Dan O'Bannon: the Man Who Inspired the OWA Filmmaker Grant

On December 17, 2009, SciFi, cinema, and the world lost a keen mind and a sharp pen. It was a Thursday and his name was Dan O’Bannon. If the name Dan O’Bannon doesn’t immediately ring familiar, then you have some homework to do. For in his 63 years on this little blue ball, O’Bannon helped push the limits of science fiction and horror, often by melding one into the other, ultimately elevating both. He was an idea man, pure and simple, whose first significant contribution came in a collaboration with genre film auteur and classmate John Carpenter during their time at the University of Southern California film school. Together they conceived and co-wrote a student short film about an intergalactic cleanup crew scouring the universe in search of unstable planets to destroy.

If this premise sounds familiar, that is likely because Carpenter and O’Bannon expanded on the narrative a few years later resulting in the 1974 feature DARK STAR. For DARK STAR O’Bannon would step in front of the camera in a rare acting turn as the film’s comic relief, crew bombardier Sgt. Pinback. Not content to only co-create, co-write, and act, O’Bannon additionally served as the picture’s editor and special effects supervisor. This latter work drew the attentions of Alejandro Jodorowsky, who put O’Bannon to work on the development of his now fabled DUNE project. While the project never came to fruition, the experience brought O’Bannon face-to-face with a later seminal collaborator in Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, the artist most popularly known for designing the creatures and environments of the ALIEN franchise. Eventually O’Bannon’s special effects would also catch the eye of the young writer-director George Lucas, who hired O’Bannon to put his talents to work on a little picture titled STAR WARS. By the end of the decade O’Bannon would have another SciFi classic under his belt with the earth-shattering premiere of ALIEN in 1979. 

ALIEN is a behemoth of SciFi lineage. The original film would spawn a series of sequels, prequels, and spinoffs that have yet to meet their end, making it one of the most lasting, beloved, and successful SciFi properties of all time. The original is a master class picture for countless formal and narrative considerations. Its minimalist soundtrack, expert control of tone, and claustrophobic camera are legendary, the orchestration of which have rightfully earned director Ridley Scott a permanent place in the pantheon of SciFidom. The alien design work put forth by Giger, from the fleshy, pulsating eggs to the almost sexually-violating facehuggers, the body-horror-inducing chestbursters, and right up to the sleek, shimmering, salivating, insectile xenomorphs are the stuff of our nightmares. Still, the endless success of this film and those to follow all owe tribute to the scribbled words of Dan O’Bannon who, with story work by Ronald Shusett, first breathed life into this world by cobbling together a number of past writing projects into one of the most fully realized screenplays one is likely to come across. Add to the list of debtors one Sigourney Weaver, who landed the lead role in the film and ultimately the franchise. O’Bannon famously wrote the crew characters as sexually non-descript, the choice of which opened up the possibilities to cast actress Weaver as the iconic feminist action character, Ellen Ripley. 

Toward the end of the 1970s, O’Bannon’s writing spilled beyond the pages of screenplays and onto the pages of the French SciFi-horror comic METAL HURLANT. We west of the Atlantic know this publication as HEAVY METAL, the cultural stew of seventies era debauchery in which genre forms meld with psychedelic, rocker aesthetics, and enough punkish penciled pornography to titillate the inner 12-year-old boy in all of us. As a longtime fan of EC Comics, the horror-SciFi publisher most noted for its TALES FROM THE CRYPT titles and for fighting government and industry attempts to censor comic book content in the 40s and 50s, O’Bannon’s voice found a rightful home at HEAVY METAL. His first story “The Long Tomorrow,” illustrated by French cartoonist Moebius, debuted in the French version of the magazine in 1976 and resurfaced in American issues the following year. The story is a futuristic cop tale, which has been identified as one of the earliest contributions to the time’s rising cyberpunk infatuation and a direct influence on Scott’s second major SciFi foray, BLADE RUNNER. O’Bannon’s relationship with HEAVY METAL would bring him along when the pages of the comic book turned toward the silver screen in 1981’s HEAVY METAL animated film. The picture opens with an astronaut navigating a classic Corvette convertible through space and to a successful landing on earth. The segment, written by O’Bannon, is actually an adaptation of a story he wrote for the publication in 1979, both titled “Soft Landing.” The feature film stayed true to form showcased outlandish narrative oddities like space coke-snorting alien pilots, taxicab death rays, Lovecraftian Easter eggs, countless pairs of illustrated, gravity defying DDs, and robot sex, ushered along by an apocalyptic orb known as the Loc-Nar, whose evil has plagued the universe for centuries. O’Bannon also wrote a later segment about a WWII bomber plane that becomes infested by zombified versions of its recently deceased crew. This story ends in a beautifully sardonic moment of helplessness when the lone remaining pilot realizes he has survived his zombied crew only to find himself face to face with a whole undead army.

