Chosen Survivors provides one of the earliest examples I’ve found of a “heroic death” by a black character in a horror movie. The phenomenon of black heroic death has served a purpose similar to that of the black “authority figure”: it’s a way for mainstream films to present more positive images of black people without really committing a great amount of screen time or character depth.
In the case of Chosen Survivors, the heroic death comes courtesy of Lincoln Kilpatrick, who plays Wood Russo, a former Olympian who’s one of a group of 10 people rounded up and helicoptered to an underground bunker in New Mexico by the US government as part of a plan to ensure continuation of the human race in the event of a nuclear holocaust…which apparently is now. Unfortunately for them, the bunker happens to reside next to a colony of killer vampire bats who begin to invade the facility.
But back to Wood. A video presentation informs the group they were chosen because of their “special knowledge,” in addition to “sex, age and physical superiority.” The only athlete of the bunch (you know this because he conveniently comes dressed in a USA jogging suit), Wood presumably was selected because of the latter, since race apparently wasn’t a consideration (sorry, Asians). And the others, after all, consist of a behavioral scientist, a medical researcher, an oceanographer, a novelist, a Congresswoman, an ecologist, a biologist, a nutritionist and a millionaire businessman — the latter of whom not so subtly declares Wood’s role is to be a “stud.”
Perhaps it’s a sense of obligation on Wood’s part that leads him to declare — once the bat problem has gotten out of hand — that he can climb up the 1,700-foot elevator shaft to set off an emergency alarm when no one else is willing to volunteer (Spoiler alert: it turns out there is no apocalypse, and there are people who can come save them.).
His stated motivation, however, is somewhat less altruistic: he craves the sort of glory he experienced winning a gold medal — presumably not in any sport resembling climbing elevator shafts with a rope and grappling hook. Plus, millionaire and resident dick Couzins (Jackie Cooper) offers him $100,000 if he goes through with it. Of course, he does, and of course, he dies, but not before setting off the alarm that triggers the survivors’ rescue.
Did I mention there’s a black woman in the group too? If I didn’t, it’s because that’s reflective of the amount of attention she receives in the film. Carrie (Gwenn Mitchell) is an “ecology expert” whose primarily purpose is to worry about Wood (Never mind that they’ve known each other for only five days.).
She has even less dialogue than he does — which is saying something, because he only really gets one scene to express anything resembling human emotion — which is typical of these sort of stiff, obligatory, “positive” black Hollywood roles. Anyway, Carrie is such an afterthought as a character that when the bats stage their final attack, she doesn’t even get a proper death scene; the camera just shows her body as part of the aftermath.
As thin and expendable as the black characterizations are, though, the female ones are downright offensive. Watching Chosen Survivors is like stepping into a time machine back to what Donald Trump would deem the “good ol’ days,” with gender roles as outdated as the computer panels with pointless blinking lights and the declaration that “The gymnasium is equipped with everything from jump ropes to vibrator belts.”
Carrie’s apparent role of worrywart for the heroic man is just the tip of the iceberg. ALL of the women in the film take turns crying, screaming (Christine has to be slapped to stop her hysterics when she’s told of the nuclear holocaust.) and plain old useless inaction. In one telling scene, one woman discovers a body and just stands there screaming like a maniac, while another walks in and simply faints.
By far the worst, however, comes from seemingly the most level-headed female character, Dr. Lenore Chrisman (Barbara Babcock), who fends off Couzins’ drunken advances one night (or day; who knows in this place?), but when he throws her down and tries to rape her, she gives up after a few minutes of struggling and exclaims, “Alright!” She even starts KISSING HIM. So, no means no…until it means yes??? And the scene just ends, with no further mention of or fallout from the assault.
Couzins is definitely the villain in Chosen Survivors, but it’s treated like this is just another one of his bad personality traits: he’s bossy, opinionated, elitist…and has a tendency to rape. But hey, that’s just Couzins being Couzins! What a meanie, right?
And to top it off, HE of all people manages to survive.
Despite all of its flaws, there’s enough potential in this mix of horror, sci fi and disaster movie to be worthy of a remake — with better pacing, upgraded special effects and of course, less racial marginalization, rape and hyper-misogyny.