“If people had to choose, this summer, between seeing one dinosaur movie, much as I’m proud of Carnosaur, I would probably recommend Jurassic Park,” says Roger Corman with a happy-to-be-here smile on his face and a dinosaur puppet on his hand. “But, I think we can agree, that I would hope that people would see two dinosaur movies this summer. As a matter of fact, it would make a very interesting comparison.”
In a single, 17-second sound bite from a VCR-scarred taping of Eye To Eye with Connie Chung, Roger Corman eagerly lays out the sales model that let him produce more than 340 feature films over 64 years and make money on all but one. The rules have never changed.
Keep an ear to the ground for the next cinematic trend. Soon as you hear it coming, rush a knock-off into production. Make it fast enough to hit before the fad passes. Make it cheap enough to all but guarantee you’ll at least break even. Let the multi-million-dollar ad campaigns for the multiplex fodder work for you. Don’t outstay the trend’s welcome, start listening for the next one, and repeat.
Roger Corman started small, stayed that way, and survived. Last year alone, at the spry age of 92, he released three movies. The market has certainly changed, but he’s always adjusting his aim. Cranking out the pulpy back nine of drive-in double bills, like She Gods of Shark Reef and Cockfighter, made him Roger Corman. And a steady money-making machine, until Jaws and Star Wars came along. Studios were suddenly in the B-movie business and could afford to spend more on one giant shark movie than Roger would on two dozen. So he set his sights on an industry those same studios were already selling short: home video. The overblown VHS covers of thinly veiled schlock like Summer Camp Nightmare and Cocaine Wars seduced squishy, teenage minds at every local Blockbuster. By the time rental stores went the way of the drive-in, Corman was swinging at the next hot iron — SyFy Original Movies. Piranhaconda. Camel Spiders. Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf. The greats.
Roger Corman has always made the cream of the crap. To call him a huckster would imply dishonesty and carelessness. In an interview with SyFy, he explained why the backstory for a sharktopus must be more plausible than that of, say, a dinoshark with the matter-of-fact conviction of someone comparing floor waxes. All this for a movie that was only commissioned in the first place because SyFy thought the name Sharktopus was cool.
That’s what makes Carnosaur such an unusual beast. According to the credits, it’s based on a British novel of the same name. But even that’s only a clever ploy to put it in league with the competition; Carnosaur the movie has more to do with Jurassic Park the book than its own source material.
Michael Crichton landed on the idea for a dinosaur theme park when he grappled with the concept’s biggest problem:
Who would foot the bill to bring dinosaurs back from extinction?
He decided the only company that could both afford it and smell enough profit to do so would be Disneyland.
Carnosaur decided KFC.
Somewhere in that part of the American Southwest that is frequently crashed into by aliens and quarantined out of existence, a secretive scientist is genetically tweaking chickens. Over the movie’s unsettling opening credits, with said birds riding and hanging from various conveyer belts, we’re shown glimpses of the other animals being worked into their DNA. The result — bigger, hornier chickens that lay eggs the size of small melons. Almost the size of … dinosaur eggs.
See, that’s because they are dinosaur eggs. When the first hatches, it goes on a murderous spree with a growth spurt to match. This alone would be enough to sell most B-movies; it’s already the plot of Jurassic World if Jurassic World huffed paint. But the mutant dinosaur rampage is, in fact, just an untimely side effect: The scientist who created it, played by Golden Globe winner Diane Ladd, is actually working on a virus that will impregnate all women with mutant dinosaur embryos and kill them during birth, thus wiping away half of humanity and leaving the men to slowly die out, returning the world to its rightful stewards — mutant dinosaurs.
And this movie was theatrically released a month before Jurassic Park. To say they don’t make them like this anymore would imply they made them like this at all. The notion of a proudly shameless mockbuster beating the movie it’s knocking off, the biggest movie of all time, to actual, honest-to-God, popcorn-littered theaters is a step past unbelievable today. Imagine if Transformers shared the same marquee as Transmorphers. Imagine if both were wildly successful. Imagine if one of them included 100% more head rips and self-C-sections.
Carnosaur, like many of the almost-straight-to-VHS Corman productions of the 1980s, is the audio-visual equivalent of your fingers feeling sticky despite not having touched anything even potentially sticky in some time. It’s all a little grimier and grosser than you expect going in. When Clint Howard meets his end, you might expect a dinosaur to eat his head. But you assume they won’t kill off the second biggest name in the movie and show you the goopy strings of viscera pulling taut and snapping off his neck hole like dry rubber bands. By the time Diane Ladd births her own mutant dinosaur, you know it’s going to be gross. But who would assume the first biggest name in the movie would cut her womb open with a manicure so the slimy dinochild might live?
Roger Corman once told a writers room that he didn’t want to hear the words “good taste” out of them, and Carnosaur is a gory testament to that guiding principle. But there’s more to it than blood and guts and Clint Howard’s severed head. Not much, mind you, but something.
Like most Corman-produced knock-offs, Carnosaur rode the wave of a specific movie, but free-associated its way through plenty of others. It manages to combine Jurassic Park with the stalking suspense and budget-dictated hesitance to show the titular creature of Jaws, the virus paranoia and hazmat chic of The Crazies, and pretty much the entire ending of Aliens. Choose your favorite mad scientist movie and throw that on top of the pile, too. Already quite a stew, but what truly sets Carnosaur apart, especially from its mega-budget inspiration, is the aftertaste.
As in every virus movie, the climax finds our hero hurrying an antidote to an afflicted loved one with little time to spare. As in every giant monster movie, the climax also requires that our hero pause for a showdown with the giant monster while hurrying the antidote to the afflicted loved one. It’s just as unsurprising that he pulls it off and saves his girlfriend before she can give birth to a velociraptor. But then the clean-up crew arrives, guns them both down, and sets the whole place on fire. The movie ends on a slow push into a burning picture of MAD Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman and his famous catchphrase: “What, Me Worry?”
Throughout the course of Carnosaur, we occasionally leave the carnage to catch up with a room full of stuffed shirts. They represent an ill-defined collection of government agencies, none of which know what the scientist was really doing in the first place. But as the bodies start piling and the reports keep coming, they come to a chilling conclusion: It’s in their best interest to do nothing. They talk of artificial wombs and legally mandated sperm donations. A new police state. Let the fields burn so they can replant and, this time, control exactly how it all grows.
The consuming sense of inevitable death is the bedrock on which George Romero built an undead empire. It’s a bit more jarring in a movie that ends with a dinosaur versus bobcat truck fight shot mostly in miniature.
Now consider the emotional whiplash of someone who took Roger Corman’s suggestion and saw two dinosaur movies that summer.
Carnosaur might only be the fourth best dinosaur movie of 1993. That really depends on personal attachment to We’re Back! and PreHysteria! But certainly it’s the only dinosaur movie of 1993 to include a scene where activists handcuff themselves to construction equipment only for a 3-foot-tall animatronic tyrannosaurus to eat them alive through the miracle of forced perspective.
Twenty-five years on, nobody’s stolen that crown. And that’s the Roger Corman difference.