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Arrow Video // R // July 7, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 8, 2015 | E-mail the Author
"In space, no one can hear you scream. In 1992, we discover that on Earth, everyone can hear you scream."

Remember that wildly inaccurate teaser trailer for Alien3 with the cracked egg floating above that big, blue ball of mud we call home? David Fincher wound up going in an unrecognizably different direction with his sequel, but that teaser would actually have worked pretty well for Luigi Cozzi's 1980 Alien knockoff. Contamination's setting is indeed shifted towards Earth, and there are definitely alien eggs. Oh, man, are there alien eggs.

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Cozzi wasn't exactly outfitted with the sort of budget that Ridley Scott had to play with, but Contamination does its damndest to hit the marks it can. Exploding chests? Check. A corporate conspiracy? Check. A motley crew staring down the barrel of a single xenomorph? Check. Alien eggs? You don't even know. This Italian kinda-sorta-sequel-remake-whatever opens pretty much the same way as Lucio Fulci's Zombie, as a boat drifts into New York Harbor with seemingly no sign of life aboard. Investigators in hazmat suits swarm the sprawling shipping vessel, but there aren't any of the walking undead skulking around this time out. No, there's something far more sinister lurking aboard the less-than-ominously-christened Caribbean Lady: coffee. Well, coffee, alien eggs, and a parade of corpses whose chests have exploded from the inside out. Whatever otherworldly force slaughtered the ship's crew soon claims nearly every last one of the investigators as well.

Enter Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau). She could tell you which branch of the Armed Forces she spearheads, but you wouldn't know it, and she'd have to put a bullet through your temple besides. Colonel Holmes is taking the investigatory reins from here, joined by the lone survivor of the New York team (Marino Masé) and a disgraced astronaut (Ian McCulloch) who, a couple of years earlier, had been pitted against this same extraterrestrial menace beneath the surface of Mars.

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Contamination sort of makes it work too...for a while, anyway. There's a passable element of mystery to its first act: a pervasive sense of unease...of not being entirely sure what's lurking around the next bend. Maybe Cozzi didn't have the resources to deck out an M-class star freighter or have a waking nightmare of an alien stalk his cast, but exploding chests are a whole other story. Even though the bursting chest rigs can be too distractingly bulky to really convince, the geysers of crimson and barrel drums of viscera that spew out more than make up for it. Anyone who comes into contact with the otherworldly yolk gushing out of these alien eggs explodes within seconds, and the bookending sequences of Contamination take it all to a cacklingly gruesome extreme.

Contamination can't sustain that demented onslaught of splatter for long. The plot creaks into second gear when Colonel Holmes asks the obvious question: who put all these extraterrestrial time bombs on a freighter full of coffee anyway? Holmes and company trek all the way to Colombia in search of an answer, and it's just...dead air for far too close to an hour. Cozzi's producer demanded more of a James Bond bent to the storytelling, which generally amounts to alien-possessed corporate badniks gnashing their teeth and our heroes leisurely following the paper trails they left behind. Contamination devolves from a somewhat promising sci-fi/horror flick to an almost aggressively forgettable spy thriller. If you come into the movie late, you might not even clue in until the climax that this is intended to be a genre effort at all. What few bursts of science fiction there are leading up to the climax fall flat, particularly Colonel Holmes trapped in a bathroom with one of these alien eggs. Despite presaging one of the most unnervingly intense sequences in James Cameron's Aliens, it's glacially paced, awkwardly crosscut with overlong shots of the rest of Holmes' team doing nothing in particular, defies everything we've come to know about Holmes' character in the first place, and backed by a repetitive, throbbing synthesizer warble that makes me just want to...I don't know, bitch about it in a movie review, I guess.

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In stark contrast to Alien, the cast of characters here is woefully underbaked. I really do appreciate Québécois actress Louise Marleau contributing something different to this film, though. Despite what the two male leads seem to think, Holmes is not exactly a love interest, and she brings a commanding, authoritative, and decidedly adult presence that someone like Cozzi's first choice, Caroline Munro, likely couldn't manage. There's not a great deal of dimension to the role, though, and barking out random words and numbers to sound important -- it's all Internal Services Special Division 5 this, Special Section Squad 2 that -- only goes so far. Ian McCulloch's talents are underutilized, which is a shame as his haunted astronaut is by far the character with the greatest potential. There's some occasional zing to the dialogue, and I appreciate Contamination's playful, understated sense of humor, not that it's enough to make the movie any more watchable.

