Contamination and the Joy of Cheap Alien Knockoffs

They're cheap, gory and a lot of fun. Ryan explores the joy of Luigi Cozzi's Contamination, and other B-movies inspired by Alien...

If the Italian genre film industry was still in the state of rude health it found itself in 30 or 40 years ago, it would probably be making cheap but extraordinarily fun ‘homages’ to films like The Hunger Games and The Avengers. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was making the transition from cloning westerns and killer shark movies to sci-fi fantasy, zombie movies, and Mad Max-inspired post-apocalyptic action flicks.

Luigi Cozzi was one of those brave Italians who dared to make his own Star Wars with the meager resources available to his film industry in the late ‘70s. Starcrash, a cheerfully ripe and camp space opera starring Christopher Plummer and David Hasselhoff, proved to be a solid B-picture success in 1979, and proved to be among the most entertaining of the sci-fi westerns to appear in Star Wars’wake.

Of course, Star Wars also had an impact on Hollywood, which stopped looking at sci-fi as a genre to be avoided at all costs when George Lucas’ effects fantasy made millions worldwide. Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr., whose hunch that Lucas was destined for greatness (and financial success) quickly paid off, decided to give the greenlight to a script called Alien in 1978, just one year after Star Wars first raided the U.S. summer box-office.

Shot for around $9 million – a budget even more austere than Star Wars’ $11 million – Alien was one of the big hits of 1979, its sophisticated design elevating familiar B-monster fare to A-picture status (there are moments in Alien that wouldn’t look out of place in an art-house movie). Some shots are even vaguely reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet classic, Stalker (also released in 1979).

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The success of Alien led to its own rash of cheap imitators from the U.S. and Europe. Suddenly, it again became fashionable to pit a dwindling group of astronauts, scientists, or other victims against a ruthless (and often hastily built) killer monster; look at movies like Titan Find (also known as Titan Fiend), TV movie The Intruder Within and Charles Band’s Parasite, and you’ll see echoes of such ‘50s films as It! The Terror From Beyond Space and The Thing From Another World.

What the filmmakers inspired by Alien did, however, was coolly observe the blood and sexual undertones present in Ridley Scott’s film and figure out new ways to amplify them yet further. Thus we wound up with Norman J. Warren’s infamous Inseminoid, a British effort which saw a female victim impregnated by a vicious, toothsome creature and turned into a zombie-like begetter of yet more monsters. 

The thinking behind these films was simple: their makers may not have had the budget or talented artists required to make a classy horror film, but they could deliver on the nasty promise that Alien was far too restrained and stylish to put on screen in more excessive form – sex, nudity, and buckets of blood.

Master of schlock Roger Corman briefly turned making sci-fi horror films into a cottage industry in the early ‘80s. Galaxy of Terror(released under several other unsubtle titles) subjected its eclectic cast (including a young Robert Englund) to a range of imaginative and bloody deaths, including being smothered to death by a giant, randy maggot. Mutant (also known as Forbidden World) was pretty much Alien all over again, but this time with a lead monster that looked like a waddling, less lithe cousin of H.R. Giger’s dreaded Starbeast. It also added shower scenes, recycled sets and footage from other Corman films, and an extraordinary bad-taste ending I won’t spoil here.

But one of the most fun Alien knock-offs came not from Corman, but from Italy’s own master of the low-budget: Starcrashs Luigi Cozzi. 

In 1980, Luigi Cozzi made the exceedingly strange Contamination (also titled Alien Contamination) – surely the most bizarre film to follow in the crush of post-Ridley Scott monster movies. Cozzi was a long-time devotee of science fiction before he wrote and directed the film, and even had several short stories published (under the pseudonym Lewis Coates) in U.S. magazines throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Cozzi’s knowledge and affection for sci-fi gives Contamination a charmingly earnest quality, even amid its cheap special effects and eye-poppingly bad dialogue.

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Realizing that he didn’t quite have the budget to set his entire film on a space ship, Cozzi relocated his story to contemporary New York. A supply ship has drifted to Manhattan, its crew killed by the hideous green substance seeping from its cargo: a mass of ovoid spores hidden in boxes of coffee. Inexplicably, that green substance causes human torsos to explode like burst water balloons – an event Cozzi captures in Sam Peckinpah-like slow-motion.

