I am Carno, hear me Saur!
It was the summer of 1993 and America had dinosaurs on the brain. That May, the Super Mario Bros. movie impressed viewers with an animatronic raptor, but audiences were holding out for the real thing. On June 11, Steven Spielberg unveiled his much hyped dinosaur epic Jurassic Park. But there was another dinosaur movie that summer, sadly overshadowed at the time, but successful even then. I am referring to the Roger Corman classic Carnosaur.
Diane Ladd as Dr. Tiptree
In the world of creature features, genetic research has long since overtaken radiation as the number one cause of monster outbreaks. It’s no surprise, then, that the mad atomic scientists of yesteryear have been phased out in favor of the mad geneticists of today. Diane Ladd’s Dr. Jane Tiptree is one such geneticist, perhaps the gold standard to which all others must aspire.
So revered is Jane Tiptree in the scientific community that when she disappears for several months, the government calls together a special committee just to find her. Dr. Tiptree’s specialty is extinction. She’s already destroyed a few species of insect, and the government is worried about what trouble she might be up to. One of the assembled captains of industry reveals that Tiptree is working for him at a rural poultry factory. He explains her disappearance was necessitated by her demand for complete and total secrecy while completing a mysterious pet project…nothing ominous there.
Even in this so-called progressive era, a female mad scientist of any field is a rarity. In 1993 it was nearly unheard of. Carnosaur is a rare example of “tampering in God’s domain” as an equal opportunity business. It’s surprising then, that Dr. Tiptree’s ultimate goals are so overwhelmingly misogynistic. She plots to kill off every single woman on earth, including herself, with the use of a deadly virus that makes women fatally pregnant with dinosaurs. You did not misread the previous sentence. Women are infected, and hours later give birth to monstrous reptiles too large for the bodies to handle. The endgame of this scientific masterstroke is the destruction of the human race, and the return of planet Earth to its rightful owners: the dinosaurs.
What has science done?
Not content merely to provide the audience with dinosaurs, Carnosaur is science fiction at its most bizarre. It’s almost like a prehistoric take on Alien, only there the ‘birth’ imagery was mere subtext, here the metaphor is made explicit, and it is nasty. There are shades of Humanoids from the Deep, where a woman gave birth to a humanoid hybrid. Predictably, the government shows up to save the day. True to form, their idea of ‘saving the day’ involves a lot of unnecessary violence and may actually make things worse.
No, the government agents don’t get to be the hero in Carnosaur, that honor is reserved for Raphael Sbarge’s Doc Smith, a drunken med-school drop out. As fate would have it, Doc works as a night watchman at the same Poultry Factory where Dr. Tiptree is hatching her nefarious scheme.
When a few fully-grown dinosaurs escape the grounds and start killing teens, Doc takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of things. And though he does get to the bottom of several bottles along the way, he finally makes the connection with Dr. Tiptree, and confronts her about her mad scheme to destroy mankind. While it is hard to fully justify destroying humanity, Jane Tiptree gives it the old college try in a classic mad scientist tirade. Disillusioned bio-chem majors ought to watch and take notes.
Aside from the well-known Diane Ladd as Dr. Tiptree, Carnosaur features a few other familiar faces. Clint Howard, brother of Corman film school alum Ron Howard, shows up as a truck driver with an incredible fondness for fried chicken, appropriately named Friar. He’ll be instantly recognizable to any fan of Ron Howard movies, and like The Intruder’s William Shatner, he appeared on the original Star Trek.
And keep an eye out for a non-descript Senator’s aide played by Rodman Flender. Flender has gone on to become a successful director. His latest project is the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which follows the former Tonight Show host on his “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” Tour.
The early nineties signaled the oncoming of CGI in Hollywood, but Carnosaur was one of the last bastions of traditional effects. Special effects man John Carl Buechler had a tight 10-week schedule in which to bring the prehistoric monsters to life, and an even tighter budget with which to do it. Donald F. Glut, a paleontologist, was brought in as a consultant.
Buechler’s team came through with flying colors. They created a foot tall mechanical Deinonychus, as well as a three foot mechanical T. Rex. Buechler’s team also created costumes of both dinosaurs, and most impressive of all, a full-scale animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex, measuring 16 feet tall, 25 feet long, and weighing in at 450 pounds. That massive model didn’t end its showbiz career with Carnosaur. It went on to appear in Carnosaur II and III, and is still standing today.
Carnosaur went on to spawn two sequels, both of which hit home video before The Lost World was a twinkle in Steven Spielberg’s eye. Dr. Tiptree and her virus are unfortunately absent, but John Carl Buechler’s dinosaurs return in full force. The Deinonychus costumes saw more screen time in Carnosaur II than they ever did in the original.
The Carnosaur series even had a spin-off of sorts with Raptor in 2001. It shared many effects with the Carnosaur series, not surprising since its director is John Carl Buechler himself, the special effects man from the original Carnosaur. In some circles, Raptor is known as Carnosaur 4.
Perhaps most surprising of all, Carnosaur found a proponent among mainstream movie critics. Gene Siskel, of Siskel and Ebert, gave the movie “thumbs up.” Even Roger Ebert, who didn’t quite fall for Carnosaur’s charms, admits that he enjoyed Diane Ladd’s performance.