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Alligator Is Still One of the Best Animal Attack Movies Ever

The 1980 creature feature has a lot more to offer than just its title beast.

By Matthew Jackson
A still from the movie Alligator (1980) of an alligator coming out of a manhole

The years following the blockbuster success of Jaws were a fascinating time in the history of popular cinema, and not just because that film opened the floodgates for future successes like Star Wars and E.T. The Extraterrestrial to keep breaking box office records. For years after Steven Spielberg's killer shark movie struck gold with moviegoers, other filmmakers were chasing the same audience, ushering in a small golden age of wild animal attack movies of all kinds.

There are many, many animal attack horror films from this era, ranging from Orca to Grizzly to the cleverly named Claws. Of these, the one that stands out the most today as perhaps the best of the Jaws successors, is Joe Dante's Piranha, released in 1978. Piranha is fun, it's gruesome, it's aquatic, and it scratches the Jaws itch without ever feeling like a flat-out clone, but it's also not the end of the line when it comes to great creature movies of the era. Just two years later, Piranha screenwriter, John Sayles, and future Cujo director, Lewis Teague, teamed up for a different kind of aquatic horror story, one as urban and gritty as Jaws is sunny and natural. It's called Alligator, and if you still haven't had the pleasure, you should use this summer, and its arrival on Peacock, to change that.

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Why Now Is the Perfect Time to Revisit 1980's Alligator, Now on Peacock

Just as Jaws preyed on fears of beachgoers who didn't want to run into sharks, Alligator takes inspiration from the urban legend of alligators in city sewers, waiting for unwitting residents to get too close to their mutated forms. The film begins in 1968, with a little girl picking up a pet alligator at a reptile attraction, only to have it flushed down the toilet by her father. Cut to 12 years later, and the same gator has, thanks to some animal experimentation leeching chemicals into the sewers, grown to gargantuan size beneath the streets of Chicago. 

Of course, no one knows this until body parts start to wash up in various parts of the city's sanitation system, prompting Detective David Madison (Robert Forster) to investigate. After a frightening sewer encounter, Madison is convinced the gator is real and really dangerous, but because it's, you know, an alligator in the sewers, no one really believes him. With city bureaucrats trying to keep the situation tamped down, it's up to Madison and a beautiful reptile expert, Dr. Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker), to stop the beast before it's too late.

A still from the movie Alligator (1980) of a giant alligator eating a man with people behind it

There are, of course, plenty of Jaws (and Piranha) hallmarks evident right away in Sayles' script, from a local government determined to handle the problem their way to a local law enforcement officer who's willing to go rogue to save people. There are also, naturally, some really fun animal attack sequences, including one in which the gator rampages through a wedding reception, chomping at maids and waiters alike, while freaking out all the rich people. It's satisfyingly over-the-top, and yet just believable enough to be genuinely unsettling. 

But that's not what makes Alligator special. For that, we have to turn to the character work both in the script and in the performances brought to the table by Forster and Riker. Forster, ever the reliable character actor, puts loads of real humanity in Madison, a working class guy who's just trying to solve a case and figure out how to deal with his male pattern baldness. Then there's Kendall, a woman whose lifelong love of reptiles means she's never been all that good with people, yet finds something in common with Madison. Together they're funny, quirky, and very much worth rooting for, far from the cookie cutter characters so many animal attack movies leave us. Forster alone is enough to make this movie worth watching, so much so that if it had somehow just turned into a standard police procedural, we still wouldn't have been able to look away.

So this summer, as you're getting together some of your usual animal attack movies, just remember that Alligator is out there, lurking just under your feet, waiting for you to hit play. You'll be glad you did.

Alligator is now streaming on Peacock.

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