Monday, May 5, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: CONTAMINATION (1980)

(Italy/West Germany - 1980; US release 1981)

Directed by Lewis Coates (Luigi Cozzi). Written by Lewis Coates (Luigi Cozzi) and Erich Tomek. Cast: Ian McCulloch, Louise Marleau, Marino Mase, Siegfried Rauch, Gisela Hahn, Carlo De Mejo, Carlo Monni, Martin Sorrentino, Mike Morris, Brigitte Wagner. (Unrated, 95 mins/R-rated US theatrical version, 84 mins).

Given its box-office popularity and groundbreaking special effects, it couldn't have been much of a surprise when Ridley Scott's 1979 classic ALIEN spawned its own subgenre of B-grade ripoffs over the next few years.  And it's also no surprise that the Italians climbed aboard the bandwagon, even though the most prominent of the ALIEN imitations were from the US with the Roger Corman productions GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) and FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982), plus the non-Corman CREATURE (1985), and the UK, with  HORROR PLANET, aka INSEMINOID (1982) finding fans in drive-ins and on late-night cable.  The Italian exploitation scene inevitably got into the act, but they must've been too busy with zombie and cannibal films and getting prepped for the flood of post-nuke and barbarian ripoffs coming down the pike because they didn't contribute much to the post-ALIEN cash-in cycle other than two films from 1980:  Ciro Ippolito's misleadingly-titled ALIEN 2: ON EARTH and Luigi Cozzi's CONTAMINATION.  What differentiates the Italian ALIEN clones from their American and British counterparts is spelled out in the title of Ippolito's film:  they primarily took place on Earth instead of space, and they only used the Scott film as a starting point for stories that went into generally different directions.  ALIEN 2: ON EARTH, which came out on Blu-ray in 2011 as the first and last release of Midnight Legacy, was considered a long-lost Holy Grail of obscure Eurotrash, allegedly never given an official US release, though Cinema Shares acquired it and it's listed under the title STRANGERS in John Stanley's Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide, published in 1988, so it must've gotten some kind of exposure somewhere in America, either theatrically or perhaps on TV.  It's a mind-numbing bore with Belinda Mayne as a psychic spelunker that has some occasional bits of inspired splatter caused by some alien rocks but is killed by a plethora of padding, with endless tracking shots inside the caves, Mayne standing at a marina while a boat docks in real time, and Ippolito's bizarre idea of how Americans hang out...with its group of heroes (among them is future CEMETERY MAN director Michele Soavi) heading to the local bowling alley to share a big can of pineapple juice.  ALIEN 2: ON EARTH is worth seeing for Italian ripoff completists, but it's a chore to sit through.  Fortunately, the news is better with CONTAMINATION, which is no less idiotic but is filled with some genuinely lively splatter, so much so that it landed itself a spot on the infamous British "video nasties" list in the early '80s.

CONTAMINATION was directed by genre vet and Dario Argento associate Luigi Cozzi under his usual "Lewis Coates" pseudonym. Cozzi was coming off of his highly entertaining STAR WARS ripoff STARCRASH (1979) and would go on to make two HERCULES movies with Lou Ferrigno for Cannon, who acquired CONTAMINATION in the early days of the Golan-Globus empire, cut 11 minutes out of it, and retitled it ALIEN CONTAMINATION to make sure everyone knew it was ALIEN ripoff.  But Cozzi and co-writer Erich Tomek, who worked under a variety of pseudonyms and spent most of his career penning screenplays for German softcore porn films, are less interested in an alien of the H.R. Giger variety and more concerned with constantly replicating that film's unforgettable chestbursting moment.  In an opening remarkably similar to Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE (1979), a ship careens into New York Harbor, and police find the crew gruesomely slaughtered. Following one of the most awkward introductory handshakes you'll ever see, sarcastic NYPD Lt. Tony Aris (Marino Mase) and Dr. Turner (Carlo Monni) investigate the cargo hold and find countless crates of coffee filled with strange green, football-sized eggs. One of the eggs rolls under a pipe and, from the warmth, "ripens" and explodes, spraying a toxic goo all over Dr. Turner and an assistant, causing their torsos to explode.  Aris flees the scene and is detained by the military, led by brittle Col. Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau), who's from "Special Division #5," and prone to barking numerically-based orders like "Put emergency plan #7 into effect!" and "Call in the Special Section, Squad 2!" Military scientists determine that the eggs are filled with an alien bacteria, and then, almost as an afterthought, Holmes remembers she headed an inquiry into a disastrous space mission to Mars two years earlier where Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) claimed he and fellow astronaut Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch, Steve McQueen's racing nemesis in the 1971 vanity project LE MANS) found a cave filled with the same mysterious eggs, with Hamilton being drawn in by a strange power and never making it back home. Hubbard was written off as a delusional madman and is now a disheveled, self-pitying, alcoholic wreck when Holmes finds him and tells him he was right all along.  Hubbard joins Holmes and Aris, and they trace the ship to a Colombian coffee plantation where the presumed-dead Hamilton, taken over by an alien force known as "the Cyclops," is enacting a plan for the alien domination of Earth by spreading a chestbursting virus housed inside these Mars-based eggs that are to be distributed all over the planet.  Yes, that's right--the primary side effect of the alien bacteria is that it causes your chest and gut to explode: the perfect excuse to recreate ALIEN's signature move over and over and over again.

