Thirty years of horror: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Tom: Depending on how much of a zombie purist you are, you can make the case that Invasion of the Body Snatcher is not really a zombie movie. But it belongs in the discussion. You can see the lines of continuity and the cross-pollination. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956 was an allegory about communism, very much in keeping with Who Goes There, which would turn into The Thing (the John Carpenter one, not so much the James Arness as a giant carrot one). The original Invasion is creepy, but entirely clean and antiseptic. Plus, we prevail, as we were wont to do in the 50s. But the idea is that the people we know and love have been taken over. They’re still themselves, but different, and ultimately hostile to our way of life.

Then along comes Last Man on Earth (based on a 1954 book), which has your friends and neighbors coming out at night and trying to break into your house en masse, but with a certain amount of lethargy, as if they know they’ll get in eventually and there’s really no hurry. They were called “vampires” in that movie, and they would call out to you by name, asking you to come outside. Vincent Price would venture out by day to hunt them. The scenes of night falling and the zombies — err, I mean, vampires — surrounding the barricaded house will look instantly familiar. Four years later, with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, George Romero will basically codify zombies as we know them. They’ll be slow and lethargic, in no particularly hurry, but they won’t talk.

After the jump, the next shambling step.

But in this 1978 movie, there are a few very zombie things at work. The idea of the people you know being swallowed up by the mindless mob out to get you. That’s a central tenet of zombie fiction. As is the idea of betrayal by a loved one. In Night of the Living Dead, Barbara is pulled into the mob by her brother. The mother, Helen, is stabbed to death by her own daughter. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is ultimately about who you can and can’t trust. Someone who loves you will be taken over, and he or she will betray you. And they won’t have to be slow and shuffling. They’re just devoid of emotion. But they can still run. And they will as soon as they’re on to you.

Chris: Good call on the zombies, Tom. During the glorious callback scene with Kevin McCarthy being chased down the street in the 1978 film, it absolutely made me think of living dead fiction. Yes, there’s a chase in the 1956 movie, too, but in that one everyone looks like extras trying to run from one mark on the set to another. They’re more interested in act of running than catching the people they’re chasing. That’s why that particular scene (and boy does Kaufman set that up beautifully, with Adams and the camera paying special attention to all the pedestrians and commuters) is so good in the ’78 version. Those folks look like they’re going to tear Dr. Bennell apart when they catch him.

It’s interesting to me that the 1956 movie is considered the one with the upbeat ending, too. I suppose by conventional means it is. The good guys appear to be winning in the end. However, I couldn’t help but give an involuntary shiver when McCarthy looks full on into the camera and screams “They’re here already! YOU’RE NEXT!” How many 1950’s audiences walked out of the theater feeling as if the film’s protagonist had fully justified anti-communist xenophobia as a virtue?

Tom: The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t address what happens to your body when your pod person version is born. But it’s a big part of the remake, from the beginning, starting with a curious scene in which Brooke Adams’ husband rushes out of the house to dump a whole mess of grey lint into a garbage truck. Later, this is explicitly developed into the idea that a loved one turns into dust before your very eyes. That’s a metaphor for death if I ever saw one, complete with a freaky special effects sequence, and it explains the weird dry-skin make-up you see earlier in the movie. You can make an argument that the usual slow shuffling inevitable mass of zombies is a metaphor for the inevitability of death. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s equated with sleep.

It’s cool to see how Philip Kaufman’s Invasion goes into so much detail about the “ecology” of the invasion. The process of growing a clone and the transference of consciousness is explicit here. The pods are gross analogs to birth, with their own gross special effects sequences. We can infer how consciousness is transferred in the scene where the Jeff Goldblum pod person opens its eyes. But the moment the real Jeff Goldblum is awakened and opens his eyes, the pod version shuts its eyes, as if the transfer was interrupted. The first movie was allegory that didn’t fuss much about the details, but this movie is more rules based (a year later, in 1979, Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon will introduce one of the most enduring rules-based alien ecologies we’ve ever known).

The 1978 Invasion is also much more graphic that the original. It’s very post-Night of the Living Dead with its occasional super gory scenes, including a gardening hoe to the brain. This was the same year that Romero’s Dawn of the Dead really connected zombie lore and skull gore. You can’t help but watch Sutherland wield his hoe without thinking of the years of headshots to come. I must have head-shotted a couple thousand zombies this year alone.

There’s a funny scene when the police and city folks are coming to get our heroes. Jeff Goldblum drags a bookshelf in front of the door and asks Donald Sutherland, “Do you have a gun?” We are a split second from getting a zombies vs. barricade scenario! But this being San Francisco (gay hippy liberal peaceniks!), of course Donald Sutherland doesn’t have a gun. So they flee.

