This post is for Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear‘s Roger Corman Blogathon. This promises to be a great ‘thon with lots of terrific bloggers contributing. Check it out!
The Day the World Ended was not Corman’s first film. It was not even Corman’s first sci-fi film — that credit goes to The Beast With a Million Eyes. (Golly, that’s a lot of eyes.) But it is arguably the first film were one can see the trademark Corman B-movie approach in full force, less defined but still polished and unmistakeable.
One of the facets that makes B-grade 1950s sci-fi efforts so endearing in a campy, eye-rollingly kind of way is the desperate adherence to strict, so-called traditional gender roles. Corman embraces these roles in TDtWE, somewhat surprisingly, as not more than a year later he was upending traditional gender roles in Swamp Women, a movie that both celebrated and objectified women like a G-rated Russ Meyer film. Corman in TDtWE, though, does not stray an inch from conventional gender biases. The characters in this film are defined almost entirely by their gender, with the men taking charge, wielding weapons, making the plans and ordering everyone about. The women wear dresses and look pretty and, if they didn’t make coffee for the men at some point in the film, it certainly felt like they did.
The Day the World Ended begins at the end, it says, in what is more gimmick than philosophy. Nuclear war has broken out, a vague nuclear war with no specified antagonists, victims, targets, winners, or losers. The idea of nuclear war destroying the entire planet, rendering details over who started what and why useless, is very much of its time. The details of survival in TDtWE, too, is similarly glossed over, whittled down to a couple of brief mentions of “not enough food.” Still, the reality of survival is in the details, in the ability of any group to work together based on each person’s personality, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Because we don’t get that in TDtWE, there is a distance between the audience and the characters that is never bridged. Connection to the people portrayed are never made.
Jim Maddison has built his deliciously mid-century Modern home in the middle of a naturally-occurring circle of iron ore in the hills. He sets up this home out in the middle of nowhere as a shelter, stocked with food and protected from radiation from the iron ore. By the way, I challenge any of you to watch this movie without once yelling “Radiation does not work that way!” I will challenge you and I will win, because you will not be able to help yourself.
War were declared, so Maddison and his lovely daughter Louise hang out at the house, listening to the radio and hoping to find someone else who survived. Eventually strangers end up at the house, as strangers are wont to do. Cheap hood Tony and his moll Ruby arrive in their enormous convertible; they just happened to be driving by, you see, and weren’t hurt in the least by nuclear war, even though they were in a convertible on an open road. Sure, makes sense.
Two men, Rick and Radek, arrive as well. Radek was hit by the radiation and is sick. Maddison can tell he probably won’t survive because when a Geiger counter is swished over him, it goes clickclickclickclickclickityclick a lot. (“Radiation does not work that way!”) Also arriving is Pete the prospector, played by character fave Raymond Hatton, and his donkey. The prospector is an absolute hoot, because you could tell the writer was trying to figure out how to explain that necessary seventh character’s presence. “Who would be in a hilly, ore-filled area in the middle of nowhere? Hmm, let’s see… some people driving by, a couple of scientists doing research… yeah, that’s good… but we need seven people in this group or the dynamics won’t balance out… oh, I know, a prospector! Sure, he’s mining the ore! Damn, I am one impressive screenwriter…”
But I’m being nitpicky, because any reason to have Raymond Hatton in a movie is a good reason. Also, the prospector is the one who makes the moonshine, and I can’t hate on that.
Louise is broken up over the presumed death of her fiance Tommy, but that doesn’t stop scientist Rick and hoodlum Tony from being attracted to her. She’s attracted to Rick, who is helping her slightly off-kilter father with his Geiger counter and radio and other really super important science stuff that requires testosterone to operate properly.
The gender-based characterizations run extremely deep: Tony is violent and sex-crazed, a man who can’t control himself around pretty ladies. Ruby was a stripper before the war, a woman who made a living by having a woman’s body to show to those who would pay for it. Louise is identified in a before-after sort of way, before being the sad girlfriend of the lost Tommy, after being the happy girlfriend of the surviving Rick. In fact, about halfway through the film, Maddison flatly states that the women must get married so they can breed new humans.
Another maddening contrivance is the hammering of non-specific Christianity throughout the film. Maddison reads the bible, insists that people pair off and breed to save the human race but only after they have been married in the eyes of God, and he believes God himself saved a few people specifically so they could gather at his house for shelter. He isn’t overtly preachy, but much of his dialogue and actions are rooted in Christianity. Other characters are part of this theme as well: Tommy, Louise’s never-seen doomed boyfriend, was to be a minister, and the grizzled old prospector who shows up at the house has a donkey named Diablo… and before you ask, no, Diablo the donkey does not live up to his name. Apparently, someone knew that Christianity was a theme that could be properly introduced into a film about nuclear Armageddon, but that someone did not have the capacity to do it properly.
