Contamination (1980) – By Roger Carpenter

 

The Italians will jump on any bandwagon. Witness the explosion of spaghetti westerns in the late sixties and seventies in the wake of Sergio Leone’s trilogy; the weirdly named animal gialli of the seventies in the wake of Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage; and the cops and robbers films of the seventies (called poliziotesschi in Itallian). Perhaps the most infamous copy was The Last Shark (1981), a nearly scene-for-scene rendition of Jaws that was so obviously plagiarized Universal sued to have it removed from American theaters (I was lucky enough to see this in theaters before it was pulled..I use the term “lucky” facetiously).

Contamination was one of several Alien rip-offs spawned in the wake of that film’s huge box office success. Penned and directed by Luigi Cozzi (here billed under his American moniker, Lewis Coates), Cozzi figures to out-alien Alien by having hundreds of eggs and at least a half-dozen body explosions. An unabashed sci-fi and fantasy fan, Cozzi made the stylish giallo The Killer Must Kill Again as well as a little-seen sex farce before trying to cash in on the American sci-fi craze started by Star Wars and continued by Alien. He made the very low-budget Starcrash with Caroline Munroe and followed up Contamination with the then-popular Lou Ferrigno in Hercules and Hercules II. Plagued with big ideas and little money, Cozzi’s films were no-budget rip-offs of more popular international hits. Nevertheless, many people love his films for the silly plots and outrageous effects. Contamination is no different.

Starring Ian McCulloch of Zombie Flesh Eaters and Dr. Butcher fame, French Canadian Louise Marleau, and Italian character actor Marino Mase (also seen in Argento’s Tenebrae), Contamination is a tale of two astronauts on a mission to Mars, Hubbard and Hamilton. When they return, Hubbard (McCulloch) reports seeing strange egg-like structures while Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch) denies this story and blames the hallucinations of his colleague on stress. Subjected to congressional hearings and torn to ribbons by Colonel Stella Holmes (Marleau), Hubbard is disgraced and sinks into alcoholic oblivion. Fast forward two years later and NYC police lieutenant Tony Aris (Mase) discovers an abandoned tanker heading full speed into a New York harbor. Upon inspection the crew is found mysteriously torn apart (“It’s like something on the inside tried to get out,” says one character) and the hold is filled with weird, gooey, green eggs.

The investigation is quickly taken over by Colonel Holmes who hunts down Hubbard to confirm her suspicions—these eggs are the same as Hubbard described upon his return from the Mars mission. Not terribly keen to help Colonel Holmes, Hubbard nonetheless steps up and, with help from Lieutenant Aris, the three fly to Colombia to try and trace the source of the eggs down before Earth is contaminated.

There are so many problems with this film it’s difficult to understand how it has stood the test of time. While McCulloch is, as always, a solid actor, Marleau is unbelievable as a tough-as-nails Colonel in the Army—complete with long, wavy hair and far too much makeup, she is out of place as a military official. Cozzi couldn’t decide how to write the character of Colonel Holmes so there is some very awkward fumbling around a possible love interest which ultimately is left undeveloped. Mase’s character starts out as a hard-bitten cop but very quickly devolves into a pretty sad comedic foil for both McCulloch and Marleau.

Unexplained oddities in the script abound. There is a monster that apparently lays the eggs, but for some reason the eggs are seen being cultivated outside in a garden. What? Just how does this work? Also, it is implied early on that mind control may be in use but there is at least one plot point that causes confusion until the end when it is, in fact, revealed that mind control is actually being used. Again, a bit more clarity might have been useful midway through the film. I could continue to pick the script apart but let’s move on to the monster.

Yes, this is a low-budget film, but this monster is straight out of a Roger Corman programmer from the late fifties. It is simply hilarious! Called the Cyclops for its one glowing yellow eye—which is obviously an electric light set in its head—Cozzi admits the beast was foisted upon him by the producer who used an inexperienced special effects man to build the thing. The contraption promptly failed during the very first day of shooting and Cozzi was forced to use creative camera angles and editing to save the production. While all this may be true, Cozzi has only himself to blame for choosing to create an electrical explosion of sparks when the Cyclops is destroyed by being shot in the eye. Really? Sparks? This creature is supposed to be organic, not mechanical.

Contamination is filled with idiosyncrasies such as this, which I think is part of the charm for viewers of low-budget Italian genre films. But throw in an original (and oft-stolen) score by Goblin, some very gory full-body explosions, and hundreds of ooey-gooey eggs, and many viewers simply fall in love with the film. Even with all its problems, the script for Contamination is more linear than 90% of the other Italian genre films out there, so it’s easy to follow even if it’s a bit silly. And even today the gore holds up. It must have been utterly shocking in 1980, and was certainly gory enough to get the film banned by the DPP in Britain, likely another reason the film has gained cult status around the world.

So if you are a fan of these kinds of films, Arrow Video has done you a huge favor by releasing this film in all its uncut, pristine, gory glory. It’s a fun time as long as you don’t think too hard about it. In fact it reminds me of another outrageously gory and hilariously bad Italian cannibal/zombie rip-off, Nightmare City (AKA City of the Walking Dead), directed around the same time by Umberto Lenzi. Neither film deserves to be remembered but even going on four decades later both films are adored by fans of this type of genre cinema, including this reviewer.

Deserving or not, Arrow Video has seen fit to give Contamination a beautiful, widescreen, 2K restoration from the original camera negative. Both Blue-Ray and DVD presentations are included. Both the original Italian and English tracks are included along with English subtitles for both. There are also some fabulous special features included as well. A commentary track with superfan and Fangoria/Gorezone editor Chris Alexander is fun as he reminisces about his youth trying to track down this film that Chas. Balun had described so gloriously only to find that he along amongst his friends enjoyed the film. Alexander still finds himself defending this film to this day, for all the reasons mentioned above.

There is an archive documentary on the making of Contamination starring a very young Luigi Cozzi as well as a 2014 Q&A with Cozzi and star Ian McCulloch at a film festival. It’s an entertaining feature as well as enlightening and a bit disturbing as we hear how suitcases were transported from Columbia back to Europe as part of the production agreement for financing the film. It’s pretty clear Contamination was at least partially financed by cocaine, but neither Cozzi nor McCulloch seem terribly worred by this. There is a short documentary with Goblin member Maurizio Guarini on composing the score, a theatrical trailer, and even a graphic novel based on the original screenplay accessed on the disc itself. But the two real gems are the features “Luigi Cozzi Vs. Lewis Coates” which is a new interview with Cozzi that spans his entire career and focuses on Contamination as well as “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery,” an examination of the very Italian phenomenon of cashing in on international hits with cheap knock-offs. Through it all, each person who speaks of Cozzi speaks of him lovingly and as a real talent who simply never had the money needed to make the epic he wanted to make. Cozzi himself is humble and genuine and comes across as simply a really nice guy.

So, if you are a fan of so-so acting, iffy scripts, fake monsters, and really gory body explosions, you can’t do much better than Contamination. The film can be found on Amazon or you can go directly to http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa