Shocking Dark Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
In the near future, Venice, Italy has become toxic with pollution. One day, the scientists tasked with solving the problem are attacked by unknown creatures and a military team, including two civilian experts, is sent in to investigate.
With its simple story, aesthetically-driven style, and gut-punching shocks, few modern blockbusters have been as regularly and easily mimicked as Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Given the film’s roots in B-grade sci-fi, this glut of rip-offs seems perfectly warranted. In keeping with their reputation as Europe’s longest reigning cinematic copycats, Italy contributed its share of Alien-esque thrillers, namely Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (aka: Alien Contamination and Toxic Spawn, 1980) and Ciro Ippolito’s faux-sequel, Alien 2: On Earth (Italian: Alien 2 Sulla Terra, 1980). James Cameron’s similarly influential sequel, Aliens (1986), was also ripe for redux, though its bigger, action-centered scope was a bit more difficult to ape on a shoestring. Back in Italy, one brave filmmaker tasked himself with the role of number one ‘80s sci-fi rip-off artist for the region. With the help of co-writer/sometimes co-director Claudio Fragasso and co-writer Rosella Drudi, he combined Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) with John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) to create Robowar (Italian: Robowar - Robot da guerra, 1988), then, at the very end of his career, he recycled Cameron’s script, replaced the aliens with zombies, replaced the space marines with the Filipino army, and packaged the results – Zombies: The Beginning (Italian: Zombi: La creazione, 2007) – as a prequel to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979). But, Mattei’s ultimate Xerox-buster – perhaps even his ultimate movie as Trash Prince of Italian Cinema – is his near shot-by-shot Aliens remake, Shocking Dark.
On a technical level, Shocking Dark is surprisingly comprehensible. Giovanni Paolucci’s budget-stretching production design, the real-world nuclear reactor locations, and cinematographer Riccardo Grassetti’s desperate attempts at aping Cameron’s trademark steely blue look both go a long way towards mitigating Mattei’s weird editing choices and general lack of investment. The mutant creatures, designed by Francesco & Gaetano Paolocci, are kind of cool, too, even though they look more like diseased ‘Gillmen’ than the H.R. Giger creations. The dialogue and performances, on the other hand, are actually worse than expected. Everything is so forced and awkwardly timed that one wonders if a screenplay was ever actually written or if Mattei just asked the cast to watch Aliens before reporting to set. Working out a story while filming wasn’t particularly rare for Italian B-movies, but there was usually at least a template and a writer on set to help make sure the actors had something to say. In this case, it really seems like everyone is doing their best to improvise coherent dialogue. The always dependable Geretta Geretta does a pretty good mixed impression of Aliens’ Vasquez & Apone, and Christopher Ahrens has a Schwarzenegger-like screen presence. Otherwise, watching Shocking Dark is sort of like eavesdropping on a group of particularly large children reenacting their favourite movie, culminating in a hilarious moment where the young Newt stand-in misquotes one of Aliens’ most repeated adages in a thick Italian accent, stating “Mommy always said real monsters don’t exist, but it’s not true.”
...but wait, the madness doesn’t end with direct references to Aliens, because Mattei, Fragasso, and (probably) Drudi’s attempts at boiling Cameron’s film into nothing but its most memorable set-pieces left them about 10 minutes short of a proper theatrical runtime (despite their best efforts to pad the time between action). The obvious solution was to also cram a compressed version of The Terminator into the now jam-packed 90-minute magnum opus. To their credit, they do drop a couple of hints before revealing the robotic origins of one character (he’s the mixed Bishop/Burke analogue, so no one that has seen Aliens would be surprised), but the sudden introduction of time travel is A+ goofball filmmaking. This nearly nonsensical combination of two incompatible movies is actually more cynical than you think, because, in Italy, Shocking Dark was quickly retitled Terminator 2 in an effort to convince audiences that it was a legitimate sequel to Cameron’s film (in other territories, it was called Alienators, seemingly because they’d been beaten to the phoney Alien 2 title, but the best retitling was Thailand’s Alien Terminator).
Due in part to its bogus Terminator 2 Italian title, Shocking Dark was never released in North America. Not in theaters, not on VHS/Beta, not on Laserdisc, and not on DVD, but, it did have a healthy life on bootleg tape and digital files. Many of these were derived from an English-friendly Japanese VHS that was released under the title Alienators. Eventually, a similarly icky transfer showed up on R6 Hong Kong DVD via Samlink. Severin Films has braved possible copyright infringement lawsuits, armed with a brand new 2K remaster for this world Blu-ray debut. I’m not sure where the 2K scan was completed or what the source was (i.e. negative, interpositive, et cetera), but the results are pretty impressive, beyond unfair comparisons to the crummy bootlegs. The condition and age of the material poses some problems, mainly in terms of grain, though actual print damage is minimal (the opening titles are the only particularly dirty bits and the most prominent scratches are easily ignored). Larger issues are tied to the scan itself, which produces notable machine noise. I believe this is the root cause of the occasional posterization and other digital noise issues, more so than compression or authoring errors on Severin’s part. Colors are strong, though, as is the dynamic range; both of which help mitigate fine texture problems.
Unlike Severin’s same-day Zombie 3 and Zombie 4: After Death releases, Shocking Dark comes loaded with dub choices – English, Italian, Spanish, German, and Chinese (Cantonese, to be specific). The catch is that only the English dub is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio, while all of the others are all Dolby Digital tracks. As in the case of most amusingly terrible Italian genre rip-offs, the wooden, yet melodramatic English language performances actually add to the laughs. Surprisingly, many scenes seem to have been shot using synced on-set sound, which, even in 1988, was pretty rare for an Italian production. At the very least, the actors also seem to have been speaking English on set. The on-set recording didn’t go particularly well for the crew, but the hissy ambience and inconsistent sound quality is definitely not Severin’s problem. Composer Carlo Maria Cordio’s music manages to perk things up with its more tightly-mixed, driving electronic tunes, though it is vastly underutilized, leaving a lot of dull, blank space between scenes.
Terminator in Venice (13:14, HD) – Co-director/co-screenwriter Fragasso & Drudi discuss their commission to combine Aliens and The Terminator, the difficulties of building the story around the Venice locations, Italian producers’ habit of retitling movies to sell them as phony sequels, and offer their generally negative opinions on the final product.
Once Upon a Time in Italy (12:44, HD) – Actress and Italian horror superstar Geretta Geretta (aka: Geretta Giancarlo Field) recalls her early career, moving to Italy, her various Italian horror/thriller/sci-fi roles on Mattei’s Rats: Night of Terror (1984), Lucio Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984), Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), Ivana Massetti’s Domino (1988), and Shocking Dark, and directing her own films.
Alternate Italian Terminator 2 titles (1:44, HD)
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.