The Italian Alien Rip-Offs

As I’ve frequently highlighted here, somewhere in the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s Italian genre cinema lost its way; whereas previously it had produced an interesting mix of highbrow and schlock material, somewhere along the way a race to the bottom began, yielding a glut sloppy B-movies turfed out in a hurry, often for the sake of ripping off some more prominent, more successful movie. When Alien was a hit in 1979, it was inevitable that Italian producers would try to rip it off. Let’s take a look at two attempts, neither of which manage to capture the charm of the original movie.

Alien 2: On Earth

We open as journalists assemble to cover the the return of a mission to space, the capsule expected to splash down in the ocean. Meanwhile, caving expert Thelma Joyce (Belinda Mayne) hustles to a TV studio (which seems to be located inside an old cinema, based on the exterior shots), where the local station is going to interview her about her group’s explorations as a way of filling time until the astronauts show up. Thelma, during the interview, shows signs of illness; her husband Roy (Mark Rodin) explains that Thelma is telepathic and she sometimes has funny turns when significant things happen (in the same tone of voice you’d use to explain that someone has a mild allergy to cats).

After the interview Thelma drags Roy and, later, the rest of the caving team around town doing various weird errands – meeting some guy from a yacht who tells her to ignore her concerns, and then randomly yelling at a little girl at the beach for no reason. Well, perhaps she did have a precognitive reason – for after Thelma leaves, the child encounters something squamous and eldritch on the beach and disappears, and when her mother finds her she’s had her face ripped off (though apparently this leaves no bloodstains or trail of blood and she is still able to sit there sobbing like someone broke her favourite toy despite lacking any of the parts of the body which would allow you to cry).

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Zombies At the Gates of Hell

After producing some well-received giallo pieces in the 1970s, Lucio Fulci’s standing as a horror director reached its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s – elevated on the back of a horde of zombies. Brought in as a hired gun to direct Zombie Flesh Eaters, the movie turned out to be Fulci’s international breakthrough. He was able to use this new stature to produce his famed Gates of Hell trilogy was born – this being City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House By the Cemetery.

Every one of these ended up caught up in some level in the UK’s video nasty controversy – Zombie Flesh Eaters and The House By the Cemetery were on the Department of Public Prosecutions’ “Section 1” list of material successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, The Beyond was on the “Section 3” list of material which had not been successfully prosecuted in and of it self but which police could confiscate under a “less obscene” charge, whilst City of the Living Dead, whilst never on the official list, was sometimes seized by the police anyway since it was a Fulci movie and often lumped in with the others.

For this article I’m going to cover both the Gates of Hell trilogy and the movie which made the sequence possible.

Zombie Flesh Eaters

Though the franchise this kicked off is known as Zombie Flesh Eaters in the English-language market, it was promoted in its native Italy and some other markets as Zombi 2 – in other words, a supposed sequel to Dawn of the Dead, whose Italian cut was released under the name Zombi. This sleazy action on the part of the studio kicked off a naming mess tha’ts almost as controversial as the content of the film itself (and of the many films which tried to freeride on its infamous reputation).

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George Eastman: Absurd Anthropophage

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Among the various movies added to the so-called “video nasty” list in the UK in the 1980s, few have as as much in common as Anthropophagous and Absurd. Both are projects by expert trash merchant Joe D’Amato, and both have George Eastman in almost identical costuming. And both are incredibly grim, though in mildly different ways…

Trigger warnings would be appropriate at this point: both of these involve cannibalism and murder, one involves violence against a pregnant woman, one involves violence against a disabled person.


As with many of the video nasties, this one was released under a whole swathe of different titles; the print 88 Films seems to have used to prepare this high-definition rerelease actually has the title “The Savage Island” appear during the opening scenes. The film kicks off with a young German couple exploring a delightful Greek island, with a lovely old village and decent beaches. As the man sunbathes, the woman spots a boat sitting apparently abandoned just off the beach. She swims over there, only to be shocked by what she finds therein – the occupant being the eponymous anthropophage, who after slaying her makes short work of her blissfully unaware friend.

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A Blunder In the Dark

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sing along everyone, to the tune of That’s Amore:

Wheeeeen you’re stabbed in the eye
And you gruesomely die
That’s giallo!