Life inside the ultra mod single-story home deteriorates. Everyone looks completely clean, scrubbed, brushed and coiffed, but food and patience is running low. Ruby is upset that Tony doesn’t care for her anymore, Pete is anxious to go back to prospecting, and Tony is violent and belligerent from the beginning. He is so disruptive that Rick and Maddison should, by all rights, have killed him days earlier. This is the survival of the entire human race at stake, yet they let this guy punch them, threaten to steal their guns, and at one point attempt to rape Louise. It is completely unbelievable, a contrivance obviously designed to lead to some climactic conclusion.
Meanwhile Radek, the irradiated dude, recovers but craves raw red meat. At nights, he starts to sneak out of the house and kill animals living in the area. This worries the scientists because the animals are surely irradiated too, and they should be dangerous to eat, but Radek is not only immune to further radiation but seems energized by it.
Maddison was involved in nuclear tests after WWII and he saw animals mutate immediately after nuclear bombs were detonated. (“Radiation does not work that way!”) He wasn’t allowed to take photos of the animals, but he did some really goofy looking amateur sketches:
It soon becomes clear that there is a mutated animal of some sort lurking about the grounds, something besides Radek, and the external threat to the group of survivors is established. TDtWE is a paint-by-numbers sci-fi atomic fear affair, drive-in movie entertainment at best, but as noted in reviews before this one, there are some interesting elements. The most notable point is the fact that Louise after a time begins to hear the voice of the mutant calling to her. Only hints as to why this is happening are ever revealed, resulting in a very effective subplot that is sadly not explored to its full potential.
Corman’s overall production of the film is surprisingly competent. There are none of the hallmarks of really rotten film making in TDtWE, no accidental boom shots, no glaring plot holes. The actors know their lines and their performances are uniformly competent. Yet the movie cannot help but be two-dimensional in both message and overall concept, which is why it fails to engage the audience on any level.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes that Corman’s signature style meant he “never dealt with his characters at a distance,” yet that is the biggest problem in TDtWE: the characters are barely fleshed out at all, appearing as bare as the sketches Maddison shows Rick to illustrate what mutation can do to animals. The polished yet cheap production values Corman was to be known for are certainly here, but his slightly subversive takes on common themes had not yet taken hold by The Day the World Ended.
“a movie that both celebrated and objectified women like a G-rated Russ Meyer film”
That is beautiful. Thank you for helping me start my day with artful writing.
It’s not often that a review makes me burst out laughing…but this one made me do it several times! Great job!
This has been one of the most analytical reviews that I have read so far. But what’s incredible is that instead of presenting it in a dull, sterile way, you fleshed it out so that it was entertaining and engaging. Do you realize that many writers spend years trying to perfect that talent?
I noticed that gender roles was one of the main focuses of this review. I think that the evaluation of gender roles throughout Corman’s career should be documented and studied. His earlier films in the 50s adhered to strict gender roles. In the 60s they became more relaxed and complex…probably in large part due to Corman moving away from only making monster flicks. By the 70s…oh man…let me tell you…the gender roles were every which way imaginable. Take a look at 24 Frames’ review of Bloody Mama to see what I mean:
It seemed like as America’s views towards gender roles evolved, so did Corman’s.
And yes…I have to agree with you….radiation does not work that way!!
I also want to personally thank you for participating in this blogathon. Your acerbic wit, humor, and penetrating analysis have resulted in an entry that this blogathon can be proud of! Bravo!
Also, don’t forget to vote for the Readers’ Choice Award on Monday! Also, check out the top right of my blog to vote for the topic of our next Forgotten Classics blogathon!
Now I know not to watch this film with my husband! Being an engineer, his nose gets all bent out of shape when technical things aren’t correct! Of course, I’m just as bad with historical films, so I can’t complain too loudly!
I like that you’ve decided to discuss gender roles, because I think it’s an ongoing process in our society. I get really aggravated when female characters are incapable of coherent and logical thought! I think all the things that make us different from men are part of what makes life fun, but I don’t want to be relegated to coffee-making just because I want to look pretty! I really liked this article in The Guardian:
P.S. Reading your review was a lovely start to my day!
