A 40th anniversary tribute to Luigi Cozzi’s delirious science fiction shocker
It’s almost impossible to think that it’s been 40 years since the release of CONTAMINATION. It’s equally unimaginable that some of you reading these words have no idea what CONTAMINATION is. But for that lucky legion of fans that have indeed long-loved Luigi Cozzi’s delirious 1980 Italian sci-fi/horror romp (and former “Video Nasty”), your pulses were likely pounding as soon as you saw the headline of this piece. And for you curious lot still in the dark, allow me to illuminate.
CONTAMINATION stars ZOMBI 2 and ZOMBI HOLOCAUST legend Ian McCulloch as alcoholic ex-astronaut Ian Hubbard who is roped back into action by Colonel Stella Holmes (Canadian actress Louise Marleau) after a ghost ship drifts into the New York harbour carrying crates of acid-spewing death-sacs, the likes of which have just caused a crew of investigators to explode like blood piñatas. Seems Hubbard was part of a doomed Mars mission many years prior in which fellow astronaut Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch) fell under the spell of some sort of egg-laying terror and vanished. When Hubbard returned to earth, raving about Martians and half out of his mind, no one believed his tales and he slipped into deep depression and hopeless addiction. Horrified to learn that the pulsing poison eggs he encountered in space are now on earth, but exhilarated that there is finally proof of his career-killing claims, Hubbard joins forces with Colonel Holmes –and NYPD cop Tony Aris (Marino Mase) – to track down the source that’s shipping the deadly, toxic eggs around the world, a journey that takes them to the steamy jungles of Columbia. Seems Hamilton had also returned to earth where he runs a coffee plantation and has become a puppet of the insidious alien lifeform, who has psychically ordered him to help bring the earth to its knees via its evil ova, packed discretely in boxes of coffee beans.
Calling CONTAMINATION an ALIEN rip-off is no insult to the film, nor is it a slight on Cozzi’s integrity or intentions. During that period of Italian exploitation moviemaking, no producer worth his salt would have dared finance any genre film that wasn’t a direct quote on an existing, profitable picture – especially if it was a profitable American picture as ensuring U.S. screens was an essential component to a European film’s success. And that is indeed exactly how CONTAMINATION began its swollen galactic pustule-popping life, with Cozzi – fresh of the modest success of his wild space opera STARCRASH – walking into producer Claudio Mancini’s office and promising a movie that boiled down to being “ALIEN made for peanuts”, one that was originally to be called CONTAMINATION: THE ALIEN ARRIVES ON EARTH. As Ridley Scott’s masterpiece was a ground-breaking, instant global sensation, without blinking, Mancini agreed to do the movie and it was rushed into production.
But while ALIEN may have been the hook to get the moneymen interested, there’s much more to Cozzi’s movie than just shameless imitation. CONTAMINATION is positively swimming in references to classic fantasy filmmaking, with a narrative thrust that echoes INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and elements of the beloved Hammer “Quatermass” movie ENEMY FROM SPACE woven into the story, while also favoring two-fisted action and Ian Fleming-esque derring-do to propel it (and with the dashing McCulloch as its lead, the movie certainly feels like a dump-bin James Bond picture remade by a wide-eyed 12 year old monster kid). Visually, there all also more than a few nods to “outbreak” horror movies like George A. Romero’s THE CRAZIES and David Cronenberg’s RABID, especially during its opening moments of hazmat-suit wearing men meeting their makers when those dastardly space eggs pop.
The film’s most visceral visual connection to ALIEN is the way it takes the shocking “chest-burtser” sequence and fetishizes it; in true Italian exploitation film fashion, the concept here seemed to be to take that which was most gruesome and memorable from the movie it was borrowing from and amplify it tenfold. Lucio Fulci’s DAWN OF THE DEAD riff ZOMBI 2 took Tom Savini’s delightfully revolting gut-munching shock-scenes and added even more gore, plus that now immortal eyeball-violence set piece and, since JAWS was also a big hit in Europe, dumped in a ghoul-eating shark for good measure. In CONTAMINATION, Cozzi sees ALIEN’s startling and bloody chest-popper moment and goes-for-broke with a non-stop avalanche of exploding upper-bodies. Built by FX man Giovanni Corridori and rendered in slow-motion a la the bullet-hits in another Cozzi favorite, Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH, the victims in CONTAMINATION scream in agony while their chests erupt in geysers of flesh, bone and fluid, a crimson tide from Hell designed solely to make its audience sick.
All of this mayhem is fueled by one of Italian horror prog-rock supergroup Goblin’s most potent and groovy scores, a doom-laden Gothic electro-jazz meltdown with some of keyboardist Maurizio Guarini’s freakiest synth-washes ever (Guarini also played keyboards on Fabio Frizzi’s ZOMBI 2 soundscapes and much of that eerie vibe he brought to that music ends up weaving its way into the CONTAMINATION soundtrack). The Goblin tunes are especially mesmerizing during CONTAMINATION’s balletic climax, where our heroes encounter the source of the evil eggs: a massive, slimy alien “tree” called “the cyclops” armed with a flashing lightbulb eye that hypnotizes its victims and causes them to commit suicide by sinking into the great beast’s undulating mouth. Ludicrous? Absolutely, but that’s what makes it so wonderful and really, that’s what has always set the Italian horror cinema apart from its American counterparts, that sense of opera, of painting in broad strokes, of pushing sound and image over the top into heightened realities pitched to the peak of fever.
CONTAMINATION was released theatrically – slightly shorn of some its messiest moments – in America by Cannon Pictures as ALIEN CONTAMINATION, a title it took with it to home video when it was released by Paragon Video on VHS in the early 1980s. Along the way, another distributor put the film out as TOXIC SPAWN and eventually, because the Cannon copyright lapsed, the film seemed to fall into the public domain in North America, bumping around in hundreds of those horror and sci-fi movie DVD compilations that became discount store staples. Eventually, the picture was properly released by people that actually cared – including William Lustig, who put out a gorgeous early DVD release of the film under his Blue Underground label – and, as the movie’s reputation as a Eurohorror classic swelled, even better editions reared their head, culminating in Arrow Video’s feature-packed Blu-ray a few years ago (in which this writer contributed the commentary track).
My own love for CONTAMINATION started when I caught it on TV as a kid on Elvira’s Movie Macabre series late at night and later, I then bought that aforementioned Paragon VHS for my burgeoning collection. I still have that tape. Years later, in 2014, I was invited to go to Rome to screen my second feature film QUEEN OF BLOOD at the Italian Horror Film Festival. My fellow guest of honor was Cozzi and the fest was also screening CONTAMINATION. I’ll never forget watching my movie on a double feature, outdoors on the beaches of Nettuno beside the ruins of a castle with bats flying around the screen, sitting with Cozzi (along with Claudio Simonetti and Ruggero Deodato!), all of us hammered out of our minds as CONTAMINATION played at 2am. The film screened in the Italian language (though with that international cast and because the Italians rarely shot with synch-sound, every version of the film is dubbed ) but it didn’t matter as I knew the film inside and out and the rhythms of those rococo syllables just added to the surreal beauty of the experience.
I have a pack of insane stories surrounding that wild time with some of the masters of Italian horror and maybe I’ll tell them to you one day. But for now, the message of this essay is singular: see CONTAMINATION. And if you’ve already seen CONTAMINATION, see it again. Celebrate it. And wish it a happy, splattery 40th birthday. Pop some champagne in its honor. Do it in slow motion. Play the Goblin theme track while you do it.