If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then a 1989 Italian film called Shocking Dark pays James Cameron the ultimate compliment: it openly steals from not one but two of his ’80s hits.
Now, it’s no secret that B-movie filmmakers have long taken “inspiration” from hit genre movies – Star Wars, Alien, Jaws, and Mad Max are some of the most imitated films of the ’70s and ’80s, spawning such cult B-movies as StarCrash, 1990: Bronx Warriors, and Contamination.
Shocking Dark, on the other hand, occupies its own special place in movie history. We’re not just talking about an attempt to evoke the general atmosphere of a successful film here – we’re talking about the wholesale recreation of entire sequences. As an example, consider the following exchange:
Samantha: Mommy always said monsters don’t exist, but it’s not true.
Dr Sara Drumbull: Don’t worry. I won’t leave you alone for a minute.
Dr Sara Drumbull: Cross my heart.
Samantha: And hope to die?
It’s lifted almost verbatim from a memorable scene in 1986’s Aliens. In fact, pretty much all of Shocking Dark’s main story unfolds exactly like James Cameron’s classic: there’s a squad of soldiers whose bravado outstrips their preparedness, a Ripley-like civilian onlooker (Dr Sara Drumbull), drooling monsters, an untrustworthy corporate stiff and an orphaned child survivor.
Remember that bit in Aliens where they’re all stuck in Hadley’s Hope, wondering how the aliens have managed to get inside? Where Hicks, Hudson and Ripley are all wondering why the motion tracker’s telling them the aliens are actually in the room, and then they look up in horror at the suspended ceiling? That’s in here.
Remember the bit in Aliens where Bishop’s dissecting a dead Facehugger, and for just a moment, we look into Bishop’s distracted eyes and think he might be just as scary as Ash was in Alien? Even that incidental moment re-emerges in thinly-disguised form.
Perhaps sensing that they had a lawsuit on their hands, Shocking Dark’s makers came up with a cunning way of confusing 20th Century Fox’s legal attack dogs: for its international release, they called it Terminator II.
Oh, and just to ring the changes, they set it not in outer space, but in Venice.
“Hey nice looking specimen you have there.”
Yes, Venice. After an unlikely apocalyptic event (“the seaweed is killing the oxygen in the water”) leaves the city a desolate husk in the year 2000, humanity’s survivors are holed up in secure facilities deep underground. When a mysterious mutant force begins to infiltrate the city’s network of tunnels, a team of soldiers – who self-deprecatingly call themselves the Mega Force – are sent off to investigate. Among their number is a Vasquez-like female warrior, Koster (Geretta Geretta), civilian scientist Dr Sara Drumbull (Haven Tyler) and Samuel Fuller (Christopher Ahrens), a muscle-bound representative from a company called the Tubular Corporation.
Once the cast has marched out on their mission, the film pretty much writes itself – largely because James Cameron already wrote it about four years earlier. The mutant creatures the soldiers encounter are the same insectoid, glistening-skinned things that skittered around LV-426 in Aliens, except these ones have crimson bug-eyes and tend to throw stunt people off high catwalks. The team of identikit soldiers have their own line in macho banter, except here it’s putrified into weird things like, “Let’s get some KY so we can shaft him real good,” and, “Make a move and we’ll spoil your weekend, baby!”
Between them, director Bruno Mattei and writer Claudio Fragasso turn bad filmmaking into an act of heroism. Mattei made more than 40 films in the course of his long career, and all of them, so far as I can work out, were spectacularly awful. He spent much of the ’70s and early ’80s making ‘erotic’ films with titles like Women’s Camp 119 and Porno Holocaust before turning his attention to the horror genre. It’s possible you’ve seen one of his better-known efforts, Rats: Night Of Terror (1983), a combination of Mad Max rip-off and creature feature in which buckets of rodents are literally thrown in the faces of its luckless actors.
Fragasso ploughed a similarly rich seam of cinematic tat, writing the screenplay for Hell Of The Living Dead (also directed by Mattei, and commonly regarded as the worst zombie movie of all time), the aforementioned Rats, Women’s Prison Massacre, and Monster Dog. In 1990, Fragasso co-wrote and directed Troll 2, arguably the Citizen Kane of terrible films.
There are moments in Shocking Dark (or Terminator II, or Alienators, as it was known in Japan) that really are gasp-inducingly bad. In an almost indescribable sort of way, it doesn’t look like a tawdry remake of Aliens so much as an artefact that has somehow materialised from an alternate timeline – a 70s, Italian incarnation of Aliens dredged up from a terrible dimension where James Cameron never existed.
