Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon dead at 63

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Dan O'Bannon, the veteran screenwriter, director, special-effects technician and occasional actor whose works contributed to several major sci-fi/horror franchises, has died at 63.

O'Bannon was of course best known for scripting Alien, the classic gothic sci-fi thriller that went on to spawn video games, comics, licensed novels and multiple sequels, ultimately including crossovers with that other murderous alien species, the Predator. The frightening monster designed by H.R. Giger and the atmospheric direction by Ridley Scott both built on O'Bannon's concepts to create a sci-fi horror icon that still rampages today, albeit without the stunning impact that made 1979 audiences scream when the creature burst out of actor John Hurt's chest.

But five years earlier it was O'Bannon himself fleeing from a murderous alien, in John Carpenters's debut film Dark Star (1974). O'Bannon didn't just come up with the story and write the screenplay about a bunch of bored, burned-out, depressed astronauts on an endless mission to "destroy unstable planets"; he also played the lead, a lowly maintenance worker with little talent for the work who's only aboard because (due to a series of events too complicated to list here) he's been mistaken for the key crew member, Sgt. Pinback. Now a loathed presence treated with contempt by every other member of the crew, Pinback is nevertheless the only one with any enthusiasm for the mission—and the one who gets saddled with the most dangerous duty, caring for an alien he's taken aboard as pet.

Then it escapes into the bowels of the ship. Pinback's battle with the alien, which resembles a beach ball with claws and has the same relationship with him that Bugs Bunny had with Elmer Fudd, functions at the intersection of slapstick and sheer terror, and provides an interesting preview of the other alien that would run amuck aboard another spaceship only five years later. O'Bannon acquitted himself well as slacker hero, but acted only in bit parts after that.

Following a stint as visual-effects technician on George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) and his triumphant creation of the Aliens, O'Bannon wrote screenplays for John Badham's Blue Thunder (1983), an action movie that set Roy Scheider against Malcolm McDowell in helicopter battle above the streets of L.A., and Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1985), a notorious bomb, of which he said, "Tobe Hooper at the helm ... is approximately like having Bozo the Clown at the helm."

O'Bannon enjoyed happier results when he both wrote and directed Return of the Living Dead (1985). Less a serious continuation of the zombie films of George Romero than a subversive commentary on them, Return and its sequels took place in a world where everybody remembered seeing those earlier movies but was unprepared when they turned out to be "based on a true story." The subtle differences between the zombie phenomenon as envisioned by Romero and the zombie phenomenon as hijacked by O'Bannon are best summarized by the droning chant "Braaiiiiins." Romero's zombies have never once expressed that culinary preference, whereas O'Bannon's crave nothing else. Trust us, in the world of zombie fiction this is a major sticking point. Although zombies were used to comedic effect in Romero's Dawn of the Dead, O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead was one of the first films to stress the wackiness over the tragedy, thus helping to invent the "splatstick" treatment that later characterized such well-known zombie films as Dead Alive and Shawn of the Dead. Like O'Bannon's previous Alien, Return of the Living Dead was successful enough to spawn a number of sequels, all made without him, and most of diminishing interest.

O'Bannon had the last of his major hits with his screenplay for Total Recall (1990), an extremely loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" that sent Arnold Schwarzenegger to Mars, where the future Governator fought mutants, Ronny Cox and his own deceptive memories. Despite the box office, O'Bannon was not happy with Paul Verhoeven's directing. He said of Verhoeven, "Whenever he started to flounder and didn't know what to do, he would start throwing in violence. He'd say, 'Bring in all the rubber body parts and the blood hoses and everything and we'll start ripping people to shreds and squirt blood everywhere.' And he'd keep shooting that until he overcame his nerves and got his feet on the ground and would start directing in some reasonable way again. So you'd end up with these intermittent scenes of absurdly excessive maimings at sort of intervals, and usually what he was substituting for were scenes that involved humor in the original [script]. And I realized, 'Oh, he's not good at humor. He doesn't know how to tell a joke onscreen.'"

O'Bannon's only other work as a director was The Resurrected (1992). His other screenplays include the horror movie Dead and Buried (1981), sections of the animated Heavy Metal (1981), the remake of Invaders From Mars (1986) and Screamers (1997). Although none of his works have been produced since 1997, he continues to receive screen credit, and entertain new audiences, with the continued success of his greatest creation, the Aliens.