As I noted last year, the problem with traditions is that they just won’t die no matter how many times you try to burn them to the ground and salt the ashes and debris with acid and lime. Thus and so, it was time for some loin-girding as another Annual All-Night Christmas Craptacular Movie Marathon was suddenly upon me, where I celebrate the one night a year the paper I work for doesn’t print, arm up with a turkey sub sammich, a pecan pie, and several bottles of root beer, and tackle a theme specific run of films to help chase away the Ghost of Seasonal Affective Disorder Blues Past, Present and Future.
Now, there was a slight hitch this year in that Christmas fell on Sunday, meaning it was decreed by Caesar that we would have to work Christmas Eve and get a weekend paper out for … reasons. However, we closed out early, HOORAY!, and I finally narrowed down the selection to either an evening facing galactic threats on Gamma-1 or fighting rampaging mechano-robots with the gang of knuckleheads at Special Vehicle Section 2, Division 2. Either way, I win. But I really didn’t decide until I after I put the paper to bed and headed home Saturday night, earlier than even I had anticipated -- a Christmas miracle, to be sure. And figuring three films in the Patlabor universe wasn’t going to cut it, I decided to board a rocket to Antonio Margheritiville and spend the night with some completely bonkers Italian sci-fi space yarns.
A reader of science fiction and comic books since he was a kid, Antonio Margheriti abandoned a collegiate career in engineering in 1956 and embraced his passion for cinema and turned it into a career in the movies. Using his background in building things he soon became a goto guy for miniatures, demolitions, and model-work and other assorted F/X as he also dabbled in screenwriting, which eventually led to his first directing gig, Assignment Outer Space (1960), which he co-scripted with Ennio De Concini, and concerned the efforts to stop a damaged, runaway spaceship (essentially a large nuclear bomb) from colliding with Earth and triggering an extinction level event. Margheriti followed that up with Battle in Outer Space (1961), which is kind of a snoozer, and a crapload of disposable peplum and a few horror films with Barbara Steele, including Castle of Blood (1963) and The Long Hair of Death (1964). All entertaining enough, but extremely derivative from what came before.
That is, his films were derivative, until 1965, when Margheriti put his own personal stamp on a group of films that have come to be known as The Gamma-1 Quadrilogy: The Wild Wild Planet (1965), War of the Planets (1965), War Between the Planets (1965), and The Snow Devils (1965). It always amazed my brain that Margheriti managed to churn out all four fairly ambitious films in less than a calendar year. And upon further digging, I was completely baffled and stupefied to find out the man co-produced, directed, co-wrote, and did the FX for all four films simultaneously, completing the whole sheebang in less than three months; three. Months! This is kinda confirmed as one explores the promotional materials for these films, with photos and scenes from one film showing up in stills and lobby cards for others. Or how the art for some of the foreign posters for one would wind up as the domestic art on the poster for the sequel. It is all very confusing.
Okay, back to the films. Seems after earning himself a reputation for working wonders with a very small budget, MGM came calling looking for some cheap SF product to sell off to television. And so, these films were financed by Hollywood and shot with an eye for American distribution, meaning don’t be confused by those Anthony Dawson credits; that’s just Margheriti’s American code-name. And his end results were pretty amazing and highly entertaining and, dare I say, a little ahead of its time, beating the likes of Star Trek to a few progressive punches. And the films proved so ambitious and better than expected, MGM switched gears and gave all four a theatrical release, starting with the Wild Wild Planet:
In the far-flung future, the United Democracies have conquered space, with outposts on nearly every habitable moon in the solar system, and several rockets and orbiting space stations patrolling around or monitoring the Earth for any signs of trouble. Aboard one of those chrome-donuts with the wobbly trajectory, better known as Gamma-1, Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russell) has been putting up with some obnoxious corporate muckety-muck by the name of Nurmi (Massimo Serato), head honcho of Chem-Biomed, who specialize in the synthesizing and mass production of replacement parts for the human body -- organs, limbs, you name it, they can grow you a new one. But it soon becomes apparent that Nurmi has another, far more sinister agenda that is already in play that somehow involves Lt. Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni), the station’s karate expert, chief communications officer, and Halstead’s on and off again girlfriend. And right now, they’re kinda off; and so Gomez accepts Nurmi’s offer for an all expenses paid trip to some fancy spa that’s under one of Chem-Biomed’s many subsidiary umbrellas.
Meanwhile, down on Earth, people have been disappearing by the thousands under dubious circumstances. And by dubious circumstances I mean they were last seen in the vicinity of a knockout female in the hottest haute couture and some trench-coated, multi-armed creep, who shrink their victims down to doll-size and ship them off to parts unknown. (It’s Italian, just roll with it.) And with the U.D. completely stumped, Halstead is commissioned to take over the case, which breaks when one of these kidnappings goes awry and one of the intended victims only gets half-shrunk. But whenever they almost catch one of the culprits, they seem to disintegrate into thin air, leaving a very disturbing discovery to be made inside an abandoned briefcase.
