Beware the deadly, walking, man-eating plants that lands on Earth during The Day of the Triffids.
The Day of the Triffids is a British sci-fi film that may have been cutting edge during its initial release, but falls flat – as a dull cookie-cutter monster flick – by modern standards.
The trailer opens with a psychedelic mishmash of strange close-ups, noises and flashing lights. It seems that the imagery may be a meteor shower or some other end-of-the-world scenario. Apparently “terror rains from the sky” as sentient plants begin attacking the human populace of London. The city is deserted, partially on fire, and the remaining populace is staggering around in a daze. It appears that most people have become blind due to the cosmic storm (or whatever) it was, and that alien plants or spores are now attacking them. Several couples still seem to have their eyesight (the heroes, apparently). Overall this is not a great trailer. It tells the story of a great cataclysm, appears to show some monster plants (though it’s hard to tell what you’re seeing), and shows the four main actors – but it’s hard to get a sense of much more. This trailer doesn’t particularly engage me for wanting to see the film.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The Day of the Triffids open in a present-day London hospital. Bill Masen (Howard Keel), a naval officer, has just had eye surgery and is not allowed to see the spectacular meteorite showers happening around the globe. Elsewhere on a small island with a lighthouse, scientists Karen and Tom Goodwin (Janette Scott & Kieron Moore) argue over Tom’s drinking, agreeing to leave the island first thing in the morning when the supply vessel arrives. During the meteorite shower a night guard at a London botanical garden is hunted an attacked by a giant plant.
The next morning Bill is unable to get anyone’s attention, so he removes his own bandages and discovers that the hospital staff are all blind. News reports from around the globe indicate an epidemic of blindness, due to the observation of the meteorite showers the night before. Bill wanders through a nearly deserted London, avoiding people wandering aimlessly before he saves a young girl, Susan (Janina Faye) from a panicked mob near a railway station. The two of them make their way to the docks and pilot a ship across the channel to France. There are scenes of destruction around other parts of the world, communicated to Bill and Susan by radio. A plane full of blind passengers and crew crashes near their boat.
Back on the island Tom and Karen hear the reports of the destruction around the world, as well as news reports of giant walking plants, called Triffids attacking the now blind populace. They find one such plant on the island and “kill” it, by hacking it apart. In France, Bill and Susan find a chateau with some other survivors. Most of these people have lost their sight, but an older couple, the Cokers (Mervyn Johns & Allison Leggatt), who managed to retain their vision assists the now disabled townsfolk. They are assisted by Christine Durrant (Nicole Maurey) who can still see as well. Bill and Mr. Coker discover a meteorite crater with many small triffid plants; some being borne on the winds. Coker is killed when some mature versions of the plants attack them.
Bill returns to the chateau to find it overrun with escaped convicts from a local prison. Their sight is intact due to being locked up, and they are dancing and carousing with the blind women. Bill pretends to be a convict and manages to get Susan and Christine out in the prison bus before a huge horde of triffids crashes through the building killing everyone else. On the island, Tom and Karen analyze the tissue of the strange plant, and realize it’s not completely dead. The various pieces of the plant have regrown as a new triffids, which come after the scientists. They board themselves into the lighthouse, working on a way to kill the plants.
Bill, Susan and Christine head for Toulon, trying to make it to an American naval base in Spain, when they meet the De La Vega’s, a couple that are expecting a baby. They stay overnight to help her delivery a beautiful baby boy, but soon realize that the sound of the generator is attracting the triffids. Hooking up electrical cables to the metal fence around the property, Bill fashions an electric fence to protect them. They awake to thousands of triffids surrounding the property. Bill uses a propane tank and fashions a flamethrower to burn many of the carnivorous plants, but that doesn’t help.
He decides to put everyone else in the bus while he uses an old ice cream truck to distract and drive the triffids the wrong direction. The De La Vega’s, Susan and Christine make it to the naval base and board a submarine in time, but Bill never shows up. He must abandon his truck when it becomes surrounded, but he manages to make it to the shore and board a life raft that is looking for survivors. At the lighthouse, Tom and Karen are attacked as the triffids bust through the barricade. They race to the top of the structure, and Tom decides to use the fire house to keep the creatures from coming up the stairs. The sea water in the hose causes the plants to dissolve, and Tom and Karen realize they’ve finally figured out how to beat these creatures.
“The tobacco company probably found a way to light up the sky to sell more cigarettes.” – Tom Goodwin
History in the Making
The Day of the Triffids, to look at internet rating levels, would appear to be a good film. It holds 6.1 stars on IMDb, and has a critics rating of 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 51% audience score. Unfortunately it does not quite hold up to those scores, except potentially the audience rating. The problem with the film may be watching it in a modern setting, and having an extensive history of similar films that deal with similar subject matter.
