Contamination

Contamination1“It’s a very nimble film industry,” says critic Maitland McDonagh of Italian commercial cinema, the mantra being an endless cycle of “give the audience what they want.” From the spaghetti westerns of the sixties, in the mid seventies it was a host of clones inspired by Jaws, “one of the great rip-offable films,” followed rapidly by the global phenomenon of Star Wars.

In America producer Roger Corman emphasised the western aspects of Star Wars when he effectively remade The Magnificent Seven as Battle Beyond the Stars, while Italian writer/director Luigi Cozzi offered Star Crash featuring space smugglers, mystical powers, laser swords, androids, Caroline Munro in leather boots and little else and an early starring role for the man who would be David Hasselhoff.

Contamination2Despite an awareness that the genre was not big with either Italian producers or audiences, for his followup Cozzi was similarly “inspired” by another Hollywood science fiction classic of the late seventies from director Ridley Scott. “I didn’t want to copy Alien and it’s not my style to copy other movies but I was determined to have these two elements,” Cozzi says of the eggs and the monster which spawned them.

While all the studio work for Contamination took place in Rome, location shooting did take place in New York, Florida and Colombia, and the film opens with stunning aerial photography of New York City as a cargo vessel moves swiftly towards harbour, the coastguard alerted that the vessel, the Caribbean Lady, is not answering hails.

Contamination3Boarding the vessel, the hazmat suited investigators find a ghost ship with meals half eaten on the table, reminding of the legend of the Mary Celeste, one of them commenting somewhat ironically “It’s like something out of a movie.”

Moving into the depths of the cargo hold they discover the whole crew dead, their bodies exploded from the inside, the walls of the hold lined with cartons of coffee labelled Café Univerx. One of the boxes has tumbled and spilled its contents, greenish yellow pods like “a giant squash or an avocado or some kind of mango,” pretty much covering all the bases.

One of the pods has rolled under a heating duct where the warContamination4mth has invigorated it, causing it to ripen. With twenty dead bodies littering the deck and an unknown object before them sense would indicate prudence, but necessity of the plot dictates otherwise; when moved it erupts, spraying a viscous chemical on the operatives who despite their precautions are infected; like the crew of the ship they too explode.

That Contamination was ever labelled a “video nasty” says more of the prevailing political hysteria of the era than the film itself, and to modern eyes, it is difficult to see how it was ever regarded as liable to corrupt the impressionable youth of Britain; while the gore is copious and persistent, usually filmed in slow motion this only serves to reinforce how fake the enterprise is, the liberated innards bearing little resemblance to any normal organ of the human body.

Contamination7The sole survivor, NYPD Lieutenant Tony Aris (prolific leading man of Italian cinema Marino Masé) is placed in quarantine and questioned by Colonel Stella Holmes (Canadian star Louise Marleau) of Special Division Five. Examining the Caribbean Lady in suits seemingly designed for a Victorian deep sea exploration, Holmes deduces that if they trace where the consignment was to be delivered they may find a lead, and sure enough a warehouse in the Bronx is found to be full of the pods.

Holmes recognises the pods from a description of the former astronaut Commander Ian Hubbard (Scottish actor Ian McCulloch, best known as one of the leads of Terry Nation’s Survivors), disgraced upon his return to Earth when he claimed “strange things happened at the Martian pole.”

Contamination12“We have to find Hubbard as quickly as possible,” she declares, though unfortunately nobody suggests she try the cupboard. Showing him the evidence, Hubbard confirms that it matches what he saw in the caverns of Mars (“They were green, just like the ones in your photograph,” he says, even though the photographs are in fact in black and white), agreeing to accompany Holmes and Aris to the Colombian plantation where Café Univerx is based.

With her directness and no-nonsense approach, Marleau is a fine leading lady and it is her character who is the driving intellect of the film, obviously modelled after Ellen Ripley even if Cozzi does not specifically mention her in the archive interview, though possibly this was in deference to the patriarchal Italian society where a female-led science fiction horror action film, itself already an oddity, would be scorned.

Contamination5Unfortunately, when the trio reaches South America Holmes’ credibility is undermined, trapped in a bathroom with a ripe pod and going to pieces rather than smothering it with a towel soaked in cold water and needing to be rescued by her male companions, the scene overlong, ultimately pointless and doing damage to the narrative which overshadows any supposed tension it generates.

Failing to emulate the globetrotting expanse of a James Bond film, the relocation from the dark claustrophobia of the city to the open space of the jungle is the undoing of the film, featuring an extended tour of the coffee plantation and the reveal of both the human puppet behind the plan, Hubbard’s former colleague Hamilton (German actor Siegfried Rauch) dressed in a suit borrowed from either Francisco Scaramanga or Hugo Drax, and the alien mastermind, the Cyclops, less Gigeresque alien queen and more Audrey II by way of H P Lovecraft.

Contamination9Now remastered and released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films, Contamination wore its rip-off status liberally and shamelessly and was released internationally under the varied guises of Alien Contamination, Contamination: Alien on Earth and Toxic Spawn, but there are other influences and it is also interesting to note moments from the film which have themselves been repeated in subsequent better regarded features.

With an office containing posters for Star Trek The Motion Picture, Things to Come, Forbidden Planet and Destination Moon among others, Cozzi confirms the specific influence of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, echoed in the mental influence of the spores, the packing plant, the phrasing of the description of the passage of the dormant pods through the cold vacuum.

Contamination10Most interesting in this archive feature is the uncredited background use of Jerry Goldsmith’s unmistakable scores of both Alien and Star Trek The Motion Picture.

Released six months before in February 1980, the Sea Grass, the ghost ship of John Carpenter’s The Fog with bodies hidden inside lockers, is perhaps enough of an archetype that it can be regarded as coincidence, but the arrival at the Chicago docks of the cargo ship which housed the Kothoga on its passage from South America in Peter Hyams’ The Relic (1997) almost mirrors the opening scenes here.

Contamination11The use of flamethrowers against the intruder was suggested by the crew of the Nostromo though never put into effect, so the actual shot of combusting eggs in the Bronx warehouse prefigures Ellen Ripley unleashing her fury in the refinery under Hadley’s Hope by six years; Aliens director James Cameron of course begin his career working on the special effects of Battle Beyond the Stars.

The Martian egg chamber itself is housed within a monument shaped like a head; this image would not be featured in an Alien related film until Prometheus (2012) though the suggestion dates to Giger’s production art for the original Alien, even though rather than humanoid it more resembles a Wampa from The Empire Strikes Back; released released May 1980 but with production stills and art widely circulated before certainly that could have been a direct inspiration on Contamination.

Contamination13Also included in the package are a lengthy post screening discussion of the film from Abertoir horror festival featuring Cozzi and McCulloch, an interview with composer and keyboard player for Goblin Maurizio Guarini and a graphic novel adaptation where the blonde villainess becomes brunette while formerly brunette Colonel Holmes has transformed into Madonna during her I’m Breathless phase.

Most interesting is Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Flattery, McDonagh and Chris Poggiali’s analysis of the Italian “Mockbusters” trend, both fascinating and funny and surely only the tip of the iceberg.

Contamination is available now from Arrow Films

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