Contamination (aka, Alien Contamination) (Luigi Cozzi, 1980)
A tough female colonel (Louise Marleau) convinces the broken down astronaut (Ian McCulloch) who she helped discredit years before after he returned from a Mars mission with fantastical stories he couldn’t substantiate, to head with her and a New York Lieutenant (Marino Masé) down to South America (that dark continent where, if Snuff taught us anything at all, it taught us life has no meaning) to uncover what that mysterious coffee plantation has to do with exporting those green, gelatinous alien spore egg-looking things (just think Alien and you’ll know what I’m talking about) that keep turning up in large numbers and, instead of shooting out a crab-like shape-shifting xenomorph to clamp onto its victim’s face, instead violently ruptures, spraying a toxic glop on to any nearby living creature and causing that being to spontaneously — and in spectacular, grue-rific fashion — explode out their guts.
What grand fun it’s been with my small cabal of wayward cinematic travellers to follow up re-watching the original four-film franchise (as well as a few that inspired the creation of that first brilliant Ridley Scott offering), with this follow up tangent of an all-things-Alien viewing series; the slew of rip-offs from greedy producers that quickly ensued on the heels of that first 1979 masterpiece.
While not all Italian productions (such as 1981’s The Intruder Within, taking place on an isolated oil rig with monsters from beneath dredged up, a rare foray into horror by opportunistic American network TV execs), many of them – including Contamination (or, Alien Contamination, for anyone who needs that extra hint in figuring out what film this is taking from) – were. The sweaty 60’s spaghetti westerns were finito, and the brutal poliziotteschi and stylishly perverse gialli were slowing way down; it was the dawn of the Italo 80’s, the time of the zombie following George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, post-apocalyptic biker gang in silly costume and colorful headband after Mad Max, the cannibal chowing down on the arrogant white imperialist in the Amazon after — in this rare case taking from within — Ruggero Deodato’s eye-poppingly sleazy Cannibal Holocaust and — just as wildly enjoyable as all the others — the oft-incubating deadly alien creature, taking as its cue – naturally – from that first Ridley Scott jaunt into space.
Director (and noted genre cinema fan boy) Cozzi opens Contamination by blatantly lifting its narrative cues straight from the iconic opening of the film by that far more celebrated – righty so – cinematic creator of the morbid and grotesque, Lucio Fulci’s wildly internationally successful Zombie Flesh Eaters from just the year before (as the adage goes, ‘ if it ain’t broke…’), with the arrival of a large export ship mysteriously floating abandoned in the New York harbor… with the ensuing police investigation (again, right along with Zombie) leading to the camera luridly lingering (in that wonderfully shameless Italian exploitation style) over some juicily gruesome discoveries. Energized along by the propulsive electronic Goblin score (though, for whatever reason, credited as ‘THE’ Goblin herein… confusing), with the deadly alien egg things doing they’re exploding effect (and, to be fair, they might look a lot like the ones in Alien, but with the added rhythmic pulsations and slime-dripping exteriors, they’re effectively creepy creations in their own right, even if the wheezing in-and-out sound they make before exploding kept reminding me of that ‘breathing’ cake the Little Rascals pull from the oven in their 50’s tv show).
Yes, yes, the story may meander a bit (with jaw-droppingly massive plot holes) and it’s not always helped by Cozzi’s flat and oft-unimaginative movement of actors through a space (though, to be fair, when he decides to jazz things up and get quirky, he can do it – just not often enough), but just when you’re attention really starts to wane – there comes one of those impressively exploding sternums off some pure infected shlep, or another of those rhythmically pulsing and sweating egg things, or something fun like that.
There’s an obvious effort to bring a little James Bond international espionage into the mix (complete with the main heavy giving a speech on his evil intentions after he has captured our heroes) that is what it is, but some of Cozzi’s greatest inspiration does come from when he’s riffing off other films.
There’s the aforementioned Zombie lifts… and the overall Alien design (the vast Mars cave where the two astronauts discover the egg-shaped spores going on for miles is a beautiful example of – if not outdoing the original Alien scene – at the very least, creating an entirely different experience, albeit more wildly expressionistic, creatively done through plates and double exposures, straight out of the Mario Bava school of creating colorful and hallucinatory imagery through low-budget ingenuity).
The jelly-ish cyclopean creature at the end – with its bulbous body, single eye and mind-controlling abilities — conjures up memories of the space creature crash-landed on earth hiding in a desert cave from the 1953 Cold War scifi 3D classic It Came From Outer Space and, in both cases, the monster remains impressive despite its almost complete immobility, with Cozzi’s getting marks for how far more slimy and nasty his is (that grand head eating scene with that slithering appendage with teeth being a particular highlight).
Why, there’s even an interesting correlation with the great 1972 Russian scifi masterpiece Solaris. Okay, let’s not kid ourselves, I’m talking another league of filmmaking when I bring up Tarkovsky… but the imagery of McCulloch’s dispirited astronaut being interviewed (and emasculated) before a disbelieving council is more than a tad reminiscent of the similar set-up (including video interview) that begins Solaris… and works well enough (for a Cozzi Italian exploitation film).
Montrealer Louise Marleau (apparently, as one of my film cabal informed me, a fairly well known French Canadian actress of that time) does yeoman’s work with her amusingly ballsy bitch part (even if she, as are the other actors, straddled with that unfortunate Cozzi style of oft shooting conversations with the actor stuck unmoving in the center of frame). Also, nice to see the Scottish actor Ian McCulloch, in the midst of cementing his cinematic immortality — as well as a steady stream of income signing autographs at horror conventions – by likely reluctantly taking part (though comforted by the thought that these films would fade into obscurity – ha! Little did he know!) in that bloody trifecta of infamous Italian rip-offs that included Contamination (with the others being Zombi and Dr Butcher, M.D.).
Luigi Cozzi (better known as Lewis Coates in the American credits) may be from a cinematic master amongst that wonderfully nutso, go-for-broke Italian set, but through his obvious affection for genre, he brings a healthy quantity of lurid grue, some cool effects, and enough inspiration to make Contamination an entirely enjoyable Alien rip-off (even with the slower spots).