Joining forces with a lecherous New York cop, Tony Aris (Marino Mase) and a depressive astronaut, Commander Hubbard (Ian McCulloch), the stern Colonel Stella Holmes aims to work out where the oozing eggs came from, and quickly tracks their source to a coffee plantation in Colombia. Little does Holmes know that an evil mastermind is waiting for her to arrive… 

Although the semi-translucent, pulsating eggs and bursting torsos are self-evidently lifted from Alien, Cozzi’s genre-savvy enough to crib elements from elsewhere. Nigel Kneale would probably recognize the backstory about a returning astronaut, which bears a striking resemblance to The Quatermass Experiment. The green ooze from the eggs looks like the same substance that leaks from the dead Martians in Quatermass and the Pitt(Hammer’s color 1967 movie version, that is), and there’s even a hint of cloning and mind control from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers films.

Contaminationis far from a technical marvel, especially to modern eyes. Cozzi’s glorious slow-motion deaths allow the eye to linger on the gore, certainly, but we’re also given a chance to study the bulky effects appliances they erupt from: in one scene, you can even see the offal-stuffed bladder swell up beneath an actor’s shirt before it finally bursts in a puff of claret. Eventually, we meet the creature responsible for laying all those eggs, which really does look like something from an old ‘50s flick like It Came From Outer Spaceor This Island Earth.

Throw in some delightfully cloth-eared exchanges (Tony: “You’re the first woman I went after that I never got past first base with.” Stella: “I’m sorry.”), and you have the makings of one of the funniest B-movies to emerge from ‘80s Italy. It’s remarkable to think that this film, which is now rated 15, was once on the BBFC’s banned “Video Nasty” list.

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Like all of the Alien knock-offs mentioned so far, Contamination isn’t exactly a great movie in the usual sense. You won’t find the charismatic, naturalistic acting of Ridley Scott’s film here, nor its haunting production design and formidable central creature. What you will find is an oddly endearing mix of preposterous plotting (conquering the world by hiding eggs in crates of coffee? Really?), overwrought performances (Siegrfried Rauch is hilarious as the human villain), plus a magnificent prog rock score courtesy of Goblin. I also really like the noise the eggs make as they pulsate; it sounds like someone with dreadful stomach ache groaning rhythmically into a didgeridoo (which is possibly how it was achieved). It adds a much-needed unearthly dimension to the poverty-row visual effects.

Contaminationis one of those films that is seldom dull, even if it isn’t quite the nail-biting horror thriller Cozzi might have intended. The exploding bellies have an almost slapstick quality, particularly towards the end when McCulloch lets rip with a machine gun and the flying guts are joined by lots of shattering glass and gory gunshot wounds. McCulloch also gets one of the film’s very best lines – a portentous ramble about “Mars, the cyclops star” that is laugh-out-loud funny.

Hollywood’s producers and filmmakers probably regarded most of these Alien clones – Galaxy of Terror, Mutant, Contamination – with a smirk. They had, after all, taken Alien’s inherently B-movie concept of monsters running amok and dragged it back down to the bargain basement of schlock. But ultimately, the likes of Roger Corman, Norman J. Warren, and Luigi Cozzi got the last laugh, in a weird sort of way. Not only do their films enjoy a cult following even today, but some of their ideas have wound up making their way back into multi-million dollar movies.

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, with its variety of writhing creatures and varied deaths, has as much in common with Galaxy of Terroras it does Alien. The gooey, gratuitous exploding alien head in Prometheus is also oddly reminiscent of Cozzi’s throbbing eggs in Contamination. Italy’s gloriously low-rent Alien 2 (also known as Alien Terror and Strangers) unofficially brought Aliens threat to Earth more than 20 years before the equally B-grade Alien vs. Predator: Requiemattempted the same thing.

Wobbly, hastily put together, full of bad dialogue – Alien knockoffs don’t necessarily send a shiver down the spine, but the best of them offer a great night’s entertainment, and some of them offer up some surreal ideas you’d never find in movies with bigger budgets. Cup of Colombian coffee, anyone?

Contamination is out on Blu-ray now from Arrow Films.

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