Eventually, Halstead links the bio-engineered kidnappers back to Nurmi, currently holed up on the artificial planet Delphus, where that secret spa just happens to be located; and where Lt. Gomez has been put through a battery of invasive biological tests against her will in preparation for Nurmi’s endgame. Seems this mad scientist and his Chem-Biomed cronies have hit upon a mad plan to make a new race of perfect beings by splicing a man and a woman together. But these subjects must be a perfect match on some genetic level, explaining all the qualifying abductees. Connie is Nurmi’s perfect match, and they are scheduled to be the first union -- unless Halstead and his two bestest buds, Ken (Carlo Giustini) and Jake (Franco Nero), can cut through some stubborn bureaucratic red tape and rocket to Delphus in time with a rescue party.
Well, I don’t want to give the ending away but the whole gang returns for War of the Planets -- after a quick check on the IMDB proved that came before War Between the Planets. [And please, do NOT confuse this with the nigh interminable Cosmos: War of the Planets (1978).] Anyhoo, this round, seems all contact with Gamma-2 has been lost after reporting a huge spike in radiation readings; and then the investigative team sent to see what happened finds half the crew dead and the other frozen in suspended animation; and then and then the whole station and the rescue party up and disappear. Alas, this emergency kinda throws a wrench in Gamma-1’s New Year’s Eve bash -- and trust me, there ain’t no party like a Gamma-1 party -- even though Lt. Gomez can’t hold her liquor at all.
Meanwhile, down on earth, a Captain Dubois (Michel Lemoine) has been possessed by an alien race of non-corporeal green globs of psychic energy, who translates a message -- more of an ultimatum, to the U.D., offering a symbiotic partnership between Earth and the Diaphonoids for “the good of the whole.” And after the Diaphonoids essentially (and rather easily) render the entire U.D. fleet inoperable, the U.D. has no choice but to buy time, agreeing to the alien demands of sending an envoy to a mining colony on one of the moons of Mars, led by Halstead and his usual gang, where they witness firsthand this merging process, which only works on the most susceptible of human hosts.
Thus, those with sterner constitutions are summarily rejected and put to death. This, of course, will not stand. Thank heavens Halstead bucked orders on flying to Mars unarmed. Those already converted are lost, and Halstead only manages to save six souls and barely blasts off in time before the site is nuked from orbit.
Halstead receives a medal for his actions on Mars, but he must also face a court martial for dereliction of duty and disobeying direct orders, which might explain away his absence in the next feature, War Between the Planets -- also known as the more appropriately titled, Planet on the Prowl. Titles aside, the action picks up with the crap already hitting the fan as the Earth is besieged by catastrophic earthquakes and bizarre weather patterns. The effect is eventually traced to a cause: a rogue runaway planet has entered the solar system and is on a current crash-course with Earth, and whose radiation bursts and magnetic discharges explain away all seismic destruction and apocalyptic weather.
And with the fleet devastated in the last installment, all that stands in the way of Earth’s total destruction is the crew of the Gamma-1, now under the command of Commander Rod Jackson (Giacomo Rossi Stuart -- who looks like the end result of Elvis Presley and George Reeves having a baby), who, along with his right hand man, Perkinson (Goffredo Unger), and his sort of girlfriend, Lt. Teri Sanchez (Ombretta Colli), launch an expedition to intercept the planet and destroy it.
Upon arrival, while planting the antimatter explosives, it is discovered that the entire planet is one sentient being that tries to absorb our heroes after they crawl inside one of its sphincters for guesses that are as good as mine. And with the sacrifice of the few, and a few good whacks with an axe, the many are saved as the prowling planet is powdered permanently.
Alas, the weather is still acting screwy in The Snow Devils; only this time the cause is traced to a rise in global temperatures and the melting of the polar ice caps. The source of this disruption is traced to the Himalayas, where it just so happens a U.D. weather observatory has just been wiped out. Wiped out by what? Well, all physical evidence points to an attack by -- wait for it -- yetis. And not just any yetis but -- waaaaait for it -- ABOMINABLE SPACE YETIS! That’s right, Space Yetis are trying to conquer the Earth with Global Warming. All in an effort to cover the planet in water so they can then freeze it into one large planetary glacier before they can colonize.
