Modern Sci-fi owes a Debt to ‘Day of the Triffids’
In a continuing quest to enjoy as many classic movie monsters as possible, it was time to revisit The Day of the Triffids.
Seeing it with fresh eyes after so long brought a sense of Déjà vu in the most unexpected way. There, in Day of the Triffids, was one of my favorite sequences from The Walking Dead, plus a similar scene from the 2002 horror film 28 Days Later. Both had a man waking up in a hospital room to find a world where people have inexplicably turned into a some version of a zombie. Each man wanders empty, decimated streets looking for people and for answers. Chaos ensues, society disintegrates.
Watching a similar early scene in Triffids was an immediate reminder of those other two well-known sequences. Both 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland and The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman have acknowledged being inspired by Day of the Triffids and it’s easy to see why.
It’s a chilling narrative with haunting imagery that works as well in those modern instances as when it appeared in author John Wyndham’s 1951 sci-fi book The Day of the Triffids, and the 1962 movie adaptation.
And there was more. As Triffids continued, it was filled with images that have become standard since its 1962 release in such post-apocalyptic and zombie films as The Last Man on Earth/I Am Legend, The Omega Man, Dawn of the Dead, Zombieland, The Happening – the list is endless.
While it wasn’t the first film for these tropes and many of the later films are better, it’s a thrill to see the far-reaching influence of this B-movie in modern film and television.
What’s a triffid?
The Triffidus celestus – was invented by Wyndham in his novel as a flower that rapidly grows taller than a human and is aggressive, venomous and carnivorous with a stinger that could lash out 10 feet with enough venom to kill a human on contact.
And it was mobile. Yes, be prepared to be chased by a flower.
Wyndham was the pen name of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon who mixed and matched those names to create other pseudonyms in his career. For an idea on his sci-fi street cred, he also wrote the novel Micwich Cukoos (1957), the basis for the film Village of the Damned.
It starts with a light show
A meteor shower in the skies above Earth entertains with a glorious light show and bright bursts of blue, orange and green. It’s also spreading white spores that look like harmless fireflies.
A voice on the radio – which becomes its own character providing both drama and information – can’t get enough of the “thrilling once-in-a lifetime spectacle that must be seen,” urging people to get out to see the “spectacular display of fireworks.”
Navy officer Bill Mason (Howard Keel) can’t see it because he’s in a London hospital with bandages over his eyes after an operation. In the scene that was inspiration for the two famous sequences in 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead (for starters), Bill awakens the next morning to – nothing. He knows something is off and stumbles out of bed to call for help. No one answers. Ripping off his bandages, he’s puzzled by the deserted hospital littered with overturned tables, chairs and food trays.
In an odd sequence used as a quick explainer, his doctor appears and asks Bill to give him an eye test where the doctor proclaims his optic nerves are gone from the glare of the meteorite shower. “You’re probably one of the few people left in London who can still see this morning,” Doc tells Bill. “I don’t envy you. I don’t think I’d care to see the things you are going to see.” He was right.
Bill walks the empty streets searching for anything. Slowly, we see others. Just one at first, then another and another. Their arms are outstretched, their walking is staggered. They are blind, like most of the world we learn, and are wandering aimlessly. A few are waiting in a train station, falling over luggage and chairs, reaching out for help. Bill picks up a man who has fallen, then realizes it’s futile – there are too many in need. “It all suddenly went dark,” someone says. In a highly effective scene, a train crashes and people tumble out of doors and windows, screaming and falling on each other. There is more horror in this film beyond the triffids.
Among the crowd is young Susan (Janina Faye) who was hiding in a luggage car. Bill rescues her from the crowd, and they head to his ship where they learn how bad things thanks to the radio. (“Everyone is blind!”…. “Stay where you are!” … “Don’t go outside!”)
But mass blindness isn’t the only crisis facing the world as thousands of triffids are on the move killing people with their stinger. They move at the pace of a person leisurely walking with an odd “lurching effect” like they are dragging themselves along. But like zombies, they somehow reach their prey.
Bill and Susan travel from England to France and Spain by car, boat and at one point, an adorable horse-drawn cart. They meet other survivors – with and without sight – including a large group at a French chateau, a band of convicts, a man and his pregnant wife and plenty of triffids as they try to reach a naval base that is serving as a rescue point. And there, in a sentence, is the plot of many modern post-apocalyptic and zombie movies, just substitute your creature or virus for the triffids.
The story splits its time between Bill and little Susan’s journey and that of a couple doing scientific research on a tiny island. Working in a claustrophobic lighthouse are Tom (Kieron Moore), an ill-tempered but brilliant scientist, and his wife Karen (Janette Scott) who try to solve the mystery of the triffids while under attack by them.
More than killer flowers
It’s been easy to get wrapped up in the near silliness of killer flowers and underestimate The Day of the Triffids. It could have simply been a movie with a monster, but Wyndham adds depth by having the world affected by blindness. It’s a secondary layer of horror as millions are left vulnerable with only a few able to save the world. It’s hard not to think of what will happen to the people who are left crawling on the ground with outreached arms toward a destination they’ll never reach.
Billl and Susan listen to the somber May Day calls on the radio. There’s a passenger cruise ship sailing aimlessly and a blind flight crew pleading for an emergency landing as it runs out of fuel. “Tower, please talk us down,” they ask repeatedly, but no one answers.
In those moments, The Day of the Triffids is filled with a grave hopelessness that goes beyond B-movie status. No wonder it still resonates today – even if it is about killer flowers.
Radio: The Day of the Triffids was adapted in three radio dramas in 1957, 1968 and 2001.
Television: The BBC produced the story in 1981 and 2009. The 2009 miniseries had an interesting cast of Dougray Scott, Eddie Izzard, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Brian Cox and Jason Priestley.
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Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.