“Dog eat dog” is an odd expression. Dogs generally don’t eat each other. The phrase is really a euphemism for the way humans will exploit and kill (and sometimes eat) each other. Accusing the dogs is more socially acceptable, but the phrase is more about our own predilection for devouring our own kind to satiate our various hungers, particularly in times of societal collapse.
This cannibalism blog has reviewed a number of post-apocalyptic films, the best known being Soylent Green, Delicatessen, The Bad Batch, Snowpiercer, 28 Days Later and The Road. Lesser known films include No Blade of Grass, We Are The Flesh, Cadaver, The Girl With All The Gifts, Tear Me Apart and of course several versions of the H.G. Wells classic, The Time Machine.
Clearly, we love bad things happening, preferably well into the future (800,000 years in The Time Machine), and to other people. It’s Greek tragedy but set in our future, warning us of the inevitable unwinding of society and, as we have found, often the eating of the most vulnerable. In most such movies, food is the obsession of both the protagonist and the various antagonists that must be overcome.
The protagonist of such movies is almost always male, and males, in most cultures, are conditioned to eat meat. If humans are the only meat available, that will often do just fine. Other appetites appear occasionally (there was a controversial rape scene in No Blade of Grass), but Freud’s insistence on the primacy of the sexual urges is put on the backburner (sorry) when it comes to eating.
Not this one though. The film is a post-apocalyptic black comedy (we see mushroom clouds at the start, and are told that World War 4 (in 2007) lasted five days – enough time to empty the missile silos). This film is set in 2024 (well, Soylent Green was set in 2022, so now seems like a good decade for disasters). The humans who survive work together in “rover packs” or else hunt alone as “solos”. There is an implication that the rover packs are happy to engage in a bit of cannibalism, as we see a small child carried, struggling, into a campsite.
The main character is a solo – his name is Vic, and he is played by Don Johnson, who a decade later would become a huge star and win a Golden Globe for his role in Miami Vice.
Did I say main character? Arguably, the star of this film is Blood, a shaggy dog.
Blood is smarter, better informed, has an advanced sense of humour and irony (he calls Vic “Albert”, after the rather more conventional dog stories of Albert Payson Terhune), has a superb sense of smell, and can converse telepathically with Vic. But the genetic modification that allowed this telepathy (designed for war of course) also removed his ability to hunt for food. So, Vic and Blood are symbiotes – Vic hunts for food, while Blood smells out women for the sexually voracious appetite of Vic.
In this ultimate extension of what Barbara Creed calls “aggressive phallicity”, the frontier of the rugged individual, the gun is king and women are purely there as rape targets. In the opening scene, Blood finds a woman, but a rover pack has arrived first, and they have knifed her after they have had their fun. Vic’s anger is purely selfish – that she could have been used a few more times. Blood mocks him “you’re so funny when you’re sexually frustrated.”
Later, Blood discovers a woman, Quilla (Susanne Benton) in disguise at the movies (there is one rover pack that exists as a sort of neutral space, putting on movies, running a brothel and selling popcorn). They put on old movies and cheesecake for lonely solos to beat off to. They watch Fistfull of Rawhide (it’s a real movie, from 1969) as Vic waits for the girl to leave and head someplace isolated where he can accost her.
They follow her to a deserted gymnasium, where she is getting changed from her male disguise, and he is enchanted by her youth, beauty and cleanliness.
Quilla comes from a different world, the “Downunder”, a series of underground cities where traditional American values rule – raised hats, marching bands, picket fences, apple pies, civility). Everyone is made up in white-face – everyone is Middle America is white, and seem to need confirmation. Quilla, it turns out, was “the cheese” – she came to the surface to tempt Vic, like Eve tempted Adam, so he would enter the underground world, and bring his sperm with him.
Yes, the solid citizens of the symbolic order or language and laws have become sterile. But Blood, she says, wouldn’t fit in there. Trouble in paradise. Blood, badly wounded defending Vic, who had refused to leave Quilla to a rover pack, waits at the portal as Vic descends like Orpheus in search of Quilla. They want Vic’s sperm, because being underground has made their men sterile, but it’s not going to be the orgiastic event Vic imagines – they strap him down and connect his member to an electro-ejaculation machine, just as modern agriculture does to prize-winning bulls and rams. Such a device is normally inserted into the rectum and positioned against the prostate, and an electric charge causes involuntary ejaculation. To the townsfolk, Vic is an animal to be milked of sperm and then killed when they are done with him.
The film is available on YouTube (at the time of writing) so I won’t give too many spoilers. It’s well acted, the dog is delightful, the plot is pretty faithful to the novella of the same name, which came from the brilliant mind of Harlan Ellison. Ellison published the story is a collection called The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World, in the introduction to which he objected to the term “new wave science fiction”, and cast bitter scorn on the “clots” who called his work “sci-fi”. Ellison was known for his brilliant writing but also his outspoken, combative personality; the Los Angeles Times described him as “the 20th-century Lewis Carroll” while Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, called him “the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water”. The story’s concept remains original and the narrative sparkling, even half a century after the book and film were made.
The genius of this story, captured in the film, is the deconstruction of some of the most basic assumptions of our (pre-world war IV) societies. One, Derrida tells us, is common to all philosophers up to now – that we look at animals, but assume they do not look back. It is the basis of anthropocentrism (human supremacism) to assume that only humans are aware, are subjects who think and observe. But in this film Vic is the dumb animal that only knows how to fight and fornicate, while the “rational animal” who keeps him alive, teaches him and cares for him, is Blood, the dog.
Then there is the myth of the hero, the man of action – men like Vic seem to be a dying breed. Vic is only interested in “getting laid” – and believes that is only possible through violent rape. But Quilla is smarter than Vic, manipulative and calculating, as well as having a stronger libido – “I’m the one who’s supposed to want it” he complains. Socially too the dominant male is an anachronism. Above ground, the solos are being recruited into rover packs or killed, while below ground, the patriarchal symbolic order that is trying to recreate America of the 1950s is dying out – the males infertile.
Finally, I need to address the question of cannibalism, because, hey, this is a cannibalism blog. There is an implication in the film that the rover packs are kidnapping children from other packs for dinner (we all know that babies taste best). That’s what happens after an apocalypse – check out the gangs in The Road. But there is an implication that the society below ground also eats meat, and the only animals we see are humans, plus one small white dog. Those who disobey “The Committee”, a triumvirate who rule the place, are sent to “the farm”, to be killed and perhaps eaten. That’s what farms do – provide food.
And what about Blood and the other dogs – dogs are scavengers, but they usually prefer meat. While Vic collects pre-war cans of food, and Blood is very pleased to eat popcorn at the movies, there are certainly a lot of bodies lying around. But we see no evidence of anyone, human or canine, eating (adult) humans, until, like most apocalypse movies, there is no choice.
Or rather there is a choice – sex or love.
There is a popular ethical question about whom you would save from a burning building – a human stranger, or your dog? I suspect most people who have dogs would feel required to answer “the human”, but sotto voce would answer “my dog of course”. When Vic emerges from the Downunder with Quilla, he finds Blood badly injured and starving. Quilla tells Vic she loves him, tells him to leave the dog and go live with her. There’s lust, and there’s love. What will a boy do for his dog?