Friday, January 15, 2010

Apoca-Party Time

There are a whole lot of ways the could can end, and even more films that document each one. Here's a rundown of a few noteworthy entries into the apocalypse.

Nuclear Disaster

The 1980s was a decade fraught with Cold War paranoia, so it was only natural for filmmakers to mine the potential of nuclear holocaust for cinematic storytelling. Interestingly enough, in order to fully experience the horror of what could have been, one must prop up the Lazy Boy in the comfort of home to see the two most terrifying fictionalizations: the ABC Network’s The Day After and the BBC produced faux documentary, Threads. Both detail the everyday suburban/rural world of the early ‘80s spiraling into a burnt, radioactive open graveyard quickly eroding the faces and souls of those unlucky enough to survive the initial attack. Threads--still not available on Region 1 DVD--is particularly horrifying in how it tricks its audience into following a young pregnant couple and their families, only to lose a few members with the same lack of fanfare as the rest of the world and tear apart the bases we expected to hold strong. In just two hours, this made-for-TV film takes us from worrying about the economy to reliving the Dark Ages, where the new generation of children speak in grunts and age faster than Ice Pirates in super speed. It’s truly terrifying, particularly due to the matter-of-fact presentation that shows the demise of society not as a tragedy, but an inevitable consequence of a planet at war.


The Stand, 12 Monkeys, and 28 Days Later are a few classic examples of devastating plagues, but for a fresh take on viral horror, check out Alex and David Pastor’s wrongfully-straight-to-DVD Carriers. What makes this low budget, but extremely sharp little film so strong is the particular point in time it takes place: after the outbreak but before complete chaos. Without any flashbacks or forced exposition, Carriers starts with a young group of smart--if not smart enough--survivors led by Star Trek’s Chris Pine. These seemingly normal twentysomethings and teens are armed with disinfectant and a single pistol, but also mildly afflicted with consciences still clogged with the empathy they had in a world past. Unlike most plague pictures hypnotized by sexy scenes of contagion and apocalypse, Carriers focuses on how a person must adjust to surviving a world with no mercy. By the end, our remaining characters have crossed a line and stepped into a new world, but not without surrendering--and, in a sense, executing--what made them human in a former life. It’s gripping and far more intelligent than its pretty-people-in-peril poster art would have you believe.


Whether you worship Jesus or prefer his work in Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter (a classic for another list), it’s hard to deny the Book of Revelation is one kickass read. Religious-themed apocalypses are something of a cheat due to the lack of real rules that goes with the territory, but Michael Tolkin’s 1991 drama The Rapture earns a place here for taking the idea of its title and exploring its implications through one conflicted character. Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a telephone operator (a job which apparently warrants a horror film entirely of its own) who trades in her promiscuous swinger lifestyle for a Born Again baptism with a new husband (David Duchovny) and church ready daughter. Without getting into spoiler territory (as this is a highly recommended film for the thematically combative philosophizing film fan), let’s just say Sharon, a woman fully expecting to greet the end of the world with her family at her side and arms open wide, instead finds herself doubting her faith at an extremely inopportune time. It’s one of the most intriguing and discussion-ready films I’ve seen to deal with this (or any) big issue, and well-deserving of a watch on a day that warrants introspection into the individual at the end of it all.


While Buffy spent seven years protecting Earth from demonically-rendered apocalypses, John Carpenter chose to pit a mere insurance investigator (albeit one who previously took on velociraptors) against the god-like horror novelist celebrated by a surprisingly fertile nation of readers. A beloved, if messy apocalyptic offering from a brilliant genre director still in his golden years, In the Mouth of Madness playfully juggles a few big ideas about what it means when an entire population puts its devotion in one morally questionable artist. Carpenter had dabbled in the world ending before, but even Snake Plissken would be blinded (in the other eye) by the insanity of reality now ruled by a Sutter Kane, a Stephen King-meets-Jack Ketchum style novelist who loves blood and the color blue. Like The Rapture, this is a film as much about idol worship as gooey monsters and practical effects. A surprisingly thoughtful, fairly flawed, and incredibly fun trip into the end.

