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April 16, 2018

‘Where Have All the People Gone’ Leaves a Family Caught In a Quiet Apocalypse

“It was a Sunday in August. We didn’t know that two and a half hours later the world as we knew it would cease to exist.”

Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry is from 1974 and sees dogs driven mad, humans turned to dust, and Peter Graves wondering Where Have All the People Gone.

The Anders family is enjoying some bonding time while camping and spelunking in the Sierra mountains, but the good times can’t last. Barbara heads back to Malibu for work leaving behind her husband Steven (Graves), daughter Deborah (Kathleen Quinlan), and son David. The trio head into a nearby cave for some exploring fun, and while they’re in there a bright flash fills the sky. It’s followed by the earth shaking, and as the three rush out into the open air they discover something unnatural has occurred.

Other campers are sick and quickly die, but things grow stranger with each passing minute. Cars don’t seem to start, communications are down, and a recently deceased friend has just turned into powder. His clothes are still there, but his flesh and bones are now dust which understandably leads to even more panic. Worried about Barbara, the family manages to get a car running and begin their long drive back to the coast. The drive is short on answers, but it’s never dull as they cross paths with murderous canines, gun-toting survivors, a mute woman still reeling with shock, and ultimately a city nearly devoid of people.

Where Have All the People Gone may not be the first question that comes to mind when you hear the name Peter Graves, but it deserves to be up there near ones involving whether or not you’ve ever been in a Turkish prison. It moves quickly into its post-apocalyptic scenario and then slowly reveals each new detail regarding the Anders family’s new reality. Their goal becomes two-fold — find their mom, and figure out what the hell’s happening. Good luck Anders family.

Spoiler… life is disappointment, especially after something eradicates 99% of the human life on earth. Movies these days too often go overboard in explaining themselves for fear that an audience might walk away unhappy with the lack of answers, but this softly tragic TV gem isn’t interested in comforting or placating viewers. It tosses its characters into hell and forces them to step up if they want to survive, and it does so with a side of Brady Bunch-like lessons on morality and the treatment of others during an unexplained post-apocalyptic situation. (That by the way would make for one hell of a Brady Bunch episode.)

Where Have All The People Gone

Director John Llewellyn Moxey‘s probably best known for 1960’s Horror Hotel with Christopher Lee, but the majority of his 100+ directing credits are on television efforts ranging from series like The Saint and Murder She Wrote to TV movies like The House That Would Not Die (1970) and Home for the Holidays (1972). Needless to say, this won’t be Moxey’s last appearance in this column. He’s far from a flashy filmmaker and instead succeeds in conveying story and emotion through competently crafted, efficiently directed scenes. Don’t take that as a dig either, as not every filmmaker needs to be an auteur. (Jesus, can you imagine?)

The script is similarly unassuming, but writers Lewis John Carlino (Seconds, The Mechanic) and Sandor Stern (The Amityville Horror, Pin) manage a lot with very little. ABC Movie of the Week budgets were never bountiful meaning excessive special effects and action-oriented set-pieces so these kinds of genre hybrids were often forced to be more reliant on less expensive arts. That includes a script that doles out information and clues in a piecemeal fashion offering enough to fuel the curiosity of characters and viewers alike. It succeeds here as we’re pulled along through clues and the survivors’ efforts to keep on surviving.

The characters move through all manner of expected emotion from whiny bouts of fear to whiny bouts of anger, but they know enough to return to reality after each outburst. Every time you think someone’s being obnoxious you realize instead that they’re just being human. And not for nothing, but the film makes a strong case for education in the fields of science and mechanics. The ones who survive are the ones with not only the will to survive but the knowledge and ability too.

Where Have All the People Gone is simple in some ways and a bit denser in others, and the end result is a satisfying dramatic thriller that answers its initial question with the blowing of the wind while leaving the more important ones unanswered. Why have all the people gone? And have you ever seen a grown man naked?

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