In the next few weeks leading up to Halloween, I’d like to examine a few horror film gems that some may have overlooked. The first of these is a little black and white, B-film chiller by British director Terence Fisher called “The Earth Dies Screaming” (1964).
In Stephen King’s famous 1981 essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” he claims we attend these films because “we are daring the nightmare.” He also asserts that watching horror films keeps us sane, and these films control any ugly urges by satiating these bad emotions vicariously in socially acceptable movie experiences.
I first saw “The Earth Dies Screaming” when I was eight-years-old, with my mom and little brother, in a falsely advertised so-called kiddie matinee, with the re-release of the classic musical “The Music Man.” My mom did protect us, but we all wanted to see the main feature. Little did I know how many nightmares I would face in the next weeks caused by this creepy movie. Its impact was so great because of my young age and the large screen experience.
Made nearly a half a decade before the first George Romero “Night of the Living Dead” and his zombie trilogy, “The Earth Dies Screaming” concerns a small group of isolated British villagers who are trying to survive a mysterious plague of aliens. According to film historian Richard Harland Smith, the film was shot in three weeks with a budget of just $100,000.
After a mysterious extraterrestrial gas attack, humans begin dropping like flies. Then alien controlled robots begin killing humans across the countryside. Shortly after the humans are reanimated as walking zombies, they attack other humans close to them. What was so frightening was that when these former humans are transformed into zombies, their eyes become glazed white and they no longer have pupils—creating a shocking image of a death-like state.
Fisher confines the action to mostly one location, a village public house/hotel. One heroic man, Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker, the cast’s only American actor) decides to muster up enough courage to retaliate and eventually outwit the zombies. Ultimately he and a few others discover the source of their power. Virginia Fields co-stars as Peggy Hatton and famed English comic actor, Dennis Price does a serious turn as Quinn Taggart. David Spenser and Anna Palk play Mel and Lorna Bernard, a young couple who are about to become parents.
“The Earth Dies Screaming” was directed by one of the masters of Britain’s Hammer Studios, which specialized in low budget gothic horror films. During the late 1950’s Fisher had made stars of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in films like “The Horror of Dracula,” “Revenge of Frankenstein” and “The Man Who Cheated Death.” Fisher utilizes eerie low frequency whishing/buzzing sounds to accompany the attacking zombies for frightening effects. His minimal visual style captures a film noir feeling of doom as shadows and oddly framed shots fill the screen before the alien attacks.
The authors of “An Introduction to Film Genres” claim “horror films aim to produce physical reactions in their viewers. Typically this reaction is one of anxiety, fear, or revulsion, but frequently it includes laughter. After a good jolt or shock, viewers often laugh to release tension…it may also signal disbelief if viewers refuse to go along with the shock effect a movie intends to deliver.” I could not find a moment to laugh in my viewing of “The Earth Dies Screaming.”
This 62 minute black and white “The Earth Dies Screaming” was scripted by American pulp screenwriter Harry Spaulding, writing under his pseudonym Henry Cross. Spaulding would later write the script for the 1974 cult horror “Chosen Survivors.”
So if blank zombie faces don’t frighten you much, “The Earth Dies Screaming” may be of interest this Halloween season. Then you too can “dare your nightmares.” This visceral experience is still quite gripping.