• Gabe Powers

Contamination Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)

A cargo ship drifts up the Hudson River. Its crew: all dead, their bodies horribly mutilated, turned inside-out by an unknown force. Its freight: boxes upon boxes of glowing, pulsating green eggs. It soon becomes clear that these eggs are not of this planet and someone intends to cultivate them here on Earth. But who? And to what end? (From Arrow’s official synopsis)



During its popular heights, the Italian film industry’s M.O. was reflavoring Hollywood formulas and most Italian cult filmmakers developed their reputation/following because of the ways that they made those formulas their own. Luigi Cozzi, on the other hand, was one of many directors that never quite broke out of the mold he was hired to fill, despite making well-liked movies. This may have been because Cozzi didn’t fit the dark, baroque, and gory canon of the giallo and horror-heavy ‘70s and ‘80s. He grew up a fan of fantasy cinema and special effects movies – a proclivity that would’ve served him well during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when Italian filmgoers were obsessed with mythological peplum (sword & sandal) adventures.


Cozzi is mostly known for his collaborations with Dario Argento – including screenplay assistance on Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italian: 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971), directing duties on one episode of the Argento-produced television series Door into Darkness (Italian: La porta sul buio; episode titled Il vicino di casa, 1973), and second unit duties on Phenomena (aka: Creepers, 1985), Two Evil Eyes (Italian: Due occhi diabolici, 1990), and The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) – but his most enduring success came from a short streak of sci-fi/fantasy cash-ins that Argento had no hand in making – Starcrash (1979), Contamination (aka: Alien Contamination, 1980), and Hercules (1983). Starcrash and Hercules were pulpy and ridiculous odes to Ray Bradbury that were released in hopes of capitalizing on the popularity of George Lucas’ Star Wars (despite appearances, Cozzi was really just using the Star Wars craze as an excuse to play with Bradbury tropes), while Contamination was an early attempt to exploit the box office returns of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The irony, of course, was that Alien (like Star Wars) was already more or less a classy rip-off of B-level sci-fi/horror movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Mario Bava’s Italian-made Planet of the Vampires (Italian: Terrore nello Spazio, 1965).



The Alien exploitation train is still working today, sometimes even with A-level studio budgets, but it was at its peak during the very early ‘80s. This included B.D. Clark’s Galaxy of Terror (1981), Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (aka: Horror Planet, 1981), Allan Holzman’s Forbidden World (aka: Mutant, 1982), Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro (1982), and the other major Italian entry, Ciro Ippolito’s Alien 2: On Earth (Italian: Alien 2 Sulla Terra, 1980). Despite its place in the pantheon, Contamination’s connections to Alien are minor in retrospect – a distinction that helps separate it from the increasingly interchangeable field. In fact, bereft of a space-bound location and a Xenomorph-like critter, the only things that Cozzi’s movie even has in common with Scott’s movie are leathery alien eggs, chest-bursting-like effects (minus the chest-burster aliens, of course), and the corporate interest in the newly discovered alien species. These are all elements that, coincidentally, ended up endured throughout the official Alien franchise.


Cozzi’s broader interests, coupled with the fact that producer Charles Mancini was open to pilfering multiple properties, makes for a charming little mishmash of themes and images from other science fiction properties. In an interview conducted for Luca Palmerini & Gaetano Mistretta’s Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors as Seen Through the Eyes of Their Protagonists (Fantasma Books, 1996), Cozzi is quick to point out that Contamination’s main plot has more in common with paranoid secret invasion movies, like Val Guest’s Quatermass II (1957) and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Indeed, when Cozzi’s script, co-credited to Erich Tomek, is boiled down to its essential ingredients, it’s plot is about an alien-run conspiracy to covertly take over the planet using human hosts/participants. It may not live up to the allegorical and layered stories that inspired it, but Contamination certainly broadens the thematic scope beyond that of the typical Alien cash-in, where spaceship sets and bloody creature attacks propel the narrative. Cozzi and Tomek also deserve some credit for being ahead of the curve in seeing the budget-friendly potential in this kind of story, something that would gain mainstream television popularity in the form of V (1984-1985) and The X-Files (you could practically remake Contamination with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in the lead roles and, with the fat trimmed, have yourself a mediocre episode).



