The Midnight Movies DVD series has returned with a vengeance, with a dozen releases -- most of which are double features -- just now hitting stores. I'm frankly stoked to see some of these obscure gems, like the Tales From the Crypt/Vault of Horror set (a pair of British flicks based on the same comics as the HBO Crypt series) and Devils of Darkness/Witchcraft (the latter of which is a rare flick from late in Lon Chaney's career). For the purposes of this review I'm going with Chosen Survivors/The Earth Dies Screaming, a pair of apocalyptic science fiction horror tales from 1974 and 1965 respectively.
Chosen Survivors has the distinction of being the first PG rated movie I ever saw in a theater. I was 11 at the time, and while I remembered some of the film's details and that it had kind of a cool premise, I honestly don't recall liking or disliking it. Despite a reasonably high profile cast and a respectable budget, I never saw it on television (and trust me, I look for such things), and though it probably made its way onto VHS, that escaped me as well. This release marks the film's DVD debut, and my first chance to see it again in 33 years. Several heavily sedated civilians are taken via military escort to a secret high-tech facility 1800 feet below the surface of the Arizona desert. A pre-recorded video informs them that the complex was constructed to withstand a thermonuclear war, and that such a war is now taking place. This is one of a handful of such shelters across the U.S., and these "chosen survivors" as the video calls them have been assembled because they each possess unique traits that will help them rebuild the world once the radiation on the surface drops to an acceptable level. What no one anticipates, though, is that the complex is periodically invaded by swarms of killer vampire bats.
The need to assemble diverse types of people is really an excuse for the filmmakers to populate the movie with a collection of stereotypes. Jackie Cooper plays an a-hole business tycoon, Alex Cord (who I best remember as Dylan Hunt from Gene Roddenberry's Genesis II) portrays a novelist who spouts philosophical B.S., Bradford Dillman is a bookish sociologist who acts as occasional narrator and Lincoln Kilpatrick plays a washed up Olympic athlete. Most of the female characters are annoyingly driven to hysterics whenever the chips are down, and pretty much everyone in the cast over-emotes to the point of embarrassment.
Ham-fisted characterization and some seriously clunky exposition -- to say nothing of the fact that the whole bat thing is never explained -- make watching this a pretty tedious experience. Director Sutton Roley was best known for his television work, and the acting and dialogue are consistent with television melodrama of the period. I'm glad I had the chance to renew my acquaintance with Chosen Survivors, but I don't think we'll be getting together again.
One thing you definitely can't say about the set's second feature is that the title is too subtle. The Earth Dies Screaming is directed by Terence Fisher, the talented Brit who gave us some of the best of the Hammer Film productions including Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein as well as some non-Hammer gems like Island of Terror which starred Peter Cushing. The Earth Dies Screaming isn't a high point on Fisher's resume, but it's an entertaining little potboiler that accomplishes what it sets out to do.
In a string of scenes reminiscent of Village of the Damned, people all over England are suddenly keeling over for no apparent reason. Bodies litter the streets and planes fall from the sky. The earth doesn't so much die screaming as it quietly slumps over in the corner. An American pilot named Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker) makes his way to an inn in a small English town, where he meets a handful of other survivors. They reason that the country has been the victim of some kind of gas as all of the survivors were sealed away in various places when everyone started dropping dead (like in 1984's Night of the Comet).
The enemy is assumed to be a foreign power, which is more or less correct because alien robots are soon roaming the streets. These guys are probably the film's biggest glitch, as these 1950s-style automatons look like they would have already been dated at the time of the movie's release. Also, I couldn't quite grasp why robots would need to wear helmets. Anyway, the mechanical creatures from space wander around picking off survivors of the initial attack, and when they need to they reanimate the bodies of the dead to do their bidding.
This was obviously a low-budget affair. We never once see a space ship, and we never learn just how widespread the phenomenon is. The entire film takes place in the country, eliminating the need for costly shots of London at a standstill. With more money at his disposal, and frankly a less craggy-faced leading man, Fisher might have had something more memorable here. As it is, though, The Earth Dies Screaming is a competent B flick that's worth 90 minutes of the average trash film enthusiasts time.