Bertolucci. Fellini. Leone. The immortal names of fine Italian cinema have elevated their craft to the very pinnacle of the motion picture arts. Yet, emerging from the shadows of the masters, fearless filmmakers of science fiction made some iconic contributions to the country's embrace of big-screen cult spectacles seasoned with insane killer robots, maniacal experiments, sleek spaceships, rogue planetoids and mod outer space madness.
Any of the phenomenal sci-fi films served up on this platter are best watched with a bottle of your favorite vino and steaming dish of penne pomodoro (with fresh Parmesan, of course), for a tempting taste of Italy's wild and wonderful offerings like Planet of the Vampires, Mission Stardust, Assignment: Outer Space and Wild, Wild Planet. What these spirited movies lack in bulging budgets and screenplay coherence, they more than make up for with imaginative direction, stylish set design and unexpected parades of far out fashion.
So sip from this selection of 17 vintage sci-fi classics from the country that delivered Michelangelo, spaghetti westerns and spumoni ice cream, then tell us which ones you have tanto affeto for!
Mission Stardust (1967)
Appropriately enough, the Italian title of Mission Stardust translates to 4…3…2…1…Death. In a spaceship that could pass for a deep-sea diver’s helmet with tentacles, they touch down on the moon with a mission to keep all its wealth out of criminal hands. Poisonously psychedelic colors and trippy music in the opening credits can’t get any of these (sort of) immortal astronauts high enough to believe they can escape the possibility of a brutal demise. Based on the multiverse of sci-fi novelist Perry Rhodan, this so-bad-it’s-good movie is considered dreadful enough by diehard Rhodan fans that they deny it was ever spawned.
Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964)
Hercules might be known best for beheading the Hydra or wrangling Cerberus from the underworld, but forget what you learned in history class. This bizarre sci-fi myth has the impossibly tan superhuman wielding his legendary club against lunar extraterrestrials that look like a mashup of Cybermen and Darth Vader in Governor Palpatine’s robes. Not to mention dealing with a brainwashed evil queen whose mind they infiltrate to convince her the innocent blood of sacrificed children will zombify their own dead queen—and, of course, make her supreme empress of the universe. Moon Men give new meaning to the term “metalhead”.
Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959)
Try to avoid comets that come around every 850 years. You might end up with more blobs of man-eating protoplasm than you know what to do with. Caltiki is a goddess worshipped by the ancient Mayans (only in this movie-verse), creeping into the depths of a Mexican cavern decked with gold and skeletons. Except the deity that was once revered with human sacrifices is now an amorphous alien glob that feasts on human flesh and grows with deadly radiation. In the ancient days before CGI, the bubbling and gurgling mass of primordial gloop was made of— put down your antipasto — tripe.
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
Italian horror master Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Black Sabbath) delivers a stylish dose of sci-fi fare with this visually striking entry in his directorial oeuvre. Sports some of the sexiest space suits ever zipped up on a starship are featured in a hallucinatory odyssey to a strange uncharted world. The dull plodding plot will give you plenty of time to prep a second batch of garlic bread, but the eerie atmospheric set design and retro '60s vibe will have you toasting the screen in geeky gladness. Based on the Italian science fiction short story by Renato Pestriniero, One Night of 21 Hours, the tale centers around a pair of crashed spaceships on a desolate volcanic planet and its host of undead astronauts. Known in Italy by the alternate title of Terror in Space and thought to have been one of the major influences for Sir Ridley Scott's Alien.
Wild, Wild Planet (1965)
Cosmic go-go dancers, flaring rocketships and a man-made race of flesh-fused automatons of invincible strength? Yes, please! You might want to refill your glass and pinch yourself (or your partner) before you indulge in this insane phantasmagoric galaxy of Frankenstinian horrors. Directed by Castle of Blood's Antonio Margheriti and released in Italy as Criminal of the Galaxy, it's a diabolical mystery centered around a futuristic mad scientist who has perfected some sort of gender-melding experiments to form squads of lethal, karate-chopping fembots. This is Italian cult cinema at its multi-limbed best, originally planned as a four-part block of TV movies from MGM known as the Gamma-One series.
War of the Planets (1966)
Italy was really hitting their sci-fi stride in the mid-sixties and with the audacity to release such sensational slop, who's gonna try and stop them? Another bizarre entry from director Anthony Margheriti that was initially set to launch on TV for the Gamma-One series of outer space flicks, then released theatrically in Italy as The Diaphanoids Come From Mars. This mozzarella-gooey entry explores "the power of mind beyond all comprehension" as transparent aliens and glowing lights wreak havoc on an interstellar space station. You can keep that spinning asylum, we'll cozy up to our convenient latte bar on Earth any day.
War Between the Planets (1966)
The good 'ol Gamma One space station is back in the third G-1 entry from director Anthony Margheriti where the calm silence of space is violated by a fiery rogue planet on an imminent collision course with Earth. After our Big Blue Marble is rocked by a series of catalcysmic gravitational events, it's up to panicked scientists and astronauts wearing garbage pails on thier heads to save humanity. Released in Italy as Planet on the Prowl, it has a certain edgy earnestness you can't help but applaud. Great family film fare!!
Snow Devils (1966)
The final film in the Margheriti-directed Gamma-One foursome of low-budget space operas, this one centers around the valiant commander of the space station investigating strange occurrences in the Himalayas, discovering strange blue-haired yetis from the doomed planet Aytia are the culprits. (My fingers are giggling as I type). The goal of these furry freaks is to freeze the entire Earth and construct a massive ice ark to rescue their alien race and repopulate the Earth. Bundle up and suspend your disbelief in a sugary slice of Tiramisu.
