Prior to the advent of the so-called “eco-vengeance” genre, Italian cinema used animals, or at least the symbolism they naturally encapsulate, in the most disparate contexts, from those coherent with their nature to more unusual and weird derivations. With regard to the singular use of animals in Italian cinema, a reference is certainly owed to Dario Argento’s first films—L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970), Il gatto a nove code (The Cat o’ Nine Tails, 1971), and Quattro mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971)—which were followed by huge commercial success that encapsulated what Argento had learnt from Alfred Hitchcock and the Nouvelle Vague, as well as from the literary heritage of Raymond Chandler, where animals appeared in the titles embodying the characters’ gestures, modus operandi, and personalities—the animal as a metaphor representing the diabolical “human” nature. Although the presence of animals in the titles is often justified, of course, by some narrative solution or gimmick, the metaphorical value remains prominent.
A formula, the one devised by Argento, was so successful that it justified many similarly titled films, right up to Il gatto dagli occhi di giada (Watch Me When I Kill, 1977, translated from Italian as “The Cat with the Jade Eyes”) by Antonio Bido, which ended the trend. The presence of animals in the titles also revealed a veiled visionary component that gave the giallo genre an unusual metaphysical identity. The most original use of animals within the horror genre, even after the release of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), taps into their cruelest nature, as done in such films as Suspiria (1977) by Dario Argento, in which a pivotal scene sees the savage attack of a German Shepherd against its blind owner, or later on in Lucio Fulci's Black Cat (1981), where psychologist Robert Miles uses the titular feline to perform his vengeance—the same director will make his Aenigma (1987) famous for a long scene in which a hapless student is completely covered with snails.
The purest Italian “killer animal” examples were, above all, a response to the overseas trend and rose from the subsoil of B-movies and exploitation cinema: films made by means of luck, in which the dramatic component is often glued on and artificial like the foam and rubber creatures that stalk and maim the protagonists. Despite giving birth to some major cult films, this subgenre is amongst the least successful with regards to the last major phenomenon of Italian horror, one that never completely managed to break away from its principal source of inspiration, its main template, the aforementioned Jaws. Tentacoli (Tentacles, 1977) is one of the most representative titles, which, in addition to recording quite an extraordinary success, inspired and pushed other productions to try their hand within the subgenre, an example being L’Ultimo squalo (Great White a.k.a The Last Shark a.k.a. The Last Jaws, 1981) by Enzo G. Castellari. These two are among the best Italian productions, the rest having very little impact at the time they were released. Interestingly, a few films focused on the theme of contamination, such as Franco Prosperi's Wild Beasts (1984) and Rats—notte di terrore (Rats—Night of Terror, 1984) by Bruno Mattei (and Claudio Fragasso), in which hundreds of mice affected by radiation attack and kill off, resulting in a slasher-like body count, a bunch of survivors from a nuclear holocaust. Apocalyptic scenarios, prophesying a near-future disaster or the polluted and drugged metropolises of the ’80s, in which animal fury represented the metaphor of a violent nature, mimicking Hollywood standards.
Tentacles has the added value of introducing a new animal and one seldom used—a giant octopus—though the story is much like the one used by the more famous American model: a killer beast that roams the ocean floor, a threatened community which thrives on summer tourism, obtuse bureaucrats, massacres of helpless vacationers, and what could possibly turn out to be a suicide mission to end the carnage. Ovidio Assonitis packs the film with Hollywood giants of the past (Shelley Winters, John Huston, Henry Fonda), beloved character actors (Claude Akins, Bo Hopkins, Cesare Danova), and Italian beauties (Delia Boccardo) or foreign ones baptized by Italian celluloid (Sherry Buchanan). Like a European Irwin Allen, who would do something similar the following year with the star-studded The Swarm (1978), Assonitis thinks big, no matter what resources he has at his disposal, no matter what the budget is.
