The 1960’s and 1970’s were shadowed by numerous ecological catastrophes that made people stop and think of environmental issues in a whole new light. In 1967 an oil tanker on its way to Wales hit Pollard Rock at the coast of Cornwall and spilled its cargo of 25 million gallons of crude oil into the water. In 1969 a Union Oil Platform off the coast of California had a blow-out that caused the largest oil spill in US waters at that time, coating 50 odd kilometres of coastline in toxic black sludge. Later the same year, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire due to the amount of pollution that had been dumped in its waters by surrounding heavy industries. A decade later the residents of Love Canal, New York, revealed the devastating impacts of toxic waste being dumped in the local landfill and subsequently poisoning the land and its inhabitants. Furthermore, the rise in air pollution and the thick layers of smog that lingered around big cities such as Yokkaichi, Los Angles, Houston and New York made the air around these areas nearly unbreathable.
In the wake of these disasters America saw a new era of environmental regulations, with the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Water Quality Control Act of 1965 both increasing in intensity and scope. They were soon accompanied by the Environmental Pesticide Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Safe Water Drinking Act (1974), the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) and the Clean Water Act (1977), hoping to assure that such atrocities would no longer be able to happen. Similarly, with an ever-increasing pollution crisis, Japan saw its environmental laws tightened in the early part of the 1970’s and after joining the EU in 1973, Britain too made strides in shading it’s reputation as the “Dirty man of Europe” and started slowly moving towards cleaner, greener future.
While the new legislation was certainly a step in the right direction and a source of new hope to many people, there were still plenty of those who saw a much bleaker future ahead. Many believed the game had already been lost on many environmental fronts and predicted things only getting worse in the coming decades. It was these fears that also informed much of the horror cinema of the times and nowhere is it quite as obvious as in the aquatic horror genre. In the background of many of these films looms the devastating effect of pollution, fear of genetic manipulation, and rampant capitalist greed. They may be buried under several layers of tongue in cheek creature feature action but are nevertheless present and repeat themselves over and over again.
The father of the low budget monster film, Roger Corman, was of course still hard at work, tapping into the newfound fears of the decade. In 1978 he and his production company, New World Pictures, helped to bring forth an aquatic horror featuring a new type of killer fish, Piranha. With then still unknown director Joe Dante (later of The Howling and Gremlins fame) at the helm, this low budget feature became a surprise hit of the summer. While there are no sharks in sight, the film unquestionably does bear some resemblance to Jaws, and was definitely benefitting from the nature-gone-bad sub-genre that it helped to create. The similarities between the two were, in fact, enough to make Universal once again threatening to sue, and it was only after Spielberg himself gave the film a positive review, that the studio backed off.
While Piranha might be made with a measly budget of $660,000 and reportedly shot in only 30 days, it stands above many of its contemporaries with an actually entertaining and witty story, surprisingly good special effects and some genuinely decent actors. Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies-Urich, Kevin McCarthy and even Barbara Steele make an appearance, and do respectively a great job in bringing an outlandish creature feature to life.
The story takes place in Lost River Lake and its surrounding river streams. When two teenage backpackers go missing in the area, a skip tracer by the name of Maggie McKeown (Menzies-Urich) follows their trail down the river. Along the way she hires a local hermit Paul Grogan (Dillman) as her guide and to take her to locations where the two lovebirds could have possibly gone. One of these is an abandoned army compound with a fully functioning fish hatchery and research laboratory. After finding evidence of the backpacker’s presence in the facility, McKeown decides to drain one the outdoor pools in hopes of finding more evidence of the lost kids. This mission is nearly interrupted by a crazed scientist attacking the pair, but he is promptly subdued by Grogan and the pool draining may continue. They do indeed find the skeletal remains of the backpackers, and as luck would have it, the water they drained also contained genetically modified, super aggressive piranhas that are now at large in the Lost River Lake’s river system. Oops! Down the river there is of course a summer camp full of kids and a soon-to-be open water sport resort, whose opening day festivities will not be stopped by a few blood hungry fish. Maggie and Paul must find a way to stop the piranha before they can do any more harm.
While Piranha does use a lot of the same tropes as Jaws, including starting the film with two unfortunate skinny dippers getting into trouble, it should not by any means be called a Jaws rip-off. There is plenty of original material for it to proudly stand on its own merits. It is much more light-hearted than Jaws and fully embraces what it is: a cheap creature feature. The ferocious killer fishes were quite literally created by attaching rubber piranhas to sticks and shaking them about. It might sound silly, but the results speak for themselves, and this cheap little trick works amazingly well. Admittedly we do not get any gory close-ups of the piranha killing their prey, but most of the kill scenes are simply people sinking in the river in a pool of blood with a few shots of the rubbery monsters nibbling on their flesh. Still, the weird wasp swarm sound effect that comes with this deadly school of killer fish, together with these brief images of the carnage they cause, is surprisingly effective.
