Saturday, September 28, 2013


The first time I saw PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965) was at my buddy Blake Brown's house on a Friday night when we were in high school in the early 1970s. Blake had cable television (which, in those days, meant he could get broadcast signals from San Antonio as well as Austin) and KSAT-Channel 12 out of San Antonio ran PROJECT TERROR, a late night horror movie double feature every Friday night beginning at 10:30 p.m. I'm sure our viewing experience was accompanied by the following food staples: one giant bowl of homemade queso, one giant bowl of homemade guacamole, one giant bag of Fritos, giant peanut butter and strawberry preserves sandwiches and giant glasses of ice cold milk. I've seen the film a couple of times since then and I watched it again yesterday afternoon but it wasn't nearly as much fun as that first time all those years ago.

Directed by Italian genre maestro Mario Bava, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is a colorful science fiction/horror hybrid. It's incorrectly titled however. There are no vampires in the film. The main villains are disembodied alien minds who cause the crew members of two spaceships to kill each other in order to possess and inhabit the dead bodies which then rise from the dead and attack the remaining living crew members. A more accurate title, given this plot device, would be PLANET OF THE ZOMBIES.

Bava didn't have a lot to work with in terms of budget but he makes the most out of plastic rocks, fog machines, colored light filters, in-camera special effects and creative camera placement to bring the surface of a hostile alien world to life. Shot entirely on sound stages at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, many of the planetscape scenes in POTV anticipate the yet-to-come STAR TREK television series.

The crew members all wear black leather spacesuits with yellow/gold piping (and very high and stiff collars) making them all look like students at Professor Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Students. The spaceship sets are cavernous and the tech and hardware on display is strictly off the shelf of a mid-60s Italian electronics surplus store.

Uber wooden Barry Sullivan is the only American actor in the cast but nobody watches PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES for the great performances (there aren't any). The chief appeal of the film is the fact that it clearly influenced Ridley Scott's ALIEN (1979) (as did IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)).

 A distress call from a cloud covered world. Huge spaceships with tripodal landing gear. A fog enshrouded planet surface with weird rock formations. A spaceship exit port that looks like a giant condom. A derelict alien spacecraft. Skeletal remains of giant aliens. An escape from the planet only to discover that aliens are actually aboard. All of these plot elements are in both PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and ALIEN.

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES isn't a great film but it's a genre touchstone for many of us monster kids. It's got a great little twist ending and it's worth seeing at least once if you're a horror/science fiction film enthusiast but I can't recommend it to a wider audience.

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