Tentacles is the result of a co-production between Italy and the United States (Samuel Z. Arkoff of AIP), and making it was notoriously complex, especially for the many underwater scenes: principal photography lasted 12 weeks, with locations in Atlanta and California, but also in Italy, between Argentario and Giannutri, with long underwater POV shots of the octopus (another clear reference to Spielberg’s film) and an ecological message fluctuating in the background. What Assonitis’ script, written with Tito Carpi, aims at, is rhythm and energy: “The Italian way of pacing films is quite slow. The Americans, instead, are much more careful with pacing. Italians put a lot of fillers and stuff which is not necessary. A film has to be made up of what is important and essential.” Therefore, ample space is devoted to the murders (the high points being Delia Boccardo being caught by the huge tentacles and the massacre during the regatta) and the pursuit of the animal, with the use of two orcas. Noteworthy is the obsessive and pounding music composed by Stelvio Cipriani, who, for the occasion, recycles the main theme of La polizia sta a guardare (The Great Kidnapping a.k.a. Ransom! Police is Watching, 1973).
Roughly four years after Tentacles, another killer water animal rose from the depths: Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) finds Egyptian-born producer Ovidio G. Assonitis meet none other than the king of high-concept blockbusters, James Cameron. Sequel to Joe Dante’s cult Piranha (1978), The Spawning represents one of the biggest clashes between director and producer in the history of exploitation, low-budget filmmaking.
Who had the idea of a sequel to the Corman-produced film directed by Joe Dante?
Ovidio G. Assonitis: Not me. I was involved when the vice president of Warner Bros., who I knew and had done business with, called me to tell me that two of the producers of Piranha (1978) had asked him if he was interested in making a sequel. I had a meeting with him where he told me, “The idea of a sequel convinces us. We want to do it, but not with them. We would like you to follow this one for us.” So, I bought the rights off these producers who I then relegated to nominal roles, associate producer credits or something like that. One was called Chako van Leeuwen. Once I had the rights and I had put the old producers aside, I was ready to go, but I found myself with a script which was unreadable, terrible, just awful. I told Warner, “I cannot proceed with this script.” The answer was, “Change all you want, but two things have to remain: the piranhas have to come from the sea—which of course is ridiculous—and they must be able to fly.”
Not happy or convinced by these conditions, I nonetheless started looking for a director. At a very early stage, I decided to look for a special effects technician, an expert in that field. I came from the devastating sea experience of Tentacles and already knew that we would have had problems, so I thought that by choosing somebody who was more technical than artistic, I could cut down on costs and have fewer problems in that department. To be even more precise, I wanted somebody who was working in special effects and eager to make their debut as a director. I chose the guy who had worked on The Hand (1981) by Oliver Stone. I don’t recall his name at the moment, but he was very talented. He accepted and I signed him on. One week passes by and he phones me asking to meet me. “You have to free me from your film,” he tells me, “Universal has asked me to become their special effects coordinator and they are offering a million-dollar-a-year contract.” With my film he was going to earn 3,000 dollars, both as the curator of the effects and director. “I would be an animal if I didn’t help. Consider yourself off the hook.”
I was back to square one. I asked him if he was able to suggest an adequate replacement. “Why don’t you go and have a chat with a certain Jim Cameron. He’s currently working on some model effects for the second unit of Escape from New York (1981) by John Carpenter.” “Is he good?” I asked. “I think he is. To be honest, we haven’t worked together much, but we bumped into each other a few times while he was working with Roger Corman.” With Corman, Cameron was working I think as an editor—you know the Americans are trained to do everything… they pass from one thing to the other. I went to meet him on the set of Carpenter’s film. He was very young and full of energy. As soon as I told him I was looking for a director for my film, he jumped from his seat and was absolutely overjoyed. I explained to him the fact that we didn’t have much of a budget, that the script had to be rewritten and that, generally speaking, it was a complicated project. He just continued repeating that it didn’t matter and that it was an honor to be able to direct the film. So, he came to Italy where we started pre-production.
Let’s explain, to those who are not familiar with this mechanism, exactly what kind of deal you made with Warner.
Ovidio G. Assonitis: It was basically a pre-acquisition. I pre-sold the distribution rights of the film. They never became the owners of the film. Contractually I have always been the owner and producer, but they bought the rights for worldwide distribution. We were supposed to make various films together, Piranha 2 being the second one.
Who wrote the script?