Chris: When the husband takes the trash out for the first time, it didn’t even occur to me what I was looking at in the back of the garbage truck. It started to register later, the second time we see a trash truck filled with husks after Elizabeth sees them again from following her replacement husband around. I’ll admit I was kind of stoked to see that Phil Kaufman was going to address one of my biggest peeves from the first film.

I also think it’s interesting the way he handles the way she realizes her husband is not what he seems. This could have fallen completely flat, honestly. It could’ve made us laugh by inadvertently playing as a TV chestnut. (Indeed, “Pods in the basement?” became something of a well-worn meme for 1980s sitcoms.) It’s much to his credit, Kaufman’s camera induces a sense of dread there.

Tom: One of the ways this Invasion of the Body Snatchers stands out is the location. These “alien invasion” and “creepy townsfolk” stories normally take place in small towns. I imagine this is often because it’s more manageable to shoot a movie that way, with a relatively small cast and tightly contained location. But this Invasion did a great job of bringing San Francisco into the fold and giving it a prominent role in the movie. Kaufman makes a familiar city look ominous. Jane Campion did something similar for New York in a movie called In the Cut. It’s not an alien invasion movie, but it is a movie about alienation, with the city being one of the antagonists.

There’s even a touch of an end-of-the-world apocalypse tone here. There aren’t many scenes of Donald Sutherland going back to work after everyone has been changed. But they have that lonely desolate feel of a post-apocalypse movie. Last man on earth! Of course, it’s a bit of a trick, but it’s really haunting seeing him clipping articles from the newspaper as he did at the beginning of the movie.

Chris: I’ve already mentioned the paranoid way the camera takes us into Elizabeth’s state of mind leading up to them being assailed by doomed Dr. Bennell, so I totally agree on how interesting and exciting it is that the 1978 version happens in a big city. Even more than that, I love how much in love this movie is with San Francisco. Scenes like the one where Donald Sutherland is talking on the phone and we’re shown the huge dome of the capitol building in the background are breathtaking. Combine that with the lingering, longing looks at vegetation so prevalent in the film and I couldn’t help but think a bit of Malick. Kaufman made many interesting, beautifully shot films after this. His DP on Invasion, Michael Chapman, also did urban well in Taxi Driver. Split the credit.

I mentioned the scene in the car, but that’s just one of many that ratchets up the tension. It feels like the paranoia builds up in almost every scene by the weird way Kaufman throws in random shots of strangers. The guy that Elizabeth bumps in the hallway, for example. More famously, kudos to the director for realizing that in a post-Omen world, priests could be vaguely creepy if shot a certain way, and could be incredibly creepy if dressed in a full cassock. I had to double check IMDB to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me on that cameo. Kaufman seems to realize early on that the best asset to make this movie work is to escalate the audience’s unease. Even connecting shots are important.

Tom: That cameo really is a great WTF? moment, even for how it’s shot. And I love casts in the 70s. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams are so weird (the freakiest scene in the movie is the flirty exchange where Adams does her “crazy eyes”!), but also so engaging, and the movie takes its time letting them build their relationship. Which makes the pod person Brooke Adams’ naked stalking at the end of the movie all the more effective. Also, I’m really sweet on Veronica Cartwright. Come on, am I the only guy who thinks she’s really sexy? The guys on the Qt3 movie podcast make fun of me for comparing Portia Doubleday (from Youth in Revolt and the Carrie remake) to Veronica Cartwright, but I stand by that (proof here). Even though her character is supposed to be the loopy and slightly hysterical one, Cartwright is beautiful in this movie. They really butched her up in Alien, although no one comes across as particularly attractive in that movie.

Chris: I kept trying to figure out what else I’d seen Veronica Cartwright in and not just Alien. She definitely has that “hot actress who’s maybe just not quite so conventionally pretty that she might be a little insecure and so maybe there’s a chance” thing going on.

My favorite cast bit here (and I agree, the cast is tremendous) happens when Sutherland is trying — unsuccessfully — to lodge an eyewitness report on the phone and Jeff Goldblum continues to talk over him. This has to be one of the latter’s first major roles, right? Knowing his career, it’s probably just as likely he’s playing Jeff Goldblum, but for the purpose required I found him fresh and interesting. Weakest part of the entire cast, he said, preparing to turn in his nerd cred: Leonard Nimoy. Nothing about Dr. Kibner worked for me.

Tom: A quick shout out to Invasion of the Body Snatcher’s horrible music. It sounds like something you’d hear on a crappy TV show from the 70s. Good lord. What a splash of cold water on the movie’s otherwise dark creepy tone. Finally, you remember that creepy alien scream sound effect? Pretty iconic, huh? So is it any surprise that the movie’s sound design is by none of than Ben Burtt, of Star Wars and Wall-E fame?

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)

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