3 out of 5 stars

Whether one loves or laughs at Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires / Terrore nello spazio depends on expectations. Either way, it would take a conscious effort to dislike this pioneering fusion of science fiction and horror. It’s well worth the time of anyone with a serious interest in the history of genre cinema and is compulsory viewing for all Bava fans. I can tick those boxes, yet I’m glad to have waited for this lovingly restored director’s cut from Radiance, scanned at 4K from the original 35mm Eastmancolor negatives. The restoration process was overseen by Mario’s son, Lamberto Bava, who was also the film’s assistant director, so we can be sure this is the most authentic version possible. The visually arresting colour palette is as luscious as it’s ever been. For completists, there are also options to view the English-language version—some gory shots trimmed but with a few extended dialogue scenes—and a 1980s re-release with an alternative synthesiser score.

Twin starships, Argos and Galliot, pass through a meteor storm as they near planet Aura, where a repeating signal has been detected. During a ship-to-ship video call, Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) of the Argos and Captain Nordeg (Massimo Righi) of the Galliot commend their ‘meteor rejectors’ and discuss how they wouldn’t stand a chance of survival in space without such equipment. The clumsy dialogue hints that something is bound to befall these vital components. Then, as we remain onboard the Argos, a brilliant babble of what sounds like Golden Age sci-fi jargon and pseudoscience fills the air during preparations for landing. However, a few biotech terms are also thrown in, which, to the modern ear, suggest the vessels may have organic components.

The design of the ships is elegant, consisting of a rounded hull, surmounted by a large observation dome above the command deck, and two rear-projecting engine nacelles. It certainly isn’t the usual rocket ship or saucer that audiences of the time were accustomed to, and it has a vague familiarity, perhaps foreshadowing the USS Enterprise or the crashed horseshoe-shaped craft seen in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)—which many consider a loose remake. With this in mind, it’s difficult to resist comparing the two films as there are several striking similarities.

The Argos and Galliot were both filmed using a single model designed by Mario Bava and built by his special effects technician, Carlo Rambaldi. Their descent through the thick atmosphere of Aura was achieved by submerging the model in a large aquarium and releasing coloured powders that swirled under the coloured lighting. The model itself also had concealed lighting and heavier powders that it could release to create the illusion of landing thrusters. Simple yet ingenious mechanical effects for their time.

As the Argos lands, it loses contact with the Galliot and finds itself suddenly trapped in a sort of extreme gravity well. This causes the crew to pass out one by one, until only Captain Markary remains conscious, struggling to complete the landing procedures. As the rest of his bridge crew regain consciousness, they immediately try to kill one another. The momentary madness passes and, thanks to the captain’s interventions, no one is seriously injured. However, they are all disoriented, feeling they were possessed by a will other than their own.

The interiors of the spacecraft are spacious, almost monolithic in their minimalist grandeur. It’s a lovely piece of set design, but one wonders why the bridge had to be so large and sparse. Perhaps other equipment could be deployed for different missions. Likely, the production design was taking its cues from what was then considered hi-tech interiors of the day, such as power stations and nuclear reactors.

The spaceship interiors and part of the planet’s surface were constructed at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios on what was then one of the largest soundstages in Europe. This gave Bava plenty of space to work with, but nowhere near enough funds to fill it, which is where his knowledge of old-school film magic came in handy.

Due to budgetary constraints, all the VFX were mechanical or achieved in-camera. Mario’s filmmaker father, Eugenio Bava, lent a hand, along with Lamberto, which meant three generations of Bava men working together. Eugenio had been a cinematographer since the silent era and was known for his sculptor abilities and pioneering use of miniatures and matte work. This is used with great success when the landing party from the Argos sets out in search of survivors from their crashed sister ship.

The surface of Aura is a disorientating space. Cliffs, crevasses, and mires of molten mud are obscured and revealed by thick, luminous fogs that seem to move with purpose. It manages to evoke a sense of both infinite barrenness and claustrophobia. The strange rock formations appear to be volcanic in origin, but when lit by a red glow, they take on a more suggestive, organic appearance.