There's equally little intrigue to the plot. Holmes and company know pretty much from word one that there's some connection between the Colombian coffee distributor and the alien eggs, and before even stepping onto a plane bound for South America, they've sussed out what havoc these eggs were sent here to wreak and why they were shipped to New York specifically. There are a number of sequences that swing the spotlight directly towards the villianous masterminds, but there's not some hidden layer or unexpected motivation behind 'em: just "yeah, we're gonna kill everyone". There's no mystery once that part of the movie gets underway, the action and intrigue alike are generally tepid, and there are depressingly few attempts at suspense. In its final reel, Contamination remembers what kind of movie it started off as, and we're blessed with another parade of blood-drenched corpses and even a cycloptic alien. This creature is borderline-legendary for its ridiculous design, and Cozzi repeatedly quips throughout the extras how it's an immobile mass of paper maché. Going against the grain, I actually really dug it; the Cyclops doesn't look like any alien I've seen on film before, and the staging, the buckets of Ultraslime, and its pair of ravenous mouths all make for something sincerely memorable.

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I had high expectations for Contamination based on the other work of Cozzi's I've seen. I've greatly enjoyed several of his collaborations with Dario Argento, and Starcrash is a longtime favorite that I force on basically everyone who strolls past my front door. Contamination, meanwhile, brings to mind all the worst memories of another shameless Italian ripoff, Alien 2: On Earth, and that's Not for me, anyway. Despite no shortage of reviews like this one floating around, Contamination has amassed a fiercely devoted following over the years, and clearly the staff at Arrow Films ranks among them. No matter what you may think of the movie itself, this is undeniably one of the year's most exceptional genre releases on Blu-ray.

I scribble down all sorts of notes when prepping a Blu-ray review like this. The first thing I jotted down after popping in Contamination was "holy shit!", and that's because...well:

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I mean that in the best possible way too. If not for some of the wardrobe and inexorably '80s hairstyles, Contamination could easily pass as being decades more recent a production than it actually is. There's no curve to grade on here; there are many, many moments throughout Contamination that genuinely look as if I'm watching a first-run movie in a plush theater. Arrow Films deserves a staggering amount of praise for the presentation they've delivered here, but it's also a testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the Italian crew that brought this film to life in the first place. Even with the severe budgetary constraints they were pitted against, the cinematography and set design hold up exceptionally well. I particularly can't get over how outstanding the lighting is throughout the climax with the Cyclops.

Simply put, this presentation of Contamination is flawless. Bolstered by consistently deep, inky blacks, there's a remarkable amount of depth and dimensionality to the image. Its palette is robust and unerringly authentic. The level of fine detail showcased here borders on the surreal. Damage and wear are kept to a bare minimum and never once pose a distraction. Film grain is tight, unintrusive, and skillfully compressed. We're barely halfway through 2015, and I still can't fathom that I'm going to see another Blu-ray disc this year that impresses me anywhere near as wholly and completely as Contamination has.

Contamination is lightly letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the film and its extras devour just about every spare byte on this BD-50 disc.

Boasting a pair of 24-bit, monaural LPCM soundtracks -- one in English, the other in Italian -- Contamination sounds nearly as outstanding as it looks. With the obvious exception of the muffled line readings coming from behind those hazmat suits, Contamination's dialogue is significantly cleaner, clearer, and more distinct than average for this sort of production. This dialogue is wonderfully full-bodied as well, especially in the portions of the Italian track I sampled. A number of effects pack a low-frequency wallop as well, despite not having a discrete LFE channel to play with, and Goblin's synths sound every bit as glorious as I'd hoped to hear. Some of the faux-Colombian accents are howlingly ridiculous, and the bleating whale sound of the eggs gets to be nails-on-chalkboard in a couple of scenes, but on the strictly technical end of things...? As high as they were, my expectations have been completely eclipsed.

Two English subtitle streams are also along for the ride. Captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing, one is meant to accompany the English soundtrack. The other is a proper translation of the Italian dialogue.

Talk about getting your money's worth; you could easily spend the better part of day watching Contamination and delving through all of its extras, and every minute of 'em is worth it.
  • Luigi Cozzi on Contamination (23 min.; SD): Culled from an episode of "Appunti sul fantacinema" (I think), this vintage featurette offers both an interview with Luigi Cozzi as well as a good bit of behind the scenes footage during production. Cozzi speaks about many of the other films that inspired Contamination, among them Quatermass II, Them!, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Among the other topics of conversation here are the splatter effects, the heavy studio work, how those alien eggs pulse like that, and how the cave is really just painted cardboard. This also serves as a sort of primer to Filmmaking 101. I'm a sucker for vintage featurettes, and I'm thrilled to see this one make the cut on Blu-ray.

  • Luigi Cozzi vs. Lewis Coates (43 min.; HD): Cozzi himself hosts this retrospective of his life and storied career. This review would easily double in length if I were to try to rattle off all of Cozzi's accomplishments, but among them are how he learned English so he could read imported sci-fi books and magazines, his founding of Italy's first fanzine, the doors opened by being "Famous Monsters of Filmland"'s foreign correspondent, and crafting ambitious visual effects in a country that only bothered to use optical printers for opening titles. Cozzi charts his journey to becoming a filmmaker in great detail, and he also speaks at length about The Killer Must Kill Again, Starcrash, his pair of Hercules movies, his Argento collaborations, and, naturally, Contamination. Hearing him cite Carl Barks' approach to humor makes me love the guy that much more. The retrospective ends with an excerpt from Cozzi's return to filmmaking, the upcoming Blood on Méliès' Moon. Well worth a look.

