August 20, 2021

Alien Robot Invasions, Part Two: The Earth Dies Screaming

Poster - The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
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The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Pros: Presents a pretty effective human drama that plays out against the backdrop of an alien invasion; Adds an extra layer of horror on top of killer robots.
Cons: The robots are cheap-looking, even for 1964.

In part one, I examined how Hollywood in the early ‘50s addressed fears of nuclear war both directly, with films about attacks on America and end-of-the-world scenarios, and indirectly with films like Target Earth, depicting protagonists stranded in an eerily deserted city that has been evacuated due to some unknown emergency. Target Earth’s protagonists eventually run into an advance guard of invaders, but instead of Russians, the invaders are alien-produced robots that shoot death-rays from their faceplates.

Perhaps because the UK had somewhat less skin in the Cold War game than the U.S., filmmakers there were a bit slower to exploit invasion themes. But they got off to an unusual and titillating start with Devil Girl from Mars (1954), about a black leather-clad, dominatrix Martian who lands her spaceship in the English countryside, looking for fertile men to take back to her planet.

Still, Devil Girl from Mars, 1954
"Excuse me ma'am, is this where I sign up to help repopulate Mars?"

Shortly thereafter, Hammer Films really got the alien invasion thing going with its series of Prof. Quatermass adaptations (from the teleplays by the brilliant Nigel Kneale), starting with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), wherein the sole survivor of the UK’s first manned space mission unwittingly brings back a dangerous alien organism. The sequel, Quatermass II (1957), considerably upped the threat to humanity by having the good professor stumble upon alien infiltration into the highest levels of government.

By the time our featured US-UK co-production, The Earth Dies Screaming, debuted in 1964, two certifiable UK classics, Village of the Damned (1960) and The Day of the Triffids (1963), had set a high bar for creative and unusual alien invasion stories.

Both are based on novels by John Wyndham. Village opens with all of the fertile women in an English village being mysteriously impregnated on the same day, resulting in a brood of uncanny, dangerously telekinetic children. Day of the Triffids is about an epic meteor storm that blinds most of the world’s population while simultaneously seeding the earth with ambulatory killer plants.

Like its better known predecessors, The Earth Dies Screaming opens with a dramatic event: all across England, people are keeling over from some unknown, invisible force, and the wreckage of crashed planes, trains and automobiles litters the countryside.

Enter Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), who pulls his Landrover into a small English village. Grim and determined, he surveys the carnage -- bodies laying all over the place -- with a sort of clinical detachment.

He pops into an inn to test the radio and TV, and promptly runs into two more survivors, Taggart and Peggy (Dennis Price and Virginia Field), who eye Nolan suspiciously. Taggart happens to have a gun, which he trains on Nolan until he’s satisfied that he’s no threat. Jeff turns out to be an American aviation engineer who had been consulting on a UK-based project when the sh*t hit the fan. Taggart is far less open, simply claiming that he and Peggy are a couple (which turns out later to be a lie).

Dennis Price and Virginia Field in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
"I don't want any arguments. I get to decide what we watch on the telly tonight... got it?"

As the three survivors speculate on what’s happened and what they should do next, stark differences in outlook emerge. Jeff insists that they all need to stay together to survive. Taggart has a far bleaker take on what looks to be an enemy attack: “Whoever it is has won the war -- once they move in, it’s every man for himself!”

Soon, the three are joined by four more ragtag survivors. Ed and Vy (Thorley Walters and Vanda Godsell), are a dissolute, alcoholic middle-aged couple who initially seem more put out that their partying has been interrupted than about the massacre of their fellow countrymen. Mel and Lorna (David Spenser and Anna Palk) are teenagers who eloped, and now, with Lorna ready to give birth at any moment, are desperately trying to get back to whatever is left of civilization.

After hearing their stories, Jeff, the logical engineer, figures out that when the event happened they had all been in indoor locations where the air was thoroughly filtered, suggesting a gas attack. But nothing can prepare the group for the terrifying, unearthly menace that they will soon encounter.

By 1964, the storyline of a motley band of survivors quarrelling over a mysterious end-of-the-world calamity was a firmly entrenched sci-fi clichĂ©. But that didn’t prevent UK low-budget filmmakers from exploiting the well-worn material over and over. The Earth Dies Screaming’s director, Terence Fisher (who had already distinguished himself by directing such Hammer classics as Horror of Dracula and Curse of the Werewolf), would in short order go on to helm two more in the same sci-fi vein: Island of Terror (1966) and Island of the Burning Damned (aka Night of the Big Heat, 1967; see my review here.)

