Knight at the Movies: The Roots of Survival Horror

Knight at the Movies: The Roots of Survival Horror

The Day the World Ended
By E. E. Knight

We’re used to thinking of the monsters in horror movies, whether it be Dracula, The Blob, or Freddy. But E.E. Knight rides in to remind us that some horror movies are centered upon the characters fighting against the evil. He defines and then explores an entire sub-genre of survival horror pictures, providing us with in-depth examinations of its classic offerings, and probes the reasons its everyman heroes resonate so strongly with viewers..

Some weeks ago I wrote here about action/horror as a cinema sub-genre.

This time I’d like to discuss one of the more esoteric sub-genres, survival horror. Survival/horror is action/horror’s little brother in a way, smaller in audience but bigger in the intensity of its cult following. Most fans of survival horror have seen the significant entries in the genre multiple times.

Even the term “survival/horror” doesn’t come from movies, the label grew out of the console gaming industry, used for titles like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark. But as the games derived from classics in the genre like Dawn of the Dead or Escape From New York we’re safe talking about the subject in movie terms.

To further define terms, I’ll use a fairly strict checklist to keep out slasher riff-raff and postapocalyptic scifi interlopers.

By my definition, a survival horror film must have three elements:

  1. The world has changed in such a way for the characters that all they can hope to do is survive the ordeal through their own strength and wits. They cannot rely on outside aid; it either no longer exists, is so far away that it is impossible to expect help to come, or the authorities are overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster.
  2. The survivors are threatened by a frightening “force in the dark” that seeks to destroy them.
  3. Restoration of the status quo is impossible within the scope of the picture.

The Day The World Ended (1955)

This odd little Roger Corman picture was the earliest example I could find that contained all three of the elements listed above. Sure, things like King Kong or The Shape of Things to Come or even Island of Lost Souls met one or two of the qualifications, but it took this shoestring celluloid to combine them.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Roger Corman, he churned out numerous low-budget movies over his long career as a director and producer, and is the source of the quote about filming the Fall of the Roman Empire with two extras and a sage bush. People like James Cameron, Joe Dante, Gale Anne Hurd, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro had their first jobs working for Corman.

Like most Corman features, The Day The World Ended has some interesting characters, workmanlike filming and sound, and even some reasonably decent acting — but shortcomings in set, costuming, and makeup lend it a stagey look.

The premise is a nuclear war destroying civilization – the film begins with the words “THE END.” A handful of disparate survivors gather in an isolated valley, protected from the radiation clouds by the iron-heavy soil. The seek refuge in the house of a former ship captain and his daughter. Joining the two are a heroic geologist, a small-time hood and his stripper moll, a prospector and his mule, and a radiation-scarred survivor gather, all hoping to outlast the radiation swirling around in the atmosphere.

But there are creatures out in the radiation cloud shrouding the mountain crests. Silly, silly-looking creatures.

The movie’s main problem is much of the action is restricted to the largest room of the sea-captain’s house, which looks like your grandparents’ 50s-era living room. While the patriarchal sea captain issues bible lessons, the rest drink, play records and cards, bicker, drink some more, get into fistfights and misogynistic slapdowns and worry about creatures lurking in the darkness – it was my grandparents’ living room!

When we do leave the house, things happen like dying radiation victims lurch out of the dry ice fumes posing as radiation clouds waving their arms and yelling raaaaaaah! It’s all very Scooby-Doo. In fairness to the writers, there are several scenes of the survivors taking practical decontamination steps to keep themselves healthy. And in another unusual move, the reasoning behind the dénouement is left for the viewer to figure out, though plenty of clues are dropped.

Sadly, the climax is anti-climactic. The creatures lurking in the dark are destroyed by rain. Off-camera. I guess Corman blew his budget on weird radiation burn makeup.

But all the elements are there for better films that will come later: mismatched survivors who prove more of a threat each other than the monsters lurking in the dark, a ten-little Indians storyline as the threat closes in and becomes better defined, and an oppressive sense of claustrophobic isolation and doom.

