Producer Dino De Laurentiis assembled an all-star cast and gathered a colossal budget for his 1976 remake of King Kong. Once again a story about a giant ape transported to New York and running amok, the 1976 King Kong overcame its production difficulties – including a malfunctioning 40ft tall mechanical ape designed by Carlo Rambaldi – and became a sizeable hit.
A decade later, De Laurentiis decided that it was finally time to make a sequel to King Kong, and brought back director John Guillermin (not to mention a much smaller budget of $10m) to make King Kong Lives. Unfortunately, by the middle of the 80s, nobody seemed to be particularly keen on seeing another giant ape movie – especially one full of countryside romance – and it was a financial misfire, ultimately making back less than half of its original investment in American cinemas.
Later nominated for a Golden Raspberry for its visual effects, King Kong Lives was also scornfully treated by critics; the LA Times’ Janet Maslin wrote that it “has a dull cast and a plot that’s even duller,” while Roger Ebert stated that, “Even the lowliest extras in a 1950s B-picture would have been able to scream better and roll their eyes more than the actors in this film.”
With a reputation like that behind it, you’d expect King Kong Lives to provide lots of goofily entertaining fun – so here’s a look at the 10 remarkable things we’ve discovered in this unique giant monster romance movie.
1. King Kong survived his fall from a 1,368 foot skyscraper
Just to get us up to speed, King Kong Lives begins with the events of the 1976 film. Having been cornered by the military at the top of the World Trade Centre, angry giant ape Kong gently places his human love interest Dwan (Jessica Lange) down on the roof, and prepares to face the buzzing helicopters for one last growl. The pilots open fire, and a mortally wounded Kong falls several hundred feet to the streets below, where he dramatically breathes his last.
Except, King Kong Lives tells us, he didn’t really die at all. Instead, Kong was carted off to the Atlanta Institute in Georgia, where he’s been kept in a coma for the past decade by Dr Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton). She plans to give the creature an artificial heart once she’s found a suitable donor to provide a blood transfusion – the problem being that giant apes are in short supply in America’s southeast. “Only one thing can save Kong now,” Franklin says gloomily. “A miracle.”
2. There’s a Mrs Kong
Fortunately, dashing explorer Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) stumbles on a colossal giant ape in the jungles of Borneo, and as he excitedly puts it, “It ain’t a him! It’s a her… and a damn good looking one, too!”
Mitchell calls the creature Lady Kong, and calls up the Atlanta Institute about his discovery. The assorted scientists there are quite excited about the find, particularly as her blood could be used to save Mr Kong. But Dr Franklin sounds a note of caution: the presence of a female giant ape might be too much excitement for the frail Mr Kong to bear.
“We’re not lancing a haemorrhoid here,” Franklin points out. “We’re replacing a heart.”
Franklin’s colleagues, no doubt grimacing inwardly at Franklin’s allusion, promptly ignore her and have Lady Kong flown in on the next transatlantic flight.
3. Kong’s fitted with a colossal artificial heart
Brushing away the media circus which greets Lady Kong as she arrives at a Georgia airport, she’s ushered by Mitchell and a crowd of army types to the Atlanta Institute, where King Kong awaits his life-saving operation.
In one of the more bizarre scenes in monster movie history, Dr Franklin and an army of other surgeons don their gowns and gloves, and get to work with an array of enormous tools – giant surgical scissors, the kind of circular saw you might use to cut an ocean-going liner in half – to start the process of replacing Kong’s heart.
Kong’s broken ticker, looking like a massive gory haggis, is lifted out with a huge mechanical arm, before a mechanical heart, which looks like one of those white pods from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is dropped in as a replacement.
King Kong Lives may have been nominated for a Visual Effects Razzie, but these early scenes are quite good looking. The notion of giving a giant monster an artificial heart may be a goofy one, but director John Guillermin and everyone else involved treats the scenario with a straight face, too, like an outsized episode of ER.
Despite a tense moment where some clumsy oaf nearly drops the mechanical heart directly into Kong’s bleeding chest cavity, the operation is pronounced a success. Outside, a crowd of Kong fans has gathered in their novelty hats and T-shirts, and a news anchor, in a line worthy of Alan Partridge, announces that “Kong mania has arrived! Everyone’s gone bananas!”
4. Mr and Mrs Kong escape to the country
While Kong’s recuperating after his operation, possibly with a skip full of grapes sitting next to his hospital bed, Lady Kong’s languishing in an aircraft hangar approximately one mile away, described by one character as “the world’s biggest ladies’ dressing room.”
