Star Wars, Italian style? Calum Waddell untangles the weird and wonderful legacy of Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash…
The dizzy delights of Starcrash!
It may be hard to believe but back in the 1970s the then- booming Italian B- film industry struggled to cash- in on the success of a certain George Lucas space opera. Yes, despite boasting a business that frequently and exhaustedly brought out cheap and energetic versions of Hollywood blockbusters, 1978’ s Starcrash represents the sole attempt by Rome- based moviemakers to emulate the phenomenon of Star Wars. Perhaps unsure of just how to translate the lavish interplanetary spectacle of the Skywalker saga to a budget that would barely pay for Harrison Ford’s catering bills, it would instead be the likes of Alien ( 1979) and Escape From New York ( 1981) that Italian producers would mimic throughout the best part of the 1980s. As such, Starcrash remains an odd anomaly – a family orientated galactic romp from a nation that was better known for its splatter pictures and gritty action thrillers.
“Well this was part of the problem,” sighs director Luigi Cozzi when SFX catches up with him. “Back in the good old days of Italian genre movies you could get your film made if you had naked girls, cannibals, zombies or some kind of mad killer slicing up his victims. And the reason these movies were making so much money is because Italian television was heavily censored at the time. So all of the young people were going to the cinema to see sex and violence [ laughs]. Directors such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci had huge careers back then. Naturally, when Star Wars happened, there was a feeling of, ‘ Wow… this will change everything – but can we ever make that in Italy?’ It showed that there was a family audience for genre films too – because we were generally making films for people in their late teens and early twenties. A Belgian producer called Nat Wachsberger came to Italy and we met through some mutual friends. He said to me, ‘ Have you seen Star Wars? I want to make a movie just like that.’ Well, as it happened, I had not seen Star Wars yet. In a strange way, I was scared of seeing Star Wars because it was clearly going to be bigger and better than anything we could dream of making! But I said, ‘ Yes, I love Star Wars. Let me make this movie for you!’ And that is how Starcrash happened.”
If you say Starcrash is just a complete rip- off of Star Wars then you must be insane
“ICozzi, along with Wachsberger, began to work on the script – although the director, who had earlier worked with Dario Argento on his murder mystery Four Flies On Grey Velvet ( 1971), was eager to stay clear of any obvious comparisons to the Lucas- verse. As such, the director began to think about his own genre favourites and opted instead to craft a slightly more cut- rate homage to the work of Ray Harryhausen and Japanese monster movies. The end result, which tells the tale of Stella Star ( Caroline Munro) – a young female warrior who is dedicated to overthrowing the evil planet- wrecking Count Zarth Arn ( played by B- movie favourite Joe Spinell) – is a madcap mix of old fashioned “afternoon matinee” romp and loveable intergalactic cheese. f you look at Starcrash and say it is just a complete rip- off of Star Wars then you must be either insane or the least perceptive film critic of all time,” insists Cozzi. “My movie is all about showing you the sort of model work and stop- motion animation which was going out of fashion back then – largely because of Star Wars! I said to Nat Wachsberger, ‘ I want to do Sinbad on Mars. I want this to look a little like the films I grew up with, like Godzilla and Jason And The Argonauts. And instead of Luke Skywalker we should have a female hero. If Han Solo is the man every woman wants to be with, our heroine should be the woman every man wants to marry. She should be totally irresistible!’ Then, we found Caroline Munro, who was just unimaginably beautiful.”
A statuesque former model and Hammer horror star, Munro had just appeared in the James Bond hit The Spy Who Loved Me ( 1977) as the helicopter- piloting villainess Naomi. For Starcrash she would be required to squeeze into an ill- fitting black bikini...
“Oh goodness, yes, that costume,” laughs Munro. “I look back and sigh a little… I am quite impressed I ever managed to fit into something that slinky! But, you know, Luigi was filming Starcrash and sending back the footage to the producers every day. Eventually he came to me and said, ‘ Caroline, they love you in this movie but they are very worried we might not get our PG rating so now I have been asked to cover you up.’ So that is why, about half way through the film, I am suddenly wearing another outfit. Strangely enough, though, they used the bikini for all of the marketing shots and posters anyway!”
