Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Beginning of the End

I’ve written before about my love of post-apocalyptic movies and fiction, but I was thinking today about some of my earliest-remembered movies and it occurred to me that quite a few of them were of that genre. I’ve always loved movies, as I’ve mentioned, and even before I had my own movie house, I enjoyed films on TV at home. We were very early adopters of cable TV. My dad must have been a lot more adventurous than me, because while I tend to hang back and see whether things are really worth the money and effort, he always had stuff way before a lot of folks. Our first computer was a TRS-80 Model I, along with a cassette tape player for loading programs and one of those old-style modems with the acoustic couplers that you actually jammed a rotary-phone handset into. I think it was 150 baud. We had an Atari 2600 the Christmas they were first released. We had a betamax VCR because they were (and still are) better than the ultimately more popular VHS. That was, by the way, my first experience being on the losing side of the technology curve. But in addition to all of that (and probably lots more that I don’t remember or didn’t realize was high-tech at the time), we signed up for Syracuse Newchannels Cable Television back in the mid-70s when it first came out. For some reason, humble Syracuse, New York, was much further along on the cable TV timeline than a lot of other places, and my father jumped right in. We had, I believe, around 13 channels including HBO to start with. Later on, we had a few dozen plus all the pay channels (which, at the time, added Showtime, Cinemax and another one that might have been The Movie Channel or somesuch). But even before that I can remember watching movies in the afternoons on one (or more) of the major networks. I know I loved “Born Free,” about a couple in the African Savannah hanging out with a lioness named Elsie and her cubs. I was also a big fan of The Sting, due in no small part to my mom’s preference for it.

So those are just movies, right? Drama, no particular genre in common. But there were others, and they did have some distinct similarities.

The first post-apocalyptic movie I can remember seeing was The Planet of the Apes. The original good one with Charleton Heston as Taylor. Now, of course, throughout most of the movie [WARNING, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS AWESOME CLASSIC FILM, SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH. MAJOR SPOILER FOLLOWS] you don’t know that it’s post-apocalyptic. You think the astronauts have landed on another planet. But in the final moment of the film, when Taylor rides up the beach and finds the Statue of Liberty, it’s revealed that he’s been on Earth all along – an Earth where humans blew their civilization to smithereens and the gorillas and orangutans and chimpanzees took over. Boy I loved (and still love) that movie.

In chronological order, I think the next movie of this genre would have been Logan’s Run, though it’s possible it was first. I was only around seven or eight at the oldest when I first started seeing these films. Anyway, Logan’s Run is certainly a tale of a dystopian future at best, and a post-apocalyptic world at worst. Though the reason for the domed cities is far less ambiguous in the novel, the movie’s introduction does refer to war as being partly responsible. Again, I was a big fan of Logan’s Run the movie, and later the TV series, also. I loved the look of the City of Domes, I loved the idea of the rogue Sandman racing first through the futuristic city and then through its forgotten bowels. I loved the old man they find living in the US Capital with his swarm of cats. And I love the rampant destruction at the end as Logan single-handedly brings an entire city to the ground. I re-watched it recently and it’s still pretty awesome. Plus, if you look really closely there’s actually quite a few naked people in it, which is always a plus.

And the third of the three conspicuously post-apocalyptic films I can remember cherishing in my youth was Damnation Alley. It was also the most obvious of the three. There was no question as to how the Earth ended up a smoldering ruin – the movie begins with US Air Force missile silo officers engaging their keys to launch missiles. Or maybe it doesn’t and I’m confusing it with the beginning of Wargames. I can’t be sure, because the DAMN MOVIE HAS NEVER BEEN RELEASED ON DVD!! I haven’t seen it in about thirty years! But I think that’s how it started, followed by a flash forward to those same officers living on their base after “the big one” and deciding that they need to journey across a country haunted by the ghosts of the incinerated, and inhabited by giant scorpions and oceans of cockroaches. But best of all – and this is why I loved the movie (though the scorpions were damn cool and the roaches were scary when they burbled up out of the sewers of Las Vegas. And don’t tell me it wasn’t deliberate that the film’s makers had roaches, sewers and Vegas all in the same scene) – they made that historic journey in two wickedly-cool Landmasters that were basically armored personnel carriers with an accordion-section in the middle to increase their turning radius and these totally awesome (yeah, I’m gushing. Sue me!) triangular wheel assemblies with three wheels on each. If the Landmaster blows a tire, they rotate the triangle and suddenly the bad tire is harmlessly off the ground. It’s amphibious, heavily armed, and it even has a rear hatch that lets main character “Hell” Tanner ride his dirt bike in and out of the vehicle when needed. Like when he’s being chased by a billion roaches.

So I was initiated pretty early into the doomsday scenario that was so prevalent in the seventies. And eighties. And nineties. Well, you get the idea. Speaking of which, the trailer for The Book of Eli looks really great and I cannot wait to see it. Anyway, I realized that my enthusiasm for post-apocalyptic fiction goes back practically all the way to the beginning (of me). I find that at least mildly interesting. I hope you did, too.


  1. The old Trash-80! I cut my teeth on that :)

    The sound affects were limited, as was the precision of the graphics, but it was a joy to own. I made one car race game. I did my best to simulate the sound of a car crash.

  2. Mike - you're not gonna call bullshit on my claims of TRS-80 sound effects??

  3. Actually, I was trying to remember whether the model 4 might have had a speaker in it, but I hadn't gotten around to researching it yet. I hate to call anybody out until I'm sure I've got my facts straight. :D

  4. The TRS-80 Model I had no speaker.

    It did, however, have a mechanical relay that controlled the tape recorder. CLOAD turned on the player, I believe. I forget the command that turned it off.

    But putting these commands in a tight loop turned the relay into a makeshift buzzer. It is the earliest hack I can remember being proud of!

    Mind you, it probable shortened the life of the relay by a hell of a lot. But the computer gave out before the relay did, so all's well.

    Good times. Good, good times :)