|Copyright Stephanie Murr 2017|
He may not have a name as instantly recognizable as David Cronenberg or Tobe Hooper, but Dan O'Bannon is a critical figure in the horror/sci-fi genres. Born September 30th, 1946 in Missouri, O'Bannon attended University Of Southern California, where he befriended fellow student John Carpenter. The two would go on to collaborate on their student film Dark Star, which Carpenter directed while O'Bannon wrote the script, edited the film, and even starred as one of the leads. He also worked as a computer animator on Star Wars before joining Alejandro Jodorowsky's doomed adaptation of Dune.
Where O'Bannon's career really took off was with screenplay for the movie Alien based on the story he wrote with Ronald Shusett. (Jason Zinoman's excellent and important book, Shock Value, is packed with insight into O'Bannon's early career through to his untimely death. I can't recommend this book enough. It's about the birth of the modern era of horror.) Alien got made as Fox was looking to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars, but the sharp, intelligent, and truly frightening story, with brilliant direction from Ridley Scott, and terrifying creature design by HR Giger, elevated the film above it's B-movie trappings and made it not just superior to other Star Wars cash-ins, like Galaxy Of Terror or Battle Beyond The Stars, but made it a stone cold classic in it's own rite, that we don't even think of Alien in terms of Star Wars. Zinoman tells a story about O'Bannon showing Scott Texas Chainsaw Massacre before filming, so Scott would know where he was coming from with the screenplay. It had it's impact as Scott set out to make the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction.
After Alien, his next writing project was for a Canadian production called Phobia (1980), but he is uncredited in the film, mainly because the rewrite he and Shusett did of the original and flawed screenplay was tossed out by the producer. It's directed by John Huston (Wise Blood), whom O'Bannon contacted about the screenplay, but Huston was more intersted in taking the money and running, which meant not conflicting with the producer. Phobia is currently unavailable on DVD, but I believe it is streaming on Amazon. Phobia's writing is attributed to Shusett and Gary Sherman, as well as Lew Lehman, Jimmy Sangster, and Peter Bellwood.
Next, O'Bannon wrote the screenplay Dead and Buried (1981), a movie about a coastal town where the residents are harboring dark secrets, tourists are dying, and their bodies starting coming back to life. It was directed by Gary Sherman and again O'Bannon teamed up with Shusett to adapt the film from the novel by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Dead and Buried is like an amazing extended episode of the Twilight Zone. It's a diabolical murder mystery with some gory set pieces and cool twist, and a young Robert Englund.
Also in 1981, he worked on Heavy Metal The Movie, writing the segments "Soft Landing" and my favorite of them all, "B-17." In 1983 he wrote the film Blue Thunder, starring Roy Scheider (Jaws), Warren Oates (Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia), Malcolm MacDowell (A Clockwork Orange), and Daniel Stern (C.H.U.D.). Blue Thunder originally had more political context in the screenplay, which was ultimately cut, but we were left with a pretty good, 80s action film with an above average cast. I haven't seen this one since the mid-80s, but my memory of it is having really enjoyed it. Apparently Scheider took the role so he intentionally wouldn't be available for Jaws 3.
O'Bannon's first directing job, aside from his student film Blood Bath, was 1985's The Return Of The Living Dead, but he wasn't originally supposed to direct it. Return... is based on the novel of the same name by John Russo, who was George Romero's collaborator on Night Of The Living Dead. Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Tobe Hooper (RIP) was first tapped to direct the film and it would have been called Tobe Hooper's The Return Of The Living Dead, but he passed on the film to take a three picture deal with Canon, which would not only produce another Chainsaw film, but two collaborations with O'Bannon.