Willard Parker and Dennis Price in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
"Hey Taggart, go over there and see what made that noise."
"You've got the gun, you do it!"

The material was attractive to filmmakers with modest resources, as they could tell an intimate, character-driven (and cheap) story within the context of an epic, alien invasion concept. As Terence Fisher’s biographer, Peter Hutchings, relates,

“All three films tell stories of invasion -- in The Earth Dies Screaming and Night of the Big Heat the invaders are extraterrestrial while in Island of Terror they are the unexpected by-product of a scientific experiment gone terribly wrong -- and all three share certain properties with other British invasion fantasies of the 1960s. During the 1950s, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV series (all three of which were subsequently filmed by Hammer) and John Wyndam’s SF invasion novels (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos) had presented scenarios in which an extraterrestrial incursion escalated to a point at which it threatened the whole nation and in some cases the whole world. The invasion fantasy as imagined by British filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s changes this in certain respects; in most of the films the threat of global escalation has receded and instead, one finds invasion represented on a smaller, more intimate scale, often in terms of the domestic and familial, and played out in isolated settings.” [Peter Hutchings, Terence Fisher, Manchester Univ. Press, 2002, p. 127]

After establishing its apocalyptic scenario with opening scenes of trains and planes crashing, The Earth Dies Screaming settles down to form with its more intimate story of disparate survivors finding each other in the small, remote village. The one loner in the group, Jeff, immediately asserts himself as the leader. Which makes sense, as his training as an engineer and test pilot gives him authority and confidence (and it probably helps that initially he’s the only one with a rifle). The only other contender for alpha male is mystery man Taggert, who has his own revolver (Mel is far too immature and Ed is constantly looking to get drunk). Taggert will present problems later on, but initially he decides to go along to get along.

The place that the group uses as its ad hoc headquarters is yet another feature of UK horror and sci-f: the ever-present inn/tavern. In countless horror films, the tavern is where superstitious locals warn monster-hunters not to investigate the deserted castle. It’s their safe zone, and there seems to be an unwritten movie rule that even the most ravenous monster will not transgress on a place where the benighted villagers gather to have a pint and forget their troubles.

So, it’s fitting that The Earth Dies Screaming’s survivor community congregates at this most iconic of UK institutions. Peter Hutchings again:

“[F]isher’s films opt for a more obviously studio-based approach interspersed with some location shooting… A key setting in all three turns out to be the local pub. On very low-budget productions such as these, having a single set where all the characters can interact -- rather than having these characters dispersed across several sets -- obviously has budgetary advantages. But the solidity and attendant cosiness of these pub sets, and the sense we get of them being separate from the world outside, also helps to accentuate the way in which -- particularly in The Earth Dies Screaming and Night of the Big Heat -- they operate as refuges for the characters from an external alien threat. [Ibid., p. 128]
Willard Parker and Thorley Walters in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
"Tell me again, how do you play this game you call beer pong?"

But of course, if it was a fail safe refuge, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. Soon enough, strange silver-suited humanoids start tromping down the body-littered streets. Vy, who is still in deep denial, spots a pair and immediately assumes that they’re military personnel in hazmat suits come to save the day. Ignoring the warnings of her new friends, she runs after them, only to be confronted by creatures with cylindrical, metallic approximations of faces under their clear helmets.

She gets zapped for her troubles and joins the rest of the dead bodies on the street. After the creatures move on, the other survivors manage to drag her lifeless body back to the inn -- something they will regret later on.

The presence of killer alien robots wandering around spurs Jeff and the group to find a more secure refuge, and they end up breaking into an army reserve training hall at the edge of town, where they find more weapons. But even that may not be enough, as they soon discover that the invasion force of robots is being supplemented by human victims who are rising up from the dead as blank-eyed zombies.

So, with a two-fer of killer robots and shambling zombies, what’s not to like? Depending upon your tolerance for ambiguity, maybe a lot. The robots are definitely low rent, with their crude metallic heads, jerky, clomping movements and outfits that look like retro spacesuits. But Vy’s shock when, instead of military rescuers, she encounters something that’s definitely not human, or organic for that matter, is well done.

Vy (Vanda Godsell) gets zapped by a robot in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
Vy learns the hard way not to shuffle around on shag carpet and then touch a metallic robot.

