The 13th Floor

The Haunted World of Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES

From the forbidden reaches of interstellar space a distress call is answered and the would-be rescuers become the victims of an alien terror meeting death in the most horrible ways imaginable. Sound familiar? Well then, you might be a fan of director Mario Bava’s stylish, low budget, promethean nightmare, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES.

Bava, perhaps best known for directing classic horror flicks like BLACK SUNDAY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, was a also cinematographer and a maestro of ingenious special effects. His wild, wild planet of fog shrouded titan craft, labyrinths and art alien possession play more like a giallo thriller trapped in the sexy panels of a lurid comic book! Even upon a cursory viewing it’s quite apparent that PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES space terror was a key influence on Ridley Scott’s ALIEN.

When two exploratory space craft, Argos and Galliot, receive a distress signal, they crash land on the planet and lose contact with each other. Fearful that the other ship had met an untimely end, space captain/American actor Barry Sullivan dispatches an expedition on the fog shrouded, planet. Finding the crew of their sister ship dead, they bury their comrades but the undead space men soon rise from their graves in a memorable sequence, ripping their plastic burial shrouds in eerie slow motion.

Based on the Italian short story “Night of 21 Hours” and known in Italy as “Terrore Nello Spazio” – literally “Terror In Space”, Bava strays from the traditional concept of vampirism as unearthly alien possession turns the his black leather jump-suited crew against one another in cauldron of rage and hate.

Disembodied alien entities possess the bodies of the crew, using their reanimated corpses to kill the remaining survivors in order to possess their meat suits as well. This isn’t the first time that the planet’s inhabitants have lured unwary space expeditions to their infernal sphere as we discover the remains of a ship with the corpse of a bulky, non-human giant at the controls. Sullivan’s crew including two “very sexy” Italian beauties soon meet unspeakable giallo-like deaths at the hands of the invisible inhabitants.

Bava’s in fine form as he pulls out all of his magician’s tricks – as PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES plays more like one of his gothic spook shows. Despite American International Pictures co-financing the film, Bava shoots entirely on cleverly designed sound stages. Production design is minimal and colorful resembling the garish look of pulp magazines and 1960s comic books. Elaborate set pieces show the actors moving through a vast alien labyrinth – though they were not constructed full size. Eschewing expensive mattes in a pre-CGI era, Bava built part of the miniature set in the foreground and utilized the Eugene Shufftan method of creating the illusion of depth through the artful placement of mirrors. Amazingly, the live action actors move seamlessly within the imaginative, expressionistic sets.

“Do you know what that unknown planet was made of?” Bava later said.  “A couple of plastic rocks — yes, two: one and one! — left over from a mythological movie made at Cinecitta! To assist the illusion, I filled the set with smoke.”

Released on a double bill with A.I.P.’s DIE MONSTER DIE, show biz bible Variety enthused, “Plot is punctuated with gore, shock, eerie music and wild optic and special effects…Color camera work and production values are smooth and first class… Flash Gordon type story…should keep the young on the edge of their seats and the older set from falling asleep.”

Art by Pat Broderick and Neal Adams
Art by Pat Broderick and Neal Adams

Interestingly enough a comic book entitled PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES was released by Atlas/Seaboard publications a decade later in 1975. It had very little to do with Bava’s film but was more a mash-up of THE OMEGA MAN and PLANET OF THE APES. The wildly entertaining mag lasted three issues through no fault of its own.