Director: Mario Bava
Kino Lorber/Scorpion Releasing

Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, one of the most celebrated Italian science fiction films, gets the HD Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Kino Lorber and Scorpion Releasing.

The Argos and the Galliot spaceships investigate a strange, barren planet that is believed to maintain intelligent life because of radio voice transmissions. Led by the Argos' commander Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan, PYRO) and his red-haired assistant Sanya (Norma Bengell, I DO NOT FORGIVE… I KILL!), the ships attempt to land but upon descending, the Argos goes out of control and several of the crew seem to go temporarily berserk and attack each other. They have no recollection of their behavior and the ship lands with little damage. On the other hand, the Galliot has crashed and the entire crew perishes. The mutilated corpses indicate that most had died in violent struggles. No signs of life have been found, and the crew members continue to mysteriously and unwillingly attack each other. The remaining members of the expedition now start to die or vanish one by one until Captain Mark discovers that one supposedly dead crew member is lurking about and not quite himself. The captain determines that the planet is inhabited by advanced minds who have been seeking bodies to take over and escape to another world – turning most of his crew into homicidal zombies.

When American International Pictures (AIP) released Mario Bava’s “La maschera del demonio” as BLACK SUNDAY in 1961, they had a huge success on their hands, and continued to distribute the American versions of Bava films such as BLACK SABBATH and THE EVIL EYE throughout the early 1960s. By the time it came to making what would be known as PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, AIP would help finance the film, offering American sci-fi writer Ib Melchior (REPTILICUS, THE ANGRY RED PLANET, JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET) and their producer Louis M. “Deke” Heyward added additional material to the screenplay, which was based on the story “One Night of 21 Hours” by Italian writer Renato Pestriniero. Bava’s love of science fiction is obvious here, and if you compare the film with Antonio Margheriti's mid 1960s kitsch outer space costume parties and Alfonso Brescia’s horrendous late 1970s STAR WARS rip-offs, you’ll easily realize that Bava’s film is the best of its kind in the annals of Italian space operas. In spite of the film’s limited budget, Bava and crew make the most of the interior spaceship sets (filmed at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios) and Bava himself was responsible for a number of the films visual effects (most of them done in camera using miniature models and forced perspective camera setups), with the aid of his father Eugene (a pioneer of special effects photography) and Carlo Rambaldi, who designed the horseshoe-shaped Argos spacecraft and other models. Always the renaissance man, former cameraman Bava also contributed (uncredited) to the ingenious cinematography, and his crimson-dashed approach and stunning color schemes make the film all the more enticing.

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is a chilling, atmospheric blend of space adventure and horror elements, and it's an unusual addition to the Mario Bava repertoire. Filled with inventive futuristic set designs, clever camera compositions and chic spaceman wardrobe (black leather uniforms with pointy collars and widow-peaked headgear), the film is also particularly gruesome in its depictions of the undead, and its gloomy style most likely influenced ALIEN some 15 years later (ironically, that film’s central creature was also created by Carlo Rambaldi). They're not really vampires as the U.S. title implies, but rather maimed and repulsive zombies who crawl out of their fresh graves and break out of the clear plastic that they're wrapped in (and these depictions are some of the most creepy and atmospheric seen in a Bava film). Other visual highlights include the discovery of some oversized skeletons (belonging to an extinct alien civilization) and one of the zombified crew members having his front jacket opened to expose a bloody, decayed ribcage (an effect Bava similarly utilized with Barbara Steele’s undead Asa in BLACK SUNDAY). The cast is secondary to the visuals and more or less props rather than thespians, not to mention that all but Sullivan (who actually carries the film well) have had their voices re-synched at Titra Studios, with the familiar voice talents of Jack Curtis and Peter Fernandez recognized on the soundtrack. Also among the cast are Angel Aranda (SATAN’S BLOOD), Evi Marandi (LUANA, THE GIRL TARZAN) and a young Ivan Rassimov (THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER) who would go on to become one of the most recognizable faces in Italian exploitation cinema (Rassimov would also appear in Bava’s swan song, SHOCK aka BEYOND THE DOOR II). Composer Gino Marinuzzi Jr. (HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN) concocts a proper mix of haunting orchestrations and electronic sound effects, and for once AIP didn’t replace the music with a new score by their house composer Les Baxter, something they did for all the previous Bava films they released here.

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES started its home video history in the U.S. when it was issued on VHS by Orion Home Video in the early 1990s, but due to music rights issues, Marinuzzi’s music was replaced with a lurid synthesizer score by Kendall Schmidt (this rescored version also showed up on the laserdisc released by Image Entertainment). When MGM released the film on DVD in 2001, they restored scenes not shown in the American theatrical cut or previous home versions, with the music finally restored, but the letterboxed image was non-anamorphic. Thankfully, MGM has been undergoing a number of HD restorations of library titles and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES happens to be one of them, with Kino Lorber and Scorpion Releasing wisely opting to license the film for this warmly welcomed Blu-ray (the film is subsequently being made available on standard DVD). Presented here in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (preserving its hard-matted process), the film is presented in 1080p HD and looks spectacular. In HD, PLANET is radiant with striking, lushly saturated colors (including the paint-like richness of the blood spattered on several victims) and a deep level of detail which gives the film a fresh appearance and likewise making visual effects (especially those miniatures) more apparent. Clarity is exceptional, with some minor speckling on the source element which only helps to retain a more filmic, unfiltered appearance which is more than pleasing to the eye. Likewise, the DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio carries the post-synched English dialog well, and the original music score and sound effects are free of problematic issues. Although the Italian version was slightly recut, the 88-minute version presented here is as complete as can be, offering trims not seen in the original theatrical release (on a double bill with DIE, MONSTER, DIE! with Boris Karloff) back in 1965.

Bava biographer Tim Lucas (Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark) provides another running audio commentary for a Bava film (something he’s done for a good number of other Bava DVD and Blu-ray titles for various studios over the years) and this is definitely one of his best yet, providing a very thorough history and analysis of the film in question. Recorded on what would have been the 100th birthday of Bava last July, Lucas’ commentary covers just about every angle, incorporating some great quotes from Sullivan (from an unpublished 1975 interview) and Melchior, and he goes on to give details of the film’s different special effects, that Susan Hart was originally slated to co-star (but cut from the roster after AIP initiated a new nepotism policy), the problems had with his 50-something leading man which AIP imposed upon him (something he ultimately accepted), scenes which were removed from the original American theatrical version, variations on the script from the original story, personal information on Bava from around the time of filming and much more.

Other extras here include the original AIP theatrical trailer (presented here full frame) and anamorphic “Trailers from Hell” segments with both filmmaker Joe Dante (who talks about going to see Bava films at the grindhouses back in the day and describes PLANET as the one movie that encapsulates “the spirit of pulp science fiction”) and screenwriter Josh Olson (who reassures the influence the film had on ALIEN). The original Italian TERRORE NELLO SPAZIO opening and closing credits (simple white lettering in front of black background) reveal not only some ending dialog in the Italian language, but the fact that the Italian version is missing an opening establishing shot featured in the American version. A section of “Alternate Music Score Highlights” (20:31) is basically clips from the old U.S. VHS version which not only reminds us how painful the Kendall Schmidt re-do score was, but also how fortunate we are now to be able to own the film in a beautiful HD transfer! Rounding out the extras is the text of the original Renato Pestriniero story PLANET was based on (translated from Italian into English by Joe F. Randolph) and a still gallery. The Blu-ray’s sleeve is reversible, revealing a poster and lobby card gallery on the opposite side. (George R. Reis)