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#AlienDay 2018: Sticky Faces and Alpha Rays – We’re in Danger! The Italian ‘Alien’ Knockoff Legacy

Italian genre cinema has a rich history built on imitating other successful films. In the heyday of Italian cinema during the late '50s and '60s, the studio production machine of Italy cranked out cycles upon cycles of derivative films: Hercules (1958, Pietro Francisci) setting off a wave of sword and sandal films; Goldfinger (1964, Guy Hamilton) starting the Eurospy trend; the spaghetti westerns were based off the success of Leone’s work; and so on. With the advent of the big budget, summer blockbuster films from America in the '70s, such as Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg), the Italians followed suit as best as possible: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg) led to Hunters of the Golden Cobra (1982, Antonio Margheriti); Jaws became The Last Shark (Enzo G. Castellari); Escape from New York (1981, John Carpenter) became 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982, Enzo G. Castellari); and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos) became Strike Commando (1987, Bruno Mattei). If there was a blockbuster or a hit film, the Italians had an answer for it.

The Aliens franchise (Alien [1979, Ridley Scott] and Aliens [1986, James Cameron]) did not escape the Italian treatment, as a handful of Alien knockoffs were produced during the '80s. These include the films Alien 2: On Earth (1980, Ciro Ippolito), Contamination (1980, Luigi Cozzi), and Alien from the Deep (1989, Antonio Margheriti). These films unabashedly lifted elements from the Alien films and repurposed them into new narratives, and yet maintained that distinct Italian genre cinema charm to them. 


Alien 2: On Earth purports to be a sequel to Scott’s original Alien film; it begins with stock footage of a reentry module being retrieved from the ocean, the implication being that this is the crew of the Nostromo returning to Earth. This, of course, chronologically makes no sense (as Alien takes place in the future while Alien 2 is contemporary to 1980), but this practice of creating unofficial sequels barely tethered to the original film was standard practice in Italy: Zombi 2 (1979, Lucio Fulci) has no connection with Zombi which was a retitled cut of Dawn of the Dead (1978, George Romero); Ghosthouse (1988, Umberto Lenzi), also called La Casa 3, has no canonical relation to La Casa 2, also known as Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi); and so on. The majority of Alien 2 takes place underground, as the psychic Thelma and her friends attempt to enjoy some spelunking but are, instead, hunted by an alien. It’s never 100% fully established that the alien came from the returned spaceship (but that’s the logic the viewer must go with), and the underground scenes recall the claustrophobic feeling of Kane and crew exploring the caves and the derelict spaceship on LV-426. Upping the ante from the chest-bursting scene from Alien, Alien 2 has an alien burst forth from a woman’s face! The film ends with Thelma, as the final girl, returning to the city, deserted of human life and aliens running about.

Contamination is perhaps the most well known of the Italian Alien knock offs for spending time on the British Video Nasties list during the '80s due to its extremely gory special effects. If there was one aspect of Alien that Contamination focused on, it was replicating the chest-bursting scene as much as possible. In Contamination, a shipping boat arrives to New York with all hands onboard dead (knocking off the beginning of the aforementioned Zombi 2). Inside the ship are green football/avocado-shaped eggs. When these eggs explode, they coat everything in their gooey slime, and whatever makes contact with that slime explodes, as well. Contamination is rife with many, many scenes of people in hazmat suits (obviously hiding the special effects underneath) exploding, propelling viscera everywhere. The first half of the film is detective work, as Colonel Stella, NYPD detective Tony, and astronaut Ian try to investigate where the eggs come from. The last half of the film takes on a spy-thriller approach as the action moves to a coffee plantation in South America. Here, the exploding eggs are being grown and shipped worldwide. Hidden deep inside the plantation’s factory is a giant queen alien with hypnotic powers, grown from a seed taken from a Mars mission years earlier.

Alien from the Deep borrows heavily from both Aliens as well as Predator (1987, John McTiernan). In this film, two Greenpeace activists, Jane and Lee, sneak onto an island where a company called E-Chem is dumping toxic waste into a volcano. The energy given off from the volcano attracts an alien that crash-lands into the water and begins to wreak havoc on the company’s installation. The jungle setting conjures up vibes from Predator as does the alien itself; it has a giant scorpion claw for a hand, but it wears a helmet with various pipes and tubes coming out of it. It bleeds green blood, much like the Predator and the Xenomorph, that is also highly radioactive with corrosive attributes. The island jungle setting that includes the religious element of a village mission can also be compared to Vincent Ward’s proposed Alien 3 script, which would have taken place on a wooden planet with monks. The corruption of E-Chem follows the same corruption found in Weyland-Yutani in Aliens. At Alien from the Deep’s finale, Jane is stripped down to her underwear (having had to use a decontamination chamber) and battles the giant alien using a construction loader. The sequence combines both the ending of the first Alien (where Ripley battles the alien in her undergarments) and the ending of Aliens (where Ripley battles the queen alien using a power loader). Instead of being blasted into space, the alien is thrown into the volcano.

While these three films unabashedly ripped off key elements from Alien and Aliens, they also (inadvertently) wound up predicting story elements that would be found in future Alien films. The many spelunking scenes of Alien 2 have parallels to Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott), when an expedition gets lost in a structure on LV-223. In Contamination, the presence of the alien queen at the film’s end predates Cameron’s queen from Aliens. Colonel Stella, being trapped in a bathroom with a green egg about to explode, is similar to Ripley and Newt being trapped in the medical bay with a facehugger running around. The waste disposal scenes in Alien from the Deep mirror Alien 3 (1992, David Fincher), especially the scenes where Ripley and the other prisoners of Fury 161 roll barrels of flammable toxic waste around in an attempt to trap the alien. While not nailing the gothic architecture found in Alien 3, scenes of foundries and tunnels covered in chains in Alien from the Deep evoke feelings of Fincher’s film. In a strange, circular ironic twist, as Alien from the Deep ripped off Cameron’s Aliens, Cameron himself would make a documentary in 2005 called Aliens from the Deep.

The Alien franchise has long been influential to cinema and pop culture (with sequels, prequels, comics, video games, action figures, parodies, and so on), but these Alien-inspired Italian films are interesting curiosities to the legacy, providing illumination to another facet that the franchise has been influential. They also provide a window into the Italian practice of making knockoffs of big-budgeted American films that was happening in the late '70s and '80s. The films may stand in the shadows of giants, but they stand none-the-less as great, gory, exploitation fare.



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