In a nod to Lucas’s use of Alec Guinness Cozzi chose to include at least one “luvvie” in the Starcrash cast: Christopher Plummer. Add to this Munro’s handsome muse in the form of a pre- Knight Rider David Hasselhoff and you have a cast that is likely to attract curiosity even to this day…
“Luigi had an amazing group of actors,” beams Munro. “It was such a privilege to act with Christopher Plummer, and Joe Spinell too who was a truly underrated performer. He makes for a great villain in Starcrash. David Hasselhoff, of course, was the big success story from Starcrash and he was so nervous about this film. He had been a soap star and he was not sure he was going to be convincing as this great hero – the son of Christopher Plummer and the man who was going to win my heart [ laughs]. But he was lovely. I still see him at conventions to this day and he is so down to earth and friendly to everyone. He has this reputation for being a bit of a handful but I have never seen David as anything but a friend and a colleague and he was very respectful to Luigi during the making of Starcrash.”
Despite its obvious austerity, Starcrash not only features a fine cast and some accomplished stop- motion trickery but also an excellent score from none other than John Barry. Cozzi was clearly aiming for something a little bit special with his rushed- out sci- fi farce…
“The film began production in the summer of 1977 and we had to finish it by Christmas that year,” the director remembers. “I think we had six months in total, but – given everything that we had to do – Starcrash obviously did not have the sort of schedule that would make George Lucas jealous [ laughs]. However, I got the freedom to cast the film and to produce the movie I wanted – and that included getting John Barry to do the soundtrack. Fans today still tell me that Starcrash is one of his best compositions and who am I to argue? We got very lucky to have him.”
Unfortunately, even with the added “class” of Barry and Plummer, Starcrash was headed for trouble. When American International Pictures, who had originally agreed to release the film, saw Cozzi’s final cut they felt it was more camp than cool and the indie- house, who
had just had a super- sized hit with The Amityville Horror, decided to back out. Instead, it would be Roger Corman who stepped up to the plate, successfully bidding for American distribution rights and rolling out Starcrash in early 1979 under his New World Pictures outfit.
“We had overspent on the budget, whether it was the effects, the cast or John Barry, I don’t know,” admits Munro. “We also went over the allotted schedule on Starcrash but that wasn’t really Luigi’s fault. The producers kept seeing
Star Wars and its longevity in theatres so they wanted more fights in outer space and laser shows and stuff like that. Luigi was shooting some extravagant stuff on sound stages out in Italy. I don’t even think we had a premiere or anything in the end – it really just came and went but it seems to have picked up a small following along the way.
Cozzi, who was renamed Lewis Coates for the American release of the film, also remains disappointed by the fact Starcrash never hit a nerve with audiences.
“It did okay business, especially in France,” he says. “The French seemed to ‘ get it’ and Roger Corman was generally happy with how it did in America. The only thing that saddens me is that I think the effects were really good but they went unappreciated. You see, no one really saw
Starcrash when it came out in Italy. It bombed. And when I told local producers, ‘ I directed Starcrash,’ they would laugh and say, ‘ Don’t be silly – that’s an American movie. We don’t do these films in Rome…’ So it did not help my career.”
Nevertheless, as a sci- fi flick that, especially today, boasts a solid fan base ( blame the Hasselhoff connection, or perhaps Munro in that bikini) Starcrash has finally begun to emerge from the shadows and hold its own as something other than just “a Star Wars wannabe”.
“I am actually very proud of it,” smiles Munro. “I have attended revivals of it in France, Italy and America over the past few years and I think it has a nice fan buzz around it today. For a small film it looks really good – it’s a very stylish and colourful caper even if it doesn’t match up to the big blockbusters of today. Still, if they were to offer me a chance to do a sequel I wouldn’t say no. They might have to find someone else to fit into the outfit though [ laughs].”
At least one of them’s dressed for the beach.
If Ray Harryhausen made adult movies...
Stella Star ( Caroline Munro) with ’ 40s throwback robot Elle.
David Hasselhoff’s Prince Simon has really clean hair. Akton was played by evangelist whistleblower Marjoe Gortner. Stella goes interstellar.
Joe Spinell acts like a maniac as Count Zarth Arn. Whenever David is asked to sign Starcrash material I know he looks back on the movie fondly.”