History of the Future: Planet of the Vampires

On January 24, 2024, ASU Center for Science and the Imagination partnered with Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill for a screening of Planet of the Vampires. This screening is part of a greater film series: The History of the Future, exploring gripping, cinematic visions of the future across the past five decades. 

The film was introduced by Dr. Serena Ferrando. Read her introduction below.

Introducing Terrore nello spazio (Planet of the Vampires)

Dr. Serena Ferrando

Planet of the Vampires is a 1965 film by Italian director Mario Bava that became the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1978).

Planet of the Vampires tells the story of an exploration in outer space and the encounter with non-human life.

The film allows us to engage in a rich conversation. On one side, we have Bava’s vision of future space explorations that is partly becoming a reality this century. Questions arise in this case about power dynamics, balance of human/nonhuman life, what steps one is willing to take for survival (including appropriating bodies or territories). Deception, imitation, parasitism, and exploitation are also other words that may come to mind. On another side, we have a conversation between media and film across the Atlantic Ocean that we can trace back to the origins of cinema in Italy. On yet another side, we see positive virtues emerge from the film: Emulation, symbiosis, nurture, cohabitation, layers, and entanglements.

I would like to focus on this last word and approach the film as a story of entanglements. I am interested in entanglements across bodies, species, media, cultures, and countries, and how recognizing the networks of entanglements in which we are enmeshed may be beneficial.

I will focus this short essay on Bava’s hopes and anxieties, how they are represented in the film, and how they may help us envision the future.

1.Let us begin with some notes about genre. The film is a fantahorror—a term that combines the words fantascienza (which means “science fiction” in Italian) and horror. This means that Planet of the Vampires exists at the crossroad between two different film genres and as a mixture of features from each of them. We have the outer space setting but also the suspenseful atmosphere. Planet of the Vampires is not, in fact, merely an adventure film. Rather, the protagonists of the film are faced with a spectral, mysterious enemy that is threatening to kill them one by one. This is the first entanglement that I would like to bring to your attention.

2.Then, we should consider the cultural-historical terrain from which the film emerged. At the time, the director was responding to the somewhat heavy presence of Italian Neorealist cinema of the post-war years that was characterized by documentary techniques and a focus on current social problems. Even though Neorealism lasted only 7 years (1945-1952), it had a lasting impact on Italian cinema and was celebrated by film critics. Coming out of WWII, the general Italian audiences, instead, did not particularly enjoy Neorealist films that reminded them of their own lives. They would rather watch US romantic comedies and dive into completely different (and easier) lives for a couple of hours before returning to their homes. Bava’s fantahorror film, then, was an attempt at unentangling Italian cinema from Neorealism on one hand and the growing US entertainment cinema on the other hand. Unfortunately, it could not quite compete with the latter. And here, we get to the third set of notes.

3.We should briefly consider Cinecittà, the studio where Planet of the Vampires was shot. Cinecittà is one of the major film studios in the world. It was inaugurated in 1937 in Rome and has since been the site of a florid international film industry. Films shot at Cinecittà have won 47 Academy Awards. Martin Scorsese shot Gangs of New York there in 2002 and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was filmed there in 2004.

Since we are about to watch a movie about vampires, however, I must mention that the transatlantic collaboration between Italy and the US was not always peaceful. The film historian Peter Bondanella, in fact tells us that in 1923 an American company arrived in Rome to shoot Ben Hur, “a colossal costume film,” in the style of the wildly successful Italian cinema of the early 1900s. “Production tied up the studios and prevented progress on other Italian films. By the time the shooting was moved from Rome, the Italian film industry was virtually destroyed,” writes Bondanella, and it went bankrupt in 1927.[1]

We should also note that Cinecittà was severely damaged by bombings during WWII. What remained of the facilities was then used by the Allies as a prisoner-of-war camp.

I highlight the cannibalistic tendencies of the film industry to draw a parallel with the plot of Planet of the Vampires and to highlight the various layers of history and perspectives that are engrained in the making of this movie.

4.The fourth of the five sets of notes regards the excellent soundtrack that accompanies the film and that is the main source of suspenseful tension during many scenes. The film’s music instrumentation and electronic effects are the work of Gino Marinuzzi, Jr. (1920-1996), who was the son of a famous Italian composer. He was born in NYC and moved to Milan to complete his studies.

Milan in the 1950s was home to Italy’s first electronic music studio. The studio was founded by two celebrated Italian composers and, as scholar Delia Casadei argues, “reflected their long-standing political and intellectual conceptions of voice, speech and public space that were rooted in Italy’s early days as a republic, and in mid-twentieth-century Milan as the flagship city for this newly achieved political modernity.”[2] The sonic signature of the film features synthesizers and contains layers of orchestral music, sound, and noise.

5.Lastly, the film was based on a short story titled “One Night of 21 Hours” (1960) by the Italian Renato Pestriniero.[3] So, if we were to peel off the metaphorical layers of this film, we would see that a.The film was inspired by a literary work; b.Its original title was Terrore nello Spazio, which translates to Terror in Outer Space;c.It was very loosely translated into English as Planet of the Vampires; and d.The film inspired Ridley Scott’s Alien. We see here the various elements from the past and the future of this film that point to its nature as an organism more than just a movie.

After this five-part premise, I am now getting to the focal point of this essay: Not vampires, fear, conquest, or deception, but entanglements and mixtures.

I must turn to the celebrated Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, who in 1975 used the word “contagion” to describe the propagation of the message of poetry and—I add—cinema and all forms of art.[4] Contagion exposes us to the presence of others and to how our lives are entangled with theirs—as the protagonists of this film slowly realize. At one point in the film, one of the characters says, “If you were in our place, you would understand.” I am interested in drawing attention to the complexity of Bava’s message, who shows the tribulations of two species of life that are ultimately extremely similar. “Don’t be afraid,” says another character, “Nobody wants to harm you, nobody wants to kill you … You must become one of us … It will give you this wonderful complexity.”

Whether this is an enticing or a frightening proposal, I will leave it to you to decide.

To conclude, as I thought about the History of the Future initiative these past few days, I also thought about the Future of the History, by which I mean all the stories (and histories) that we tell or hear and how they may resonate with humanity twenty, thirty, and fifty years from now. If we project these (hi)stories into a future time to try and envision what impact they may have and how they may support us, I think that drawing attention to the networks of lives, experiences, and meanings within which we all exist—and that are presented in this film—may provide an interesting and productive framework for the future.

[1] Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1999 [1983], 11-12.

[2] Casadei, Delia.  (2016) “Milan’s Studio di Fonologia: Voice Politics in the City, 1955–8.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 141 (2), 2016, 443.

[3] This writer was born in Venice and worked for a Swiss multinational corporation but managed to publish seven novels, four anthologies, several essays, and over one hundred short stories.

[4] Zanzotto, Andrea. “Poesia?”, in Andrea Zanzotto, Le poesie e le prose scelte. Milano: Mondadori, 1999: 1200-1204.

Dr. Serena Ferrando is an esteemed Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities and Senior Global Futures Scholar at ASU. Through her studies she has cultivated a profound understanding of the intersections between film and environmental discourse.

History of the Future is examining gripping cinematic visions of the future emanating from different moments in recent history. In partnership with Majestic Neighborhood Cinemas, experts from ASU faculty and abroad introduce films that have shaped the reality we know today. Connecting past depictions of the future to the present and seeing how the hopes and anxieties of the last five decades have influenced how we tackle the problems of tomorrow.