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Friday, December 18, 2009

Dan O'Bannon 1946-2009

"A writer can't scare a reader unless that writer scares himself or herself first. So, you can't excite anyone in the audience unless you're excited writing the script! You're taking yourself for a ride before you take the audience for a ride!"

If you're not instantly familiar with the name Dan O'Bannon, you should be. This is the man who wrote Alien--not just a great sci-fi/horror film, but the sci-fi/horror film. This is the man who wrote and directed The Return of the Living Dead, not just a great horror comedy, but the horror comedy. The same man is responsible for both of these absolutely pivotal movies/franchises. Oh yeah, and he also wrote the scripts for Lifeforce and Total Recall, just in case his resume needed a little extra boosting.

And now, the man who did all those things is no longer with us, having passed away last night after a short illness at the sadly young age of 63.

From a personal perspective, I can tell you that were it not for ROTLD, I very well might not be the horror fanatic I am today. As a kid, I already had a solid grounding in Universal and Hammer, but it was O'Bannon's brilliant zombie comedy that put me over the top as an obsessed lifelong fan of the macabre. Without Dan O'Bannon, there might very well have been no Vault of Horror. Less than a fraction of a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, to be sure--but I thank him for that.

O'Bannon had a somewhat sparse career, but what he chose to be associated with over the years is so impressive. Definitely a case of quality over quantity. He went to USC with none other than John Carpenter, collaborating with him on both of their debuts, the sci-fi comedy Dark Star (1974). He was on board for the earliest days of George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic--you know those computer-generated Death Star blueprints, and the stop-motion game pieces Chewie & R2 use in Star Wars? Yeah, he worked on that.

He was also a writer of science fiction and horror in print as well as film, contributing occasionally to the landmark illustrated magazine Heavy Metal. In fact, two of his stories were adapted in the 1981 Heavy Metal movie, including the one about zombie pilots in World War II (figures!). In the '70s, he was attached as a writer to one of the most legendary cinematic missed opportunities, Alejandro Jodorowsky's adaptation of Dune. Although the project never happened, it did acquaint O'Bannon with H.R. Giger, the man who would design the title character of his most famous script.

What came out of the failed Dune for O'Bannon was the chance to script what would become Ridley Scott's masterpiece, Alien. So I guess we can't be too disappointed. You don't need me to tell you what a brilliant screenplay O'Bannon crafted for that picture, one whose influence continues to be felt to this day. He took the established haunted house/slasher motifs, and bonded them to a sci-fi template in a way no one had before. The closest prior comparison might be Forbidden Planet, but that was obviously pre-slasher. In the wake of Star Wars, he showed us the darker, grimmer side of sci-fi.

Nor do you need me to tell you what a minor miracle he pulled off with ROTLD. A movie called The Return of the Living Dead, based on a half-cocked attempt by John Russo to capitalize on the cult popularity of his previous work with George Romero, had no right whatsoever to be any good at all. Yet once O'Bannon took over, in his one great directorial turn, he transformed it into what I can say in all confidence is a terrific piece of film-making, justly revered among genre fans, but worth a look for any lover of film. It's a solid piece of work that gets better every time I watch it. Hell, it was so good it totally overshadowed Romero's own Day of the Dead, which came out at the same time!

So I'll be remembering Dan O'Bannon today, one of the key people who made me the fan I am. I hope you will, too.


Matt-suzaka said...

Thanks for posting this. O'Bannon had his hands deeply dipped in so many great genre films and his impact on film is very long lasting.

oducerproducer said...


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