Based on a 1951 book by John Wyndham, Triffids becomes more of a horror film than a sci-fi film, which is not problematic in itself. Many horror films with sci-fi themes are perfectly fine films. It’s an end of the world story, featuring monsters (potentially alien) that humans do not understand. To modern viewers however, it may seem to be derivative of many other films they’ve already seen. Films that would not exist if not perhaps for The Day of the Triffids.
What Triffids does well is set up a group of protagonists that viewers can relate to and hopefully root for. It creates a disaster that damages a huge majority of the human population (the blinding of people due to the meteorite shower), effectively removing them from the story, and then puts the protagonists up against a group of monsters that are not understood. So besides survival, the heroes must also figure out how to kill them. Sound familiar?
Triffids has become the template for nearly every zombie movie made, from the late 1960s onward. The Night of the Living Dead and it’s sequels, 28 Days Later (which was influenced directly by this film), The Walking Dead, and countless others. And in that aspect, the film seems like a cheap knockoff when viewed in a contemporary light.
However, it does create some new tropes that hadn’t been used much in sci-fi films by this time. Extended radio news broadcasts explaining the issues the characters in the film must face (however convenient they may be) – which is something that most zombie films still utilize. It also created a nearly unstoppable monster that needed to be done away with in a specific fashion. The film does foreshadow the use of salt water to stop the triffids, with a brief glimpse of the sign at the lighthouse near the beginning of the film: “Sea water for fire only. Highly Corrosive.” Much like The War of the Worlds, common earth elements used to defeat aliens would become more and more of a genre staple. One could imagine that M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs might have been influenced by this plot point.
The Day of the Triffids creates much adversity for the characters to advance through. First, they all survive being blinded, for varying reasons. While it may have been more interesting to have one of the main characters be blind, it’s an understandable decision based on the lower budget the film was working with. Also, enough secondary characters that the protagonists encounter are blind to allow the audience to get a sense of how the world at large is handling the disaster. The film touches on the immediate consequences (panic in the streets, airplanes crashing) but doesn’t move on from there, or explore other aspects of the global apocalypse.
The characters also survive several somewhat close encounters with the slow moving, yet poison-spitting triffids. Bill seems to survive more that his fair share of these encounters, but for the leading man, that too can be overlooked. Tom and Karen have the worst encounters with the carnivorous plants, all while providing the majority of information on these creatures. They realize that dismembering them only provides for the growth of multiple new plants from the cuttings. And of course they discover that sea water dissolves them. However, the two of them being stranded on the island they’re on prevents them from sharing this information with anyone else.
In fact, there seems to be no relation between the London/France storyline, and the lighthouse storyline. Based on accounts of the film, this is due to the original sequences with Howard Keel and company only lasting 57 min. Additional sequences with the lighthouse needed to be added to flesh the film out. And it’s a good thing, as this adds more discovery about the nature of the triffids, but also provides the more interesting characters. Tom is an alcoholic scientist, trapped on a small piece of land with a woman he is no longer in love with. His is acerbic and petty, but also brilliant. His growth, if it can really be considered that (and not just his becoming sober) seems to be a much more interesting storyline than Bill Masen’s.
The Science in The Fiction
Literally everything that happens in this film is the conjecture of the characters, or bad-science that is used to create a plot to move the characters through it. And I’m not talking about the triffids with either of these slights. In fact, carnivorous walking plants may be the most believable part of the film!
The film introduces the viewer to the Venus Flytrap, a real carnivorous plant, which not much is understood about. It sets up the idea that if a small plant on Earth could eat flies and bugs, why not have an alien plant eat human. Many other sci-fi horror films have seen something similar including The Thing from Another Planet, Little Shop of Horrors and to a better extent, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The other aspects of the film seem extremely ludicrous, such as a meteorite storm blinding the populace. It would have needed to take place for longer than just the night in London to truly be a global phenomenon, and somehow everyone that was not recovering from eye surgery, or in a submarine, or locked in prison was inflicted seem highly improbable. Ludicrous!
The Final Frontier
The Day of the Triffids has been a relatively popular property in England since it’s release. So much so that there was a 1981 six-episode mini-series re-adapting the original novel, without the lighthouse portions, and a two-part TV-movie made in 2009. The film does have a War of the Worlds-vibe, which Europeans may be drawn to, especially considering it’s one a few disaster/invasion films from the 50s and 60s that does not take place in America.
As far as modern viewings of the film go, it’s not that effective – either as a horror film or as a sci-fi film. The 2009 adaptation sounds like there is more at stake, with better special effects and a more streamlined plot. It does seem like a film that is necessary to watch, if only to understand films influenced by it that came later.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.