The bubbling upwellings of mud were created using pots of polenta cooking on hidden camping stoves, visible through holes cut in the floor of the set. A large enough section was built for the explorers to walk across. These shots were combined with models of the surface, reflected in angled mirrors in front of the camera, with selected patches of the reflective silvering removed to create windows that aligned with the full-size set. With excellent camerawork from cinematographer Antonio Rinaldi, Bava employed some lens trickery to keep the miniatures and the more distant actors in focus and at a believable scale.

As they approach the galleon, they discover two crewmen locked in a bloody embrace, as if they had killed each other. On closer inspection, they find the door to the ship’s bridge locked from the inside, and through the porthole they see the command crew lying dead. They find no sign of the rest of the crew while searching the vessel, including the cavernous engine room. This illusion of scale was created by filming through a cleverly lit model positioned directly in line with the lens. The focus was deep enough to see the tiny figures through gaps—a shot that can only be fully appreciated on a large screen; otherwise, the actors are barely visible.

Captain Sullivan and his first officer, Sanya (Norma Bengell), later track the mysterious repeating signal to a crashed alien ship with another cavernous interior. The only fully-constructed parts of the vessel appear to be the entry corridor, suggested by a series of circular portals, and the central controls. Built to a larger-than-human scale, the skeleton of the ship’s giant pilot still slumps there. This image would be later reused for a similarly memorable moment in Alien.

It’s interesting to note that Carlo Rambaldi, who constructed the extraterrestrial skeletons for Planet of the Vampires, went on to create some iconic cinema aliens, including the greys for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He won his first Academy Award for his work on King Kong (1976) and would subsequently win two more for his design of the eponymous alien in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and, perhaps more pertinently, the head of the xenomorph for Alien.

In recent times, Bava’s seminal fusion of science fiction and supernatural horror has come to the fore. This is evident in the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode “Ghosts of Illyria,” which features disembodied beings haunting the ionic storm ravaging a desolate planet. Similarly, the episode “Hegemony,” which reinvented the Gorn aliens, leans heavily on the terrifying concept of parasitic infection, echoing Planet of the Vampires by way of Alien.

Planet of the Vampires is sometimes discussed as an anomaly in the career of director Mario Bava, but in many respects, it seems a natural culmination of his earlier work. After all, his first film was I Vampiri (1957)—not a traditional vampire movie but more of a macabre mystery with proto-giallo elements. He took over after its original director, Riccardo Freda, left the production before completion.

Likewise, Bava was uncredited for his second directorial film, Day of the Crumbling Sky / La morte viene dallo spazio, considered Italy’s first serious science fiction film. He would revisit vampiric themes with Black Sunday / The Mask of Satan (1960) and even more explicitly with I Wurdalak—a section in his anthology, Black Sabbath (1963), which also showcases his use of coloured lighting and mist to create the film’s more eerie atmosphere. He further refined this distinctive use of expressive and structural lighting in his groundbreaking gialloBlood and Black Lace (1964).

In a key scene of Planet of the Vampires, a crewman’s jacket falls open to reveal the fatal injury that has made him one of the walking dead. The rib-exposing prosthetic references a similar moment in The Mask of Satan and alludes to several shared themes. He’s pretending to be a normal man, but he is certainly not the man he resembles. He talks coherently and calmly, explaining the dire predicament that he and his entire race face. It seems they may have once been mighty, but somewhere along the line, they relinquished their corporeal forms, perhaps intentionally to survive an ancient environmental disaster that sterilised their planet. This taps into existential fears that are even more relevant today as we grapple with our own environmental crisis.

This is also a very early example of the zombie as an alien contagion, predating the suggestion in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1969) that a space probe brought back the plague. Bava’s psychically parasitic vampires, more akin to zombies but retaining intelligence, appeared before the term “zombie” was popular enough for marketing purposes.

We can only surmise that the lurid mist we have seen moving with apparent purpose was a manifestation of these beings—feeling their way around the surface of the planet, exploring the newly arrived spaceships and their crews. This ties in with the vampire trope of creeping into a room through the gap under a door in mist form. It also evokes the fear of a ghostly consciousness persisting after death, not unlike Edgar Allan Poe’s phobia of being buried alive. This can be more disturbing than the fear of death itself, as it implies a loss of self, a completely disempowered awareness beyond life.