Another obvious (if not mostly incidental) point of reference was Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979). The similarities are found in the hiring of British actor Ian McCulloch in a leading role, as well as the opening sequence, which mirrors Zombie’s opening, featuring a the discovery of a mysterious derelict boat in a New York harbor (the line “The captain must be a real turkey,” is even repeated in homage to Zombie’s dialogue). Contamination isn’t a zombie movie, of course, but it is important to acknowledge that Fulci’s film had established a template for later Italian gore exports. There were expectations in effect and the Fulci style of over-the-top violence became a trademark of the era. Cozzi’s gut-busting sequences aren’t as wall-to-wall as Fulci’s gut-munching sequences, not to mention that Giovanni Corridori’s effects aren’t up to the standards of Giannetto De Rossi’s (you can usually see the remnants of the air cannons that blow the viscera out of the actors), but it certainly fit the fit with Fulci and De Rossi’s intentions. It was at least gross enough to get Contamination temporarily banned on home video in the UK during the BBFC’s Video Nasties craze.


In true spaghetti exploitation fashion, Contamination’s strengths and weaknesses tend to be drawn from the same sources, hence the film’s reputation as Mystery Science Theater 3000 type so-bad-it’s-good (Cozzi finally had a movie of his, Starcrash, officially featured when the series was rebooted for Netflix in 2017). In this case, there are too many overlapping plot points that end up weighing down the middle act. Cozzi’s pacing issues (his unauthorized sequel to Suspiria [1977] and Inferno [1980], De Profundis/The Black Cat [1989], is possibly the longest 89 minutes in cinema history) are compounded by Mancini’s (reported) insistence that the film include elements from the James Bond brand of spy thriller. “007 battling an underground alien conspiracy” sounds like a delightfully wacky idea, but no one involved seems to have been fully invested in the prospect. The slump begins when the story is uprooted from New York and sent to South America – a turn that halfheartedly pays homage to both the Bond series’ penchant for globe-trotting, while also placating the Italian movie-going public’s continuing obsession with third world cultures (as seen in the Mondo movies, the cannibal movies, and some post-Fulci zombie movies). McCulloch, who is introduced as a drunken, bitter ex-astronaut during the second act, is suddenly shifted into a more heroic Bond substitute, despite the first act setting up a different, more appealing hero in Marino Masé. Scenes that play out pretty well on their own, such as the suspenseful, giallo-infused sequence where the female lead, Louise Marleau, is trapped in a bathroom with one of the exploding eggs, become vestigial dead ends that should’ve been cut before filming. Fear not, though, because the final 20 minutes veer right back into loony alien schemes, before culminating in a patently ridiculous climax that truly characterizes Cozzi’s value as a goofball cult filmmaker.



Video

Contamination was hard to find on VHS. It was released stateside in an edited, R-rated form by Paragon Video under the title Alien Contamination and, as I mentioned, it was banned in the UK throughout the ‘80s. In 2004, Blue Underground released the first fully uncut version on DVD and their anamorphic transfer was used again for Anchor Bay’s PAL disc in England. It was a good-looking disc, but this new 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray from Arrow is a sizable upgrade. The original negative was scanned in 2K for superior details and much finer gradations. Grain structure appears fine and accurate for a 35mm movie of this age and any significant print damage appears to have been subtly corrected with digital software (there is a bit of pulsing in some of the wider shots). There are no major signs of DNR enhancement and the lack of compression helps keep the edges tight without haloing. The overall image has been lightened up a tad as well to better facilitate the increase in clarity. The brightening is tastefully done without ruining any of cinematographer Joseph Pinori’s hard work (the flimsy special effects simply cannot sustain any harsh lighting) or blowing out any highlights. This also helps the differentiation of elements in the darkest sequences – especially those spectacular gore scenes. Black levels are more consistent than the occasionally brownish shades that marred the SD release, colors are brighter (still slightly ‘greened’), and gradations are smoother, thereby decreasing the banding seen on previous versions.