Lady Kong’s distinct musk causes King Kong to stir from his anaesthetised slumber (“Horny sonofabitch! He smells the female half a mile away!” a doctor enthuses), and after fiddling around with his various electrodes and drips, he’s up on his feet and screaming his head off.
This is all good timing, because a group of army and scientist types is making a terrible hash of sedating Lady Kong and carting her off in a giant net. Having refused to eat her consignment of drugged bananas, Lady Kong’s growling at a line-up of mechanical diggers when King Kong tears off the side of the hangar and comes to the rescue.
It’s here, in the midst of all the crashing cars, fires and panicking soldiers, that romance begins to flourish. The apes spy each other for the first time, and romantic clarinet music plays as the two stare into each other’s eyes.
“Is it still raining bullets?” Lady Kong’s expression seems to say. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Kong, the old romantic, picks up Lady Kong and carries her away from the shouting and chaos like a giant groom on his very hairy wedding night.
We later learn that the pair have rushed off into the wilderness – probably because King Kong Lives’ budget wouldn’t stretch to the construction of a miniature city for the actors in ape suits to stomp about on.
5. There’s plenty of giant ape romance
Shortly after the Kongs have made their escape, we meet the villain of the piece: Lieutenant Colonel Archie Nevitt, played by John Ashton. A character with an unremarked hatred for giant apes (or maybe just outsized creatures in general), Nevitt plans to gas the Kongs and drag them back to captivity. “We should have no problem identifying the enemy,” Nevitt sternly informs his troops. “They’re approximately 50 feet tall, and they’re wearing their birthday suits…”
The Kongs, meanwhile, are enjoying country life in a peaceful tract of the US countryside, which a sign tells us is called Honeymoon Ridge. King Kong, who must have learned how to read in Manhattan or something, obviously chose the spot to seduce Lady Kong, the saucy old devil. The sign’s also a handy wink to adult audience members that, yes folks, the apes will be having sex.
Considering the actors – Peter Elliott (King Kong) and George Yiasoumi (Lady Kong) – are essentially fumbling about in giant ape suits, the depiction of inter-ape romance isn’t badly portrayed. There’s a bit where they fight over who’s going to eat a tree, which plays out like the spaghetti scene from Lady And The Tramp but with foliage stolen from a train set instead of spaghetti. There’s also a touching moment where Lady Kong soothes Mr Kong’s sore knee with a handful of cool water, causing Mr Kong to grin blissfully.
It’s a pity the filmmakers didn’t provide some subtitles to some of these intimate moments. Perhaps we’d find out whether King Kong told Lady Kong about his previous crush on Jessica Lange, which, let’s face it, is why he’s now stuck in the middle of nowhere with an artificial heart and Linda Hamilton out of The Terminator spying on his every move. Which leads us to…
6. The humans are all useless
For the most part, adventurer/doctor duo Mitchell and Franklin simply rush from place to place, shouting at the army and watching the Kongs go about their giant ape business. Dr Franklin carries around some sort of portable heart monitoring unit, which she has to use to make delicate adjustments to Kong’s electronic ticker, and also ensure it doesn’t give out under the strain of army helicopter attacks and his (off-screen) fornication with Lady Kong.
But by constantly getting under King Kong’s feet, and fussing over his whereabouts, Dr Franklin inadvertently contributes to the creature’s downfall. As Kong goes on one of his countryside rambles later in the film, he steps on the heart monitoring unit, destroying it.
“I couldn’t complete the sequence,” Dr Franklin wails. “His heart won’t last the day!” Silly, silly humans.
Fun fact: Peter Weller was originally going to star in King Kong Lives, but he ultimately made the wise decision to turn the role down in favour of the lead in RoboCop.
7. A scene is shot from the perspective of a frog
In a dramatic mid-point scene, Lady Kong’s whisked away by the army while King Kong is off gathering fresh trees to eat for breakfast. Enraged by the sight of Lady Kong swinging from the underside of a Chinook helicopter, King begins throwing army jeeps around like toys (which, if you look closely, is exactly what they are).
But as a storm kicks up and King Kong’s menaced by Lieutenant Nevitt’s flamethrowers, the giant ape decides to throw himself off a cliff and into a churning river, where his head strikes a rock and he sinks to his doom. “Not even Kong can survive that,” Nevitt says, triumphantly.
Dr Franklin, however, is convinced that Kong’s still alive, even though a colleague insists that a 50-foot gorilla couldn’t find “sufficient protein” to survive in the wild.
In the very next shot, we find out exactly where King’s been getting his protein: as a frog looks on aghast, a huge, hairy hand snatches up a crocodile, snaps its neck, and stuffs it into a hungry gorilla maw. A few seconds later, we see that Kong’s got about a dozen crocodiles hanging out of his mouth. Oddly, these crododiles switch between full-grown in close-ups to baby ones in long shots.