O'Bannon wound up being the perfect person to write and direct Return. He had a vision and a handle on the material that no one else could reproduce. Starring veterans Clu Galager, Don Calfa, and James Karen, and newcomers Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, and Miguel Nunez, not mention ultimate scream queen Linnea Quigley, with production designer William Stout, Return was very much it's own beast, separate from Romero's Dead films, even if it sprang from the same source. O'Bannon really wanted his corpses to look like real corpses and he and Stout found inspiration in the old EC Comics like Tales From The Crypt. And where Romero's films had a serious undercurrent of social commentary and satire, O'Bannon went for more straight forward comedy, but not in a jokey/ slapstick manner. The comedy came naturally from the characters and situations and was really funny for us the viewer, while still being frightening and believably so, for the characters. Also, to me, the zombie attacks are far scarier than in any other zombie film I've ever seen. Other films are more gory, but the way Returns' zombies trap, attack, and overwhelm their victims is unlike any other out there. Even being preceded by a laugh out line like "Send more cops..."delivered by a zombie on the police radio.
Also in 1985, the first of the Canon films with Tobe Hooper came out. Lifeforce was based on the Colin Wilson novel The Space Vampires. Space vampires was not a concept that was unfamiliar to O'Bannon, as Mario Bava's Planet Of The Vampires was a big inspiration on Alien. Also, in a way Lifeforce could almost serve as a pseudo-sequel to Planet Of The Vampires, if the time periods matched up better. You can read more of my thoughts on Lifeforce HERE.
Their next collaboration came in 1986 with the remake Invaders From Mars. The film absolutely bombed. Made for $12 million, it ultimately grossed only 4 and didn't win favor with the critics. Which is too bad, as it is far from a bad film. Why it, Lifeforce, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 did so poorly is beyond me. Invaders is certainly the weaker of the three films, but O'Bannon and Hooper delivered a fun, but flawed movie.
O'Bannon's next two writing credits were for a pair of Philip K Dick stories; 1990's Total Recall and 1995's Screamers. Total Recall had been in development hell for a few years, at point with David Cronenberg attached to direct (side note; Cronenberg (and Lynch) has accused O'Bannon of ripping off his ideas in Shivers and Rabid for Alien. I don't doubt that O'Bannon was inspired by Cronenberg and he certainly was familiar with those films, but to accuse him of ripping Cronenberg is ridiculous. And frankly, Cronenberg is better than that and should drop it.) It starred Arnold Scwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, and Michael Ironside and was directed by Robocop's Paul Verhoven. (Some of the themes from Blue Thunder turn up more effectively in Robocop, and the two make for an interesting double feature). The film did very well, as most Arnold pictures did in the 80s, unlike Screamers, which starred Robocop himself, Peter Weller. That film sadly bombed as well, but as a sci-fi horror it's worth tracking down.
Between the PKD films, O'Bannon wrote and directed The Resurrected, starring Chris Sarandon, Jane Tibbet, and John Terry, based on the HP Lovecraft story "The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward." O'Bannon made the film a detective story with strong undercurrents of Lovecraft's weird horror. I remember the VHS box art and logo very distinctly, but I never watched it back in the day. Had I realized it was by the guy who made Return, one of my all time favorite films, I would have been all over it. Not to mention "The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward" is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. Scream Factory just released a brand new Blu-ray of the film this month.
His last writing credit is for an Italian production, starring Rutger Hauer, called Hemoglobin aka Bleeders (1997). I haven't found this one yet and don't recall ever seeing it around. Apparently its partly based on Lovecraft's "The Lurking Fear" and is about a man with a rare blood disease traveling to a distant island and discovering that his kinfolk are monstrous underground dwellers.
O'Bannon passed away in 2009 from complications with Crohn's disease, the affliction that had inspired him to write the chest burster scene in Alien. I don't know why, considering how strong his body of work is, we don't have more Dan O'Bannon films. He had a great imagination and understanding and knowledge of film, and truly loved the genre stuff and wasn't just using it as stepping stone to "legitimate" film making. I wish that I had appreciated his work more growing up, instead of realizing years later, "oh he wrote THAT too..?"
If you're a filmmaker or a writer I highly recommend picking up O'Bannon's Guide To Screenplay Structure with Matt Lohr. I've found it to be one of the most helpful books on the subject. Get it HERE.