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Day the World Ended

by Glenn Erickson Jan 04, 2022

Another key ’50s sci-fi makes it to Blu-ray in an admirable encoding. Roger Corman’s end-of-the-world survivalist struggle against radioactive mist and three-eyed mutants shines in the glory of Superscope: Richard Denning and cute Lori Nelson must contend with a human monster in Touch Connors’ gangster. Adele Jergens spices things up while Paul Birch delivers downer sermons about doomsday. It’s a truly marvelous atom fable, full of fanciful silly-science that makes for good storytelling. With a commentary by Tom Weaver. And don’t forget to click the ‘Rhododendron’ link.


Day the World Ended
Blu-ray
1955 / B&W / 2.00:1 widescreen / 79 min. / Street Date December 21, 2021
Starring: Richard Denning, Lori Nelson, Adele Jergens, Touch Connors, Paul Birch, Raymond Hatton, Paul Dubov, Jonathan Haze, Paul Blaisdell, Chet Huntley (voice).
Cinematography: Jock Feindel
Set Decoration: Harry Reif
Film Editor: Ronald Sinclair
Special Effects: Paul Blaisdell
Original Music: Ronald Stein
Written by Lou Rusoff
Executive Producer: Alex Gordon
Produced and Directed by
Roger Corman

A Science Fiction classic despite its meagre level of production, Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended is his first-directed sci-fi opus, a genre he’d exploit ten times over the next several years. In a brief and rather pessimistic interview from 1972, Corman said that he’d been an avid reader of science fiction, and that the key elements he looked for in a sci-fi screenplay were ‘A sense of excitement within the story, plus a theme of some importance within it.’ Characteristically, he didn’t boast about his work. When asked, ‘What SF film of your own do you like best?’ Corman answered “I was never really satisfied with my work in this field.”  1

Day the World Ended may not be classic world cinema but it certainly entertains. Like most of Roger Corman’s early features, in terms of its intended marketplace it’s quite an achievement. The very practical Corman was able to express himself creatively despite the necessity of staying focused on a difficult commercial goal: to establish himself as a director of profitable features in a market where even the majors had difficulties. He’d already squeaked by with some very inexpensive color westerns, and had produced two micro-budgeted sci-fi shows. The efficient Monster from the Ocean Floor showed he could put a movie together with minimal resources, but most of its profit went to an established distributor. Corman’s Beast with a Million Eyes proved to be an impractical project, woefully underproduced.

 

Lou Rusoff’s original script for Day the World Ended is extremely practical. Most of it was filmed on a three- room set; the exteriors were a house in the Hollywood Hills and the ubiquitous Bronson Caverns, just a few minutes away. A convenient landscaped pond at a local restaurant provided a ‘swimming hole’ scene. This time around he cast pros experienced in playing stock roles, that didn’t need close direction. The required special effects were some smoke, some rain, and some radiation scar makeup; local artist Paul Blaisdell mocked up a foam rubber ‘mutant’ and even played the part.

Going forward, Corman’s subsequent sci-fi pictures stuck to proven material. It Conquered the World may have been suggested by Allied Artists’ delayed Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 1956’s Not of This Earth is a space-age twist on a vampire story, Attack of the Crab Monsters is a variation on a Big Bug movie and Teenage Cave Man a riff on One Million, B.C.. The Wasp Woman must have been inspired by the big hit The Fly. Yet none of these movies is a hollow rip-off; each has original ideas and all are highly imaginative.

Everyone points to Day the World Ended as ‘inspired’ by Arch Oboler’s impressive 1951 drama Five, which starts from roughly the same concept. Nuclear war survivors gather at an isolated house and ponder their chances for survival. Rusoff’s story is equally allegorical, with a similar Biblical tone. The human race undergoes a new Genesis in a radioactive Garden of Eden. The critic that covered Day for the Hardy Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film applauded Corman’s ‘triumph of the pulp imagination.’

 

The science is bogus and the dramatics are crude, but the storyline is unbreakable.

 

As with Five, little actual science is on view. We’re instead given a fairy tale with some stock characters in a pressure cooker scenario. It is ‘Total Destruction Day’ plus one. Survivalist loner Jim Maddison (Paul Birch) and his virginal daughter Louise (Lori Nelson of Revenge of the Creature) are safe because his house is in a canyon surrounded by lead ore, where ‘winds will keep the radioactive fallout away.’ Maddison has gathered provisions for three but Louise’s fiancé Tom has apparently perished with the rest of the world. Several more survivors barge in, and Jim grudgingly admits them: Handsome young geologist Rick (Richard Denning of Creature from the Black Lagoon), gangster Tony Lamont and his stripper girlfriend Ruby (Mike “Touch” Connors & Adele Jergens), prospector Pete and his donkey Diablo (Raymond Hatton and a donkey) and Radek (Paul Dubov), a terribly scarred and mentally unbalanced radiation victim.

