Ridley Scott, Alien, 1979, still from a color film in 35 mm, 117 minutes. Dan O’Bannon, The Return of the Living Dead, 1985, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.


DAN O’BANNON may not be a household name, but when he died two years ago at the age of sixty-three he left his fingerprints on two of the most famous science fiction and horror films of the last thirty-five years: Star Wars (1977), for which he did computer effects, and Alien (1979), for which he wrote the script. He was something of a jack-of-all-trades: For Dark Star (1974)—his as well as director John Carpenter’s feature film debut—O’Bannon served as co-writer, editor, production designer, special effects supervisor, and star.

“Shock Value,” an upcoming BAM retrospective, displays the full range of O’Bannon’s talents. Gathering almost all of them in one bizarre package, Dark Star is a true oddity, a 2001 satire with hints of Keatonian slapstick and the absurdist philosophical musings of early Woody Allen. During a nearly twenty minute sequence, O’Bannon’s Sergeant Pinback (he plays the goofy, accident-prone astronaut with relish) chases a beach ball–shaped and -textured alien through a labyrinthine space shuttle, nearly getting crushed by an elevator in the process. In the climax, a nuclear bomb equipped with artificial intelligence is prevented from exploding when befuddled by a Cartesian brainteaser.

The cosmic darkness of Alien, on the other hand, is never tempered with camp or intellectual humor. Though known more for its grungy, futuristic set design and H.R. Giger’s primordial, sexually suggestive title creature, Alien works largely due to O’Bannon’s ability to elevate B-movie scenarios into mythological nightmares with archetypal economy.

That ability remains untapped in Blue Thunder (1983), a bland, helicopter-centered action film starring Roy Scheider that indulges rather than interrogates the surveillance technology of its titular super-vehicle. More exemplary of the O’Bannon touch is his directorial debut, The Return of the Living Dead (1985), which he also wrote. On the surface a trashier version of George Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead (1968)—at one point a nymphomaniacal punk (scream queen Linnea Quigley) performs a striptease, for no discernable reason, atop an open-air crypt—Return nonetheless possesses some of the funniest, bleakest imagery to appear in any zombie film. After scenes that include the excruciating onset of rigor mortis in a couple of unfortunate zombie victims and the tactical ambushing of local police by an army of talking, intelligent zombies, the film ends with the military containing the zombie epidemic by nuking Louisville, all moral qualms swept nonchalantly to the side.

Michael Joshua Rowin

“Shock Value: Dan O’Bannon” runs at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn July 11–13 & 18–19.