Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With A Quiet Place Part II postponed, check out these earlier movies about hostile alien invaders, all available to rent digitally or stream from home.
The Earth Dies Screaming opens with what is probably the most unsettling extended montage to come out of the golden age of drive-in science fiction. We see trains and cars with unconscious drivers and passengers crash into the English countryside. At a station, a morning commuter keels over into an empty luggage cart. Bodies lie crumpled in the street, draped over windowsills, or facedown in puddles. Some are caught mid-action: a golfer on a lawn; two men at a punch clock; an old woman lying on the steps of her cottage with a broken bottle of milk.
Somewhere, the middle-aged American test pilot Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker) searches a quaint small-town street from behind the wheel of a Land Rover. He stops in front of a store and takes a shortwave radio from the window. Further along, he finds more corpses and a small hotel. With the shortwave in one hand and an Enfield rifle in the other, he goes inside, drags out the body of the hotel receptionist, and plugs in the TV, clicking the dial through channels of creepy, pulsating static. It’s nearly nine minutes into the film (which is only 62 minutes long) before we hear the first line of dialogue, from a fellow survivor who stands in the hotel doorway with a pistol trained on Jeff: “Turn it off.”
It would be hard for any movie to sustain the eerie tension of these introductory scenes—or to live up to a title as sensationally misleading as The Earth Dies Screaming. And yet the film proceeds with a speed, economy, and intelligence that belies its cheapie black-and-white production values. Quickly, we begin to meet other survivors. Unseen aliens have launched an invasion of our planet, attacking first with gas. Now come the shock troops: indestructible, slow-moving robots (or “ro-buts” in Parker’s pronunciation) whose victims can rise from the dead as mindless killers with bulging gray eyes.
These robots are themselves not very scary-looking. But their lumbering gait is invested with dread and suspense by Terence Fisher, the most celebrated of the Hammer horror specialists, who was also responsible for such gothic genre classics as The Curse Of Frankenstein, the Christopher Lee version of Dracula, and The Devil Rides Out. The Earth Dies Screaming, however, wasn’t made by Hammer, but by the American B-movie outfit Lippert Films. Lippert was best known for cranking out Westerns and programmers, but like many a B-movie mill before and since, it occasionally made room for more independent-minded filmmakers, including the writer-directors Samuel Fuller and Charles Marquis Warren.
In everything except terminology, The Earth Dies Screaming is a zombie movie—an obvious precursor to George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, hitting many familiar notes of a genre that did not yet exist alongside a number of future tropes of post-1970s horror. And like so many of the zombie classics it resembles, Earth is in part a vehicle for social commentary, with mistrust among survivors as a parallel threat. Fisher, a high-church Anglican, famously referred to his Hammer horror films as “fairy tales for adults,” and in The Earth Dies Screaming, one finds a fast-moving story that poses questions of morality and B-movie philosophy, coming back to its director’s eternal themes of reason and alluring, intractable evil. But it also does what we have come to expect from the best minimalist genre movies, transforming subjects as innocuous as an empty street or a man in a spray-painted space suit into sources of fear.