All are healthy except for Radek, who says his radiation burns are no bother and rambles about cravings for red meat. Radek alludes to a mysterious ‘another’ outside the protected valley, his enemy. Ignoring Ruby, tough-guy Tony makes a play for Louise while Jim and Rick concern themselves with the specter of nuclear mutations — Radek’s skin seems to be getting hard, like armor. Louise reports hearing high-frequency noises that nobody else hears … sounds that seem to be coming from the deadly wasteland outside the protected canyon.

 

The storyline is flatly paced, like a TV drama. The talking scenes alternate between Maddison explaining why he became a survivalist, Ruby fretting because Tony won’t stop lusting after Louise, and Tony’s crude threats against Rick. Meanwhile, we’re given hints about the weird mutations created by the ‘atomic smoke’ outside the protected canyon. Another partly mutated victim (Jonathan Haze) with clawed hands and feet arrives at the canyon mouth and promptly dies. But there’s something else out there, a creature seen only in silhouette and shadow, that seems in telepathic communication with Louise.

Corman gives his audience a monster to carry off ‘the girl,’ fulfilling the poster promise that was cheated in the earlier Million Eyes. But he also adds subtle-chill touches of which Val Lewton would surely approve — no spoilers here — hinting at a key relationship as cinematic subtext. The early Outer Limits show “The Architects of Fear” has a similar revelatory scene. As a ’50s kid who first encountered Day pan-scanned on TV, I openly admit that I never caught on to this little bit of adult-level storytelling, until the pan-scan isolated the center of one shot, making a certain framed photograph the compositional focus.

 

In this little drama every stock conflict is played in earnest. Mike Connors’ Tony is a total slimeball, slobbering over Louise and treating Ruby like dirt. Adele Jergens was finished with flashy roles in crime thrillers (Armored Car Robbery, Try and Get Me!) but she gives Ruby her all, fussing over Tony and joking about old Pete’s burro and his moonshine. Ruby’s ‘nostalgic’ faux-striptease seems inspired by Claire Trevor in Key Largo. As pointed out by ‘And you call yourself a scientist,’ Ruby and Louise get along fine, making all the post- Total Destruction Day conflict the fault of those troublemaking men.

The film’s special effects are … uh … serviceable. The radiation symptoms plaster faces with rubber squiggly things and what looks like ground-up black pumice, ‘burns’ that resemble growths of fungus. Paul Blaisdell’s main mutant is reportedly made of crumbled foam rubber applied to some sort of long-john item, stretched over what looks to be a set of football shoulder pads — Blaisdell’s physique was ‘slight.’ The face is a typical Blaisdell creation, an exaggerated three-eyed demon with a crude frozen expression and wiggly antenna-horns. It draws a lot of critical flak, including some derision from commentator Tom Weaver. I’ve always liked it — the lack of sophistication is a good fit for a drama with so little scientific resonance. Kids were impressed by the three weird eyes, and every radioactive Garden of Evil needs a representative Devil.

The movie’s instant mutations sport big claws and extra vestigial arms, along with body armor to ward off radiation. And you know what?  With a little thematic-semantic arm-twisting, the mutant’s third eye qualifies to be listed with Roger Corman’s career preoccupation with eyes, sight, vision, perception. Various Corman characters gain ‘special’ vision through supernatural curses, LSD and experimental drugs, so why not atomic radiation?

The radioactive smoke that leaks into the protected valley is rather selective in its effects. It’s all around Maddison and Rick, yet only takes deadly effect when the script decides it’s time for another character to kick the bucket. Corman makes excellent use of the convenient Bronson Caverns location, avoiding the caves that were already a familiar movie sight. One path climbed by Ruby, Tony and Louise goes up the same slope that Natalie Wood’s double runs down in The Searchers. The mini-pass that serves as the canyon exit is the same ‘notch’ that Miles Bennell is chased over in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and that leads to the Hammond Brothers’ gold camp in Ride the High Country. You needed to know that.

 

Corman’s Sci-fi shows always suggest interesting ideas and special meanings. Maddison theorizes that the Mutants are adapting to a ‘new radioactive world,’ invoking the fearsome sci-fi notion that the future’s biggest changes will be to people themselves. This germ of an idea was expanded into the equally ‘poetic’ fantasy of Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned, in which a sinister scientist wants to reproduce an accidental mutation that transformed 9 children into radioactive creatures that can thrive after a nuclear doomsday. But Maddison’s gloomy prognosis in Day proves to be premature: a rainstorm apparently purifies everything, restoring Terra Firma’s pristine zero roentgen count. Somebody tell the Atomic Energy Commission that there’s nothing to worry about.

