If you’re watching television and there’s a series of news reports occasionally interrupted by zigzags of old-fashioned static and if, on the television, there are fires in foreign streets, and a superficially calm but increasingly panicked newsreader talking about disorder / a mystery disease / environmental disaster / scientists being flummoxed / authorities losing control / calling for people not to panic / populations being evacuated and / the growing tension between Made-upia and Inventedland; in other words if you have the distinct impression that what you are watching is the teaser, trailer or prologue for the long-awaited apocalypse, then I have one extremely important piece of advice to offer: buy a dog.
Preferably an Alsatian, or German Shepherd, but the breed doesn’t really matter. Just buy a dog. Even a mongrel. Better still a telepathic mongrel. Start stocking up on food and other essentials: water, a generator, generator fuel, warm clothing, torches, guns, ammunition and dog biscuits. Board up the windows, clear wall space to make room for art treasure to be purloined from deserted and unguarded national art galleries, get yourself a shopping trolley if you’re thinking of going mobile and put down some newspaper and a water bowl.
Why? Dogs make survivors happy. No dog and you just might as well not bother surviving the cataclysmic (but often vaguely defined) event at all. You’re just going to be in a grump.
Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) in I Am Legend (Lawrence, 2007) is having a grand old time of the end days with his dog. He tools around Manhattan in a sports car, hunts elk, plays golf off the deck of an aircraft carrier, watches Shrek so many times that he could act in it (playing any of the parts) and kills the odd unconvincing CGI zombie. OK, he’s going a little stir crazy and he’s upset that his wife and child were killed, but when his dog gets infected and he has to kill him, that’s when it really all goes wrong. That’s the moment he properly loses the will to live.
He should count himself lucky though. In The Omega Man (Sagal, 1971), an earlier adaptation of Richard Matheson’s first novel, which itself is a kind of science fiction melding of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, poor old Robert Neville (here played by Charlton Heston) doesn’t get a dog at all and spends the whole film in a chronically bad mood. Superficially, he does the same kind of stuff Will Smith does. The opening sequence involves Heston in a sports car, the wind in his thinning hair, and he also watches a film so often he can recite whole tranches of it, but whereas the young bereaved father’s love of Shrek is understandable, Heston’s enthusiasm for Woodstock (Wadleigh, 1970) is bewildering. It could be ironic, because Heston is constantly uttering bitter and not very funny one-liners. Even when he gets himself a new car and conducts an imaginary conversation with the car salesman, he gets jipped. ‘You cheap bastard,’ he yells over his shoulder to thin air. The art treasures he hoards go unnoticed (the bust of Caesar is reduced to a hat stand) until the anaemic ‘survivors’ of the plague, a pseudo-religious cult called the Family, decide to destroy them. Heston looks mildly annoyed, but he doesn’t tell them to stop, plead or anything like that. His one reason to be properly cheerful is his relationship with Lisa (Rosalind Cash), but even this has an uneasy edge in keeping with the extremely confused racial politics of the film. On the one hand, one of his main enemies is a black man, turned white by the plague, who has a particular animus towards the Honky, and on the other there’s Lisa, anticipating a Blaxploitation vibe that will definitively appear that same year in Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Rosalind Cash will go on to star in Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (Crain, 1976). Heston’s discomfort comes in another of his one-liners to Lisa about his good old Anglo-Saxon blood, which is going to cure Lisa’s brother, the non-Anglo-Saxon Richie. His determination to hole up in his house and his refusal to countenance any attempt at accommodation with the Family, even when a cure is at hand, has the echo of the credo of a right-wing survivalist who appreciates the simplicity that the apocalypse offers.
Somewhere in between the two, but actually the first attempt at an adaptation of Matheson’s book, is the Italo-American production The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. Filmed in Rome in 1964 and directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, the film is brave in giving us a dour version of the End. Life for Price’s Robert Morgan is drudgery and loneliness. Here’s a typical day: up early, collect corpses, get some gasoline, take corpses to the pit, burn corpses, lunch. Make wooden stakes, kill vampires while they sleep, collect garlic. Home before dark, repair boarding, loud jazz and a sleepless night of listening to the demented cries of people who want to kill you. Price is superb, his hang-dog features and his deadpan voice-over never stray towards the inviting pastures of camp, there to frolic the way a bare-chested Heston occasionally does in The Omega Man. There’s even a moment when he looks glumly at a sports car before deciding on the station wagon because it’s easier to load it with corpses.
His dog turns up halfway through the film, offering Morgan a brief moment of joy and happiness, but unfortunately he too gets infected and Morgan must stake him and bury him. It is while doing this that he meets another survivor who will bring about his ruin. As in I Am Legend, the death of the dog is a crucial moment.
But why? What is it with dogs and the end of the world? This is not (entirely) a facetious point. The dog in I Am Legend is partly a link to Neville’s family (the puppy is handed over by the daughter just before their helicopter explodes), but it is also an iconic vision of a man paradoxically alone while still being in command. When nature has gone wrong and society breaks down, the last man on earth regains an element of mastery via man’s best friend. He even gets on the poster.
For Morgan, the dog simply represents happier times and uncomplicated company. He chases the dog for a significantly longer amount of screen time than he does the woman he meets. And whereas the dog is a possibility of salvation denied, the woman is his downfall. The dog in John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) is initially a threat, but ultimately a sign of normality returning and the proper relationships (man, dog, family, etc.) that had melted down, being restored.
Based on a Harlan Ellison novella and directed by L.Q. Jones – one of those actors you see in tonnes of Westerns but can’t name – A Boy and His Dog (1974) is set after World War IV and features a baby-faced Don Johnson playing Vic, an amiable rapist, who is accompanied and helped by his telepathic dog, Blood, as they wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland. As in the other films, the lone survivor is offered various alternative societies to join or to be threatened by – The Family in The Omega Man, the new hybrid society in The Last Man on Earth and, perhaps most terrifyingly, Vermont in I Am Legend. After encountering various scavengers, Vic is lured by a young woman, Quilla June, into an underground city where his semen is to be drained from him and used to impregnate the women of the community. The film plays on the extremely dangerous ground of A Clockwork Orange (1971) in making society so grotesquely awful (for obvious satirical effect) that the rapist becomes morally preferable, if not heroic, in at least being honest. The true horror is normalised by the harmless (and sometimes not so harmless, cf. the last line of the movie) banter and bickering of boy and dog and the black humour the film liberally indulges in. Ultimately, Vic doesn’t want female companionship, a family, love. He wants his dog, the occasional rape and freedom. It might well be the end of the world as we know it, but Vic feels fine.