The pioneering genre that influenced the likes of Kubrick and Star Wars, was a matter of unbridled creativity, folly and low budgets. These seven soundtracks from the CAM Sugar archive will help you navigate and discover spaghetti sci-fi.
When in 1968 Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hit the screens, even the most cinema-adverse person on Planet Earth was aware that space had taken over the film industry.
However, space-themed films, whether treating the world of aliens, astronauts or epic expeditions to recondite planets had long been a familiar affair for cinema geeks. As early as the 1950s, the appetite for gore and weirdness of US teen and frat culture met with the frenzy and mystery sparked by the Space Race. The result was the success, in the B-movie circuit, of science-fiction cinema, commonly known as sci-fi.
The Italian film industry, which back then could boast the record of second-largest in the world following the American one, was quick to jump on the trend, kickstarting a sci-fi production of its own that became legendary in its own right, eventually growing in return into a major influence of the rest of the world, including Kubrick.
Wild Wild Planet, by Antonio Margheriti, 1965.
The pioneer of the genre was Antonio Margheriti who made the scarcity of financial and technological resources the ace up his sleeve. Using innovative filming techniques, replica toy models of spaceships and a hefty dose of unbridled fantasy, the director established a whole genre by itself. Making the most out of the same cast, sets and costumes, directors like Margheriti would go as far as filming four films at the same time, feeding an audience that had fallen in love with the genre.
That was the case of the cult Gamma Uno series, a tetralogy of films with scores by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino that spanned from jet-set jazz and lounge to psychedelia and proto-industrial, and which represent some of the CAM Sugar archive gems recently remastered and released digitally.
Born in Rome in 1930, Margheriti – also known by his nomes de plume of Anthony M. Dawson and Anthony Daisies – grew up as an avid reader of American teen comics of the likes of Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician, whose storylines and aesthetics formed the backbone of his art.
According to Margheriti cinema was a product of fantasy, hence special effects were essential to it. His cinema – like the whole of Italian sci-fi – had in fact to be conceived from scratch. Hence the narrative similarities with other trending genres of the time, like Western and Peplum.
In a mid-1960s interview from the set of one of these films and aired by RAI TV , actress Lisa Gastoni pointed out how, in the end, “we cannot talk of sci-fi, rather of space adventures. Films that have taken over the role of Swashbucklers”.
Wild Wild Planet, by Antonio Margheriti, 1965.
However, another issue persisted: how to envision the clothing of a future that didn’t exist yet? The Space Age-edged fashion of 1960s avant-garde designers next to a Pop-edged update of mediaeval Swashbuckler cinema looks provided a solution, filtered through the attentive eye and taste of costume designer Berenice Sparano.
To Margheriti it was essential to have fun. If he was, he knew the audience would be amused too, once recalled his son and collaborator Edoardo in an interview to television program Stracult.
As the genre progressed into further maturity, subtle social themes started to emerge with the narrative escamotage of alien planets and populations working as metaphors for what was going on on the Earth – similarly to the storyline approach behind La Planète Sauvage.
Looking back at these films now, their DIY naïvety still manages to amuse, standing as a fascinating asset rather than a flaw. It is impossible not to owe directors like Margheriti the vision of having shaped and anticipated a whole macro genre, that later American and British cinema and television brought to international acclaim: from the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, to Space 1999 and even the technical marvels of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson with their series Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet.
We dug in the CAM archive to unearth three soundtracks from three topical films, which will help to discover Italian sci-fi films and its sound.
Space Men (1960)
Space Men, music by Lelio Luttazzi, 1960.
Space Men, Assignment Outer Space (1960) directed by Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson) wasn’t just the director’s debut but also the film that inaugurated the season of Italian sci-fi.
It was produced on a shoestring budget with home-made special effects, including wooden laser guns and plastic spaceship models covered in tinfoil.
One of the spaceships was a toy replica of a bonafide NASA prototype, which Margheriti purchased from a department store and that later used, with alterations, in many of his oeuvres. He renamed it ‘ciambellone’, doughnut.
With its pioneering, proto-electronica score by Lelio Luttazzi, the film stood as an inspiration for many cult classics to come such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).
I Pianeti Contro di Noi (1962)
I Pianeti Contro di Noi (1962) directed by Romano Ferrara is an oddball in Italian sci-fi cinema history, with a plot that borrows storyline elements from Spaghetti Western and turns them into a space-themed adventure.
As an alien race tries to take over the earth, the score by Armando Trovajoli sets for a space exploration in the universe of exotica and Latin jazz.
Omicron, music by Piero Umiliani, 1963.
Written and directed by Ugo Gregoretti, Omicron is a space-themed oeuvre of satire. The story of extraterrestrial Omicron who takes the guise of a dead worker to plan the invasion of Planet Earth serves as a witty fresco of 1960s factory life.
The film stands as a vivid example of the way Italian sci-fi cinema was often dedicated to give (sometimes simultaneously) critical or ironical commentaries on life on the Earth through the looking glass of alien populations and planets.
The opus is set to the music of Piero Umiliani with a pioneering jazz and atmospheric score that advocates for rediscovery.
I Criminali della Galassia (1965)
I Criminali della Galassia, music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, 1965.
Blending in bio-genetic experiments, thriller and futuristic props and costumes, I Criminali della Galassia (aka Wild, Wild Planet) is one of the gems of Italian sci-fi. The music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino is equally far-out, bringing together jet age-oriented jazz and lounge with atmospherical cuts and even explorations into proto-industrial sounds.
I Diafanoidi vengono da Marte (1966)
I Diafanoidi vengono da Marte, music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, 1966.
Also known as War of the Planets, it possibly is the most grailed film of the Gamma Uno four-film series by Antonio Margheriti. It became the hallmark of the genre, with the term Diafanoidi a go-to term forever crystallised in sci-fi iconogrpahy when referring to alien creatures.
The music, once again by Lavagnino, stirs away from jazz and lounge to adventures into obsessive and dark-edged themes that enhance all the thrill of sci-fi.
Il pianeta errante (1966)
Il Pianeta Errante, music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, 1966.
A mysterious pulsating red planet travels across the galaxy nourishing itself by sucking in asteroids. Despite belonging to the Gamma Uno series it was conceived as a remake of a previous Margheriti film Il Pianeta degli Uomini Spenti (1961), shot this time with experimental and psychedelic techniques.
The score by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino fuses together the epic tone of the adventure with the thrilling crescendos typical of horror soundtracks.
La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin (1967)
La Morte Viene dal Pianeta Aytin, music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, 1967.
The final instalment of the Gamma Uno series sees an epic and ruthless battle for the defence of the Earth from an extraterrestrial population made of Yeti-like creatures. In its blend of futuristic settings and frosty Himalayan scenarios the film’s aesthetics stand as an inspiration for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
The music once again by Lavagnino, instead, nods to the psychedelic trend of the time, detaching itself from many of his previous works for Margheriti.
These and more soundtracks from the CAM Sugar Italian sci-fi repertoire have been fully remastered in their entirety from the original archive master tapes and are now available for streaming on all digital platforms.
Opening image: lobby card for I Pianeti Contro di Noi, by Romano Ferrara, 1962.