O’Bannon revisited this zombie theme in his screenplay for 1981’s DEAD & BURIED as well as his 1985 feature directorial debut THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which he also wrote. Despite the suggestive title, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD has nothing to do with George A. Romero’s trend-setting “Living Dead” franchise, against which O’Bannon faced off when Romero released his third “Dead” installment, DAY OF THE DEAD, in that same year of 1985. Counter to Romero’s series, which stands as generally serious allegorical treatises of contemporary western culture, O’Bannon’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD birthed its own--albeit comparatively much less successful--series of films by embracing a slapstick comedic tone and camp awareness. In a period when horror was oversaturating theater screens and innovation was regularly left by the wayside, O’Bannon welcomed the lowbrow. 

Yet even here, in the 1980s, in a time popularly referred to as a cinematic wasteland, and working in a genre consumed most heavily by teen and pre-teen audiences, O’Bannon was able to elevate a dismissable premise by way of his hallmark generic hybridity and by establishing new conventions for the zombie subgenre. Unlike Romero’s dead, which rise due to an unknown supernatural influence, O’Bannon’s zombies are scientifically grounded. A pair of bumbling warehouse workers inadvertently release an experimental military gas into the air that kills and reanimates the surrounding population. Nearly 20 years before fanboys refused to recognize Danny Boyle’s “infected” in 28 DAYS LATER as zombies, based on the technicality that Boyle’s “infected” are victims of a virus and thus ineligible for consideration as undead, O’Bannon introduced the zombie exception. His horror monsters are the product of ethically questionable human tinkering, and thus--like his Alien--straddle the realms of horror and SciFi in near equal measure. Add to this horror-SciFi genre combo a heavy dose of self-aware comedy and at least a couple resounding zombie film conventions, and what could easily be dismissed as a schlocky b-film threatens to teeter into something more refined, something more innovative, something more historical, and--dare I say--something more artistic. The film and the characters encapsulated in it are fully cognizant of the genre in which they tread. O’Bannon’s characters wink at Romero with lines like “Did you see that movie, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?” while testing the teachings of Romero’s films in the hopes of surviving their own zombie apocalypse. Then, when conventions fail them, they rightly blame the movies for steering them wrong. The line: “In that movie, they destroyed the brain to kill them, right?” is met with the comedic throwback after an attempt to brain a zombie fails: “You mean the movie lied?” All this was more than a decade before SCREAM put postmodern horror revisionism on the populous map by casting slasher film experts as its victims and allowing them to draw from their wellspring of generic knowledge to survive Ghostface’s knife. Add a timely punk aesthetic that can’t help remind one of the pages of HEAVY METAL and the introduction of new brain-hungry zombies (the zombies in O’Bannon’s film, for the first time, are obsessed with eating brains specifically, a characteristic that snowballs into an increasingly absurd running joke throughout the picture before being taken up as a defining zombie trait at large), and THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD solidifies its place as seminal zombie viewing. 

Similarly canonical to its respective genres (though in this case those genres are heavily the science fiction film and the hard body actioner), 1990’s TOTAL RECALL stands as one the period’s most entertaining cases of a genre hybrid that quickly evolved into a recognizable subgenre of its own: the SciFi actioner. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who--perhaps more than anybody--is responsible for popularizing and solidifying this new subgenre with other works like the TERMINATOR films, PREDATOR, and THE RUNNING MAN, is in full form in TOTAL RECALL. He plays Douglas Quaid, an unimaginably muscular futuristic construction worker who gets wrapped up in an interplanetary socioeconomic conspiracy centering on Martian mining colony abuses and alien cover ups. Though, perhaps, this is all in his head: a gift from the neuro tech company Recall, which specializes in implanting memories of vacations to different worlds and different lives. O’Bannon lent his hands in the story development and screenwriting adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” short story, bringing with him his arsenal of genre-melding tricks. Working with a familiar writing partner in Ronald Shusett (ALIEN, DEAD & BURIED), with story and screenwriting credits extended to Jon Povill and Gary Goldman respectively, O’Bannon helped craft a generic tapestry of elements and iconography from across science fiction, action, thriller, and espionage films. To call TOTAL RECALL a SciFi film is to acknowledge only part of its being, as it is so, so much more. And, in this way, it is indicative of O’Bannon’s work.

Dan O’Bannon’s story is one of unabashed creativity and generic infusions, both in terms of hybridization and innovation. As I said before: he was an idea man. And we need more of him: more idea men, more idea woman who can take these genres that we hold so dear, which are defined by their very nature as repetitive forms, and breathe into them novel conventions. It is with this consideration and ambition toward new horizons that we introduce the “Other Worlds Austin Dan O'Bannon Filmmaking Grant,” which we hope will allow burgeoning local voices representing the genres of SciFi, horror, and fantasy an opportunity to bring those voices to fruition. Dan O’Bannon is the past; now it’s time to find the future?