Contamination is one of the many films that were made during the 80’s that tried to stake its claim in the immensely popular xenophobia/sci-fi market that Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon gave birth to when they unleashed Alien upon unsuspecting viewers in 1979. What followed was, essentially, a full decade of a happy marriage between rapidly advancing film technologies and an unabashed mainstream and underground obsession with all things extraterrestrial. It is no wonder that the absolute best of the best of sci-fi emerged during this time period, from the existential and profound, to the spine-melting and downright horrifying, and even the shamelessly cheesy and fun. Contamination, if you couldn’t tell by the poster, falls squarely into the third category I provided, but that doesn’t make it an awful film, just one you should take with a few tons of salt.
The plot (yes, there is one) in this obviously Italian, quasi-Alien knock-off is that we (human kind) have apparently successfully visited Mars some time ago, and there were some eggs there along with a pretty bad ass creature. Somehow, some douche bag has managed to get the eggs here to Earth, and seeing how the eggs, under the proper amount of heat and humidity, can explode and spray deadly ooze that burns people like acid and makes their chests explode, this is certainly not a good thing. In true movie fashion, the first place they are to be delivered is a New York Harbor, which is lovingly shot from a helicopter during the opening credit sequence. After some tense sequences and one dynamite boo scare aboard the sea vessel containing a large shipment of the deadly eggs, a New York cop, a government agent, and the only remaining crew member of the expedition to Mars must find and stop the man responsible for attempting to unleash a plague of tummy-busting sacks of goo unto the world.
The biggest name gracing the screen in Contamination is Ian McCulloh, probably best known for his role in Lucio Fulcis splatter opus, Zombi. As always, McCulloh does what he can to bring some legitimacy to his role, but since our characters are all pretty thin and lacking any true depth, there is only so much he can achieve. Louise Marleau plays the icy government agent who slowly shows her more human side as the film progresses while doing her best to balance her rigid personality and leaving a little room to be the subtly sexy female heroin. Marino Mase (from Argento’s Tenebre) plays the NYC cop, and actually looks the part, which is a bit of a shock. All 3 do what they can trying to bring their uninspired and almost completely surface-only characters to light, but as I learned very quickly with my deep expeditions into Italian effects-driven sci-fi and horror cinema, the characters are, more often than not, just victims or heroes. The rest of the ensemble are hardly in the movie enough to warrant a mention, but again they fall into the same role of being merely potential victims or scene fillers. No one really stands out as delivering a breakthrough performance, even though it was clear some of the writing in the scenes was actually well above average.
Directing is handled by Luigi “Could I have a more Italian Name?” Cozzi, famous for nothing I have ever heard of. Apparently he also had a hand in writing the story and screenplay, for what it’s worth. While I may be having fun with the fellow, the directing is actually pretty competent as far as composition and choice of shots, but it is the questionable pacing and abrupt changes in tone and location that really drag the film down from the heights that the opening third of the film was striving for. We go from the harbor scene, to a science type scene, to an action scene that, like the opening scene on the vessel, does a great job of showcasing the awesome special effects. Then we get some more science jargon stuff (which I always eat up) explaining and demonstrating the lethality of the eggs and their acid goo. After that though, the flick seems to be unsure of where to go with itself, and devolves into a uninspired action movie with some sci-fi tension thrown in. It all LOOKS good, surprisingly good for an Italian film made in 1980, but the pace and constant mood switching threw me off every time I was getting comfortable with where it appeared to be headed. As far as passing and type of judgement over Cozzis work here, I am more than a little bit perplexed. Visually, it is a winner, but from a pacing and cohesion standpoint, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Effects wise, Contamination finds its ace in the hole. While underutilized in a movie seemingly driven by the fact that it has a much more hardcore representation of exploding torsos than Alien, when it does happen, it happens REAL GOOD. Glorious slow motion and long shots of exploding men hang on the screen for much longer than needed for anyone but a proper gore hound. It is like a wind tunnel is propelling organs and flesh outward, as well as gallons of blood. Aurally, we are treated to an uneven, but still likable score by Goblin. To be perfectly honest, I was a little underwhelmed by Goblins work here, as usually they make everything just that much better with their synth mastery and almost dance worthy dreaminess, but here it seemed like Contamination got the leftovers from Goblins jam room floor. At times it reaches the normal lofty heights Goblin is known for, but most of the time it feels labored, never out of place but just entirely too uninspired and lackadaisical. The dubbing is what it is, and if you’re at all an Italian film fan, you know what to expect and know how to deal with it.
Contamination is fun enough to get a personal green light, but repeated viewings would have to be based on the enthusiasm of any company I had with me at the time. It isn’t that it’s a BAD film, it just isn’t that great either. Visually it’s good looking, but the pacing and manic paradigm changes in where the story is headed is certainly jarring at best, and downright frustrating at worst. The effects are spot on, combining deliciously gory man-splosions (cute little name for it, huh?) with a cheesy Alien Queen and bouncing little jelly eggs, but the Goblin score, much to my chagrin, doesn’t live up to the normal Goblin excellence. If you are looking for a quick, cheap, and easy in-and-out sci-fi picture with a distinctively un-American flair to it, Contamination is a relatively safe bet. Just don’t plan to be infected with urge to share this with your friends or add it to your permanent dvd or digital library.