Ovidio G. Assonitis: We both did, Cameron and I. I was more of a supervisor. My main role was to check that those elements that Warner had approved were kept in the story. I had to stand by their choices, but most of the story came from Cameron: the dialogues, the key points of the narrative… it’s all his doing. The writing process lasted about two months, after which we started thinking about the special effects. Throughout the writing stage, Cameron would draw the pivotal scenes and start sketching the design and look of the piranhas. The conceptual artwork he created was quite outstanding. He had an engineering background and a great eye. With the script and sketches in hand, I started introducing him to people I thought were the best choices to start conceiving and modelling his vision.
Jamaica, as a location, was certainly an original choice: yours, I imagine. What about the cast?
Ovidio G. Assonitis: Mine, of course. Jamaica, as you pointed out, had not been used much. I thought it was an interesting choice, even to distance the film from its predecessor. The cast was chosen by both of us, but it wasn’t an important cast, no important names. Lance Henriksen was my choice, seeing he had done a good job on The Visitor. Plus, he had an interesting face and was cheap. Cameron liked him, and in fact signed him up numerous times afterwards. Everything was going relatively smoothly. We didn’t have much of a budget, but enough to make things work, though I had to be careful. If we went over budget, I would have had to start using my own money.
So, as you said, pre-production proceeded without problems, right?
Ovidio G. Assonitis: Yes, I mean, nothing worth mentioning. The usual setbacks and frustrations that can be expected. Then we moved from Rome to Jamaica to start shooting. On the first day, I took Cameron aside: “Listen Jim, I like you, you’re intelligent. You have interesting ideas; you are visionary”—which is true, he is incredibly visionary—"you have a great sense of style, but you have no experience. I sincerely hope you do as far as special effects are concerned… But as a director, you have none. Now, I’ve surrounded you with technicians and collaborators who have decades of experience, working with everybody, from Alfonso Brescia to Fellini. Describe what you want and I’m sure they will be able to help you. That’s why they’re here: to support you and help bring your vision onto the screen.”
This happened on the first day. On the second, I realized he hadn’t listened to a word I had said and on the eighth day he was six days behind schedule… because he was experimenting… which is something he would do even later on in his career, which is fine when you have the money and the means, but we were on a tight schedule and a small budget. And all this was happening with regular scenes with actors; we hadn’t even started with the piranhas and special effect sequences! By the end of the first week, members of the crew were coming to me with complaints. He had lost control of the situation and hold on the crew and cast. The actors hated him because he was arrogant: at times vulgar, but mostly presumptuous. While all this was going on, I stood by his side, defending him. Over the years Cameron has been very aggressive and provocative when talking about me and I have never reacted, but I will just tell you this anecdote, which is very emblematic and is something I have never told anybody…
It was the Monday of the second week. They were shooting on the beach, not far from the hotel where we were staying. I was in my room-turned-office doing what a producer does: telephoning, checking expenses, and it was just a little over midday when I made my way to the set to see how things were going and nobody was there. The set had been moved and nobody had told me anything. Then I see the crew, in the distance… on boats, rowing boats and larger vessels, 20, 30people on boats, out at sea. All of a sudden, I notice a man swimming towards the shore… it was the 1st AD. He emerges from the water, fully dressed, and comes up to me shouting, “That guy is a maniac. I’m out of here. He is driving everybody crazy.” I just stood there, incredulous. “But why are you over there, at sea?!” I couldn’t understand what scene he could possibly be shooting. “He is chasing a cloud.” He was chasing a cloud… one that had the shape and color he wanted. The situation had reached a point of no return. Everybody hated his guts and kept repeating to me that he was going to drive the film into the ground. So, I called for him and said, “Jim… I have to fire you, but seeing you have undoubtedly put a lot of effort into your work, I won’t send you away. You can direct all the underwater sequences with special effects and the piranhas.” So, I took care of the principal photography and dialogue-based scenes with the actors, and I sent him off to the Cayman Islands to do the underwater scenes. We had chosen that area because the water there is always very calm and there is plenty of light.
How did he take this ultimatum?