Alien Annihilation

The good thing about extraterrestrial invasions is that they’re kind of out of our hands. If a passing spaceship wants to blast our planet like it’s Alderon, then what can we really do? Steal our water or serve man for dinner, well, at least that’s fast and/or filled with plenty of fattening food to pad us out. Other films, however, take a more haunting and individualized approach to those strangers from other galaxies, and none are quite as frightening as Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both the 1956 and 1978 adaptations capture an unsteady sense of loss, as mysterious seeds land in our neighborhoods--the suburbs and city, respectively--to grow into blank alter-egos of our more dynamic selves. It’s creepy enough to consider the loss of your soul to an emotionless (and never actually identified) being from another world, but what makes these films true classics is how easy it is for an apocalypse to take place inside our friends, family, and neighbors without most of us batting an eyelash. 


Anybody worth their protein-filled brains knows a thing or two about surviving in a world ruled by the shambling elite. It’s easy enough to devote a few million words to my favorite film of all time, but Dawn of the Dead needs little praise from the likes of me. Meanwhile, Day of the Dead and Land of the of the Dead cheat the apocalypse with disappointingly upbeat (and slightly unearned) endings. Zombieland shows us a world low on Twinkies and common sense, thus knocking it down a few points when it comes to realistic survival techniques. For two recent undead films very different in execution, yet oddly similar in approach, compare the caravan of Resident Evil: Extinction with the somber team of The Zombie Diaries. Both focus on hardened survivors living off canned goods and their wilderness skills, and neither is necessarily a good time, but if you’re looking to tide yourself over before The Walking Dead and World War Z hit mini and big screens, you can always enjoy some vegetarian unfriendly feasting at the world’s most depressing restaurant: planet earth, post-Z Day.


  1. jervaise brooke hamsterJune 27, 2010 at 6:12 PM

    "IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS" is arguably the greatest film ever made on the subject of mental illness, it is a masterwork and easily one of John Carpenters best (and most ludicrously under-rated) movies

  2. I only watched ItMoM for the first time early last year and while I loved the early scenes and basic premise, I got a little lost somewhere along the way. I definitely need to revisit it. There's a whole lot of great stuff happening there--I looooved the idea of an artist essentially becoming god and what those implications were--but something about the monster mash final act (complete with an angry mob!) didn't quite gel with the more philosophical possibilities.

  3. jervaise brooke hamsterJune 28, 2010 at 6:42 PM

    Emily, i know exactly what you mean, the first time i saw "ITMOM" i didn`t think that much of it but i`d taped it and a few weeks later i watched it again and it seemed like a completely different (and much better) film and i ended up watching it 30 or 40 times, Carpenters films are like that, they seem to get better with each subsequent veiwing, for instance i must have seen "THEY LIVE" and "PRINCE OF DARKNESS" over 200 times each even though i didn`t think much of either of them when i first watched them. I actually think that imbueing a film with a re-watchability factor is more impressive than winning an Oscar.

  4. Good point. They LIve DEFINITELY improves on repeat viewing. I only recently watched Prince of Darkness and was similarly underwhelmed, but I really do think both that and ItMoM deserve a second (possibly back-to-back) viewing. Hell, even The Thing--which is such a shocker the first time around--somehow gets better each time. I generally feel the same way about Romero films, which explains why I continuously bump up my rating of Land of the Dead. And as much as I love Dawn of the Dead, I'm willing to concede that part of its charm comes from the fact that I've seen it more than any other movie ever made.

  5. jervaise brooke hamsterJune 30, 2010 at 9:53 PM

    My favorite of Romeros zombie movies is "DAY OF THE DEAD" but i genuinely thought that Steve Miners incredibly under-rated remake was an even better film, no kiddin`. By the way, i`ve even started to like "GHOSTS OF MARS" its got that old Carpenter magic. I think the film i`ve watched more times than any other is "HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL" (the 1959 version with Vincent Price) the atmosphere in that movie is so fabulously soothing and cosy.

  6. Hm. I've yet to see Ghost of Mars or the original House On Haunted Hill, but both are slowly making their way up the queue. I can't disagree with you more on the Day remake (which I didn't loathe as much as I expected, but just found nothing of substance in) although I also get in trouble quite often for lamenting my blah opinion on Romero's Day. It grows on me with each viewing, but I still think it's just a notch above Diary. Bad writing, unlikable characters, meh middle half and a cheat of an ending.