| Where Have All the People Gone


Reviews Favorites: The Apocalypse

Where Have All the People Gone

Where Have All the People Gone

John Llewellyn Moxey

USA, 1974


Review by Thomas Scalzo

Posted on 06 August 2013

Source bootleg DVD

Categories Favorites: The Apocalypse

Two weeks ago I was manufacturing plastic cups. Now, I’m harnessing horses.

—Steven Anders

If your life’s in a rut, there’s nothing quite like an apocalypse to shake things up. Determined to spend every minute of his much-needed vacation from the plastic cup factory amidst the glories of nature, Steven Anders brings his family on a fossil digging expedition in the High Sierras. One day, whilst chipping away at some rocks in a deep cave, a blinding flash of light engulfs the sky, followed by an earthquake. Steve’s son David, a budding scientist, figures it was “about a 6 on the Richter.” Everything seems okay, except the radio batteries are dead. Not to worry, says Steve, there are lots of things to do besides listening to the radio: “fishing, play chess, hike.” Good options all.

Before the Anders’s can resume their leisure pursuits, however, Mr. Clancy, a mountain guide friend of Steve’s who was tending the fire at the time of the earthquake, falls ill, apparently of radiation poisoning. With their ride not due for several days, and no possible help near at hand, the Anders’s have no choice but to pack up their bags and head down the mountain, a prone Clancy resting fitfully atop a makeshift litter. Within a matter of hours, Clancy takes a turn for the worse and expires, his body mysteriously reduced to nothing but a pile of white ash. Alone in the wilderness, the Anders’s are left with nothing but questions: Could radiation cause such a bizarre death? Was this an isolated incident or could others be affected? Did the cave protect them from whatever killed Clancy? What in the world is going on?

As the Anders’s make their way down the mountain, and return to civilization, the reality of the situation starts to sink in—empty streets and homes, abandoned cars, rusty signs creaking in the wind, and, most disturbingly, piles of white ash beside heaps of clothing. With no one around to explain what happened, our heroes can only guess as to the cause of the disaster: Was it a solar flare? A comet? A meteor? A nuclear accident? Some sort of virus? Though we’re offered vague hints, we never get a concrete explanation as to what actually happened. Even when additional survivors are located, they aren’t able to clear things up much. All the Anders’s can do is move on to the next town, and hope they can learn something more.

By denying us any external information as to the extent of the destruction or the state of the Earth, the filmmakers ensure that we experience this terrifying new world as the Anders’s do, trying to piece together clues as to what happened and constantly guessing what may be around the next bend. From rabid dogs and desperate gunman, to dead batteries and food shortages, every time things seem to be under control, something comes along to upset the balance. And of course, as we do not know what it is that killed everyone, the knowledge that death could come suddenly and without warning is always a possibility. And so, we follow along as the Anders’s continue their journey, in the short term, just trying to get back home where they hope their mother is alive and waiting for them. As to what sort of lives they will have when they get there, that is a problem for another day.

Though this made-for-TV effort is understandably episodic, strategically structuring dramatic events around commercial breaks, veteran television director John Llewellyn Moxey never lets the proceedings become predictable. By wringing some enjoyably quirky performances out of his players, particularly Peter Graves as Steven, Moxey is able to turn potentially hackneyed set pieces into memorable moments. One of the highlights occurs when an angry-looking dog approaches the Anders’s. Instead of simply retreating into the nearby gas station, Graves goes on the offensive. Wrapping his left arm with a rag and picking up a wrench he charges, using the rag arm as a shield. Unable to get in any good shots, he tackles the dog and the combatants spend a few minutes rolling around on the ground. The scene is utterly unnecessary, and all the more wonderful for it.

Another gem features George O’Hanlon Jr. as Steven’s son David. While trying in vain to reach an operator on a rusty payphone, David overhears his father say something to the effect that his mother might not be alive. Instead of tears, or calm denial, David lets out a shrill scream and starts bashing the telephone handle against the receiver. Then he runs off into a field, screaming all the way. Steven and Debbie slowly trot after him. Again, why such a scene was included impossible to say. That it was is part of the reason why the film resonates. Where Have All the People Gone may not feature fancy special effects or elaborate sets, but when you have a solid story, interesting characters, a savvy director, and Peter Graves, you have everything you need.1

  1. For the record, the official title of this film, as it appears on screen, does NOT include a question mark. I don’t know why.
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