Alongside the storyline of greedy capitalists once again putting profits before human lives, the film also taps into the newly found fears of the decade: genetic manipulation. These fears saw their birth in 1972 with the creation of recombinant DNA (rDNA): DNA created through combining elements of DNA from two different organisms. In 1973 Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen transferred a gene that encodes antibiotic resistance from one strain of bacteria into another, making the recipient also resistant to antibiotics. While this was undeniably brilliant news for the scientific community, these new discoveries did not come without some uneasiness. Amongst scientists there were growing fears of this technology’s potential to increase the virulence of viruses, as well as making bacteria more resistant to antibiotics, and in the summer of 1973 numerous molecular biologists gathered at the Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids in New Hampshire and called on their fellow scientist to suspend experiments with certain organisms. This moratorium was furthermore endorsed in 1975 Asilomar conference, and many of the ethical ideas surrounding the field of genetics that were agreed upon then, are still upheld today.
In Piranha, the fish were originally created as part of the Operation Razorteeth: a secret government project aimed to create super aggressive species of piranha to be let loose in the rivers of North Vietnam, in hopes of aiding the American war effort. While this was pure science fiction and not actually explored in any great depth in the film, it certainly resonated the fears for such technology and what could happen if it ended up in the wrong hands. If the shark in Jaws could be driven into human hunting frenzy by people simply encroaching on its natural habitat, what horrors could these man-made monsters bestow upon us?
In 1982 a sequel, Piranha II: The Spawning followed, although this time without the backing of Corman (the sequel rights were sold to producers Jeff Schechtman and Chako van Leuwen. At the helm, making his directorial debut was none other than young James Cameron, who for years afterwards would deny his involvement with the film (but has since come to embrace it). While Dante’s film before it is genuinely solid creature feature, The Spawning lacks heavily in the story department and does not quite provide the performances delivered by the cast of Piranha.
The story takes place at the Caribbean hotel resort Hotel Elysium, where a diving instructor Anne Kimbrough (Tricia O’Neil) makes a living by taking tourists to see local underwater treasures, such as a nearby sunken ship. When people start to die in mysterious circumstances, Anne is desperate to find out just what kind of animal could have done such damage. With the help of an overly friendly hotel guest Tyler (Steve Marachuk) and her ex-husband Steve (Lance Hendricksen), she goes to find a school of mega aggressive piranha. These fishes are not only a danger to swimmers, but have now been further genetically manipulated to fly, posing a threat in the sea and on dry land.
The opening scene of unnecessarily awkward underwater sex and the subsequent death by the super piranha sets the mood for the rest of the film. It lets the viewers know straight off the bat just what kind of schlocky nightmare they are in for. While genetic manipulation plays a part in the story, Piranha II does not even attempt to examine the issue with any degree of seriousness, and tongues remain firmly in cheek for the rest of the film’s duration.
In 1980 Corman had his executive producer mitts on another aquatic project called Humanoids from the Deep (or Monster as it was known in Europe and Japan). It features a horde of super aggressive fishmen attacking the sleepy seaside village of Noyo, California. They are the result of genetically manipulated salmon escaping from a local research facility, eaten by other local fish, and thus creating a whole new species of fast-growing fish mutants. What makes things worse is that these freaks of genetic engineering are not after human flesh. Instead, they are driven by the urge to mate, and the target of their carnal desires are the young ladies of Noyo. The town sheriff Jim Hill (Doug McClure) and the scientist behind the super salmon, Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel), find evidence of the monsters and try to convince the local authorities of the danger surrounding them. Unfortunately, by the time this happens, the village’s annual salmon festival is already in full swing and goes horribly wrong when the humanoids show up to rape and kill everyone in sight.
The role of the director was originally offered to Joe Dante, but after he turned the project down, the job landed in the lap of Barbara Peeters. The typically ludicrous plot moves at a brisk pace and does not lack in action or bloodshed. The titular humanoids also get a refreshing amount of screen time, and their clumsy antics are a joy to watch. Famously Corman did not quite agree with Peeters’ more character driven approach to the story and after seeing the material in post-production demanded that she add more sex to the film. Not seeing this as necessary, Peeters refused and was promptly replaced by Jimmy T. Murakami, who shot the more explicit scenes of the rubbery humanoids rampaging on the beaches of Noyo. While pure Corman, the scenes did not really bring anything extra to the film and ironically many of them were later left on the cutting room floor, leaving Peeters with the full directorial credit.