Eyes Behind the Stars (1978)
Photographic evidence can get you arrested—or abducted. Not to mention having any proof you were ever alive deleted. What starts off as a dreadfully '70s photoshoot washed in faux-bohemian mustard yellows and olive greens seems like it’s going nowhere further than an Italian fashion magazine until dusk. Cue the stereotypical UFO sounds you’d hear in any party store around Halloween. Except the spooky soundtrack is not coming a battery-powered flying saucer, but the spacecraft of some really enraged aliens who ended up being caught on camera as an accidental part of the fashion spread. It will make you thankful for digital photography.
The Day the Sky Exploded (1958)
Here’s a film that might come in handy as a sort of manual-in-motion telling astronauts what not to do with nuclear power. When a pilot rocketing to the moon panics from an engine malfunction, his first instinct is to make a U-turn back to Earth, but not before disengaging the atomic booster that ends up dying its fiery, explosive death in the asteroid belt. Asteroids that could hypothetically extinguish all human life plummet towards earth. They seem to have left enormous holes in this movie as well, which had so much stock footage pasted in that one reviewer called it “the stock-shot film par excellence”.
Assignment: Outer Space (1960)
When reporter Ray Peterson is launched into space, he ends up trapped in a galactic love triangle and an even more threatening situation in which he could either be incinerated or save the world. Rogue spaceship Alpha Two is hurtling towards Earth with photonic rays deadly enough to microwave the entire planet. After two men die trying to thwart the unmanned craft, Peterson floats off to disarm it. This is where the science part of science fiction gets warped. Peterson’s ship is on a mission from Mars and Venus. Any human exposed to the toxic 875-degree marsh-gas atmosphere of Venus (never mind the space suit) would be incinerated, so the fact that he even makes it there alive is supernatural.
Superargo and the Faceless Giants (1968)
Wearing what amounts to nothing more than hooded red pajamas and a mask, Superargo the superhuman wrestler-slash-crimefighter battles abducted athletes now turned mindless androids controlled by an evil mastermind. Directed by Paolo Bianchini, this sequel to Nick Nostro's Superargo Versus Diabolicus is heavy on the cheesy, yet sincerely attempts to play it straight amid dime-store sets and cheap special effects. This low-rent Batman ripoff displays some admirable skills while battling the robot army but is this really mankind's best hope? Go ahead and root for the beer-bong wearing cyborgs!
Cosmos: War of the Planets (1978)
Pour yourself another glass of wine, because just about every scene in this first film of Alfonso Brescia's infamous sci-fi foursome is cloned. You might recognize the satellite repair scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The makeout-fest under the light show machine was abducted from Barbarella. That eerily familiar blue orb in the same scene is the Death Star with a dye job—and this was released right after Star Wars: Episode IV blasted off in theaters. Cosmos was supposed to be a remake of Planet of the Vampires, only without those space age-couture uniforms and a plot more canned than Spaghetti-Os. If you still have Year Zero: War in Space, Cosmo 2000 and Cosmo: Planet Without a Name on deck for the night, you’re stranded in space: they’re all the same movie.
The Humanoid (1979)
Since you're obviously into trash if you've stuck with us on our sleazy salute to Italian sci-fi cinema, here's a blatant Star Wars knock-off that is unashamed to copy anything and everything it can from A New Hope. Mega-starships, rubber rocks, droids, evil dark lords and trigger-happy troopers shooting laser blasters inhabit this unforgettable clone. Oddly enough, the synth-heavy musical score was written by Ennio Morricone!! Yes, THAT Morricone who wrote the music for the spaghetti westerns, The Thing, Days of Heaven, The Mission and finally won the Academy Award for Best Score for this year's The Hateful Eight.
War of the Robots (1978)
This sequel to Cosmos: War of the Planets is also a shapeshifter with multiple names such as Reactor, Robots or Stratostars. It’s also not just a clone, but a clone of a clone. The spaceship and most of the props were recycled from Cosmos. Not to mention that battle scene which is so familiar because it’s a cheap copy of the final attack on the Death Star. It might be worth watching for the full hour and forty minutes just for the entertainment value of seeing how many clips of stock footage and material ripped from other movies you can find. What’s more disturbing than being abducted as a test subject by alien robots in silver nylon and He-Man wigs is that this isn’t even the worst Brescia offender when it comes to ripping off Star Wars.
Rome, 2072 A.D. The New Gladiators (1983)
Flying saucer over the Coliseum? Check. Dystopian society? Check. Homicidal hallucinations? Check. Gladiator bikers fighting to the death on national TV to an 80s synth soundtrack? Check. Director Lucio Fulci started out studying medicine, so dissecting cadavers segues right into a fake-blood-splattered career that would eventually have him crowned the “Godfather of Gore”. Fulci was best known as a horror director, and that influence just screams out in this horror-sci-fi mashup, which is like Ben-Hur on psychotropic steroids. Paranormal brainwashing and a motorcycle crash course where bodies are bulldozed and dragged across the asphalt (a gory historical reference to the victor circling the arena while the corpse of the loser trailed in the dust behind his chariot) make it all the more impossible to look away.
Star Odyssey (1979)
Think you've sampled the bottom of this cheese barrel? Think again. Here's an outer space oddity that couldn't have cost more to produce than a Tour of Italy dinner special at The Olive Garden. Director Anthony Brescia, the King of Star Wars ripoffs, boldly delivers another laughably bad film set in the year 2312 after the planet Earth, renamed Sol 3, is auctioned off to a ruthless alien called Kress who promptly uses it as a slave recruiting station. Known in Italy as Seven Gold Men In Space, it's 88 minutes of unintentional sci-fi slapstick you've gotta see to believe.