Like Target Earth, the robots appear to be an invasion’s advance guard, combing the countryside and mopping up before the main force arrives. Unlike Target Earth, where attracting the robots’ attention meant getting a faceful of deathray, the behavior of this variety of metal marauder is far less consistent and more enigmatic.

Vy yells and runs after the invaders, but they don’t turn around until she’s close enough to touch them. In another goose-pimply nighttime scene, one of the robots stands outside a window, watching Lorna, who is completely unaware as she helps herself to a glass of milk. Then it simply walks away, passing Jeff, who is standing guard in the shadows just a few feet away.

If you like a heaping side order of certainty with your sci-fi, then the scene probably seems wildly inconsistent and needlessly perplexing. Hey invaders, if you’re going to take the time and trouble to gas most of humanity to death, why in the world wouldn’t you program your robots to eliminate whatever survivors were left? On the flip side, the robots’ unpredictable behavior adds to the tension and mystery. Just what is the robots’ mission anyway, if it's not to immediately zap anything running around on two legs? The film never does explain it, and I appreciate that. Anything alien, even a robot, should be mysterious.

Human victims rise from the dead as zombies in The Earth Dies
"Hey guys, our Uber is here!"

Speaking of mysterious and unpredictable, Taggart provides the perfect foil for the upstanding Jeff. He reveals himself early on as perhaps not the best team player with his remark about every man for himself, but for much of the movie he seems solid, reliable and almost as unflappable as Jeff.

Midway through, Taggart provides yet another clue to his character in a scene where Mel shows everyone a satchel of cash he collected from various deserted banks as he and Lorna were traveling. “A week ago I couldn’t get it [the money]... what’s the use of it now?” Mel says as he starts throwing rolls of bills into the fireplace. Taggart scrambles to save the bills from the fire, then promptly stops himself, looking abashed as everyone stares in silent embarrassment.

Yep, in addition to deadly gasses, killer robots and human zombies (oh my!), we know that Taggart is going to become yet another headache for the little band of survivors -- we just don’t know when or how. At the same time, we know that Jeff -- quiet, competent and assured -- is going to be the antidote to the worst instincts that catastrophes can bring out in people.

While setting up that ultimate showdown, the film, even with its short runtime, allows the other characters their moments to display their peculiar strengths, weaknesses and quirks. It’s a valiant attempt on a very low budget to combine horror-tinged sci-fi thrills with a more intimate, human drama.

Where to find it: Blu-ray | Streaming

Astonishing Fact #1: The lone American lead, Willard Parker (Jeff) was born Worcester Van Eps (!!) in New York City in 1912. He was a professional tennis player before hanging up his racquet to embark on an acting career. He had been married to London-born Virginia Field (Peggy) for 12+ years when they made The Earth Dies Screaming together. The film was his second to last.

Astonishing Fact #2: In an interview with B movie historian Tom Weaver, screenwriter Harry Spalding shared his thoughts on the film’s title: “That, I thought, was the worst title in the world. Somebody said that as a joke, and somehow it just stuck! That’s the way things sometimes worked in those days. It had a good director, Terence Fisher, but apparently they had a lot of trouble on the set. What the problem was, I couldn’t say, because I wasn’t there. And I’ve always wished that picture would kind of go away, because I hate that title so much! [laughs.]” [Tom Weaver, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants, McFarland, 1994, p. 334

Virginia Field is menaced by a robot in The Earth Dies Screaming, 1964
"Die screaming earth woman! ... Oops, who put that banana peel there?"


  1. Interesting point about the pub as common meeting place in British sci-fi/horror films - brings to mind how all the characters in Shaun of the Dead fight to get back to the pub! It's now I realize it may have been another movie in-joke in that film!

    1. And then there's Simon Pegg's The World's End, in which he and his friends try to recreate an epic pub crawl from their youth while fighting off alien invaders! :)

  2. Another great review, Brian. By sheer coincidence, I watched The Earth Dies Screaming in the same week as Target Earth so the similarities were obvious. I actually prefer Target Earth because I find the ending to The Earth Dies Screaming a bit unsatisfactory. But both are entertaining and have good character drama hidden amongst the clunky robots. I have to agree with Harry Spalding, however, that The Earth Dies Screaming is a terrible title.

    1. Thank you so much! It's a shame that these movies' dramatic qualities are overshadowed by the budget effects for some people. I was interested to see that The Earth Dies Screaming has been making the rounds on Comet TV. As for that title, it's so over the top that I can't help but like it. I'm sure that back in the day, it brought a few more kids out to the drive-in. :)