And some sunbathing and swimsuit footage of the ladies, but then it is a Roger Corman film.

The Time Machine - 1960 Movie Poster

The Time Machine (1960)

Light years beyond the previous movie in time, space, and budget, The Time Machine is the best of producer/director George Pal’s many scifi spectacles.

It’s only survival/horror for about thirty minutes of the run time, but that part further developed the traditions of survival horror enough so it’s worth discussing here. In brief, the Time Traveler (Rod Taylor) builds a time machine that allows him to go into the future or the past as he wishes. He chooses the future, because with the Boer War raging he despairs of his own age. After watching London change, modernize, and eventually be destroyed by nuclear war, he winds up tens of thousands of years in the future.

At first he’s impressed. There’s ample food on the trees and people (all white and blond and tan and vacuous, which makes me wonder if the filmmakers weren’t quietly commenting on American beach movies). While the Time Traveler doesn’t quite say “Oh good, the Aryans won,” he’s briefly impressed with these people he learns are called “Eloi” until he finds out that the blonde people aren’t much better than the abundant plant life surrounding them. They’re quite willing to watch one of their number drown without lifting a manicured finger to help her.

He learns that the Eloi are in fact livestock, cultivated by the machine-minded Morlocks, who live underground. The species seem differentiated enough I’m not sure you can call it cannibalism, but he feels more sympathy for the Eloi.

Part defender and part messiah, the Time Traveler helps the Eloi fight back, mostly by teaching them that they can.

But how does this fit into survival horror? For a start, the old world is very much dead and buried. There are only a few vestiges of it left in misremembered phrases and odd bits of knowledge like the talking rings. So no restoration of the status quo is possible. It also posits, through some gnawed-clean bones, which is about as explicit visually as you can get in 1960, that there’s a threat out there in the dark, and the threat’s going to eat you. Why being eaten is so intertwined with survival horror I’m not sure, but the fear of being killed and consumed must be one of the older pensioners in the Hotel d’Collective Unconscious. Finally, there’s a rather open-ended ending. The question of which three books the Time Traveler took back into the future with him and whether he even lasted a week before strangling his first Eloi is left to the viewer’s imagination.

Scene from The Last Man on Earth - 1964

The Last Man On Earth (1964)

The most faithful of the adaptions of Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend, starring Vincent Price as the scientist, disappointed me as a kid but I’ve grown to appreciate it.

Briefly, a plague has swept across the world, leaving only one man alive. The rest of the survivors have been transformed into garlic-loathing, reasonless (and rather weak and slow) vampires. While trying to find other survivors, the Last Man wages a one-man war on the vampires.

Vincent Price, who usually plays fey, verbal villains, is surprisingly effective in the physically demanding role of vampire hunter. There are some disquieting scenes of Price breaking into the refuges of the vampires and killing them in their beds. The black and white cinematography is appropriately bleak and lifeless. The director did a good job of contrasting the life and motion of the Last Man’s memories of his family and the descent of the plague full of sound and wind with the still, almost weather-free desolation of post-apocalypse New York (actually it was filmed in Rome — and I’m still a little confused as to why Rome couldn’t just be Rome).

The movie spends a lot of time on the dreary daily routine of the Last Man, sort of a Robinson Crusoe with shuffling vampires. Survival and killing the unreasoning vampire hordes are his only occupation, and he’s got it down to a science over the years. A dark ending – or is it a new dawn? – matches the novel in intent, even if it’s a little nosier. I find this version more satisfying than the other two because it’s closest to the author’s intent for his story.

The Hills Have Eyes Movie Poster - 1977

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

I loosened the screws on my definition a little for this one because it’s one of the greatest low-budget horror flicks ever made and it’s stayed with me through the years.

Basically Deliverance on peyote, it’s the story of a vacationing extended family on their way to California who decide to stop off and take a look at a remote silver mine the patriarch inherited. Unfortunately, the silver mine is in the middle of an air force munitions range and far from comfort, civilization, law, or even a Super 8 Motel. Unfortunately it’s also in territory inhabited by a family that practices rapine, inbreeding, and cannibalism like they’re Olympic sports.

