Today’s Killtoberfest movie is The Day the World Ended. An early Roger Corman film, this black and white cheapo directly presages Night of the Living Dead, offering an apocalyptic survival scenario where a microcosm of social ills and interpersonal conflicts plays out in a confined location. Only instead of zombies, the end of the world is a nuclear war that destroys almost everything. Luckily for Jim and his daughter Louise, Jim is a paranoid ex-military man who built and stocked one doozy of a fallout shelter. Two can survive for months–long enough to wait out the radioactive fallout and start planting crops with the seeds he’s stockpiled. But two quickly become three, four, five… as survivors trickle in, asking for a place to stay and a share of the food. Supplies dwindle fast, tensions mount, the men start to feel pretty rape-y, and oh, staying outside too long in the radiation seems to mutate people into increasingly strong and deformed monsters…
The science is pure bunkum, of course, but take the rules as a given and what you have is not a terrible little flick. Most interesting is the way it reflects the social dynamics of the period. There’s the surface level war between questions of ownership and charity–as much as Jim may claim to be the owner of his shelter and food, he’s only going to keep it as long as he or good-hearted scientist Rick holds onto the group’s only gun. But underneath that is the whole notion of the apocalypse being a chance for a new beginning. Capitalist patriarch Jim spends the film guarding his daughter’s virtue, first from letting any strangers stay with them, and then primarily from Tony, a sinister hood who would rather take than earn. Eventually Jim has to die so that the young people can go off into the world and try again, but not before he gives his blessing to Rick and his daughter. Such were the cultural ley lines back in 1955.
Is it worth seeing? Mostly from a historical perspective. As a filmmaker the most interesting part is how much they were able to do with a little bit of money and a compressed shooting schedule. Everything in the film is born out of necessity. They have to have the mutants so there’s a monster on the poster. They have to have the radiation to explain the mutants (and, being invisible, it’s handily inexpensive). It looks like they had to work with very few takes on a tight schedule, which inadvertently lends the acting a little naturalism. They had to have a small cast working mostly in one location, which gives the film all of its tension and suggests the emotional template. The end result is goofy and rough and a little charming, like a street urchin with a learning disability. You’re not in love with the little tyke, but you don’t mind patting him on the head and sending him on his way. Movies like these are like tchotkes, designed to be disposable but maybe worth looking at once in a while for the kitsch of it all.
If you’re curious, the whole thing is up on Youtube: