Why are post-apocalyptic movies so popular and common, especially lately? The fact that we’re living in an era where economic collapse, climate change, and global war are all hovering over our heads like a great hammer poised to strike are certainly a contributing factor; but why, if things are so bad, do we choose to concentrate on something so much worse? The usual answer, and easy one, is that stories of apocalyptic happenings are cathartic and remind us that things could be so much worse; a sort of forced schadenfreude. Some insist that doomsday stories are a safe fantasy to escape into, imagining how you (an entirely unremarkable person) can imagine yourself as a Mad Max or Snake Plisskin figure whose full potential becomes unlocked once civilization crumbles. Others say it’s more simple than that: people dream of a life with fewer and more basic choices. Simple survival removes the burden of decision and reduces us to beasts with no worry beyond staying alive.
I acknowledge these reasons and admit that they’re all probably true but I think our love of end-of-the-world scenarios is a bit more than counting our blessings or letting our egos pat us on the back. Doomsday stories have a lot to say about humanity in general; who we are, what we’re like, what we’ll do when our back is against the wall. Sometimes they say good things, sometimes they say bad, but they all cause us to think about who we are and how we would react. It inspires more introspection than “what kind of badass neo-barbarian would I be?” It makes us wonder what sort of person we would be. What would we do? How would we react? Are we the heroic person charging bravely at the band of marauders to save the less able or the asshole who doesn’t tell anybody about his zombie bite?
With each installment of this bi-weekly column I want to look at one movie and see what it has to say and how well it says it. I have chosen dystopian stories as well as apocalyptic ones because there are a lot of movies that ride that line pretty closely, and also because a dystopia is nothing more than an apocalypse that hasn’t happened yet or that happened so long ago that everyone’s forgotten any lessons learned from it. To kick this thing off, I can’t think of a single title more appropriate than…
A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Don Johnson (Vic), Tim McEntire (Blood – Voice), Tiger (Blood – Dog), Susanne Benton (Quilla June Holmes)
Nuclear War and Civil Unrest
World War IV lasted for 5 days. The year is 2024. Vic, a teenager, and Blood, a telepathic dog, roam the wasteland of Phoenix, Arizona searching for food and women and just trying to survive. They have a perfectly symbiotic life, but an interloper from an underground society seeks to change that.
A Boy and His Dog isn’t the first post-apocalyptic movie by far, but it is probably the quintessential story of life after the fall of mankind. It inspired the The Road Warrior, it inspired Fallout, if there’s a story about survivors eking out an existence in an unforgiving post-apocalyptic wasteland it probably owes something to this movie and/or the story it was based on.
We fade in on a desert wasteland as Vic and Blood (or titular boy and dog) come upon a raider-pack (a group of wandering survivors) raping a woman in a buried house. Blood uses his radar-like senses to detect that the coast is clear and Vic goes inside to find a woman, naked and dying of several knife wounds, on a table. Vic shakes his head sadly and says “Ain’t that a shame.” After climbing topside Vic angrily exclaims “They didn’t have to cut her, she coulda been used two or three more times.” “Ah, war is hell.” replies Blood, the sarcasm in his statement going completely over Vic’s head. As they walk off, Blood tells a dirty limerick to tease Vic about his sexual frustration and a jaunty folksy theme song plays.
Vic and Blood wander around the wasteland looking for stashes of food and women to subsist on. Blood encourages Vic to go with him to a mythical paradise he calls “Over the Hill” where supposedly the world has healed itself enough that there is vegetation, farming, and clean water. Vic assures Blood that he’ll follow him as soon as the dog finds him a woman, but Blood refuses to search out a woman until he’s been fed. It’s down this fateful path that Blood introduces Vic to Quilla June Holmes.