Sniffing all of this out is Commander Jackson again, who leads an expedition into the mountains with his buddy, Perkinson, even though he sort of died in the last film. (Oh, no, wait. Same actor but he’s a different character now. And, wait, the gal who played Lt. Sanchez in the last one is now a different character, too. And her old character is played by her romantic rival from the last movie. Wait. What? *eyegitty* *eyegitty* *eyegitty*) And while Jackson gets the head Space Yeti to monologuing, revealing their grand plan, and manages to destroy their outpost on Earth, the polar ice is still melting and people are still drowning until they trace the cause to one of Jupiter’s moons, where the Space Yetis have another advance base. And so, Jackson, Not-Perkinson, and New-Sanchez ride a slow rocket to the gas giant and paste the moonbase from orbit without being drawn into any orifices, thus, saving the day.
And while that adventure closed out the Gamma-1 Quadrilogy, our marathon wasn’t quite over yet. For you see, a couple of producers and screenwriters on the series (Walter Marley and Ivan Reiner) essentially pulled up stakes from Italy and moved to Japan to team up with Kinji Fukasaku and one more space adventure with -- sing it with me -- The Green Slime (1968), which essentially takes place in the same whackadoodle universe; it just moves the action from Gamma-1 to Gamma-3 and then kinda mashes up all the plots of the first four films into one giant ball of awesome covered in awesome sauce.
It begins with the detection of a rogue, extinction-sized asteroid barrelling toward the Earth. And so, Earth Space Command sends Commander Douche McAsshat (Robert Horton) to lead an expedition to blow it to smithereens. Internal conflict comes from an unresolved love triangle between McAsshat and Gamma-3’s current Commander, Vince Elliot (Richard Jaeckel), over the station’s chief medical officer, Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi). (Hell, who wouldn’t fight over her?)
Luckily, the Earth’s imminent demise allows these three to get along long enough to destroy the asteroid in time. Unfortunately, someone got some alien snot on his uniform. And once it gets back to Gamma-3, this glob of snot feeds on the radiation used to decontaminate the suit and morphs into a multi-tentacled, multi-eyed, and energy-bogarting monstrosity that also spores out whenever it is injured and so even more creatures spring from its blood!
And so, the station is soon overrun by horde of Green Slimers, leaving the other human occupants in a battle for their lives as they fight a delaying action, destroying half the satellite as they try to hold the creatures off long enough to get everyone else evacuated, leading to one bugnutz of a climax and final battle as that love triangle solves itself when Elliot sacrifices himself to save McAsshat, who is the last one out, setting the Gamma-3 on a crash-course with Earth’s ionosphere, where it and the monsters burn up in reentry. And then the movie plays us out with the reprise of the most kickingist theme song of ever!
Hole. Lee. Crap. But I do love these movies. Like a lot. I mean, A LOT, a lot. Sure, the films are grounded a bit and anchored by what the swinging 1960s thought the future would look -- from fashion, to furniture, to transportation, to architecture -- but to me, that’s half of the films' charm. And it feels like a breath of fresh air as we move past the projected dates of these films, where we fail to pass muster as far as I’m concerned and the planet is bled dry and our own parasitic pursuits only hasten along our own demise. So, yeah, give me this kind of prognosticative wackiness and retro-designs any day of the week, please and thank you.
It’s also kind of amazing how representative these films were. Sure, all the main players were your usual blundering and gung-ho white guys, but Gamma-3 was populated by many races and manned by both genders, with females serving as rocket pilots, technicians, and security personnel. And sadly, the total white-washing of The Green Slime really brings the inclusiveness of the other films into a very sharp focus.
Of the first four I would say they get progressively -- not worse, but less good as they go. Most of that, I think, is a personal preference for Tony Russell and Lisa Gastoni, and the comedy relief of Franco Nero, over Giacomo Rossi Stuart, his concrete pompadour -- that kept losing its structural integrity in a few spots, and his revolving cast-mates -- though I do have a soft spot for portly Goffredo Unger, who appears in all four films and kinda comes off as this franchise’s Patroni. And did I mention Lisa Gastoni? Because she is so adorable I can't even even.
I LOVE YOU, LT. GOMEZ!
Add it all up and these things are completely nuts in concept and execution with rousing battles followed by drinking and dancing in the space bar. They’re also delightfully gruesome in spots, as the body counts are quite staggering. And as I watched them play out again, I got to thinking at how sparse and economical these things are with fairly no frills, taking advantage of several futuristic looking locations for added production value.
These things were made on the cheap, it shows, but Margheriti makes sure things moved fast enough that it doesn’t show too much. And the end result is a ton of fun to watch. But it did get me to thinking about what these things would’ve looked like if Margheriti had been given a little more time and a little more money. And the smile on my face while I contemplated this as I shut the TV off, put the DVDs away, and went to bed was large indeed.
And with that, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Joyous New Year, one and all! Or, Bah! Humbug, where applicable. And see ya’ll next year for the 12th Annual All-Night Christmas Craptacular Movie Marathon. Until then, Boils and Ghouls, stay cool!