Did the Alien franchise come from a bad hamburger?

Was inspiration actually 90% botulism in the case of one of sci-fi's most beloved movie series...?

Oh my goo-aaaah!

It’s well known to fans of Alien that producers David Giler and Walter Hill were not overly impressed by the original Dan O’Bannon/Ron Shusett screenplay. You can see them saying as much in the extras on the Alien quadrilogy documentary. Giler even claims that he had to be persuaded to keep reading, but admits that once he got to the ‘chestburster’ scene, where the incubated alien breaks out of Kane’s body during a meal, everyone agreed that they had something special on their hands.

Ron Shusett is on the record as having had a burst of inspiration one night as to how exactly the creature was to have sneaked on board the Nostromo, a single and crystalline idea that led to the entire life-cycle of the creature, from egg to face-hugger through to chest-burster and full-blown xenomorph – an earlier stage of the alien would ‘infect’ and impregnate a crew member.

Dan O’Bannon does not refute this in the documentary, so it would seem that Shusett sold the franchise.

Which is why I was surprised, during my interview with Chris Foss about the design of the Nostromo in Shepperton in 1978, to hear his take on how the idea came about:

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“The ‘chest-burster’ was based on an episode of food-poisoning…long before he came to Paris [for Jodorowsky’s Dune], [O’Bannon] ate some fast food and woke up in the night in incredible pain and actually had to be taken to hospital; and imagined that there was a ‘beast’ inside him. And that was exactly where that thing came from.”

John Hurt in his death throes in Alien (1979)

I showed the Foss interview to Dan O’Bannon some weeks ago, and his comments on it included no criticism of what Foss says either. Did Ron Shusett know of this incident and extrapolate his solution from it? Or was it actually a connection that O’Bannon made during the creative process on Starbeast?

This was the mid-seventies, and I’m beginning to think that all concerned might have hazy memories on the issue, but this story, as told to him by collaborator O’Bannon, certainly stuck in the mind of Chris Foss over the years.

Anyone who has ever had severe food poisoning will certainly feel at least a twinge of sympathy for John Hurt’s abdominally agonising death-throes in Alien, and a bad burger does sound a very likely cause for the notion. To think, one of the finest film franchises off all time may only have been an extra minute under the grill away from obscurity…