Quilla June is from “The Downunder,” one of many large bunkers where civilization has hidden out since the bombs dropped. Vic attempts to rape her but gets distracted when a rover-pack with similar designs arrives. With Blood and Quilla’s help he fights them off, but a radioactive mutant known as a “screamer” happens on the trio and they are forced to hide out inside the old boiler of a gymnasium. It’s there that Quilla June seduces Vic and encourages him to come home with her much to Blood’s chagrin. Vic, being 15 years old (though Don Johnson is clearly older) and never having known that consensual sex between a man and a woman was even a thing, falls hard for Quilla and when she runs off he follows her to the entrance to The Downunder, leaving a wounded Blood topside to fend for himself.
A Boy and His Dog is an incredibly well-crafted masterpiece of a movie and it’s rich with detail. There’s the overt details like the movie theater the protagonists visit early in the movie (which shows a combination of pornography and exploitation films) or the surrealist Norman Rockwell nightmare that is the town of Topeka with its loudspeakers constantly blasting conformist slogans and dessert recipes, the citizens of Topeka dressed in pancake make-up, or the creepy smile forever plastered on the face of Michael the security android. Each time I watch this movie I notice something new, and every millimeter of celluloid is incredibly distressing and riotously funny.
Jones captures the feel of Ellison’s novella perfectly and manages to turn its lack of budget into a commodity. All the exterior shots are in the desert and all buildings are accessed by large craters in the ground which lead to their buried interiors, suggesting that the bombs kicked up so much dust as to bury all the infrastructure of Phoenix. A radioactive monster’s presence is advertised with a green glow and a horrible howling moan. There are visible fresh corpses laying around in almost every scene and our heroes don’t even seem to notice them. Everything is done in the cheapest way possible but the richness and craft of the details makes the world look and feel real.
Harlan Ellison has said that A Boy and His Dog was about how, after a decimating war (such as The War of the Roses), the main commodities become food, weapons, and women. Women are treated as property and men become animalistic savages fighting over every scrap of food, rusty knife, and woman in sight. The story is this concept writ large. Vic is probably, deep down, a good person but he’s grown up to a world that is the way it is. He’s a lone survivor having to make his own way, his only friend is a telepathic dog, and every human he meets is a potential enemy and an adversary. To Vic, a person’s only worth is in what they can do for him. A man is a potential source of bullets, clothing, and food, and a woman is a source of sex. Our protagonist, the person we are meant to root for and care about, is a rapist and that is established in the first five minutes of the movie.
Vic is not a nice person and it’s a testament to the writing that he can ever come across as likeable after the opening, but he does. It quickly becomes apparent that Vic is a product of his environment, it’s not that he’s inherently cruel, but cruelty is the coin of the realm and if he’s going to survive he has to conform. This movie has been called misogynistic since the day it was released but to say it is would be to imply that it has a more favorable view of men, which it clearly doesn’t. It’s a misanthropic story; nobody is good. Vic’s charm lies in his loyalty and frienship with Blood, shown in a few early scenes that are meant to endear the pair to us, but he’s as much of a scumbag as anybody else in the movie.
The morality of liking a character who is a confessed rapist is really the tip of the iceberg here. A lot of criticism about apparent misogyny is leveled at the film’s ending, particularly the closing line. Ellison himself has decried the final line and said it completely changes the tone of the ending. Now I can’t really talk about the controversy associated without talking about the ending, so if you haven’t seen this yet please do yourself a favor and go watch it before I continue.
Quilla June turns out to be a honey pot set by the Topeka city council to lure him down so he can be used to impregnate their women and add some variety to their gene pool. When Quilla June finds out that her daring deed won’t get her on the council she frees Vic in hopes that he will help her kill the council members and take over Topeka, but all Vic wants to do is go back to Blood and his old life. The two narrowly escape topside to find Blood starving and weak. Vic is dressed in hospital scrubs with no shoes, he’s out of bullets, and he has no food. He can’t go back to town because a warlord named Fellini has taken over and he’ll be killed if he even goes near. He has to leave, but he’ll never survive without Blood and Blood won’t survive unless he eats. Quilla June urges Vic that they have to leave Blood and move on if they’re going to survive. Vic looks deeply and sorrowfully into her eyes as the screen fades to black, the sound of sizzling is heard as we fade in on a camp fire with a roasting spit poised over it.
