Boy oh boy, do I love a good Italian ripoff movie. In the late-1970s and early-1980s, anytime a sci-fi movie came out in Hollywood that did any kind of business, the flow of knockoffs, whether blatant or otherwise, began and just wouldn’t stop. Arguably the film that spawned the most knockoffs was Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien.
Already in this column, I’ve talked about the two Roger Corman-produced entries, Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World. Today, we’re going to look at the Italian answer, Contamination, which is, surprisingly, the least ripoffy of the bunch, (especially given that it was written and directed by Luigi Cozzi, the director of the gloriously ridiculous Star Wars clone, Starcrash).
Luigi Cozzi, often known by the American pseudonym Lewis Coates, is a director who loves old-timey science fiction and Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects. Both of these proclivities were abundantly clear in Starcrash and the Hercules movie he made with Lou Ferrigno. What immediately stood out to me with Contamination, knowing both of those other films, is how little of that visual style Cozzi brings to it. Despite the subject matter, the movie’s shot very realistically, mostly on location, and has a lot more gunplay and romance than you might expect. (Or at least more than I did.) He also seemed to take a lot more inspiration from a contemporary of his, Lucio Fulci, and his film Zombie Flesh Eaters. Strange.
Any good movie starts with a ghost ship, and that’s what we have here: a seemingly abandoned freighter drifts into New York Harbor, apparently carrying coffee from Columbia. It’s quickly determined that something weird is going on in it, and a trio of police officers wearing hazmat suits, including Lt. Tony Aris (Marino Masé), find dead and horribly burned/scarred people aboard the ship. Eventually, they find what looks very clearly like an egg with some green goo inside. One of the cops gets some of the goo on him and they quickly learn that the viscous grossness is toxic to humans, cuz cop’s chest immediately explodes… who exactly knows why?
Aris gets taken to quarantine where he meets the military’s lead investigator for such things, Col. Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau), who is established right away as a ball-buster, likely because she’s a woman and this is an Italian movie, so she either needs to be a screaming damsel or a tough-as-nails so-and-so. Anyway, she sends a team in hazmats to the docks and finds a whole floor full of eggs and some guys seemingly in trances helping put them out. One of the hazmat guys shoots the eggs and the goo gets on the entranced. They simply smile before their chests explode in gory, slow-motion majesty.
What in the world could this mean? Holmes thinks the eggs are in some way connected to a manned mission to Mars two years prior. (Sidebar: WHAT?!?! You can’t just spring, “Oh, by the way we’ve been to Mars, you guys,” on us like that!) Holmes goes to visit Commander Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch), the only one of the two men to return from the mission. He’s lost everything following the failed mission, where he was believed to have behaved incompetently and is responsible for the death of his cohort Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch). Hubbard has become an alcoholic a-hole and doesn’t want anything to do with Holmes, but eventually she questions his manhood enough that he smacks her in the face and she says, “great, you coming with us?”
But what exactly are they going to do? First, Hubbard gives his testimony that, while on Mars, they found a cave and in the cave were all of these eggs. Hamilton, he says, became fixated on the bright light emanating from deep inside, and eventually he was gone. Huh, that’s weird. It’s eventually decided that Holmes and Hubbard should go to Columbia to the source of the coffee ship, and Aris is given leave to come with them, mostly so he can keep hitting on Holmes, because obviously. While everything seems fine when they get there, and they each retire to their room before dinner, someone enters Holmes’ room and places an alien egg in the bathroom with her, locking her in in the process. After entirely too long, Holmes’ screams are heard by Hubbard who breaks down the room door way easier than the bathroom door and gets her out just as the egg explodes.
But who is doing all this alien activity? Turns out it’s Hamilton, who was put under the control of the master alien, a giant, malevolent cyclops which can control people telepathically. Holmes and Aris are kidnapped and taken before Hamilton and it’s up to Hubbard, who dresses up like a guard in a hazmat suit, mask, and machine gun (because of course) to help his friends and destroy the alien factory before the Cyclops can destroy all of humanity.
Yes, this is quite a silly movie, but I was actually surprised by how un-silly it was at points. It looks like a gritty Italian action or horror movie for most of the proceedings. The exploding gore effects do indeed hearken back a lot more to Fulci or other Italian maestros like Bruno Mattei or Umberto Lenzi than it does a work by Luigi Cozzi, at least the way I’ve come to know him. It’s really not until the end, when we see the giant puppet cyclops, that the movie really begins to feel more Cozzi than copy, and that’s a pretty great section. The rest of it plays a lot more like a drama than I’d have thought, and there’s even a fair bit of spy movie romance too.
As far as the ripoff-ness of the movie, there are certainly a few nominal visual steals. There’s the eggs themselves which definitely look like the ones in Alien, despite being much smaller. We still see rows and rows of them and they still crack open. We also have shots of Hamilton and Hubbard in their spacesuits walking around “Mars,” which is really just some white, windy somewhere, which look like Dallas and Kane exploring the planet. And we definitely get ample shots of chests bursting open for seemingly no reason here, but it was meant to evoke those Alien feels.
Ultimately, Contamination is a pretty darn entertaining and ridiculous-in-a-fun-way movie that, while bearing resemblances to Alien, comes across a lot more like a pod movie. The BBFC in the 1980s saw fit to deign this movie a Video Nasty, but while gory, it doesn’t really hold a candle to some of the other Italian gross-outs in the category. There’s a really lovely new Blu-ray from Arrow Films of Contamination which you can pick up with lots of great extras on it. If you like ’80s Italian cheese, and frankly who doesn’t, then I’d seek it out for sure.