Star Wars, Ital­ian style? Calum Wad­dell un­tan­gles the weird and won­der­ful le­gacy of Luigi Cozzi’s Star­crash…

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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.”

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