Empty streets, deafening silence, and the feeling that it’s just too late to do anything; these are the pillars on which Terence Fisher constructs The Earth Dies Screaming.
Released in 1964, The Earth Dies Screaming is a remarkable piece of British science-fiction cinema. Brilliantly bleak and mercilessly uncomfortable, the film is something of a forerunner to the kind of images and ideas that have become so recognisable through works like Danny Boyle’s 2002 classic, 28 Days Later. Produced just thirteen years after John Wyndham’s haunting The Day of the Triffids, The Earth Dies Screaming is one of the first of its kind to visualise a Wyndham-esque world that has quietly collapsed – and does so more convincingly than even the 1962 film adaptation of Wyndham’s novel. So successful is its mastery of discomfort that traces of Fisher’s picture can arguably be seen in the opening episode of the Doctor Who serial The Android Invasion, broadcast eleven years later.
In The Earth Dies Screaming, humanity is seemingly wiped out by a mysterious, unseen force. A group of survivors isolate themselves in a rural village, facing an onslaught of robotic creatures that kill by touch. Those who fall to the mechanical monsters return as white-eyed zombies, carrying out the robots’ bidding.
What is most uncomfortable about this scenario is how understated it is. The film opens with a bleak montage of the dead or dying, shot largely with stills and with little musical accompaniment. A clinical tone is therefore lent to the proceedings. We soon enter the rural village that plays host to most of the narrative, but little has changed in its appearance. In later works of the post-apocalypse sub-genre, there are often tell-tale signs to indicate that something has taken place; from the decayed city that opens 1985’s Day of the Dead, to the littered desert of Mad Max 2 (1981). Save for the few scattered bodies of the dead, The Earth Dies Screaming features little visual indication, in the village setting, that something major has taken place. It is as if humanity were simply removed in an instant.
Susan Sontag wrote (in her landmark essay, The Imagination of Disaster) of the collective trauma suffered under the looming spectre of atomic warfare, “when it became clear that from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life not only under the threat of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost unsupportable psychologically – collective incineration and extinction which could come any time, virtually without warning.”
What happens in The Earth Dies Screaming may not be nuclear annihilation, but its central idea of the instantaneous mass-death of humanity is pertinent to the trauma that Sontag so precisely identifies. Made just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Earth Dies Screaming subverts the nuclear anxiety of an oblivion characterised by striking missiles, vaporised millions, and mushroom clouds (ala Mick Jackson’s Threads or Shue Matsubayashi’s The Last War), and instead posits an apocalypse that simply happens. Blink and you miss it. There is no grand climax for humanity. There are no cultural indicators with which we could even identify it as the end of days. It just happens, as Sontag notes, “without warning.”
In the decades since the first terrifying blast of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, we’ve become more aware of what else might end us as a species. Social media and globalised networks have allowed for rapid communication of news (and misinformation) of impending threats; deadly diseases, natural disasters, the renewed threat of nuclear conflict, and climate breakdown. All of these events see us helpless before something almost insurmountable. The fact that, historically, governmental and organised responses to some of these threats have not always been successful not only emphasises how helpless we are, but also how feeble our systems of protection can be. Suddenly, supposedly reputable modern advice for civil defence becomes as quaint as the duck-and-cover drills of the 1950s.
Watching The Earth Dies Screaming today can be a sobering watch. Although the film’s characters posit theories of a gas attack being mankind’s reckoning, we never learn what it is that really ends us. All we know is that which Terence Fisher forces us to take in: mass death in an instant. In turn, this framing allows us to project whichever apocalypse event that scares us the most onto the proceedings. The end result is always the same.
It is the quietness of what follows that is most unnerving; the silence that implies the unthinkable. As Willard Parker’s Jeff Nolan walks through the streets of a rural English village, we begin to experience the horror of being left behind. Perhaps the lack of any visual difference in the world (save for the few strewn bodies of the dead) can be down to the film’s lower budget, but what it presents is something almost intolerable of mankind’s idea of itself as integral to our domain: that nothing will change. Humanity is wiped out, but everything else remains.
At once, this is horrifying both to the egotism of humanity in thinking that our place is assured, but also to any optimism that things could be better. The same buildings stand, the same roads remain, and the same world keeps turning – just without us. Nolan comes across a dead bird when he first enters the village, as if it had just dropped from the sky. Even if we were to vanish, other life won’t flourish in our absence.
A criticism of the film could be that it abides by no clear narrative path. There is no definite indication of where these characters are going, what it is that they must do, or what their key obstacle is – as one may find in a basic three act structure – besides the general, persistent threat of the robots outside. However, this is, arguably, one of the film’s greatest strengths. Its very structure has become somewhat aimless, just as the survivors lack any idea of what it is they should, or could, do to return the world to what it once was. The film’s structure joins its characters in not knowing how, exactly, to proceed.
The fragility of meaning is an idea that The Earth Dies Screaming deals with uncomfortably well. An aspect of being left behind is in recognising that with the majority of humanity gone, most norms and customs will have gone with them. There is an understanding that that which had meaning no longer does. This is best illustrated when Mel (David Spenser), the brash father-to-be, holds a bundle of bank notes in his hands. He describes to his pregnant wife all of the things that he’d have done to get that money a few days ago, and all of the things that he’d have spent it on. The furniture and clothes that he speaks of paint a void picture in the context of their new reality. Instantly, his image of the future is gone. It is irreconcilable with reality. Being left behind means facing the terror of knowing, with painful immediacy, that any plans for yourself, and for those you love, are fragile; to be nullified by the whims of chance and situation.
What Mel describes in his wishful thinking sounds like the idyllic nuclear family lifestyle: good clothes, good furniture, a car, and financial security. That the nuclear family was such a cornerstone of contemporary culture, a monolith of societal meaning from which one could relate to or distinguish themselves, and that the cornerstone is now irrelevant, signals the demise of the sanctity of cultural meaning. The only concrete truth in the world of The Earth Dies Screaming is that of faceless automatons, the living dead, and survival. How does one ground their perception in such a reality? The film does not let us see into the future of its new world – only its beginnings. In turn, it makes it all the more alarming. Is there a secure future? Is there secure meaning?
As the film reaches its end, it leaves us behind, with only the images of initial societal and cultural oblivion to ruminate on. In today’s world, The Earth Dies Screaming stands as a reminder of the fragility of our systems, the vapid ego of mankind, and of how close we stand to collapse at a moment’s notice.
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