I especially enjoy the way the nature of the menace gradually gets closer and closer to the audience. First it’s just voices on walkie-talkies, speaking as they see the family on their ill-fated drive into the desert. Then its physical evidence, then one of the family’s pair of German Shepherds is taken. When we finally meet the atavistic family we’re only a little disappointed: they’re appropriately dirty and deformed, though the cave-girl costume of the adopted daughter of the clan still bothers me.

To survive, the victims – whittled down in surprising and uncompromising fashion – must become as savage as their tormentors. Even the remaining dog has an interesting story arc as he sets about avenging his mate.

Don’t bother with the remake. Bigger budget did not make a better film.

What explains the appeal of survival/horror?Part of it is the everyman nature of the protagonists. None of them planned to risk their lives in pursuit of some object or purpose (with the possible exception of the Time Traveler – but he was running away from the woes of his own time and went into the future hoping to find a more enlightened, peaceful, and perfected mankind, not Morlocks). These aren’t trained space explorers or Lara Croft figures. Like Robinson Crusoe, they found themselves marooned in a new world against their will.

Then there’s the romance of ruins, well known to painters for centuries before CGI allowed us to knock the Statue of Liberty’s head around like a soccer ball.

Or could it could be the horrific appeal of the Gotterdammerung? From biblical flicks to the Irwin Allen disaster movies of the 70s, audiences love to experience the fates of the saved and the damned. Deep down, do we suspect that our civilization is a good deal more fragile than all the sophomore-year blather about entrenched racist power structures and military-industrial complexes would have it? Perhaps it’s our way of dealing with the anxiety of facing a gravel-and-fire reckoning when the Gods of the Copybook Headings in fire and slaughter return.

Certainly all of the above plays a part, but in my mind it comes down to this: given the circumstances presented in the story, what would I do? For me, survival horror is more accessible to this sort of musing than the conundrums faced by the bridge crew of the Enterprise or Indiana Jones. I live most of my life avoiding danger, paying insurance premiums and into retirement funds that balance out what little risk I face as a Midwesterner in the United States. But if the zombie apocalypse hits (I know, I know, but you’re speaking to a professional fantasist), I’ll have to deal with it like everyone else.

To further abuse Kipling:

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and getting their entrails eaten too,
If you can persevere when the panicky abandon you,
Locking door behind them and stealing your chainsaw too;
if neither foes nor turned friends can bite you,
If all undead surround you, but none can touch;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With six reloadings worth of head-shots true,
Yours is the Mall and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Survivor, too!

E. E. Knight is a science fiction and fantasy author, best known for his Vampire Earth and Age of Fire novels. You can visit his blog here.

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Great article! Very entertaining. I’ll have to rewatch a couple of these.

[…] The Last Man on Earth […]


Fun article, Knight! Working with your defining characteristics for a “survival horror” picture I nominate two I re-watch every decade or so, both by George Romero: “Night of the Living Dead” (still the most subversive of his movies, for my money) and “Dawn of the Dead”. My third survival-horror nomination would go to Rod Serling’s “Planet of the Apes”: world certainly changed–and status quo irrevocably destroyed (check, and check) but nothing really comes at you out of the dark–lest it be the doomed astronauts themselves, returning to Earth many decades past the dethroning of Man as Dominant Species; or–better example–the unease and discomfort we experience at seeing our own sociological follies, prejudices, and foibles acted out by violent gorillas; doctrine-spouting orangutans (Dr. Zaius is both Defender of the Faith and Minister of Science); and empathetic, inquisitive, but ultimately powerless (’cause deemed heretical) chimpanzees. Taylor’s last words have been oft mocked and parodied for their over-the-top theatricality, but they can still chill half-a-century later: “Maniacs! You finally blew it all up! God damn you all to hell!!!” FADE TO BLACK. What comes out of the dark (ened theatre) is US–hopefully chastened, thoughtful, more reflective. I would argue that Romero worked to effect the same change in his audience–as did the directors of many a “mere” genre picture.

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