Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse Now: The Mayan Calendar Brings Us to Doomsday

Hey, I guess the world didn’t end on December 21, though recent news events might lead us to think the opposite. Frankly, I’ve enjoyed the creative ways movie buffs have been dealing with the end-of-times predicted by the ancient Mayans. Bill Dever, über-fan of genre films, has posted on his B-Movie Nation site a long list of movies to help you check out whether the world will end with a bang or with a whimper. (Soylent Green, anyone?) And Cinefile, one of L.A.’s most beloved video stores, is urging customers to prepare for the coming apocalypse by way of a major sale on its Gold Card, which now offers 10 rentals for $25. (An extra bonus: if life as we know it grinds to a halt, you don’t have to worry about returning your selections!)

Cinefile, by the way, devotes a wide shelf to its collection of End of the World films. By no means have I seen them all. But, of course, in my Roger Corman days I worked on several. Typically we went the Mad Max route, creating an end-of-the-world scenario in which a ragtag collection of tough, sexy types struggles for survival against a backdrop of futuristic squalor. Such films were usually set in some kind of desert outpost. The reason was obvious: squalid desert outposts (like the ones we depicted in The Terror Within and its sequel) make for cheap sets. I vaguely recall that Cirio Santiago, Roger’s Manila-based crony, had the wild notion that for once we try a different tack, and create an apocalyptic world in which dry land has been completely submerged by ocean waves. Survivors would live aboard boats, and fight over drinking water. If this sounds like the much maligned Waterworld, I’m convinced it was an early incarnation of that same doomed project.

One End of the World film that stands out for me because it so dramatically reflects the fears of its era is Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), adapted from a blockbuster 1957 novel by Nevil Shute. In the late Fifties, the great international fear was nuclear holocaust. On the Beach is set in Australia in the year 1964. Though no one quite speaks of it, the rest of the world’s population has been wiped out by nuclear war. It will take five months for the deadly radiation to arrive Down Under, and in the meantime the citizenry braces itself for impending doom.

On The Beach relies for its power not on fancy special effects but on a script that highlights the psychological trauma of waiting for the end. For some of the characters, like Ava Gardner’s Moira, it’s a time of unabashed hedonism. The good-guy Australian naval man played by Anthony Perkins (one year before Psycho) worries over the well-being of his young wife and baby. The most dramatic scenes involve a nuclear scientist (played surprisingly well by Fred Astaire) who turns auto racer, channeling his personal sense of guilt into a reckless abandonment of basic safety precautions. Though everyone’s Aussie accent rings hollow, the film grabs us, especially when a submarine captained by Gregory Peck makes a sad voyage to San Francisco, looking for survivors who don’t exist.

Stanley Kramer, a master of publicity, played up the social relevance of On the Beach by staging simultaneous openings in various world capitals. But though it may have sparked debates over nuclear disarmament at the United Nations, nothing much changed. Five years later, another Stanley released a black comedy that suggested we’d all learned to stop worrying and begun loving the bomb. Dr. Strangelove, of course.


  1. I do like a good doomsday movie - I would add Night of the Comet and The Quiet Earth to Mr. Dever's excellent list.

    I haven't seen On the Beach yet - it is something I will check out one of these days though. I will tell you that I am not looking forward to lousy Australian accents though.

    Now, The Terror Within - there's a movie for you! Post apocalyptic movies must have really appealed to Mr. Corman for the limited casts and need for extras too!

    I'm glad to see we made it through the predicted doomsday of 12/21/12 - cheers all around!

  2. Well, I'm certainly glad that you made it through, Mr. Craig. Life here in Movieland wouldn't be the same without you!

  3. This is what we thought of On The Beach,

  4. Fascinating! Thanks for posting this here, Feo. I hope to hear from you again soon.