Over two nights I watched a couple of low budget movies randomly chosen from lists of b-grade horror. In this wild abyss, said Milton, chance governs all. So how weird it is then when chance aligns fiction with reality. As I watched the credits of the second movie I wondered, are we talking speculative fiction or playbook?
These movies are crap, but I’m a true crap movie fan, preferring anyting old and bad to anything today. The first movie is The Alpha Incident, 1978, directed by Bill Rebane characterized by a hospital green tinge resulting most likely from bad film stock or a lack of color adjustment. An unknown virus is brought back to Earth by a space probe (Yes I know, the book Andromeda Strain came out in 1969, the movie in 1971). Vials of the virus are being shipped to a special lab by train. Hank, a train worker gets curious about the mysterious cargo and the G-man protecting it. He poaches keys of the sleeping G-man, and sneaks into the storage car where he breaks a vial and cuts his hand, consequently infecting himself with the virus. At a station stop, the G-man finds out and immediately announces a lockdown. He takes everyone’s car keys, or asks for them nicely by pointing the barrel of a pistol at them. Hank attempts to run away but the G-man shoots him, i.e. deadly force for breaking lockdown rules.
Somewhere along one of remaining five people under station-arrest says with corny idealism, “We’re all in this together.” That’s when I had my first jamais vu/déjà vu mixup.
Of course nothing is known about the alien virus except that small animals introduced to it do not survive. Researchers at a NASA lab that looks like a high school biology classroom are tirelessly working on a way to bust the virus. Mainly they do this by diligently peering through microscopes while wearing masks, although researchers at a nearby desk wear no masks. Back at lockdown junction the normal interpersonal snits of drama take place. Liquor is found, deemed, I guess, an essential service as it is under Covid lockdown. Sex in the back room takes place between Jack Tiller and Jenny, deemed I guess as essential to societal health and certainly a Covid favorite story by media. For example it seemed everyone covered PornHub flattening the curve and supporting the community by giving their Models 100% payout from their video sales for April (after a 15% processing fee.)
So let’s get this straight. A pandemic means forcible lockdown, a violation of civil liberties, masks should be worn except when they’re not, and liquor and sex are essential. Jamais vu/déjà vu.
Meanwhile the NASA researchers discover the virus kills while the carrier sleeps, so don’t sleep! Coffee is made (although apparently it’s running low) and a poker game ensues. Soon one of the lockdown prisoners starts to nod off to dire consequences. Then comes amazing news, a dose of radiation seems to kill the virus. The movie ends when a jeep carrying three people arrives at the station. Two are in full hazmat suits, except for the guy in regular Gomer Pyle green. Switch to the interior of the station. A window breaks and a hazmat man fires a ray at the G-man. Freeze frame and movie over. So we don’t know the outcome.
One possible ending is found with the second does of horror, Chosen Survivors. This one’s from 1974, directed by Sutton Roley and notably with a 52 year old Jackie Cooper. Who can forget Cooper’s great performance alongside Wallace Beery in King Vidor’s The Champ of 1931? The writer Harry Spalding, this time using the pseudonym H.B. Cross was known for many horror and surf films of the early to mid 1960’s.
Eleven people, a computer expert, an ex olympian, scientists, and an artist are kidnapped from their homes, drugged, and deposited 1758 feet underground in a classified bunker run by one military caretaker, Major Gordon Ellis. Ellis seems seems clinically depressed and he looks as though to kill time he smears Vaseline all over his face. Here the kidnappees find out that the world has been destroyed by a thermonuclear attack and they are now in enforced lockdown. There are videos to prove the world’s destruction although they show lava flows but such is the nature of sweet apocalyptic magic.
We basically pick up where The Alpha Incident left off. Their lockdown video host Mary Louise Borden, presenting herself as spokesperson for an all-benevolent end of times government, calms everyone by saying an action plan is in place to make human survival possible. These kidnappees are, to be clear, Adam and Adam and Eve and Adam and Eve and Eve and Adam and Adam and Eve and Eve and Adam, bearers of the new future (in addition to other people in other bunkers around the United States). The kidnappees begin to settle into their unwanted roles when suddenly lights go out, everything turns blue, and blood-sucking bats enter the airtight compound (everything is recycled including the air). The bats kill all the caged birdies — a canary in a coal mine moment if ever there was one.
So taking stock, we now we have people in lockdown with bats that are a big part of the problem. Something in this scenario rings a bell, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The group scours the 28 rooms of the compound to find out where the bats are entering but their eagle eyes find nothing. Soon we watch as bats enter from a fairly obvious vent and now there is one less person alive. It’s the battle for eternity, desmondus rotundus v. homo sapiens. You see, the airtight bunker’s elevator shaft is built next to a big bat cave and apparently the bats are very hungry. A capitalist jerk destroys parts of the main computer system by meddling (don’t worry, the system is back up and running by the end of the movie.)
This prompts psychologist, Dr. Peter Macomber, to announce that the whole lockdown is a test. Everyone will be rescued in 45 minutes when the chopper flies in. It doesn’t but more bats do. There is an effort to electrocute some of them. The olympian, Woody Russo, says he’ll climb up the elevator shaft to the exterior door so everyone can get out. How exactly this is to happen is unclear. Maybe there’s an elevator button up there. Woody climbs using a short rope with knots for climbing attached to a grappling hook. Just know this elevator shaft is higher than the Empire State Building but it takes him only three hours. Near the door he finds acrack and through it he sees the bat cave. He stuffs the crack with his gloves. But these bats are smart, they know he’s there and they push the gloves back out so that just as Woody gets to the door the bats attack him. It’s now ground floor for poor Woody. Suddenly the lights go out again and a rescue team arrives from above, a sort of ending that always seems to indicate to me someone looked at their watch and exclaimed “Will ya look at the time!” Lockdown is now over but what was the point of it all?
The movie ends with the survivors escorted out by the military. Mary Louise Borden appears on screen one last time on the screen with her message starting week two of the intended lockdown experiment, saying in part, “Note the tremendous adjustments you have already made. … The bodies and minds of each of you have been exposed to tremendous stress. Cooperate with one another. Make allowances for each other’s shortcomings. Henceforth, periodic group sessions are strongly recommended. Careful reasoning will result in judicious decisions.”
And with this last statement we move away from reality and Covid media coverage where careful reasoning and judicious decisions seem last on anyone’s list. In both movies normal social interactions were disrupted and normal civil rights were suspended. Negative consequences of doing so were highlighted. I wondered about the conditions that existed in the mid to late 1970’s in the United States and Europe, mainly, causing the themes of such movies to resonate with audiences? A history-based psychologist might be able to answer this.
All I know is that over the past two nights I watched two movies and for a third of a year I lived out a real life version of these movies and somewhere in these events there was fiction and there was fact, but as Orwell said in Animal Farm, “it was impossible to say which was which.”
Conspiracy theorists might enjoy thinking about this too, what if this Covid lockdown is a similar trial run nearly ready for a SWOT analysis, something like a global version of the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, with a goal to judge the ease in which today’s populations comply with authoritarian orders such without a lot of scientific rationale. I don’t believe this but isn’t the point of speculative fiction — to prompt consideration of eerie possibilities?