Audio

The Blue Underground/Anchor Bay UK Contamination DVDs featured a DTS-ES 6.1 surround remix. This track was similar to the other remixes that originated with Blue Underground in that they were pretty delicate – no noticeable additional elements and only minor delay/echo effects – but not really necessary. The only thing that this Blu-ray’s LPCM 1.0 English mono soundtrack is missing’ is the extra oomph of stereo spread for the musical tracks (which were likely taken from the stereo soundtrack record). True, the score (more on its creation below) is occasionally lost beneath sound effects and dialogue (the romantic theme tends to warble), but the important elements are clean and include no significant lapses in consistency. Arrow’s disc also includes the original Italian dub. It isn’t needed, considering that the film was shot without sound, nor is it preferred, since most US and UK fans got to know the film via the English dub (the LPCM sound quality sounds more compressed), but it’s still a fun addition for fans.


For music, Cozzi turned to his friend Dario Argento’s favourite prog-rock band, Goblin. However, it is important to note that the original Goblin line-up had fragmented by the end of the ‘70s. This particular soundtrack is credited to founding bass player Fabio Pignatelli, drummer Agostino Marangolo (who joined the band around the time of the Suspira soundtrack), keyboardist Maurizio Guarini (also Suspiria era), saxophonist Antonio Marangolo (presumably Agostino’s brother), and one-shot electric guitarist Roberto Puleo*. This line-up tended to produce more ‘mechanical’ and repetitive electronic scores that don’t get the same credit as the founding members’ more ‘proggy’ soundtracks. Contamination isn’t the most amusing album, but the relentless qualities and catchy melodies fit the context of the film.


* Founding keyboardist Claudio Simonetti and guitarist Massimo Morante did not participate in scoring Contamination, the Italian version of Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1979), or Joe D’Amato/Aristide Massaccesi’s Buio Omega (aka: Buried Alive and Beyond the Darkness, 1981) – though they did reunite with Pignatelli for Argento’s Tenebrae in 1982.



Extras

  • Commentary with Fangoria editor Chris Alexander – Alexander unravels the facts and figures of Contamination quickly, while also furiously speaking about/celebrating every aspect of ‘70s/’80s Italian horror. His tone is sometimes a bit too conversational and casual – something I’m sure some viewers will adore – but novice viewers will learn plenty between these more personal anecdotes.

  • Luigi Cozzi on Contamination (23:00, HD) – The writer/director playfully discusses Contamination for Italian TV. Also titled Notes on Fantasy Cinema, this vintage interview/featurette also appeared on Blue Underground’s DVD.

  • 2014 Q&A with Cozzi and star Ian McCulloch (41:10, HD) – This post-screening discussion is hosted by Ewan Cant. Cozzi leads most of the conversation with some informative technical discussion, while McCulloch looks uncomfortable and bored.

  • Sound of the Cyclops (11:30, HD) – Co-composer Maurizio Guarini talks about Contamination’s score and includes a small breakdown of Goblin’s continually changing line-up.

  • Luigi Cozzi vs. Lewis Coates (42:50, HD) – Another new interview with the director in which he discusses his entire career, from early inspiration to professional filmmaking. It includes footage from his films as well as relevant still images (like the covers of the books and magazines he contributed to), though it is distractingly projected behind him as he continues speaking directly to the camera. It ends with a brief scene from his latest movie, Blood on Méliès' Moon.

  • Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery (17:30, HD) – A critical analysis of the Italian genre rip-offs with critic/writers Maitland McDonagh ( Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Films of Dario Argento and Chris Poggiali (Temple of Schlock blog).

  • Trailer

  • Graphic Novel – Images from a graphic novel version of Cozzi’s original screenplay, illustrated by Sergio Muratori (who draws Louise Marleau’s character to look like Madonna).


The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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