While somewhat schlocky, Humanoids from the Deep nevertheless touches upon the same fears as Piranha. This time the monsters have not been directly created by men but are nevertheless a product of the same human hubris. GMO foods where not yet something widely available in 1980, but the fear of the potential harm that genetic manipulation could do to our food sources and the unpredictable results of consuming such products were already in the public consciousness. In 1977 a book by Jeff Rifkin and Ted Howard titled Who Should Play God? The Artificial Creation of Life and What it Means for the Future of the Human Race raised many of these concerns in the most provocative way possible. It painted a picture of a future where scientists could create everything from genetic super monsters to subservient slave races, all with the help of genetic manipulation. Rifkin and Howard unsuccessfully fought against patenting of GMO’s, warning the Supreme Court justices that allowing them would lead to more GMO’s and that in turn would “Irreversibly pollute the planetary gene pool in radical new ways”.
While the Supreme Court did not listen to the warnings, the writers of Humanoids from the Deep, Frank Arnold and Martin B. Cohen, certainly seemed to. The story of mutated fish monsters created by genetically manipulated food sources may not be directly out of Who Should Play God? but it does seem like a likely source of inspiration for this story. Admittedly, the film does not delve into these issues with any great seriousness and much like Piranha, they are merely mentioned in passing. Any criticism over GMOs or genetic manipulation in general is well buried underneath the schlock and sleaze and therefore not something that most viewers would take overly seriously. However, the film does conclude in rather dark manner with Peggy, one of the victims of the fishmen, giving birth to an offspring of the monster. The last images are of a screeching monster bursting out of Peggy’s belly, leaving us ponder the consequences of such genetic union.
Even the great Sergio Martino took a stab at the aquatic genre with his 1979 L’isola degli uomini pesce or Island of the Fishmen (also going under the title Screamers). The story is set in the year 1891, where shipwrecked military doctor Lieutenant Claude de Ross (Claudio Cassinelli), washes ashore of a mysterious Caribbean Island, alongside a couple of prisoners from his ship. It takes no time of all for one of the men fall a victim to a weird fish like creature and as the rest of the group make their escape to the inner parts of the island, they come across evil Edmond Rackham (Claudio Cassinelli) and his beautiful prisoner Amanda Marvin (Barbara Bach). Begrudgingly Rackham invites the men to stay in his mansion but makes it very clear that they do not care for visitors on this island. And we soon find out why: the fishmen lurking around island are the product of Amanda’s father’s, Professor Ernest Marvin’s (Joseph Cotten), horrific biological experiments, purpose of which is to create a new race of water dwelling fishmen to help alleviate the world’s growing food demand by having part of the population live in the ocean. Meanwhile, Rackham has discovered the lost city of Atlantis in the surrounding waters of the island and is using the fishmen to dive down and collect its sunken treasures by drugging them into submission with Dr. Marvin’s special potion (distributed to the creatures by his daughter). In the middle of this is poor de Ross, trying to figure out how the hell to get off this island madhouse.
While L’isola degli uomini pesce may not be the best of Martino’s catalogue, it is not a half bad entry into the aquatic horror genre. Instead of riding on the coattails of Creature from Black Lagoon or Jaws, it takes its cue from H. G Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, replacing the human-animal hybrids with terrors of more aquatic type and touching upon the Malthusian fears of the time, with the suggestions of humankind’s need to find more space in the bottom of the ocean. That being said, the mad biological experiment aspect could have (in my opinion) been leaned on more heavily, as it does provide some of the more interesting and eerie plot points. Instead, the film suffers slightly from an unbalanced story that teeters between the mad scientist and greedy lunatic angles, never fully committing to either and thus offering only a lukewarm viewing experience.
Lamberto Bava also dipped his toes into the waters in 1984 with an action-packed offering titled Shark – Rosso nell’oceano (also known as Devil Fish, Monster Shark, Monster from the Red Ocean, Devouring Waves and Shark: Red in the Ocean). In it a mysterious marine monster stalks the Florida coastline. To the rescue come a group of scientists trying to track down the creature for study purposes. Unfortunately for them, this creature is not a freak of nature, or a prehistoric monster woken up from its slumber, but an escaped military experiment that they, together with some greedy corporate types, are ready and willing to keep a secret at any cost.
The creature mainly resembles a volleyball with tentacles but is boldly described by its creators as having the “genetic characteristics as fearsome as the white shark’s and gigantic octopus, with the intelligence of a dolphin”, and being “as monstrous as a prehistoric creature”. Its sole purpose is to help them claim the ownership to world’s oceans untapped resources and to create masses of profit for the company. How exactly a deadly volleyball is going to aid in that is unclear, but Bava will not let that stand in the way of a good story. The fears of capitalist greed lurk in the background of this outlandish adventure and are clearly stated amongst the fantastically awful dialogue, but alas, never really explored in any deep and meaningful way. Instead, Shark – Rosso nell’oceano is cheesy kind of fun with very little substance. The monster is as schlocky as they come and the plot just on the right side of ludicrous to be entertaining. Fabio Frizzi’s fantastic soundtrack offers an energetic and classically 80’s musical backdrop to the story, helping to elevate the film slightly above many of its contemporaries.
