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Day of the Triffids (1963)
~Review by Grawlix (December 2018)
In the aftermath of a spectacular, all-night meteor shower, most of the Earth’s population is rendered blind. The meteor shower also mutates a species of alien plant life, called Triffids, which had fallen to Earth years before (seems a bit lackadaisical of the government and/or scientific establishments to allow an alien organism to proliferate unsupervised, but never mind). Previously stereotypically plant-like, the Triffids become enlarged, mobile, aggressive, and carnivorous. A navy man, Bill Mason (Howard Keel) is one of the few people who has retained his sight, having had his eyes bandaged following an operation while the stellar pyrotechnics were happening. Banding with the few other sighted people he can find, Mason attempts to survive as society falls apart around him. Meanwhile, on a lighthouse off the coast, an alcoholic scientist and his long-suffering wife attempt to find a way to combat the Triffid menace, even while they are surrounded and running out of time.
While the idea that virtually the entire population of Earth would be too mesmerized by celestial flashes to notice their eyes frying out certainly requires a greater than normal amount of disbelief to be suspended, there’s no denying that it sets up some impressive set pieces. The pilots of a passenger plane trying vainly to assure their passengers that everything is okay. The streets full of shell shocked people stumbling around with their arms outstretched, and later the chains of people attempting to navigate a building en masse. The straightforward suicides. Sometimes it’s curiously quiet; you’d think that, deprived of their sight, more people would attempt to navigate via their hearing, but overall it’s an effective depiction of a collapsing society, sometimes chaotic, sometimes subdued, but always traumatic.
And then, of course, there are the Triffids, themselves. Plant based monsters are not the most prominent adversary in horror fiction, so props to the film for originality on that front, though sometimes it seemed that the decision ended up being more trouble than it was worth. The task of making ambulatory vegetables menacing would be a tall one for any effects department, much less a British one in the 60’s. Standing still, the Triffids look suitably threatening, but in motion the illusion is shattered. It’s something of a paradox, really. Being plants, if they moved too fast they’d just look ridiculous, but their shambling shuffle and odd gurgling vocalizations make them seem less dangerous than they should (They do spit poison, but only employ this method of attack once or twice, for some reason). Fortunately for the Triffids, they have people on the inside, with the editor and cameramen firmly in their corner. It happens more than once that everything seems safe and peaceful, but just a quick cut or pan later, and BAM!, the heroes are surrounded. It’s a mighty convenient way to generate tension and conflict, but then I suppose it’s no worse than the improbable amount of ground that Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers manage to cover with their deliberate marching strides.
But despite what the film’s title, poster, and ad copy would otherwise have you believe, Day of the Triffids is another case in which the monsters end up having less prominence than you might think. The first third of the movie is mostly concerned with the myriad of disasters caused by a newly blinded population, and a gang of unblinded escaped prisoners serve as adversaries towards the end. It’s true that the Triffids are an ever-present background concern, and the desolation that grows as the story moves forward is assumed to be at least partly caused by their decimation of the remaining population, but a couple scenes actually showing some blinded and helpless people blundering into a phalanx of hungry Triffids would have done wonders for the ambiance. As it stands, while the Triffids are definitely of foremost concern to the characters when they’re on the screen, they seem unusually easy to ignore when they’re not.
This is most noticeable during the lighthouse subplot, as the scientist and his wife spend most of the movie surrounded, but the Triffids mostly seem content to just hang out outside. This subplot mainly serves to provide exposition as to the nature of the Triffids as the scientist manages to sober up long enough to dissect a Triffid vine severed in a previous attack. I kept waiting for this plot thread to merge with the more prominent story of the mainland survivors, but it never did. Rather, it served as an occasional, meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch style cutaway as our intrepid researcher tries and tries again to come up with a solution. Eventually he does, though as an absolute last resort. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that I’m surprised it took him so long. Even allowing that he wasn’t a botanist, considering that humans have been killing weeds for literally thousands of years, you’d think he’d try some of the classic methods first. In any case, once this is done, the movie abruptly ends. “And thus, mankind was saved” in voiceover, minus the billions of casualties, I guess. Roll credits.
Probably the most striking thing about Day of the Triffids to my current sensibilities is how similar it is to the modern zombie movie. Considering it came out a full five years before Night of the Living Dead, this seems like a big deal. From the numerous scenes of people barricading doors and windows, to the eerily silent cityscapes in the latter half the film, to the Triffids themselves, brought to life by extraterrestrial radiation into a slow but relentless and unstoppable horde, this is the zombie apocalypse playbook in an early, but surprisingly complete form. Day of the Triffids has its share of problems, some of the effects have aged poorly, and the plotting is, to say the least, uneven. But as the unlikely forebear of an entire genre, I’d recommend a viewing anyway.
Final Score: B+
The screenplay is all over the place, and some of the effects aren’t as special as they used to be, but Day of the Triffids has some original ideas that would be recycled and refined in hundreds of later movies.
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