The Survivor (1981) poster

The Survivor (1981)


Australia. 1981.


Director – David Hemmings, Screenplay – David Ambrose, Based on the Novel by James Herbert, Producer – Antony I. Ginnane, Photography – John Seale, Music – Brian May, Special Effects – Chris Murray, Production Design – Bernard Hides. Production Company – Tuesday Films/Pact Productions.


Robert Powell (David Keller), Jenny Agutter (Hobbs), Ralph Cotterill (Slater), Joseph Cotten (Priest), Peter Sumner (Harry Tewson)


Airline pilot David Keller walks away, the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed everybody else aboard. He is unable to remember what happened. Soon though, he and the people around him are haunted by mysterious happenings.

James Herbert (1943-2013) was a British horror writer of dubious literary capability. What Herbert does have is an enormous ability when it comes to the depiction of graphic dismemberment. His stories are worth reading not for their plots, which are only routine variations on classic horror themes but for their alternately interspersed chapters, each delving into the unbelievably sordid life of a victim who at the end of the chapter becomes mutilated by the resident menace. James Herbert’s books include the likes of The Rats (1974), The Fog (1975), The Spear (1978), The Dark (1980), Moon (1985) and Sepulchre (1987). Later Herbert novels, which dump these characterisations, lack the searingly sadistic savagery of his earlier works.

This Australian-made adaption of James Herbert’s The Survivor (1977) is a huge disappointment. Directed by actor David Hemmings, probably best known for Blow Up (1966), this naturally dumps the alternately interspersed chapters and comes out disgracefully tame. It could have been made to work but David Hemmings’s attempts to build atmosphere are tediously drawn out. The payoffs frequently verge on the ludicrous – like the scene where Jenny Agutter is possessed or the woeful attempt to make a batch of photos in a developing vat seem threatening.

All that is left of the book is a twist ending – see below – that a show like The Twilight Zone (1959-63) would have gotten over in a third of the time. Robert Powell gives a typically lofty and impenetrable performance. When asked what he had thought about the film in an interview, James Herbert confessed that it had made him fall asleep.

Robert Powell  and Jenny Agutter in The Survivor (1981)
Robert Powell as pilot David Keller, haunted following an airline crash, and psychic Jenny Agutter

The Survivor is [PLOT SPOILERS] a rehash of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1891), which was filmed as An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962). In the story, a man is hung but the noose breaks, allowing him to escape whereupon he runs home to his wife, only for his neck to snap just as he arrives and everything is revealed as an hallucination that occurs in the last seconds before his death.

This dead-and-not-realizing-it twist ending has played out in a number of other films to the point that it has become a cliche with the likes of Carnival of Souls (1962), Haunts of the Very Rich (1972), Seizure/Queen of Evil (1974), Siesta (1987), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Final Approach (1991), A Pure Formality (1994), The Others (2001), Soul Survivors (2001), The Brown Bunny (2003), Dead End (2003), I Pass for Human (2004), Hidden (2005), Reeker (2005), Stay (2005), The Escapist (2008), Passengers (2008), The Haunting of Winchester House (2009), Someone’s Knocking at the Door (2009), The Last Seven (2010), Wound (2010), Jack the Reaper (2011), A Fish (2012), Leones (2012), The Abandoned/The Confines (2015), Shadow People (2016), Alone (2017) and most famously in The Sixth Sense (1999). Among these, The Survivor also appears to have started a mini-theme of airline crash survivors walking away and not realising they are dead as can also be seen in Sole Survivor (1983), Passengers (2008) and 7500 (2014).

The Survivor is discussed in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008).

Other James Herbert screen adaptations are:– Deadly Eyes (1982), adapted from The Rats; Fluke (1995) about a man reincarnated as a dog; the ghost story Haunted (1995); the ghost story tv mini-series The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012); and The Unholy (2021) about a sinister miracle-healing girl.

Trailer here

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