Vault of Secrets: Aliens, Yetis and Armageddon!

A trio of sci-fi powerbusters unearthed from the studio vaults on Manufactured-on-Demand DVD!

This month, the ever-increasing slate of rediscovered titles expands into the dark dimensions and altered realities of science fiction, with:

NO BLADE OF GRASS – Remastered Edition
Dir. Cornel Wilde / 1970 / Warner Archive

A blind, deaf infant could tell you that this world is on its way out. Global weather shifts, rapidly diminishing literacy and economic collapse all sit at the tip of a tremendous apocalyptic iceberg that’s already sinking our proverbial battleship.

Oddly enough, we audiences have been entertained by fantasies of our own destruction for decades. This bizarre masochism is usually softened with carnivalesque imagery of rampaging punk cannibals and/or silver-clad warriors on talking jetmobiles, offering us a playful, 12-year-old boy’s view of the decimation of our species. Unfortunately, the realities of Armageddon would be a lot less, well…cool.

Nine years before Max got Mad, MGM UK produced this jarringly brutal end-of-days epic. The film was based on the equally crushing novel by John Christopher (The Tripods trilogy), which focused on the inevitabilities of man’s self-immolation and the impotent manner in which we’d deal with it. Though it was widely talked about and critically well received, the movie was never released on home video and eventually forgotten. Which is a shame, since it’s one of the most unforgettable science fiction movies you’ll see.

Dignified British screen giant Nigel Davenport plays John Custance, a composed family man living comfortably in London. He dines with friends in a crowded eatery, the TV droning on about a sudden environmental concern affecting other nations. Plant life is suffering, leading to starvation and panic. It is a tragedy, but it’s someone else’s. Naturally, the problem shortly sweeps into the queen’s England, its denizens quickly learning they’re not immune to subhuman behavior in the face of death. Custance and his loved ones narrowly escape the burning London streets, arming themselves with whatever’s handy and powering their way towards the countryside.

As in The Road Warrior and Dawn of the Dead, the rock bottom of post-civilized degeneracy is displayed in the form of marauding bikers, who assault Custance’s wife (the director’s wife Jean Wallace) and daughter. At this point, our protagonists take a de-evolutionary turn, accepting that society no longer exists and no behavior is too savage if performed in the name of survival. The crew picks up other wayfarers, and a starving army of bruised and battered everymen is soon formed, marching off towards a decreasingly possible future.

The film balances misanthropy and sympathy while keeping your heart pressed under its steel boot at all times. It’s practically impossible to believe that this movie was released by a major studio; hatred, violence and hopelessness plant their flags early in and never pause for a breath. As if that’s not enough, there’s close-up footage of an actual childbirth (which I personally find more nauseating than any type of barbarism), plus countless other political, social and visceral taboos that would seemingly get any other Hollywood production of the era shut down in seconds. Director Wilde – who also co-wrote the script under a false name – attacked his insurmountable subject with fearless abandon. A wildly accomplished performer through the ‘60s before turning to filmmaking, he understood exactly what was needed to elicit a reaction from a viewer. And he abused that knowledge in grand form, creating a perfectly indelible closing chapter in the story of mankind.

ZONE TROOPERS
Dir. Danny Bilson / 1985 / MGM Limited Edition Collection

Before his utter descent into anti-quality hackery, producer/director Charles Band (Evil Bong; Puppet Master Pt 38 or whatever) was responsible for some of the most rewarding tidbits of the early Video Age. He immersed himself in the wild impossibilities of low-budget scifi and horror like few others, peeling back eyelids on a budget with gleeful no-rules masterpieces including The Day Time Ended, Laserblast and Tourist Trap (which I really believe is the single most underrated horror movie of all time). At the height of his powers, concurrent with the production of future mega-hits Trancers and Re-Animator, he quietly squeaked through this fairly family-friendly, aliens-vs.-Nazis hoedown.

Watching Zone Troopers, you get the feeling that it’s accidentally ten times better than it's meant to be. The plot and dialogue seem like they were written on a comic shop toilet stall: Four likeable WWII soldiers named things like “Sarge” and “Mittens” stumble across enemy lines and the Reich’s most carefully guarded discovery: a massive interplanetary spacecraft. One of its pilots has escaped unharmed, and joins our boys in a full-metal lazer-battle against Hitler’s lil’ shits. We even get to see Eva Braun’s boyfriend get smacked straight in the kisser!

It’s admittedly a lightweight concept, but it delivers big due to outrageous practical effects work (the alien ship is a shocker) and solid, enjoyable performances from the four leads. Class of 1984’s Timothy Van Patten is fresh-faced private Joey, obsessed with comic books and dames. Tim Thomerson (Near Dark; Trancers) is the platoon’s harder-than-hell commander, and kind-hearted rectangle Art LaFleur (The Blob remake) is his right hand. Zany comic Biff Manard (Surf II) plays it down for the film and even turns in a few dramatically compelling moments. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, it ain’t here. But if you wanna see blue-skinned dudes use ray guns to evaporate Germans, come on over. Bring a pizza.

Note: The DVD spine is misspelled “ZONE TROPPERS.” Ha ha ha. Whoops!

THE SNOW DEVILS
Dir. “Anthony Dawson” (really Antonio Margheriti) / 1967 / Warner Archive

If you’re hungry to see Italians emulating the Americans who stole from the Japanese creature classics, here is your FEAST! This late ‘60s dime store monster mash tonally follows director Margheriti’s spaghetti scifi spectaculars Wild, Wild Planet and War of the Planets. Here, things are simplified so far that it’s watching humans reenact a particularly dopey puppet show…though one that features green-faced yeti bodybuilders from another planet, so no complaints here!

An isolated lab at the Arctic ice cap is suddenly struck with a massive wave of heat. This is followed by a mysterious attack that leaves the outpost in ruins with no survivors. Government scientists rationally deduce that a proton field from the Himalayas caused the temperature rise, and thus the station was destroyed by abominable snowmen. Two undercover researchers arrive by helijet to investigate, both of them cocky rump-chasers with a martini in one hand and some bleeping computer doohickey in the other. Guided towards the snow-choked caverns by terrified locals, our heroes soon learn that the “snow devils” are in fact a highly intelligent race of interplanetary invaders bent on reducing our world’s temperature to sub-zero levels. This is communicated to headquarters when one of our protagonists speaks into what is obviously a hairdryer. Once the earthbound aliens are subdued, the battle goes galactic in a remarkably tension-free race against doom.

This Italian/American co-production can be described as “easy on the brain.” The Himalayan villagers are played by Jamaicans and any other non-Caucasoids the casting agents could get their hands on. Neon rainbow asteroids rocket past weightless spacemen in shots identical to the free-floating moments from 1968’s The Green Slime. And all the while, the unflappable hero flashes his grin in the face of certain death. The pacing is sadistic, the dubbing is a catastrophe and it constantly feels like the filmmakers were only aiming to entertain the dumbest children in the world. And I guess I fall into that category, because it worked.

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…that’s all for now, but we’ll be back in a couple weeks with three recently released nutball comedies from the vaults. Until then, watch/read/eat something you’ve never heard of in your life…or go see The Hunger Games another twelve times. The decision is yours!

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