Of this horror, the frog simply says, “Ribbet.”
8. King Kong snaps a man in two like a screaming Kit Kat
It’s around this point that King Kong Lives shirks off its earlier seriousness, and finally embraces its inner B-movie. Having feasted on a luncheon of crocodiles, Kong visits a nearby fishing village, and peers through a window at a pair of teenagers making out on a couch. In a scene straight out of a 50s creature feature, the young man coos over his girlfriend’s “big brown bedroom eyes,” before catching sight of Kong’s very, very big brown eyes peering down at him from outside.
The subsequent screams from the young lady are enough to wake up the entire community, who make off in cars and speedboats as Kong looks around in befuddlement. A man even rides between Kong’s legs on a motorcycle.
“What the hell is this,” an army man asks, as drunken hunters head off in their boats to take King Kong Down, “Deliverance?”
The hunters, all dungarees and lumberjack shirts, try to trap Kong in a rock-filled valley, but their insistence on jeering and taunting the creature with booze and burning sticks merely enrages him further. Completely losing his temper, Kong grabs one hunter and snaps the wretch in half with both hands before grabbing another and biting off his head.
After a brief pause, Kong picks around in his teeth and digs out a tiny hat.
Now these are the kinds of scenes we need in a giant monster movie – although, admittedly, it would have been even better had Kong decided to wear the hat for the rest of the day.
9. King Kong treads on an a sports car and visits a golf course
The second half of King Kong Lives is peppered with unconnected and largely gratuitous scenes of comedy and destruction. In one, Kong strides through a posh suburb and steps on a silver Lamborghini, leading its young driver to remark, “My dad’s gonna kill me.”
In another, Kong finds himself on a golf course, and gets hit in the eye by a golf ball. Weirdly, Kong simply growls and lets the culprit run away, which suggests that he prefers the taste of southern hunters to rich, well-fed golfers.
At any rate, we’d have liked to have seen an entire film devoted to scenes like this, where Kong staggers uncomprehendingly into typical moments from 80s everyday life: a Tina Turner concert, perhaps, or a roller disco, or an amusement arcade where kids are standing around playing Rampage. Afterwards, Linda Hamilton could rush in and commentate on everything that’s just happened.
10. Lady Kong falls through a barn
Given the reduced budget King Kong Lives was faced with, it’s little surprise that the sequel can’t afford to restage the 1976 film’s climax atop the World Trade Centre. So instead, writers Nathan Jenson and Steven Pressfield stage a similar confrontation at a barn dance.
King Kong has rescued Lady Kong from an army “Primate Holding Division” – which suggests the army make a habit of capturing apes, for some reason – and is on the run from Lieutenant Nevitt’s troops. But with Lady Kong heavily pregnant and about to go into labour, she falls through the roof of a barn, sending locals scattering and leaving King Kong to face the assembled army by himself.
Kong fights valiantly, smashing tanks and stomping soldiers, even as his body’s riddled with stinging bullets. Although mortally wounded, Kong manages to crush Lieutenant Nevitt with a clenched fist, before collapsing next to the barn where Lady Kong’s in the throes of childbirth.
King Kong’s final scene is unique, in that it’s both absolutely ridiculous and moving. The sight of Lady Kong, embedded in a barn and holding her oddly-proportioned baby while King looks on with tears in his fading eyes is strangely affecting, mostly because, despite all the variable special effects and silly storytelling, King Kong remains a noble, likeable movie creation.
Six years after King Kong Lives came out, Linda Hamilton was still cringing a little bit about her role in this goofiest of American 80s monster movies. “It was a hoot when I finally saw those monkeys flirt and bat their eyes,” Hamilton said. “Then it horrified me for being so stupid…”
Although King Kong Lives’ lower budget is obvious in almost every effects shot, it’s the flirting and eye-batting apes that make this maligned sequel so entertaining. Even the filmmakers realise that the Kongs are the true stars of the piece, with the actors who play them listed first in the end credits.
So despite – or perhaps because of – some iffy men-in-hairy-suits effects, some notably flat cinematography and rushed sound design, King Kong Lives remains a curiously charming relic in King Kong’s film history, even though it sits firmly in the camp of, say, Ishiro Honda’s King Kong Escapes rather than the majestic 1933 original. But then again, making daft sequels to King Kong films is as old as the series itself, with the largely forgotten Son Of Kong rushed out within months of the first film’s huge success.
What Son Of Kong’s screenwriter Ruth Rose said of that film also applies perfectly to King Kong Lives: “If you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier…”
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