So, although Planet of the Vampires is his second, and only credited venture into space science fiction, familiar themes resurface, and his signature use of colour has never been so prominent. The alien presence manifests purely as coloured light and lurid miasma. Regardless of the story, this otherworldly use of colours, and their interaction with some wonderful production design, delivers pure visual pleasure—a fantastic slice of Pop Art if nothing else.

In regards to the story, Mario Bava was so impressed by Una notte di 21 ore / One Night of 21 Hours—originally published in the 1960 edition of the Italian sci-fi anthology magazine Oltre il Cielo / Beyond the Sky—that he bought the film rights directly from the author, Renato Pestriniero, before any production deal had been secured. By 1964, Bava was developing a script under the title of The Shadow World with Ib Melchior.

Melchior began by writing the English-language scripts for the US releases of a couple of Godzilla films—Godzilla Raids Again (1955) and Gigantis, the Fire Monster (1959)—before writing and directing his own B-movie, The Angry Red Planet (1959), a kind of Quatermass-inspired prequel to H.G Wells’s War of the Worlds. He also wrote and directed The Time Travellers (1964) and had just finished contributing the script for “The Premonition,” an episode of The Outer Limits (1963-65), when Bava brought him on board. Melchior was working from a roughly translated synopsis of the source material. The script would pass across the desks of half a dozen writers during development, including some script doctors presumably consulted by the Italian producer, Fulvio Lucisano, who suggested introducing some female nudity. This was resisted by Bava and rejected by Samuel Z. Arkoff’s on-set liaison.

Arkoff was one of the earliest to recognise the international potential of Italian pulp cinema and started producing US versions for his distribution company American International Pictures which was also releasing Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Bava and Corman were both pioneers of structural and narrative colour and there are clear parallels between Planet of the Vampires and Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1965). However, Bava’s use of vivid colours is more stylistic, evoking an eerie otherness, while Corman’s colours are deliberately symbolic and follow a narrative progression.

As with many early science fiction films, Planet of the Vampires can trace its lineage back to Forbidden Planet (1956), the classic that introduced several new ideas to cinema—such as faster-than-light interstellar space travel, robots with a personality, and entirely alien worlds with their own ancient civilisations—which would become standard fare and inspire many a low-budget knockabout. And that’s how some have, unfairly, perceived and dismissed Bava’s film.

One distinction of Forbidden Planet was that it was the very first film to employ an entirely electronic score. No doubt, its distinctive soundscape was a major influence on the outstanding work of Gino Marinuzzi Jr. on Planet of the Vampires. His music combines sound sculptures created by recording and manipulating real-world sounds, along with electronic tones, white noise generators, and traditional instruments used unconventionally. The ambience of the spaceship interiors, the eerie exterior of the planet, and the sound of equipment all become part of the score.

So far, I’ve focused mainly on the technical aspects and the film’s legacy, deliberately avoiding any assessment of the acting. Norma Bengell delivers the strongest performance in the lead female role, providing the only character with any truly convincing emotional depth. The rest of the cast are all perfectly adequate, but have very little material to work with and are hampered by various factors.

Barry Sullivan is suitably stoic as the starship captain dealing with the impending doom of his ship and crew. However,there was reportedly some resentment on set as Bava let it be known that he would have preferred a younger and more dynamic captain. Nevertheless, the production package came with the lead already in place.

Similarly, being funded as an international production came with requirements for a diverse cast, and the key players didn’t share a common language. Where possible, they delivered their lines in English, and all were later dubbed in post-production, resulting in an unavoidable disconnect. This might have been partly responsible for the dialogue being kept sparse and almost exclusively functional. Additionally, there are a few crucial plot twists that would have become too obvious too soon if the characters had been given space to interact and reveal their backstories. None of this is a major concern on first viewing, but it does feel a little awkward on a second watch.