Ovidio G. Assonitis: Reluctantly, but he didn’t have much of a choice. He wasn’t happy; he had been removed as a director and from his point of view, I had taken over his film, which of course I had. I had to. So, I finished the main portion of the film with him next to me, suffering in silence, and then, once the actors had finished, I sent him off to the Cayman Islands with a reduced crew and all the fish puppets and mechanical effects we had created back in Rome and brought with us. I returned to Rome and started editing what we had filmed. We had gone slightly over budget, and we were definitely late on our schedule, but my damage control system had worked, and we seemed to be back on track… until I viewed the footage he sent us from Jamaica. Apart from a small sequence set in an abandoned ship at the start of the movie, the rest was… I felt like putting a gun to my head. The fish just flopped around in the water… They would go in the wrong direction! He had put some underwater electric cables that weren’t necessary, that would break or short circuit… It was unusable and simply disastrous. I found myself in the same situation as Tentacles. In other words, other people’s incompetence put me, once again, in the position of having to deal with the situation and take things into my own hands. His drawings were very good; the models and puppets were functional and well-conceived, and the piranhas with their protruding teeth and bat-like wings were not at all bad, but the actual effects in use were terrible. It was impossible to edit even if you wanted to. I had spent a small fortune getting him all the things he had asked for and the outcome was that I found myself with some rubber fish that couldn’t swim straight. I ordered him to wrap and come to Rome.
In the meantime, I started preparing a new, smaller crew, to shoot some extra scenes in order to piece together something usable. A week after Cameron had come back from Jamaica, I found him sitting in front of my office at seven in the morning and this is when I genuinely felt admiration for him. Most people, after all this, would have returned home and never looked back, but he didn’t lose a beat and asked me if he could stay on and help me with post-production. He wanted to see the film through editing, and I let him, but with new conditions: “I’m not letting you have the liberties and leeway you’ve had until now, that’s for sure.” I liked the kid: he was full of hope and ambition despite not having a dime. They had gotten his car and he didn’t have a place to sleep. I took care of him and put some money in his pocket. Over the years, I’ve read interviews in which he states I wouldn’t let him eat, that we would go to restaurants and he would have to fill up on bread. This never happened: it’s rubbish.
How did the editing process go?
Ovidio G. Assonitis: Like all the rest. After a couple of weeks, the editor tells me, “You know you’re going to make me rich with this film. You’ll be the one to put my kids through university.” “Why?” “Because we’re going to take ages to finish editing it. You come and tell me to edit the scene a certain way, then Cameron arrives and undoes everything, only to end up doing what you told me to do in the first place. I’m telling you this for your own sake, because hey… I’m getting paid either way.” Again, Cameron was experimenting. He was going to film school at my expense, so again I had to be firm: “Jim, I forbid you to put a foot in the editing room.”
The special effects of the film, you can tell, were done on a low budget, but they hold up fairly well, all things considered.
Ovidio G. Assonitis: I found myself forced to invent tricks and ideas. I had some experience after films like Beyond the Door and Tentacles, but I was far from being an expert. Like with the squid in the previous sea film… I used aquariums, puppets, some created by Cameron, others created brand new and cheaply by another small lab, here in Rome.
Wait, though, how did Cameron respond to being chased out of the editing suite?
Ovidio G. Assonitis: He would try and sneak in when I wasn’t around, but the editor, Roberto Silvi, wouldn’t let him in. So, he would hang out in my office; he didn’t have anywhere to go. I just let him follow me around… after all I felt sorry for the guy. This tall, thin-looking kid… though by this time I wasn’t treating him too well. He had exasperated me with his bullshit. Years later the editor met him in Los Angeles by chance. Silvi, who is Roman, after my Piranha film, became a big name in the business and did really high-profile stuff with directors like John Huston and Tommy Lee Jones. They met entering a cinema, possibly a premiere, and Silvi overheard Cameron speaking badly about “his shitty Italian…” Something like that, and Silvi kicked his ass… punched Cameron right in the face. He waited for him in the garage and smashed him.
So, he actually isn’t even responsible for the editing?
Ovidio G. Assonitis: No, not really. After being banned from the suite, on occasion I would let him back in, but only in my presence. I let him speak but as soon as he started being silly, Silvi and I would make sure he shut up: “Jim, stop speaking. That’s enough from you.” The film has a week’s worth of stuff which he directed and thirty percent of the effects scenes which he is responsible for… one being the moment in which the helicopter crashes and explodes, which he begged me to shoot, but didn’t get that completely right either… However, it’s in the film…