The following is a guest post by Dale Sherman, author of several books, including Armageddon Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Zombies, Contagions, Aliens, and the End of the World as We Know It!, the most recent in his FAQ series, available in paperback, and newly released for the Kindle.
One of the dedications in my book, Armageddon Films FAQ (released October 2013 by Applause Books), is for an old family friend named Tony. I decided to dedicate this 400+-page book dealing with “End of the World” movies to him because he was there when I first acquired interest in such films. It was around 1970 and one afternoon I had watched a quite bizarre black and white movie on television called This is Not a Test. That night, Tony came over to visit and as he sat out on the back porch with me, he patiently listened to a six-year-old trying to describe the antics of the characters in this movie. As proof with the release of the Armageddon Films FAQ book, I haven’t stopped talking about them since.
No doubt, the summary of the film by a little kid would not make much sense (I seem to recall at the time having to stop every so often to backtrack on the plot as I had forgotten something earlier). Yet, because of that night discussing the film with an adult, I always had some vague memories about the movie that stuck with me: the truck the group of people attempt to use for their survival from the nuclear attack, the sheriff handcuffing a man to a car fender, the ill-fated poodle, and of course the ending. Over time, it all became a bewildering mess in my head, so when I finally track down the film again on DVD through Something Weird (released with a rather entertaining foreign film retitled Atomic War Bride), I assumed that it would all fall into place.
What I got instead was a movie that left me thinking, “No one really knows what they want to say here, do they?” I explain in more details about the movie in the book, so I won’t repeat material here, but it was fascinating to see the film as an adult. What looks like a simple time-waster really seems at odds with the time period it was filmed. Sure, it was the very early 1960s and the Cold War was running very warm in those days (leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962), and everyone did expect a bomb to drop at some point, yet the propaganda at the time tried to be ridiculously upbeat about it. Yes, people will die, but if you’re far enough away, you’ll be able to … hold your breath and look away for a few minutes and then go back to watching Bozo and eating TV dinners. There was a safety within the confines of the terror everyone felt. “As long as I’m far enough away from those cities, I’ll be just fine.”
This is Not a Test, however, doesn’t quite go that route. A deputy who is stopping traffic on a mountain road in order to direct people away from a probable attack on a major city in the distance is at first our protagonist. All fine and good, but then it gets a bit strange. The deputy doesn’t turn people around and send them on their way, he confiscates their keys and forces them to stay put – too close to the attack zone to survive. Eventually it becomes clear that the deputy is either ignorant of what is happening or simply blanking it all out of his mind. Either way, by the end of the film he looks to be clearly insane.
Now here’s the thing, modern audiences may look at this and think that it’s just the naivety of the film makers to have these people try to survive a nuclear blast in the back of a truck for a duration of time. They would laugh, but they’re wrong. Soon enough the characters openly discuss the fact that they are way too close to survive an attack and some even make a run for it, but authority (the deputy) pushes most of them back into place in an increasingly manic desire to stick with “the rules.” In the end, when real desperation comes into play, those wishing to survive take matters into their own hands and bypass the deputy’s pursuit of doing what he’s been told, but it is pretty much pointless, as there really is no chance of survival. It’s fruitless anarchy in the end and in some ways a sign of films to come down the line, such as No Blade of Grass and Miracle Mile, amongst others, where escape – in one way or another – may ultimately be impossible.
Admittedly, This is Not a Test is just an odd little film that looks like something that could have played on television (possibly even Insight if religion had been touched on, which is touched upon in the chapter of my book dealing with “End Times” films), but after the movie is over it gives us something to think about as well. It is this type of movie that makes a book like the one I’ve written so interesting to do, because although we have this genre of “End of the World” movies, we have so many different issues discussed in the genre and so many ways for the ending to occur. Nuclear, technological disasters, ecological horrors, planetary collisions, alien invasions, contagions and more occur in these films, yet the focus is that of a human scale. Can we survive? What would we do if we had a chance? If we didn’t? Moreover, as always, is there still time, brother?
Which is where the focus of my book comes into play – not as simply a list of movies dealing with the various apocalypses filmed over the years, but rather how they came about and what they tried to tell us, even if it were in the dopiest, ham-fisted way possible? This is Not a Test was my first Apocalypse, but it certainly wasn’t my last, and I hope those who venture a look at the Armageddon Films FAQ book will enjoy the look at the various ways we end it all.