Upon initial release, Terrore nello Spazio wasn’t a major hit in Italy. It fared marginally better in Spain, and when released as Planet of the Vampires, it managed to recoup $251,000, which covered its meagre budget of $200,000. Gradually, it has accrued a devoted cult following, but it wasn’t until the 21st-century that it was properly re-evaluated as a significant milestone in genre cinema. This reevaluation was largely due to Tim Lucas treating the film, and the rest of Bava’s work, with the critical respect more usually reserved for arthouse cinema. His weighty 2007 tome, Mario Bava: All the Colours of the Dark, is a staggering achievement and perhaps the most thorough monograph ever written about any auteur.



Limited Edition Blu-ray Special Features:

  • 4K scan of the film from the original negative under the supervision of Lamberto Bava and carried out at Fotocinema in Rome in collaboration with CSC Cineteca Nazionale. Marvellous job, as Lamberto Bava assures us in the bonus material, the colour saturation is better than when the original elements came back from the Technicolor lab six decades ago.
  • High-definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the Italian (89 mins) and English (88 mins) versions of the film.
  • Alternate Kendall Schmidt score. Not too bad but, weirdly, the 1980s electro synth feels more dated than the 1960s experimental soundscape—may have a nostalgic appeal to those who remember watching the movie on the Orion home video releases that used this music.
  • Uncompressed mono audio.
  • Archival audio commentary by Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (2014). Tim Lucas reliably gives the most detailed, authoritative commentaries and this is no exception. As the biographer of Mario Bava, he made use of personal contacts and used primary sources to corroborate his information when possible. He begins by placing the production into a historical context of Italy’s early science fiction cinema, mentioning that Bava didn’t manage to spark a trend otherwise he would’ve almost certainly returned to the genre. He takes us through the development and discusses the differences between the original short story and the script. He shares plenty of information about cast and crew and explains how the VFX were achieved on such a low budget. He shares technical details down to where lamps were concealed, how some props were constructed, and how the cameras used had different aspect ratios. He goes on to track the various pastiches and downright rip-offs the film spawned in the 1980s and compares the re-releases including the TV edit entitled The Demon Planet.
  • ‘Transmissions from a Haunted World’—a new documentary which explores Planet of the Vampires, Mario Bava and the connection between gothic and science fiction. Co-directed by Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger; featuring interviews with Guy Adams, Xavier Aldana Reyes, Alexandra Benedict, Johnny Mains and John Llewellyn Probert (2024, 41mins). A selection of enthusiastic talking heads sharing their valid personal responses to the movie along with a wealth of knowledge—most of which is already discussed in the audio commentary. The theoretical discussion and exploration across different genres come across as a cogent thread, probably down to the guidance of Kat Ellinger.
  • Archival interview with Lamberto Bava (2022, 13 mins). The film’s Assistant Director recalls his involvement in the whole process from funding, through casting, production, effects shots, and editing. He talks about the collaborations between Mario Bava and Antonio Rinaldi who developed an unspoken rapport. He then shares his memories of the cast.
  • Super 8 Version—a reconstruction of the cut-down version distributed as Planet der Vampire (17 mins). What passed as the home entertainment version for the bourgeois collector or sci-fi clubs in the days before VHS.
  • Joe Dante and Josh Olsen trailer commentaries—the filmmakers provide a short overview of the film (2013/14, 4 mins and 2 mins). Short but fun commentaries from the Trailers From Hell stable—also available on YouTube.
  • Trailer.
  • Press and image gallery from the Tim Lucas / Alan Y. Upchurch collection.
  • Optional English subtitles for Italian audio and English SDH for English audio.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow.
  • Limited edition 80-page book featuring new writing by Kyle Anderson, Martyn Conterio, Barry Forshaw, George Daniel Lea and Jerome Reuter. Not available at the time of review.
  • Limited edition 20-page booklet featuring a new translation of Renato Pestriniero’s original short story. Not available at the time of review.
  • A collection of six exclusive postcards featuring promotional material.
  • Limited edition of 5000 copies, presented in a rigid box and full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings.

Cast & Crew

director: Mario Bava.
writers: Alberto Bevilacqua, Callisto Cosulich, Mario Bava & Antonio Román (based on the short story ‘One Night of 21 Hours’ by Renato Pestriniero) • Ib Melchior & Louise M Heyward (English version).
starring: Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Ángel Aranda, Evi Marandi, Federico Boido, Stelio Candelli, Franco Andrei & Mario Morales.