I agree with the others. This was superbly written and great fun to read, Stacia. Roger Corman is one of my favorite directors. So is Russ Meyer. Paul Birch (Jim) also appeared in the flick you mentioned The Beast With a Million Eyes and he was especially creepy in Not of This Earth, constantly commanding people like Beverly Garland to “look at my eyes…they are alien.” Again, thank you for a superbly written review, Stacia, and please remember the one true fact about radiation: it makes you big and strong.
I really enjoyed this review. Your sense of humor shines through and I appreciate a honest take on a film.
I’m glad you mentioned drive-ins because I can just see my dad dragging my mom to see this on a date. (Of course I wasn’t around in the 50’s but these were the perfect kind of films to see at a drive-in if you wanted to have a girls attention on YOU! wink wink)
This was a fun read and a great addition to the Blogathon. I think Corman himself would find it quite entertaining.
Oh, and that drawing was a hoot.
You hit the nail on the head with this movie, Stacia, and did it in a very funny way. You make a good point about the “distance” quotient in the characters — this doesn’t seem like a Corman movie in that way particularly.
Loved your gender assessment — reminds me of War of the Worlds, where the main female character holds a doctorate in physics or something, but spends her time with the military serving coffee and looking for Mr. Goodbar!
I had forgotten Connors used to be “Touch” Connors. Whoa, really bad! But I guess at the time it went along with Rock and Tab!
Excellent, interesting and fun review, Stacia!
Great post, Stacia. We can always count on you to bring your inimitable intelligence and humor to any movie. I love your breakdown of the screenwriter’s thought process.
“Cheap hood Tony and his moll Ruby arrive in their enormous convertible; they just happened to be driving by, you see, and weren’t hurt in the least by nuclear war, even though they were in a convertible on an open road. Sure, makes sense.”
This made me laugh out loud, as did the mutated monster picture.
Thanks everyone, I really appreciate your comments! This was a fun movie to review so I’m glad you had fun reading about it.
I agree, Nathanael, I think Corman’s manipulation of traditional gender roles is fascinating and would make a great topic. The essay by Wheeler Winston Dixon briefly touches on this, but a fully-fleshed out exploration of the topic is definitely needed.
I cannot wait to get to everyone else’s entries. I’ve had one of those days, so I’m just now getting around to reading the other posts.
I tried to watch this movie on AMC a few weeks ago with my mother but I got frustrated with all the commercial breaks and found other pursuits. I would like to watch it again, because I remember seeing it as a kid and marveling at how the characters seemed to be in some sort of Sartrian hell.
So what I really need to do is watch it with you. (“Radiation does not work that way!”)
We still had air-raid drills when I was a kid, hiding under the desk at school was about a efficacious as driving that convertible around in the fallout, ’cause, yup, I was thinking it then – radiation doesn’t work that way… I saw this, and a few other “the endo” films as a kid, and this one is memorably awful.
“The characters in this film are defined almost entirely by their gender, with the men taking charge, wielding weapons, making the plans and ordering everyone about. The women wear dresses and look pretty and, if they didn’t make coffee for the men at some point in the film, it certainly felt like they did.”
What you say here I think was true of Corman throughout his entire career. Even in the 1960’s film THE WILD ANGEL, Nancy Sinatra’s character is basically Peter Fonda’s “old lady.” While Corman always pushed the limits of the production code, in some way he remained very traditional. And let’s not forget “Touch” Connors!
I still need to see this one. Fascinating review!
Fantastic write-up! Stage-bound it may be, this film is a quantum step forward from the stolid and stodgy Million-Eyed Beastie flick.
And thanks to that photo, I now have the theme to Mannix stuck in my head on a loop.
Stacia, you rule. Usually I’m touchy about folks messing with my childhood faves (9-year-old me thought the mutant’s love for his lost Lori so poignant), but your review made me laugh out loud.
John Greco: In The Wild Angels’ defense, the brothers of an outlaw motorcycle club tend to be somewhat sexist, so any gender equality in that movie wouldn’t ring true. But I see your point, the oceanographer makes sandwiches in Attack of the Crab Monsters…
“really super important science stuff that requires testosterone to operate properly”
This is the secret foil for the evil plans of aliens. If an evil alien race can figure out a way to completely separate scienciness from male initiative, we’re all completely fucked.
When I saw that monster drawing, I immediately thought about leaving a snarky comment about how it looks like something a 13 year old would draw in his notebook as the album cover for his future metal band. However, I scrolled down and read the caption, and was saddened to see that you had stolen my snark thunder. :(
Are you trying to say that radiation doesn’t work that way?
Great great great piece on the film – probably the best in the Blogathon.
Your combination of sarcastic wit and obvious film history knowledge make for a very enjoyable read indeed.
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