6/21/12

Devil Fish, Killer Crocodile, and The Great Alligator: Italian Film Takes a Bite out of Jaws

Just yesterday, June 20th, marked the 37th year since the release of Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws into the movie theaters, and so some might say I missed the anniversary. However, what I want to talk about is something that’s a bit off, or should I say took a bite off of, Jaws. Like so many trends in cinema, once the Italians got a hold of it, they took it to as many places as you could imagine. Today, I’m going to take a look at three of the many, many giant water based creature films that invaded Italian cinemas for two decades following Hollywood‘s most famous shark. Each is the effort of a different directors and features a different kind of creature, and with a wide margin of success and failure, all of them intended to imitate what the Spielberg had put on the screen. So join me as Sergio Martino, Lamberto Bava, and Fabrizio De Angelis take their shot at aquatic glory.

First up, is Sergio Martino with his entry, The Great Alligator (1979) a.k.a The Big Alligator River. Set at a tropical island resort, where the main attraction is set to be swimming with gators in an African paradise, the natives take offense to the intrusion of tourists. Soon their God, in the guise of a giant alligator, is stalking the vacationers. Starring Barbara Bach, who looks ravishing, and Claudio Cassinelli, one of my favorite Italian actors, I really wanted to like this Martino film more. The plot, featuring Mel Ferrer as the merciless hotelier, plodded along with only the gator’s giallo style POV shots to entertain. The gore was kept minimal, and the threat from the wildlife didn’t seem quite as alarming as that of the restless natives. While the whole film was well shot and had beautiful location work, it all seemed like an extremely watered down version of At The Mountain of the Cannibal God with less nudity, less violence, and less animal cruelty (of which there was none, and that’s the only one of the three I would want less of). I didn’t like it enough to recommend it, really, but it was made well enough that I hesitate to call it bad. The Great Alligator should have been re-titled, The Average At Best Alligator

Our next film is anything but average. In fact, it might be so below average that I may need to call James Cameron and borrow one of his deep sea subs just to talk about it. Lamberto Bava is a director who is hit and miss. For every Demons, there's about a dozen Devil Fish (1984)  lurking in his catalog. In Bava’s film, the government has been tinkering with building a bio-weapon, and what they came up with is a half shark-half octopus. Once it escapes, it goes on a teeth gnashing and tentacle snapping rampage that makes little to no sense. Michael Sopkiw (Massacre in Dinosaur Valley, 2019:After the Fall of New York)  and William Burger (Keoma, Superfly T.N.T.) co-star as the heroic leads in this less than heroic effort at a creature feature. Many folks probably know Devil Fish from its treatment on MST3K, and unlike some of the redeemable movies that they skewered; Bava’s film deserved everything it got. If it wasn’t for lines like,”You’ve delayed us long enough with your science.” There really wouldn’t have been anything to get me through the film. Plus, it was basically remade a few years back by SyFy as Sharktopus, and if that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about avoiding this dud, then there’s just no stopping you. 

Surprisingly, my favorite of this trio, Killer Crocodile (1989), comes by way of the director I knew the least about, Fabrizio De Angelis . De Angelis worked as a producer on many of Lucio Fulci’s films as well as Italian genre classics like Violent Naples and Emmanuelle Around the World, but I’ve never seen any of his directing efforts before (which apparently include a long running series called Karate Warrior that I would suspect Lair readers can look forward to hearing more about). Killer Crocodile centers on a group of ecology students investigating toxic pollution in a swamp. Butting heads with the local hunters and the shady polluters, the kids go from tree huggers to Croc killers in only a matter of days. Richard Crenna and Ennio Girolami (The Last Shark, Tenebre) head the cast as the leader of the nature lovers and the Ahab like hunter respectively. While some of the effects are dodgy, including the giant puppet croc, what moves Killer Crocodile out above the other two films are the characters. Crenna and his group start out defending the croc and even try and help it escape, but by the time the film ramps up for the climax, the card carrying Greenpeace members are on the front lines of offing the giant aquatic killer once and for all. This sea change is not only gradual; it’s realistic and provides the film enough drama to make the film’s flaws less jarring. Killer Crocodile is also the film that most closely follows a “Jaws” formula, and at one point composer Riz Ortolani (Cannibal Holocaust) directly riffs on the iconic “dun dun dun dun” musical motif. 

Each of these films, The Great Alligator, Devil Fish, and Killer Crocodile, come at the giant sea creature feature formula from a different angle, and while I hesitate to include Devil Fish in this statement, each has its own merit. There have to be dozens more movies made within this sub-genre of films, and I’m sure if I picked any three I would come up with the same variety in substance, quality, and style. As with any of the other trends that Italian film makers latched onto, whether it is the Western, the Zombie, or the Shark, many entries were made and they all couldn’t be winners. As a film viewer with an interest in Italian film,  diving in and taking a bite out of these movie trends to see how they fared, is part of the thrill. As with Martino, Bava, and De Angelis, many Italian directors explored a wide variety of these films as they came into fashion. Sometimes they sank and sometimes they swam, but it’s always fun to wonder what might be in the waters. 

Bugg Rating
The Great Alligator

Devil Fish

Killer Crocodile

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