Naturally nautical creatures were also causing havoc across the Pacific. The numerous adventures of Japan’s most beloved monster Godzilla continued throughout the 1970’s and 80’s as seven new films were added to the franchise between 1970 and 1990: Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), Terror of Mechagodzilla, (1975), The Return of Godzilla (1984) and Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). In the context of the rest of the decade’s major themes, it is the first of these films that stand out. Yoshimitsu Banno’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Gojira tai Hedora) also known in the west as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, is a somewhat of a maverick in the franchise, having been filmed with only half the budget of the previous entries and featuring more experimental cinematic techniques, but it does returns to the roots of the series in the sense that it once again tackles more serious issues impacting Japan of the time.
The story starts with Dr. Toru Yano (Akira Yamauchi) and his son Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) finding a new microorganism living in the coast of Japan and feeding off its polluted waters. What first seems like an innocent enough creature, soon turns out to be a horrifying acid-secreting sea monster whose insatiable hunger for toxic pollution only makes its stronger. Only Godzilla can step in and help humankind to fend off the terror of Hedorah.
The film’s low budget and speedy 35-day filming schedule are relatively obvious from the get-go and neither the fight scenes nor the miniature backgrounds built for them quite reach the same level of quality as other entries of the franchise. Appearance wise Hedorah is one of the sillier monsters in the cannon and the scenes with the two men in monster suits wrestling each other are incredibly clumsy viewing. It is hard not to snigger while watching Godzilla fly through the air like a giant angry shrimp and Hedorah’s flying saucer transformation does not so much inspire awe, as it does laughs. The monstrous action is periodically intersected with little environmentally themed animations, as well as the film’s incredibly groovy theme tune Kaese! Taiyo Wo (“Return! The Sun” which in the English dub version is translated as “Save the Earth”), giving the whole thing a distinctly psychedelic vibe.
Despite this Godzilla vs. Hedorah carries a serious environmental message, which comes through loud and clear. During Japan’s rapid industrial growth between 1950’s and 1970’s, the country faced increasing problems with pollution and environmental disasters. Incidents like the mercury poisoning of Minimata Bay, the toxic air of Yokkaichi causing a condition known as “Yokkaichi asthma”, and the mass cadmium poisoning of Toyama Prefecture all contributed towards demands of stricter pollution controls across the country. It was these events that also inspired Banno to create Godzilla vs. Hedorah. The film strongly points the finger towards humans as the main antagonists; Hedorah might originate from outer space but was ultimately created by human pollution. Just as we would not have Godzilla without radiation, we would not have the bane of Hedorah have we not poisoned our planet. The story makes several not-so-subtle hints towards Yokkaichi air pollution, including a scene with a group of school children fainting as the toxic Hedorah flies above them (there were real life reports of children fainting because of the toxic smog) and the whole film is laden with images of polluted waters and harsh industrial landscapes. Even in the final scene, as triumphant Godzilla returns to the sea, he turns and gives sinister glare at the polluted landscape behind him and the toxic human waste that created Hedorah; even the product of humankind’s most terrifying invention is disgusted by the way we treat our planet.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah is not a typical entry in the series and was openly hated by the franchise’s long-time producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. Over the years it has collected its fair share of negative reviews, many considering it as one of the weakest entries to the series but has also always had its fans. It may be completely bonkers and fantastically psychedelic, but its strong environmental message still rings true today and in the world of ever-worsening climate crises, we could all use a little dose of Godzilla’s green values.
The aquatic horror genre of the 1970’s and 1980’s was mainly ruled by low-budget B-productions, with the main aim to offer some cheap thrills and perhaps a few laughs in order to entertain their audiences. Despite this, many of these cinematic escapades touched upon the rising environmental concerns in one way or another. Monsters created by pollution, the unknown dangers of genetic manipulation, angst against capitalist greed and concerns of the exponential growth of human population are all issues that lurk in the background of these stories, and while they may have not been portrayed in the most serious framework, they nevertheless reflect the fears of the time in a very real way.
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History of Genetic Engineering and the Rise of Genome Editing Tools. From Synthego.com https://www.synthego.com/learn/genome-engineering-history
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Splitter, Jenny. How A Decade Of GMO Controversy Changed The Dialogue About Food. From Forbes.com, December 20, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jennysplitter/2019/12/20/how-a-decade-of-gmo-controversy-changed-the-dialogue-about-food/?sh=2a155b236434