Teamed with the inferior Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, the Day the World Ended release proved the viability of James H. Nicholson’s game-changing film distribution strategy: a well-connected small distributor could compete in the exhibitor marketplace. ‘American Releasing Corporation’ was rebooted as American-International Pictures and flourished in the booming drive-in movie market. As a producer and/or director Roger Corman spent the next three years knocking out feature films at a frantic pace: 4 in 1956, 9 in 1957, 8 in 1958 and 7 in 1959.

The garish poster for the release of Day has a down-market amateur quality, although it has a certain camp value. We prefer the weird Italian interpretation, pictured a little below.

The ‘new’ American-International made a MAJOR improvement to their studio image: the quality of their poster art. The A.I.P. posters that followed are almost uniformly superb, with compelling images guaranteed to appeal to the target fan audience for monsters, juvenile crime and rock ‘n’ roll. Even the pitiful loser The Astounding She-Monster was launched with sensationally good advertising art.

1  Focus on The Science Fiction film, 1972, edited by William Johnson.


 

The new Blu-ray of Day the World Ended is a handsome remastered HD encoding that preserves the full Superscope frame. The 2:1 aspect ratio is accurate, even when occasional shots are tightly framed. I am told that the framing is a tiny bit tighter on the sides compared to the old flat-letterboxed DVD. I have a sneaking suspicion that the on-set framing was 1:85, which I’ll explain a little further down. The sound is also very clear.

There are two new extras. Constantine Nasr’s long-form documentary illustrates a Roger Corman overview of his entire career. Corman mostly re-iterates stories and ‘lessons’ covered in his autobiography, along with a few new nuggets of filmmaker wisdom. The clear-spoken Mr. Corman is a fine raconteur and always a pleasant listen. Writer-producer Nasr gives us clean photos and graphics, and film clips of varying quality.

Tom Weaver comes forth with a fine commentary – this is yet another title for which he interviewed multiple participants. Co-producer Alex Gordon was a special Weaver contact, and adds to the memories of the film’s production — there’s enough input here to describe the creative dynamic on Roger Corman’s set. Tom uses voice talent to read quotes from Lori Nelson and others; David Schecter steps in for ten minutes to praise Ronald Stein’s music.

In between pointing out elements of unfilmed scenes — Louise’s Rhododendron plant was once given more ‘thematic’ significance — Tom Weaver interjects some humor, with a mention of a call for Maddison to ‘build that wall’ and a comparison of the mutant’s nose with that of a particular movie star. Tom likes to correct common errors made by fantasy-fan writers. His big revelation here is that Sam Arkoff was not James H. Nicholson’s ‘partner’ in American-International, as his official title was merely as secretary. Nicholson was the movie-smart brains behind most all of A.I.P.’s creative and business dealings.

Since Tom is rarely wrong in these matters, perhaps Nicholson let Arkoff overstate his rank to Variety to save face. Or maybe that rascal Sam just claimed partner status without consulting his ‘partner!’  

It’s natural for viewers to assume Arkoff was a serious functioning partner in A.I.P.. From the start, every main title credit gives the two of them equal billing: “James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff present…”  And when Nicholson left to go into Indie production, Arkoff took over. Perhaps they were eventually partners — they wound up splitting ownership of a long list of A.I.P. productions.

Corman was actively assembling the technical ‘team’ that would follow him for 15 years. Designer-art director Daniel Haller didn’t become a fixture on Roger Corman’s films until 1958’s War of the Satellites. This is basic critical ingratitude, but I find myself wishing somebody had asked more about Ronald Sinclair, the former child star who edited a pile of Corman and A.I.P. pictures, from Five Guns West to The Trip.

Here’s the deal with Superscope: to get higher rentals for ‘scope movies some studios used the Superscope system, which optically printed a 2 to 1 slice out of the middle of the film frame, enlarged and squeezed for CinemaScope projection. Since more light hit the screen the show might be brighter, but the optical dupe definitely increased image grain. A.I.P. did this with some films even when they didn’t credit (or pay?) the Superscope people: I personally saw a print of Machine Gun Kelly where this was done. It cropped some of the titles partly off screen, along with occasional heads and guns.

On home video Day the World Ended isn’t improved with Superscope — it’s only a little ‘wider’ than standard 1:85. If the full-frame original negative could be accessed the image quality would likely be better. Alas, it seems that the actual pre-Superscope original negatives for this movie and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are long gone.

Proof that the original cinematography was shot flat can be seen in the (low quality) trailer on this disc — it’s full frame and shows abundant head and foot room, mostly empty space. A forward-thinking producer would have kept both versions, to use the flat copy for TV use — as was done with United Artists’ Vera Cruz before the advent of widescreen TVs. When we watch Day on this Blu-ray, I imagine opening up the narrow letterbox bars top and bottom, to uncover occasional chins and the tops of heads.

For some reason the main title crawl is slightly windowboxed.

With research by Gary Teetzel.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Day the World Ended
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Longform interview with Roger Corman; Tom Weaver commentary, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
January 1, 2022
(6641day)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.