If there´s one thing Roger Corman has always understood about the motion picture industry, it´s the concept of striking while the iron is hot. In the early 1990s, the world was abuzz with excitement over Steven Spielberg´s long-awaited film adaptation of Michael Crichton´s genetically-engineered dinosaur tale JURASSIC PARK. Seeing a chance to beat the King of the Summer Blockbuster and his rabid reptiles to the punch, Corman snapped up the rights to Harry Adam Knight´s novel CARNOSAUR, which also featured cloned prehistoric beasties. With a budget of less than $1 million, Corman and director Adam Simon whipped out a gory, in-name-only adaptation of the book, getting their bio-engineered saurians into theaters two weeks before Spielberg would reinvigorate the monster movie genre with his dino epic. Though CARNOSAUR lacks the technical merits and Hollywood gloss of JURASSIC PARK, it is a clever, fast-paced little thriller that deserves to be remembered and revered right alongside its big-budget second cousin.
Knight´s original novel was a variation on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME in which the protagonists find themselves trapped on a remote estate with, among other things, a cloned theropod dinosaur. Corman knew that the literary CARNOSAUR would not translate easily to film on his budget, so he chose to craft a simpler tale about a maniacal geneticist who sets in motion her plot to wipe out humanity and repopulate the Earth with dinosaurs in the small southwestern town of Climax, Nevada. Taking a position as head of Research and Development for the Food Sciences Division of the Eunice Corporation, the brilliant but demented Dr. Jane Tiptree (played with relish by Diane Ladd) creates a virus which alters the DNA of first chickens, then human females, causing them to give birth to baby dinosaurs. Her plan begins to unravel when one of the mutated chicken eggs hatches and its scaly inhabitant escapes aboard a truck full of poultry. As Tiptree´s virus infects people in and around the tiny burg, a fast-growing velociraptor roams the countryside, making a bloody mess out of everyone it encounters. Everyone from cynical, hard-drinking Eunice Corp. night watchman "Doc" to the U.S. Government (one of Dr. Tiptree´s former employers) begins to take notice of the grisly proceedings, leading to a climactic battle between an escaped Tyrannosaur and a pair of bulldozers.
From the opening shots of the film (grisly scenes of chickens being butchered and prepared for market, culled from a poultry industry film entitled CHICKENS: A PROCESS!), Simon establishes a dark comedic tone that persists throughout. The early dinosaur attacks are blamed on bobcats, setting up the climactic evisceration of the T. Rex with a Bobcat-brand construction vehicle. Everyone in the film eats chicken and eggs as though they were the only foods available in that part of the world, even as the director bombards us with frequent unappetizing images of dead farm fowl and disgusting close-ups of drumstick dinners. A side plot showcases a zealous food industry official trying to convince a skeptical Senator that his genetically-altered cuisine is not harmful, laying across the table and gleefully extolling the virtues of blueberries coated in a goat´s embryonic fluid while the Congressman gags on a piece of pie. The film´s funniest moment is its only direct swipe at Spielberg´s movie, when Doc confronts Dr. Tiptree and remarks that her notion of test tube monsters would "Make a great theme park".
The effect of all this twisted, tongue-in-cheek humor is as horrific and disturbing as it is funny. It´s hard to watch the film and not share a little of Dr. Tiptree´s contemptuous disdain for the human race, especially in the areas of scientific research and corporate greed. At the same time, the film throws a few well-aimed punches at the environmental movement, particularly in a brutal scene in which several protesters who have handcuffed themselves to Eunice Corp.´s construction equipment meet the ravenous velociraptor. While JURASSIC PARK spells out its "Folly of Man" message in carefully constructed monologues, CARNOSAUR lets us see the ugly side of unchecked avarice in full, graphic detail. Not surprisingly (since this is, once again, a Corman film!), the dinosaur attacks and human/dino birth sequences are bloody and stomach-churning, and almost no one here dies off-camera. Despite this lack of subtlety - or perhaps because of it - CARNOSAUR achieves its moralizing far more effectively than the other big dino release of 1993 does. By the time we see the closing shot of Doc´s Alfred E. Neuman "What? Me Worry?" poster burning to dust in the spray of an Army flamethrower here, we´re pretty well convinced that mankind as a whole is a great big, terrifying mess.
