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.