The runaway success of Alien (1979) begat several imitators; monsters in space came into view again, but the lens was somewhat foggy on most of them. This is the nature of exploitation; take what you feel are the iconic (or most sellable) moments from a film and build upon those. Let’s look to the Italians, as we often do here, and talk about a film that erects an entire story around the chest-burster scene, while continually coming back to said scene. I’m talking about Contamination (1980) of course, Luigi Cozzi’s condemnation of trade relations with South America told in a sobering manner. Or, it’s *checks notes* an energetic mishmash of conspiracy thriller, grossout gorefests, and Invaders from Mars. I’m putting all my money on the latter.
Not released stateside until June of ‘82, Contamination (or as Cannon dubbed it, Alien Contamination, which is shy 11 minutes) hit the grindhouse circuit and was summarily dismissed as an Alien ripoff by people who hadn’t even been bothered to see it. The simple truth is it has nothing to do with Scott’s film other than a propensity for intestinal jack-in-the-box; it has no such serious aspirations beyond being an entertaining thriller. And it works.
We open in New York City (which was mandatory for any Italian horror film of the era), as a cargo ship slowly makes its way into the harbour, minus a captain; when local cop Tony Aris (Marino Mase - The Godfather: Part III) boards the ship with the Department of Health, they find a mass (a pod? A murder? A gathering?) of large, green, pulsating eggs. As they inspect one of the eggs, it bursts open and by turn, all of the crew members do too, leaving one hell of a cleanup for whichever grunt has to swab the decks.
Aris is taken by the government to a secret facility; full of slightly futuristic looking doodads, big-dialed machines that go “ping”, and Star Trek doors, he’s interrogated by Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau - In Praise of Older Women), a no nonsense bureaucrat who’s so high up she’s “level 5”. (I don’t know how many levels there are, I’m just assuming 5 is pretty good. I mean, it’s higher than 4.) She informs Aris that he will be joining her to track down the source of the eggs, a Columbian coffee company that insidiously hid them in their crates of coffee. But first, she needs the assistance of one Commander Hubbard (Ian McCulloch - Zombie), a disgraced ex-astronaut who saw the same eggs on a mission to Mars two years prior. No one believed him then, including Holmes; she does now however, and convinces him (after he gives her a mas macho face slap first, natch) to hop aboard the mission. So off they go to Colombia, where a tour of the coffee plant reveals the full scope of the insidious plan; can our intrepid three stop a worldwide takeover of, gasp...Martians?
What the green gooped critters want in Contamination is unclear; they certainly have no issue with destroying humans from the inside out, so do they just want the planet? Are they just gentrifying the neighborhood? Who’s to say? One thing is for certain, though: as far as these kinds of films go, this one makes sense, storywise. Which is to say that there aren’t any subplots or side characters to throw scraps of story to; we have our trio, a couple of complicit bad guys, and the eventual appearance of the leader of the Martians - a one eyed, one horned Hutt-ish blob that uses mind control on its victims. (I can not verify if it flies or is purple, sorry.)
Critics of the film argue that it’s too straightforward - they feel that the transition from New York to Colombia is a little light on action, and they’re not wrong. But the film side steps that issue by giving us interesting characters and solid performances to breathe life into them; McCulloch is always dependable in these films, and even though he doesn’t appear until the 30 minute mark, his energy lifts everything up. Marleau makes for a lively, commanding, and sexy lead, and Mase plays the laid back and perpetually horny cop with good humour. Any complaints of lag time fall by the wasteside as there’s genuine interest in what the three do; at least for me anyway, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much attention is paid to character over grue.
Not that Contamination doesn’t have it by the stomachful; it’s up front and loaded in the opening, shown a bit in the middle, and once again for the finale. Another complaint leveled at the film: it’s one effect portrayed over and over again. Sure, but if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie, the attacks are pretty much the same each time - a bite to the arm/leg/neck, followed by the ripping of flesh and arterial spray. It may be one effect, but it looks good time and again. The really interesting part is that Cozzi films every death in agonizing slow motion, like some kind of grindhouse Peckinpah (that may be an oxymoron), entrails shooting out and hitting the ground as the members of Goblin caress their synthesizers. (And they do caress them well.) I’m unsure if Cozzi was going for the same kind of statement about onscreen violence, but it does give the viewer an opportunity to notice the obvious chest pieces attached to the actors. (The effect is still gnarly, though.)
Truth be told, it took a couple of viewings of Contamination for me to come around on it; I too was originally let down by the alleged inertia of the middle, before realizing that the middle fleshes out these folks more so than usual. After all, man can’t live by entrails alone, even if they are shot out of a gut cannon right to your feet.
Contamination is available in a 2-Disc Special Edition from Arrow Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)