Ahem. Giallo is a distinctive subgenre of Italian horror that emerged in the late 1960s, reached a peak of unusual artistic accomplishment in the 1970s, and degenerated (along with much of the rest of the Italian B-movie industry) into unmitigated trash in the 1980s. It’s a sort of heavily stylised precursor to the slasher movie, with a big emphasis on psychological horror, often a strong mystery element, and occasional whiffs of the supernatural.

The innovator of the genre is generally held to be the prolific Mario Bava. Like many Italian directors of his era, Bava’s filmography is massive and diverse, but his horror work was particularly important; having made a start as a cinematographer, he directed his second movie, I Vampiri, in 1956 after original director Riccardo Freda had a falling-out with the producers and walked out of the project, leaving Bava to complete the unfinished shoot in just two days. The end result wasn’t exactly distinguished, but it’s a historically important work because it was the first Italian horror movie to be released in the sound era; the genre had been banned under Mussolini, and though fascist-era restrictions had been eased there had been a question mark over whether the Italian market had any appetite for horror.

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The Sophisticated Soavi

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Italian horror cinema is generally held to have had a peak of creative accomplishment in the 1970s and a rather sad decline in the 1980s, with the former masters of the genre suffering from diminishing returns and a tidal wave of second-rate material glutting the market.

A happy exception to this critical slump is the work of Michele Soavi. After serving an apprenticeship with a number of small acting parts and stints as an assistant director or second unit director for more prominent directors like Lamberto Bava, Joe D’Amato or Dario Argento, Soavi would direct four movies that are often taken to represent the best in Italian horror of the 1980s and 1990s.

Unfortunately, his career was derailed when he was forced to step back his involvement in the industry to care for his terminally ill son, though in the 2000s he did make some non-genre TV movies, and it’s still possible that – particularly with recent blu-ray releases of his own movies and those projects he assisted on coming out – the stars might align to allow him to produce another horror feature one day. If he does, these are the films that work will be measured against.

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Dario Argento’s Horror Disasterclass

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Italian horror cinema had a funny old journey in the 20th Century. After returning from the dead in the 1950s, when the Fascist-era ban was repealed, it didn’t really catch fire until Mario Bava gave it a welcome shot in the arm in the 1960s. Then a new generation of Bava-inspired auteurs (and utterly shameless ripoff merchants) rose in the 1970s, with Dario Argento reigning as the decade’s dark overlord. However, by the time the 1980s got into full swing the wheels were beginning to come off. Older hands were slowing down or becoming regrettably inconsistent, and the balance between stylish, artsy originals and schlocky formula material – the two types of movie the scene was best known for – started to swing dangerously towards the “disposable bullshit” side of the coin.

The Demons series seems to have been Dario Argento’s attempt to mentor the next generation of Italian horror directors. Enjoying a break from directing after wrapping up his Phenomena, Argento took on the role of producer and co-writer, with Lamberto Bava (son of Mario Bava) in the director’s chair. Perhaps the most important thing Argento brought to the table was his name, since it was one of a select few with genuine gravitas outside of the Italian horror bubble and it allowed him as producer to secure a budget for the movies that was well in excess of Lamberto’s earlier efforts.

Another protegee of Argento’s, Michele Soavi, acted as assistant director on the first movie and performed a couple of cameos in it, having collaborated with Lamberto in a similar capacity in his earlier A Blade In the Dark. In the long run, Lamberto Bava’s reputation has tended to be overshadowed in horror critic circles by his father’s, and he seems to have had most success outside of horror with his Fantaghiro series of fantasy TV movies. Conversely, Soavi seems to have done rather better out of the deal, with Argento giving him the same producer-and-cowriter help to produce his subsequent movies The Church and The Sect; moreover, Soavi’s final horror movie, Dellamorte Dellamore, is widely seen as the best Italian horror release of the 1990s, if not the final movement of Italian horror’s golden age. And Soavi… well, he doesn’t look back on the Demons films too fondly, writing them off as “pizza schlock”. Is he being unfair or ungrateful, or does he have a point? Best way to find out is to crack open the two-disc Arrow Video rerelease of the movies and see for ourselves…

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