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  • Contamination Q&A (41 min.; HD): Recorded after a Contamination screening last year, Luigi Cozzi and actor Ian McCulloch field questions from Arrow Films' Ewan Cant as well as the audience at large. There are entirely too many highlights to list, but if I had to pick just a few...? There's how the genesis of the film was a two page treatment and a poster, Cozzi confirming McCulloch's suspicions that there had to be drug money involved somehow, an explanation as to why the alien-to-egg ratio is so lopsided, an epic tale by McCulloch about kicking a dwarven Colombian stalker in the balls, and Contamination's undeserved status as a video nasty. Cozzi also touches on precisely how short the shooting schedule for Contamination was and just how many cuts it took to make the immobile Cyclops remotely convincing. If you only have time for one Contamination-centric extra, then...well, you're missing out, but if you really do only have time for one, this Q&A would get my vote.

  • Sound of the Cyclops (12 min.; HD): There are even extras without Luigi Cozzi! Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini speaks about his tumultuous years in Italy's most legendary instrumental prog rock outfit as well as the 'homemade' style of recording Contamination's score. The interview opens with Guarini playing the theme on piano, and as a longtime synth geek, I get all warm and fuzzy at the sight of a Korg VC-10, a Yamaha DX-7, an ARP 2600, and a Yamaha CS-80, among many others, in his home studio.

  • Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery (17 min.; HD): Temple of Schlock's Chris Poggiali and Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds author Maitland McDonagh offer a tremendous deep dive into the industry of Italian knockoffs. The two of them delve deeply into the ripoffs coasting on the success of Jaws, Star Wars, The Road Warrior, Escape from New York, and, of course, Alien. Poggiali and McDonagh don't limit themselves to just the "who", though, as wildly entertaining as that is. They explore how these knockoffs reflect what audiences were hungry for, how Italian filmmakers were so well equipped to leap from one shortlived craze to the next, and the allure these films held to television stars and fading American actors. I was looking forward more to this featurette than any of Contamination's other extras, and it lived up to my expectations and then some. Fun, engaging, and exceptionally informative, "Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery" is one of the most essential extras on this Blu-ray disc.

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  • Audio Commentary: Fangoria editor Chris Alexander quips a few times about what a rambling commentary he's recording, but that's just good-natured Canadian self-deprecation. Don't shrug this off as just another fan commentary; there's a rewarding and insightful discussion of Contamination waiting in here for you. Alexander isn't blind to the movie's many flaws, snickering about how the aliens' sinister scheme is needlessly convoluted and how the eggs are so easily avoided that there's no real cause for suspense, but that doesn't dim his lifelong fandom of the film. His encyclopediac knowledge of genre cinema greatly informs this commentary, such as how Alien itself kinda rips off Shivers, and Alexander scores bonus points for a vocal rendition of Zombi 2's score and a brief derailment into his love for Hell of the Living Dead (right there with you). Barely stopping to take a breath, Alexander is a captivating speaker and has put together an infectiously fun commentary. I certainly enjoyed Contamination more with this track playing than I did without it.

  • Graphic Novel (HD): One unexpected extra is a graphic novel based on the original screenplay, featuring black and white art by Sergio Muratori. Throughout its fifty or so pages, this comic adaptation showcases more nudity and, impossibly, even more gore than the feature film.

  • Trailer (3 min.; SD): Last up is an English language trailer.

Arrow Films has given Contamination the combo pack treatment, so an anamorphic widescreen DVD carrying over the majority of these extras is riding shotgun. Both the DVD and Blu-ray disc are coded to play pretty much everywhere the world over too. (Sorry, Australia!) Contamination comes packaged in a really slick slipcover, the cover art is reversible (no Alien Contamination cover, tho'), and Chris Alexander contributes a terrific set of liner notes that make me wish I liked the movie more than I do.

The Final Word
In nearly every conceivable way, this Blu-ray release of Contamination is Disc of the Year material: its world-class visual and aural presentations, four hours of fantastic extras, and even its liner notes and striking packaging. The only letdown is...well, Contamination itself. Even though there are individual moments I love, I just found the movie overall to be far too slow-moving and uninvolving to enthusiastically recommend it as a purchase sight-unseen. On the other hand, if you're already a frothing-at-the-mouth rabid fan of Contamination -- and there are plenty of you out there -- this extraordinary high-def release is about as essential as it gets. Recommended for fanatics of Italian genre cinema going into this blind; DVD Talk Collectors' Series if you've already been exposed to Contamination.
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