It’s also extremely funny. Most Alien clones were nastier, more violent and sordid than the film they sought to emulate. Shocking Dark doesn’t appear to be able to afford the gore effects, so it’s no more claret-spattered than your average episode of Doctor Who. It attempts to remake the amorphous, sticky nest from Aliens with little more than a can of that fake cobweb stuff you used to see sprayed around fake castles in old Hammer Horror films. The mutant creature costumes its stunt actors wear appear to be so cumbersome that they can barely move. When a soldier shoots one of the monsters, we’re often treated to the same effects shot of white, shaving-foam like goo emerging from a jagged head wound.
Then there’s Samuel Fuller, a character who essentially occupies the Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) role in Aliens: he’s the company rep who clearly has some insider knowledge about what’s really going on. At one point, he’s fiddling around with a computer, trying to discover the origins of the film’s human-munching creatures, when he utters the following:
“It’s incredible. Ingenious. Bastards. They’ve done it. They’ve done it! It’s practically DNA! No, it’s an enzyme that’s similar to DNA. Completely redesigned by computer. A masterpiece. A masterpiece of genetic engineering. Cybernetics applied to molecular technology. It’s not alive until it finds something to live in.”
Well, that explains everything.
Samuel Fuller’s an enigma from the very beginning. Are his movements stiff due to bad acting, or are they intentional? Is that a faint hint of an Austrian accent we can detect? Shouldn’t he blink now and again? Shortly after that scientifically-suspect slab of dialogue above is trotted out, the truth is revealed: Samuel is a Terminator-like cyborg.
“I’m the most perfect perfect being ever constructed by the Tubular Corporation!” Samuel announces.
“But why didn’t you kill us before?” Dr Sarah Drumbull asks, her bewilderment still not quite exceeding that of the audience.
“Because I was waiting for the right time,” Samuel says, with all the Teutonic authority he can muster. “That is to say: now.”
“We have to go in there. The computer read-out was very specific about that.”
Like Aliens and The Terminator placed in one of those matter transporters in The Fly, Shocking Dark emerges as a shambling and very odd amalgam. What begins as an amateur dramatics tour of Aliens suddenly takes a right turn into Terminator territory in the final half hour, as its Ripley and Newt stand-ins are pursued by Samuel, now in full Arnold Schwarzenegger mode. By this point, the emergence of a time machine doesn’t even seem all that surprising. Nor does a scene where Dr Sara Drumbull attacks the Samuel-Terminator with a broken bottle, creating a familiar wound on the side of the cyborg’s face.
We even gave up trying to understand the logic behind the evil Tubular Corporation’s plan; all we know is, the company deliberately destroyed Venice so that the value of its “real estate, art and museums” would somehow shoot up in value.
“Of course,” Samuel gloats, “the Tubular Corporation will come out of all this unscathed.”
Risible though Shocking Dark is, there’s also something oddly fascinating about its flailing attempts to channel the spirit of James Cameron’s tech noir. Its makers may have been out to make a fast buck, but they’ve clearly done their homework; at one point, Samuel stomps on a remote control car, echoing the scene where Schwarzenegger’s T-800 ran over a little toy truck in The Terminator. When the Mega Force soldiers first discover the young survivor Samantha (Dominica Coulson), she even bites the hand of one of their number, just as Newt bit Hicks’ hand in Aliens. Spotting all these little things becomes like a particularly geeky twist on Where’s Wally.
Inevitably, Shocking Dark’s flagrant copyright infringement and bargain-basement production values made its chances of wider commercial success negligible at best. Nor did much of its cast go onto bigger and better things: for Haven Tyler, who plays Sarah Connor/Ripley doppelganger Sara, Dominica Coulson, who plays Samantha, and Bruce MacFarland, who plays a colonel, Shocking Dark was their first and last screen credit.
One of the few players who had a regular career both before and after was Geretta Geretta, the actress who also starred in Rats: Night Of Terror and Lamberto Bava’s Demons. Then there’s Clive Richie, who briefly appears in Shocking Dark as a raving scientist who deafens the cast with his piercing screams. He went on to appear in the cult classic Cemetery Man, and later provided some voice over work on an Italian animated film called Titanic: The Legend Goes On. You can probably guess whose blockbusting film that was ‘inspired’ by.
As for Bruno Mattei, he carried on making iffy erotic films and horror flicks right up to his death in 2007. One of the most famous of his later films was a cheerfully low-rent shark movie which, like Shocking Dark, made copious use stock footage and unknown actors. It was often marketed under the title Jaws 5: Cruel Jaws…
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK on July 15, 2015.