The dinosaur effects in CARNOSAUR are rather well-executed, considering the budget constraints and the hurried production schedule. While the raptor puppet looks decidedly rubber in some shots, it moves fairly well and its attacks are shot and edited with an effective emphasis on speed and ferocity that helps mask the prop´s shortcomings. Dino creator and veteran make-up artist John Carl Buechler (TROLL, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD) does a nice job of infusing his bloodthirsty terror with individuality, even managing to elicit a little sympathy for it when it takes a fatal shotgun blast from the Sheriff. Buechler and Visual Effects Supervisor Alan Lasky also do topnotch work with the film´s real star, a rampaging Tyrannosaurus, essayed alternately by a life-size prop and a miniature puppet. While this Rex cannot match the fluidity of motion of Stan Winston´s animatronics or Industrial Light & Magic´s CG Tyranno, it is more than a match for the Spielberg critter in terms of character and personality. The creature is wisely kept off-screen for most of the film, making its climactic escape and brief rampage through town very effective and very satisfying to the dinosaur film enthusiast. The closing battle between monster and machine is a nice homage to a similar scene in the classic DINOSAURUS, showing a respect for the history of the subgenre that was noticeably absent in JURASSIC PARK and its promotional materials.
Ladd and the rest of the cast have a great time with the oddball material. Many of the performances here are head and shoulders above those delivered in most low-budget horror epics of the home video era. Especially good is Rafael Sbarge as Doc, a likable but somewhat reluctant hero with a sharp wit and an easy charm. Sbarge, a veteran of many B-movies of the 1980s, plays Doc with just the right mix of apathy and amiability, showing some nice vulnerability when faced with the first of many mangled corpses, and never lapsing into grizzled, "Snake Plissken"-style cliches. The audience believes that Doc is tough and resourceful, but we also know he´d rather be drinking beer and watching television than trying to save the world from madwomen and monsters. Like Bruce Campbell´s Ash from the EVIL DEAD films, Doc is an ideal "everyman" antagonist that the audience can get behind.
Sbarge´s performance is just one example of the unusual authenticity displayed in CARNOSAUR. All of the obligatory characters and situations of the formula are present, yet the filmmakers deftly avoid allowing them to degenerate into cardboard archetypes. Climax feels like a real small town and its citizens, from the stalwart Sheriff to the crude poultry plant worker to the environmentalists living in a nearby commune, all come across as real, three-dimensional people. Even the greedy corporate and government types on display here have a level of credibility and depth seldom seen in horror films, due in large part to solid casting and a remarkably well-crafted script. For a film so replete with gory, graphic images, there is a notable restraint in the overall production. Simon does not attempt to up the exploitation quotient with any unnecessary nudity or sexual elements, and the humor is well-timed and never overdone. By relying on a tight narrative and good performances, the filmmakers deliver a movie which is a lot more believable than it should be, considering its ambitious nature and wildly ludicrous premise.
CARNOSAUR was a financial success (primarily on home video) and spawned a couple of terrible sequels. Its Tyrannosaur prop proved so effective and popular that it was borrowed for a handful of other productions, including Jim Wynorski´s prehistoric jiggle show, DINOSAUR ISLAND. Much of the dino footage from CARNOSAUR was recycled for the 2003 direct-to-video release RAPTOR, and, given Corman´s track record, it seems highly unlikely that filmgoers have seen the last of this toothsome franchise and its scaly stars. In the final analysis, it´s fair to say that CARNOSAUR holds up nicely alongside the very best of Corman´s monster pictures. Though it will never be afforded the respect or reverence enjoyed by Spielberg´s JURASSIC PARK (and honestly, it never attempts to match that film´s scale), CARNOSAUR is a perfect dinosaur movie for a Saturday matinee or a late night creature feature. Grab some popcorn and soda - or better yet, a big, greasy bucket of fried chicken! - and toss this one in the DVD player sometime. Though it´s no "walk in the park", it is a grisly good time.