“You haven’t eaten a bite.” Says Blood.
“I’m not hungry” Vic says in monotone, a note of despair in his voice.
They walk away, Vic asking if Blood had enough to eat. He assures Vic he’s full but they may need to cook up the rest later.
“She told me she loved me.” he says, the same shell-shocked tone to his voice.
“Well I’d say she certainly had marvelous judgment if not particularly good taste.” replies Blood, dissolving to laughter as the movie freezes and the same jaunty theme song from the opening plays.
For what it’s worth, Ellison’s novella ends with this line: “She asked me if I knew what love was,”and I said, “Yeah, I know what love is, a boy loves his dog,” as I stated earlier, Vic’s only understanding of other living beings is their use to him. To him, love is a purely practical connection based on a tangible trade of goods or services. Blood is his best friend but he’d trade him off in a heartbeat if he couldn’t help him stay alive and the final moment is him deciding that Blood’s ability to detect people and shelter is more important than the companionship offered by Quilla June because he needs to stay alive.
I think that message still exists in the movie and while that final line is a bit too mean-spirited given the circumstances, I think the only real problem with it is that Vic laughs too. But it mirrors the opening where Blood told a dirty poem as they were walking away from a dying rape victim, so it seems to be a way that these two deal with the harsh reality of the world they live in. It’s a nice “and nothing was learned” down note to end the movie on and as Blood says at the beginning “You’re not a nice person, Vic. You’re not a nice person at all.”
Vic has an arc but at the end of the story he really just comes back around to where he was, the only difference is that he knows there’s something else and he knows the way he’s lived his life is, if not wrong in his eyes, at least not as enjoyable as it was before he knew love. He did love Quilla after a fashion even though she tricked him and he wasn’t pleased to have to kill her to keep Blood alive but he did it and he can’t dwell on it.
I do think some of the claims of misogyny are valid, but maybe are aimed at the wrong target. Does the movie show several varied examples of rampant misogyny? Yes. Does the movie treat this as a good thing? Many argue that the ending says “yes” to that question. Since Quilla June is an awful and manipulative person, some say she’s an archetype of the evil woman and her fate is portrayed as just desserts, thus confirmed by the apparent joviality of Vic and Blood shortly following her demise.
There have been some very good analyses of this movie. Quilla June, garbed in a wedding dress, telling Vic she loves him and that he needs to leave Blood behind only for him to end up killing her so he can go on more adventures with his buddy comes across as a very misogynistic “bros before hos” (or “mutts before sluts” as one charming IMDb message board poster put it) message and I agree that the symbolism can easily be inferred. But I don’t think that that is what’s implied. Vic’s story is largely about survival and I think it’s survival he’s thinking of when he makes his ultimate decision and he does seem deeply regretful of what’s happened. He tries to justify it but there’s no conviction to his voice when he says it. Also, if Quilla June’s death was meant to be cause for celebration, I think it would have been more graphically rendered to reflect this and not treated in the somber manner it is.
Quilla June was a despicable character but I think she’s no better or worse than any other character in the movie, there is a sympathetic side to her ruthlessness that mirrors Vic’s. Ultimately neither one ends up coming across as a good person. The ending of A Boy and His Dog is somewhat problematic but I think the insistence of men and women that the movie takes sides one way or the other is rather short-sighted. There is no morality in A Boy and His Dog, so the ending is no more or less amoral than anything which came before, the viewer is just lulled into believing there’s still good in this world when Vic falls in love; that’s why the ending is brilliant and that’s why this is such an amazing and resonant movie.
Whatever your thoughts on A Boy and a Dog’s gender politics, it’s still a wonderfully bleak and oddly funny trip through the wasteland with excellent acting, beautiful cinematography, and one of the best stories in the genre. It’s the perfect starting point for the weird, wonderful, trip on which we have just embarked.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. I repeat: KILLER COCKROACHES!”