Of course, that was enough to make gorehounds happy, and the gleefully explosive splatter throughout CONTAMINATION is what's endeared it so much to Eurotrash fans over the years even though it really drags in the middle and almost turns Rauch's Hamilton into a Bond villain at times, right down to his Blofeld suit.  It also has an infectiously goofy main theme by "The Goblin" (when the band was led by Fabio Pignatelli and Agostino Marangolo and without Claudio Simonetti), which boasts a synth cue that sounds like Cozzi's hoping he doesn't land on the Whammy. CONTAMINATION was made during the period when British actor McCulloch found himself an unexpected witness to the Italian gore revolution:  he had just finished shooting both Fulci's ZOMBIE and Marino Girolami's ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, which would be infamously released in the US in 1982, with additional Roy Frumkes footage, as the legendary DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D.  All three films were banned in the UK as part of the Video Nasty controversy. McCulloch didn't make any more Italian horror films after CONTAMINATION, opting instead for regular work on British TV until the mid '90s, when he seemed to retire from acting.  Now 74, McCulloch appeared in the 2013 British horror spoof BEHIND THE SCENES OF TOTAL HELL, but in recent years, has found a following on the cult horror convention circuit, usually as part of Italian horror panels discussing the career of Lucio Fulci and the Video Nasty era.

CONTAMINATION found Cozzi in the prime of his filmmaking career.  He co-wrote Argento's 1972 giallo FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, had a hand in his four-part 1973 Italian TV series DOOR INTO DARKNESS, and directed his own giallo with 1975's impressive THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN. But it was the run from STARCRASH to 1983's HERCULES for which Cozzi is best remembered and there isn't much of note after 1985's hilariously bad THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES.  Cozzi was often called upon for uncredited clean-up duty to fix the messes left by fired directors.  In what must've been a purely money gig, he finished LA GEMELLA EROTICA, a 1980 hardcore porno started by BLUE MOVIE director Alberto Cavallone.  He was one of five (!) directors cycled through the notoriously troubled NOSFERATU IN VENICE, the barely-released 1988 semi-sequel to Werner Herzog's NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979).  Producer Augusto Caminito is the credited director and helmed most of the picture, but Cozzi, Mario Caiano, and Maurizio Lucidi were onboard at various times and were either fired or driven away by the unstable nature of volatile star Klaus Kinski, who even took his own turn behind the camera.  In 1986, Cozzi reunited with Lou Ferrigno and Cannon when he wrote and planned on directing SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS, which was intended to be a mini-series for Italian TV.  Cozzi was fired during pre-production and replaced by Enzo G. Castellari (THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS), who rewrote most of Cozzi's script. Castellari's footage was deemed unusable and Cannon shelved the entire project until 1989, when they rehired Cozzi and had him take the six hours of Castellari footage, shoot new wraparound sequences framing the plot as a thoroughly confusing bedtime story being read by a mom (Daria Nicolodi) to her daughter (Cozzi's daughter Giada) and edit it all down to a 90-minute feature. The result was understandably an incoherent hodgepodge and went straight-to-video in 1990, though Cozzi did manage to salvage John Steiner's gloriously hammy performance as evil wizard Jaffar from the wreckage.

Cozzi's career in narrative cinema has been on hold since two films he made in 1989:  THE BLACK CAT, an oddity marketed as a Poe movie but really Cozzi's unofficial attempt at completing Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy, following 1977's SUSPIRIA and 1980's INFERNO (Argento officially completed the trilogy himself with 2007's MOTHER OF TEARS), and the bizarre PAGANINI HORROR, about a possessed Paganini composition unleashing hell on an all-female rock band--whose hit singles sound suspiciously like ELO and Bon Jovi--shooting a video in an old dark manor.  Cozzi made two documentaries about Argento in the 1990s and since then, has managed Profondo Rosso, the Argento and Italian horror memorabilia store and horror-fan tourist destination in Rome, named after Argento's 1975 classic DEEP RED.  These days, the now-67-year-old Cozzi can usually be found behind the counter at the store, a museum curator of sorts, preserving the memory of the glory days of Italian horror and genre cinema.  Like his former star McCulloch, Cozzi is also a fixture at horror conventions and has taken part in several interviews for DVD releases of his films.  Never the visionary auteur that many of his contemporaries were, Cozzi was at least proactive enough to see the writing on the wall concerning the decline of Italian horror (and, it should be added, his own films), and got out early. Perhaps his mentor Argento would've been wise to follow his lead.

This 1981 Florida newspaper ad, archived by horrorpedia.com, strongly suggests that
Cannon was trying to attract fans of SCANNERS as well as ALIEN.

1 comment:

  1. You make me want to revisit this one, despite the fact that every time I do I remember how dull it gets LOL the Goblin score is great, but it actually is used to perhaps better effect in the even more ludicrous Bruno Mattei movie VIRUS (HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD). And I must thank you for linking to the two PAGANINI HORROR songs. That movie is a delicious slice of Italian cheese thanks in great part to those songs and the passionate lip-synching of Jasmine Main, the largest mouth in movies since Martha Raye.