A couple of astronauts return to Earth only to find they’ve missed the apocalypse. Wandering the ruins of L.A., they encounter mutant-zombie things, a kindly museum curator, hot hippie chicks, a wee boy, radioactive storms and a crazed gang of murderous rapists. Along the way, they somehow knock up a handy laser cannon out of spare parts.
Seemingly a vanity project by Steve Barkett (star, writer, director, producer, film editor), Aftermath is also a family affair, with several additional Barketts credited. A low budget indie production, it’s nothing if not ambitious. Shot when affordable digital technology was still decades off, here the film stock, impressive designs and use of glass/matte-painting add up to a visually more pleasing confection than the kind of thing regularly offered up today by the likes of the SyFy channel for the DTV/VOD markets.
Another plus point is the enthusiastic stunt work, firmly rooted in the school of “why walk when you can do a forward roll?”. In this age of gym-bred bodybuilding protagonists, Barkett himself is perhaps a little unimposing, more like Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation than any other of today’s pop culture he-men. He nonetheless proves capable in action scenes and appears to be doing most of his own stunts, leaving pretty much no element of any set or location unclimbed or un-jumped over by the end titles. In one scene he is skipping between buildings at a fair old height just because, well, why not? There’s a hint of the spirit of the silent movie era about it all, with stars risking life and limb for The Shot.
Aftermath (also known, misleadingly, as Zombie Aftermath) draws liberally from the post-apocalyptic, dystopian sci-fi movies of the ’70s. As it was reportedly shot in 1978, Aftermath actually predates the release of Mad Max but there are certainly echoes of Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, The Omega Man, A Boy and His Dog and Damnation Alley. In the end, the vibe is actually more like an extended and unusually violent episode of The Twilight Zone. That helps to lift the whole project, along with an orchestral score that sounds like it could have come straight from an old Flash Gordon serial and some canny B-movie casting. Roger Corman veteran Dick Miller lends his voice as a broadcaster, while legendary science fiction superfan, B-actor and originator of the term “sci-fi” Forrest J. Ackerman is onboard as the museum curator. Perennial TV heavy-of-the-week Sid Haig, who would go on to B-movie immortality as Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects, makes a great OTT villain.
This is exactly the kind of movie I want to stumble across. I’d never heard of it when I saw a copy of the original UK VHS on eBay. It was the box art that initially drew me in, spread out across the insert like a gatefold album, highlighting the film’s matte painting design. Sure, the film itself displays many of the flaws you’d expect from a low-budget sci-fi/horror release – stilted dialogue, acting performances that vary wildly in quality, awkward pacing, sound issues, unintended humour. All present and correct. It’s got something, though.
What I appreciate most about low budget independent filmmaking is the way that creative solutions are needed to realise creative ideas, something largely absent from a franchise-focussed modern mainstream industry built around tent-pole releases, where exploding spaceships and collapsing skyscrapers are an expensively rubber-stamped keystroke away. The enthusiasm, commitment and sheer determination that must have been involved in Aftermath‘s production shine through. I used the term “vanity project” earlier, but I suspect “passion project” would be closer to the mark.