‘I bought some shoes once, from a drug dealer. I don’t know what he laced them with but I was tripping all day.’
British writer-director Martin Gooch has a busy, eclectic, under-the-radar filmography – The Search for Simon, After Death, The Gatehouse – of hand-to-mouth, fringe-of-genre projects. This post-apocalypse picture is his most ambitious film to date, shot on American locations with a large cast – if heavier on ruminations, eccentricities and depopulated landscapes than on action. It relates heavily to such recent grim essays as The Survivalist and The Road, but takes a refreshingly different viewpoint on things – and has a rambling, slightly too loose feel that often evokes the absurdist, counterculture-inflected post-nuke drop-out cinema of the 1970s.
We get cannibals, mutants (including a final wink at Roger Corman’s The Day the World Ended), a lot of trudging along empty highways, bizarre post-apocalypse cults, folks dying of radiation poisoning, skirmishes with raiders, and some cleft-stick back-and-forth in small knots of survivors, but also a few welcome touches of humour – an argument over a silver hardhat – that don’t feel forced. It opens, with a probable nod to Nevil Shute, on the beach (the location is Malibu) as holidaymakers watch mushroom clouds rise, then picks up many days later (they’re numbered onscreen) with the ominous ‘Day 666’ clearly coming as injured Dad Sam (Ron Roggé) struggles through the wild with his wife Kate (Krista DeMille) and daughter Suzy (Andrea Sweeney). Taking aim at a deer, Suzy wings passing survor type Joe (Jesus Lloveras) and the charismatic, untrustworthy guy joins the team – making a bid to take over by knifing Sam (telling him it’s for the best) and picking up some rohypnol as part of his long-term scheme to ditch the mother and head off with Suzy. Waking up abandoned, Kate goes on a quest to get the girl back and emerges as the unusual protagonist – a middle-aged, competent but not superhuman woman who realises that just surviving isn’t enough to be worth all the effort.
Along the way, the film encounters several oddball survivor groups – a cult carrying their leader (Domenica Cameron-Scorsese) who has invented a new religion around the Stairway to Heaven, a Park Ranger hallucinating from isolation (Neil Dickson, the onetime Biggles), Joe’s original gun-toting band (and a mad soldier girl, Christina DeRosa), a couple begging for euthanasia (which is supplied before a bitter speech about the way things got ruined is fully underway), and a well-stocked refuge where DJ Apocalypso (William Mark McCullough) is holding a sybaritic party until radiation sickness strikes them all down. Gooch isn’t afraid of symbolic stuff – business with the new breed of miraculous flowers, stuff about swimming, speeches about cockroaches – but the real strength of the film is in its heroine (DeMille is terrific) and her interesting, believable relationship with a daughter who loves her but also naively thinks of the exploitative Joe as her boyfriend. It’s one of a breed of end of the world movies which find believably ravaged and ruined locations all too easily in the here and now.