EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on September 7, 2020 but now with the blu ray release of this movie from Kino Lorber, this gives me a chance to update it and expand on it.
You can get the new Kino Lorber blu ray directly from the Kino Lorber site. In addition to a new 2K master, there’s new commentary by Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw, as well as another commentary by Tim Lucas. You also get alternate music score highlights, the original Italian opening credits, two Trailers from Hell episodes (Joe Dante and Josh Olson) and the original theatrical trailer.
American-International Pictures had made some money in the U.S. with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Black Sabbath. It just made sene for Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson to gain more control by producing the films themselves instead of just buying the rights.
Working with Italian International Film and Spain’s Castilla Cooperativa Cinematográfica, AIP provided the services of writer Ib Melchior (The Angry Red Planet) to create the American version of this movie, which was based on Renato Pestriniero’s short story “One Night of 21 Hours.”
This movie was quite literally the Tower of Babel, as each major cast member performed in their respective languages: Barry Sullivan spoke English, Norma Bengell spoke Portuguese, Ángel Aranda Spanish and Evi Marandi Italian. And the low budget would have made a cheap-looking movie with any other director, but Bava was the master of in-camera effects and flooding his sets with color and fog. In a Fangoria article, he would say, “Do you know what that unknown planet was made of? A couple of plastic rocks — yes, two: one and one! — left over from a mythological movie made at Cinecittà! To assist the illusion, I filled the set with smoke.”
When 1979’s Alien came out, those that had been exposed to Bava’s work would let people know that many of the ideas in that film came directly from this modest film with its $200,000 budget — I know Joe Bob, everyone lies about budgets. While Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon would claim for years that they had never seen this movie before, the writer would later say, “I stole the giant skeleton from the Planet of the Vampires.”
Want to know how I know those claims are true? From the very start of this film, two large ships — the Galliott and the Argos — in deep space respond to an SOS call and are lured to a planet where alien beings either take their bodies over or murder them. The crew of the Argos instantly begins murdering one another — with only Captain Markary (Sullivan) able to pull his crew out of madness. When they arrive at the other ship, everyone is already dead, including Markary’s brother.
Soon, the bodies of the dead are walking as if alive, the ships are damaged beyond repair, and crew members are getting wiped out (look for a young Ivan Rassimov — later of the giallos The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and All the Colors of the Dark, and the Star Wars clone The Humanoid — as one of them!).
While this film is 55 years old, I have no interest in ruining the ending for you. Instead, I want you to sit and bask in its colorful glow, awash in fog and mystery, with pulpy science fiction heroes running around in fetishy costumes and discovering skeletons that could in no way be human. It is everything that is magic about film.
Atlas — the comic company that tried to challenge Marvel and DC in the 1970’s — combined I Am Legend with this film to create the comic Planet of the Vampires. Much like all of their books, it only ran three issues, but the first one boasts a cover with pencils by Pat Broderick with Neal Adams-inks and other issues have great work by Russ Heath. The first issue was also written by future G.I. Joe mastermind Larry Hama. I have no doubt that Atlas did not pay AIP for the rights to this.