including wheat, and begins to spark shortages, riots and spreading ecological collapse as animals and plants alike are killed off. Though the disease does not affect humans, we certainly feel the consequences on the land, and as a typical family the film picked one headed by ex-military man Nigel Davenport (sporting an eyepatch instead of his usual glass eye) who decides to take his brood to Scotland before circumstances grow ever more dire.

The idea is to take shelter in a recently made fortress there, commanded by Davenport's brother, but even fleeing from the violence of the cities which see the police armed and gunning down furious civilians, the countryside proves to be just as perilous. Not only for the family, but those they meet along the way, Davenport and his younger friend John Hamill wielding the firearms and joined by weapon shop owner Anthony May and his wife Wendy Richard. Yet there is no safety in numbers: the wife (Jean Wallace) and daughter (Lynne Frederick) are gang raped by Hells Angels, and Richard is murdered by May when she tries to seduce Davenport. So you see, not only does widespread breakdown mean death, it also means massive amounts of sexism as well, and Wilde, obviously enthused by his warning, gets carried away frequently; yet its bludgeon of a message does get through, for all its lack of subtlety - it is what we worry about in times of crisis.

Shortly after No Blade of Grass was out, across the Atlantic Roger Corman was about to tear up his contract with AIP, which had been one of the most fruitful collaborations in 1950s and 60s cinema. But the studio, wishing to go upmarket, took one look at Corman's latest counterculture opus Gas! - Or - It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It! and thought, nope, we'll have to salvage something out of this or else it's a write-off. Corman was furious, and left to set up New World, and a whole new horizon of 1970s exploitation was opened up, but against the odds, the apocalypse in this film did appeal to some. If you wanted weirdo hippy shit, they didn't get more weirdo, or hippy, or indeed shit, than Gas! which if it was difficult to watch then, must be an absolute ordeal for audiences in the twenty-first century. It wasn't even a "you had to be there" deal, for the film was widely rejected at the time as well.

Yet its vision of Armageddon was both radically different and curiously the same, and interesting to compare to the other social breakdown movies out in this era. The trigger, seen in an opening animated sequence, is the accidental release of a nerve gas that kills everyone over the age of twenty-five, which would seem to be the end of all those issues with the Vietnam War, for a start. However, an intriguing aspect was that a substantial proportion of the survivors were not hippies at all, these were the pro-conservative young folks, and they were painted as this nation's new villains, filling the vacuum left by the political parties and their supporters. Thereafter Corman got into potshots in a satirical style that rarely landed as he hoped, as the film rambled to its would-be celebratory conclusion (God intervenes), but the project's blasé attitude to violence and rape was not something that chimed with anything that came later.

The soundtrack for Gas! was by hippy band Country Joe and the Fish, who by chance were mentioned in an end of the world movie a few months later: The Omega Man. This was one of three (four if you count Night of the Living Dead) films based on Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, the first, The Last Man on Earth, starred Vincent Price, and the third, which took Matheson's title, starred Will Smith, but none of them adopted his plot to any real faithfulness. The 1971 picture which saw Charlton Heston as the lead opened with him racing around downtown Los Angeles by himself in a natty sports car, because there was nobody else about (er, apart from the occasional vehicle spotted in the far background by eagle-eyed audiences). The Country Joe connection enters into it because Heston's hero spends his days watching the concert film Woodstock, which had been released the year this was in production.

Many have found it comical that Heston would be seen speaking the dialogue of Woodstock along with the film, given his arch-conservative status, but he was more progressive than often offered credit for, and besides, maybe this film was the only one his character could find to play. His cold dead hands were less the focus of the plot than the villains, who were normal humans who had been turned into mutated religious fanatics led by Anthony Zerbe, whose life philosophy can be summed up by his observation that a scientist is a man who understands nothing until there is nothing left to understand: shades of the anti-expert movement we see across the twenty-first century world. Heston was playing a scientist himself, as his boffin is the only one who can reverse the effects that have made Zerbe and his band of not-so-merry brothers and sisters into pasty-faced, white-haired quasi-vampires, not that they partake of the red stuff to any amount.

As far as we know, anyway. Even the African Americans turn white, a source of some bemusement since - a horror moment reveals one character's afro has been turned the colour of milk, which may make you chuckle. Racial politics have supposedly been eradicated, though one of the bad guys is Lincoln Kilpatrick who is not so sure (he calls Heston's hideout with all mod cons a "honky paradise"!), but when our protagonist finds a non-turned survivor to jump into bed with, she's Rosalind Cash, the forthright black actress of the 1970s. What started all this mayhem? The Russians and the Chinese have gone to war and spread a nerve agent worldwide, either killing everyone by choking or transforming them into the mutants, and Heston is our not-so-subtle Christ figure whose blood can be used as a serum to return the afflicted and nearly afflicted back to normal. We end on a note of hope, as apocalyptic efforts often do.

Heston was more responsible than most for kicking off the apocalypse craze in science fiction flicks of the 1970s thanks to his starring role in blockbuster Planet of the Apes, a series that was revived to great success in the twenty-first century, since watching a complete societal breakdown of humanity will apparently never go out of fashion from that day to this. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes was not a remake of the initial instalment, as they decided to start with the most underrated of the original series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which was also the most controversial and the one that had to be recut extensively to tone down its ending. That uncut version (save a pre-credits sequence that appears to be lost or unavailable) was released in 2008 for a box set edition, and made for fascinating viewing as it consciously harked back to the then-recent race riots that had afflicted The United States in the 1960s and later.

The first Planet of the Apes had been very attuned to angry liberal values, but even that was not as furious as this fourth entry, which followed on twenty years after 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes in terms of plot, though it was rushed out merely the year after. Making use of futuristic Los Angelean architecture, the apes had become pets and then slaves, leading to a Spartacus-style revolt that took up most of the second half. The reason for this? A virus that had killed off the cats and dogs, and it is implied, allowed the simians to evolve at an accelerated pace (Ricardo Montalban, who tells us this, is unfortunately not pressed for more details). The surviving chimp from the future, Caesar (franchise regular Roddy McDowall) is horrified at the subjugation and sees to it that his fellow apes rise up, the parallels between the news stories of the riots and the fiction highly deliberate, and rendering this the most popular instalment with contemporary black audiences.

Could a deadly new virus lead to global anarchy? Or would most of us be too knackered to want to do anything like overthrow society out of sheer anger? The apocalypse in fiction happened for various reasons as the 70s drew on, from movies around the world, from environmental collapse to political clampdowns to that then-new favourite, nuclear war or even, as in the first Mad Max film from Australia, because things simply fall apart as an entropy, much like the Talking Heads song Nothing But Flowers, only not as bleakly humorous. Some of these movies, like Logan's Run, depicted a new society emerging, which were as corrupt as the ones they had replaced, but what was clear was the fixation the popular culture had for stories relating what might happen if the worst came to the worst, and around 1970 the enthusiasm for that breakdown was presented with a relish that has never left us. If you're some kind of cinematic masochist, give them a look and pray the world does not get so bad that it fails to heed the warnings of all those decades before.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018