The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)
"Who...Or What Were They...Who Tried To Wipe Out All Living Creatures Off the Face of the Earth?"
An astronaut returns to Earth to find that it has been ravaged by some unknown force, killing virtually everyone. No one knows what has happened and a small group of survivors in an English village band together to find out more. When they see a couple of men in space suits walking through their village, they assume that it is the Air Force and they are here to help. What they find is more terrifying than they could have ever imagine - these 'men' are actually killer robots.
The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula sent the name of Hammer skyrocketing to the top of the horror genre and the man sitting in the director's chair for both, Terence Fisher, was hot property. But after making a few more Hammer horrors, Fisher and the studio fell out over creative differences and he briefly left for a rival studio that persuaded him to helm a trio of science fiction films for them. At Planet Film, Fisher clearly found himself a little out of his comfort zone. Horror he was able to handle with ease - science fiction seemed a bit of a task. And without the other creative geniuses behind the original Hammer films (the talented writers, composers, producers and actors), it wasn't a case of Fisher being found out (since he was a good director) but more a case of him not having the passion for sci-fi as he did with horror. The Earth Dies Screaming was the first of the three films he made - the others being the fantastic Island of Terror and the underrated Night of the Big Heat - and whilst I have extremely fond memories of this as a kid (and scary memories too), upon further viewing as a mature adult, it's nowhere near as good as you'd like it to be.
It's was always going to take something special to live up to a title such as The Earth Dies Screaming so it's no surprise that this doesn't even come close. I'm not quite sure whether the idea to shoot in black and white was for budgetary reasons or whether it was designed to be more of a throwback to early 50s sci-fi films but whatever the reason, it is for the best as it looks and feels a lot older than its 1964 release. The biggest issue facing The Earth Dies Screaming is that it doesn’t have a clear vision of what it wants to do or where it wants to go. With the apocalyptic opening scenes of trains crashing and planes falling out of the sky promising some widescale carnage, the narrative gets rather low-key and gets there very quickly. The group of survivors do what the English do best and hole up inside a pub to figure out what is going on and pretty much stay there for the next forty minutes, talking to each other and occasionally venturing outside. The robots turn up. Some of the dead humans begin to rise as zombies. And that's about it. There’s a bit of eeriness about the set-up and about the rural setting, with the peaceful countryside village making an effective place to base the story. The Earth Dies Screaming is pretty bleak (for 1964 anyway) right up until the finale, with a genuine sense that things won’t work out for the cast.
With only a short running time of just over an hour, The Earth Dies Screaming has an awful lot of padding. But more frustrating is that there doesn't seem to be any real point to it. The story ends no further forward than it was when it started. We have no idea what caused nearly everyone to die, no idea what the robots were, what they wanted, why they reanimate the dead and so on. There's no resolution to proceedings. There's no closure. Ambiguous to some, frustrating to others. It's a highly unsatisfying ending which renders the rest of the film almost worthless. Terence Fisher tries to keep the suspense up to compensate but after the promising opening and first appearance of the robots, the film loses steam. There are too many inconsistencies with the way the robots and the zombies work for them to come off as serious threats - for convenience sake it seems the robots only occasionally attack people. The robots knew where the survivors are all holed up from the start so for them to just ignore the pub completely is a bit silly. They stand peering through windows at potential victims only to walk off, then in their next scene they’re making a beeline for a human trying to get to his car.
The robots remind me of the Cybermen from Doctor Who - back when the Cybermen were in their prime and bad ass, not those mindless drones in the new version. These robots pre-date the Cybermen by two years (with the arch nemesis of the Doctor appearing for the first time in 1966) but I'm not one to argue that case of whether they were conceived earlier. They're too slow to be menacing and seem to have a lot of trouble walking (I'm not surprised with those gigantic moon boots they wear) and the script must take liberties in some scenes in order for them to appear more deadly than they are - characters react extremely slowly or just stand there in fear as the robots close in. The zombies are just as bad. Their purpose in the film is not explained and flimsy at best - for all intents and purposes, I think they were just put in as replacements for the robots in some scenes because it would have been too expensive or too fiddly to film those cumbersome robots walking up the stairs in the pub. Take them out of the film and the script would have run almost the same.
Like the brief flurry of 50s science fiction films that were made in the UK with the casting of token American lead roles to build an easier sell to the US audience, The Earth Dies Screaming has Willard Parker as the token hero. But he's devoid of any charisma or charm and is a pretty unlikable lead it has to be said. Thankfully there are a few decent British character actors propping up the supporting cast with Dennis Price as the shifty con man Taggart and Thorley Walters in his trademark role of a bumbling fool, both adding some much needed spirit to their respective roles.
The famous line "they don't make them like this anymore" completely sums up The Earth Dies Screaming. It had everything you wanted from a 60s B-movie: robot alien invaders, zombies, a remote village, group of survivors banding together, etc. This rating is probably an extra mark higher than it should be given that it scared me to death when I was a kid. Its effect has worn off considerably over the ages and now looks like the tepid 50s/60s sci-fi horror effort that it really is.
The Earth Dies Screaming
Director(s): Terence Fisher
Writer(s): Harry Spalding
Actor(s): Willard Parker, Virginia Field, Dennis Price, Thorley Walters, Vanda Godsell, David Spenser, Anna Palk
Duration: 62 mins