Thursday, August 21, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dinosaurus! (1960)

I loved, loved, loved, loved this movie.

When I was six years old.

What can I say? Whenever Jack H. Harris's Dinosaurus! aired on the local TV station in 1975 or 1976 (I can't remember whether it was WPIX or WWOR...), I was soooo there. With my plastic dinosaur toys clutched in my hands and my Aurora dinosaur model kits (built by my Dad) in tow. You couldn't drag me away from the TV. Seriously.

I was deep in my extended dinosaur "appreciation" phase (commonly referred to by psychologists as a dangerous childhood obsession...) when this movie was making the TV rerun rounds, and Dinosaurus! -- in case the title didn't give it away -- is a film about a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaur. These giant lizards wake up on an isolated island in the tropics in 1960 and promptly wreak havoc until a visceral man vs. nature coup de grace with a bulldozer (queue the Tonka trucks, John).

Next to King Kong, Godzilla, The Last Dinosaur, or The Land That Time Forgot, this was as good as it got for kids in the seventies pre-Star Wars. (A fact, which may - incidentally - explain why Star Wars is such a touchstone for my generation...).

Anyway, Dinosaurus! (don't forget the exclamation point, please...) concerns an American construction company working on the Virgin Islands to build a new harbor for the locals. The "locals," by the way, consist of Irish drunks (think in terms of a live-action Groundskeeper Willie), a Cuban villain called Hacker (who talks like Ricky Ricardo and looks like a swarthy Vincent D'Onofrio), and his French-sounding henchman, not to mention assorted Latinos and black extras. Oh, and lest I forget, there's also a mental midget named "Dumpy," who - for some reason - is allowed to handle heavy machinery (not to mention Molotov Cocktails).

I never realized that the Virgin Islands were so well-integrated before watching Dinosaurus!, but there you go.

One day, a lovely and plucky gal named Betty (Kristina Hanson) happens into the harbor in a motorboat while hunky construction team leader Bart Thompson (the blow-dried Ward Ramsey) is detonating explosives nearby. An explosion knocks Betty's picnic lunch into the water, and she dives in after it. Unfortunately, she finds not lunch, but a giant hibernating Tyrannosaur. It appears to be dead -- or mostly dead, anyway -- but is "perfectly preserved." The explanation given (off-handedly) is that there's a cold subterranean channel down there, just off the beach. In the tropics?


The construction workers then drag the dinosaur out of the sea, up to the beach alongside a companion: a perfectly preserved brontosaur. "One look at them and you'll never forget them!" declares one character in description of the dinosaurs. He's right, of course. Because when lightning strikes the slumbering dinosaurs (as well, apparently, as a slumbering cave man...), the behemoths come to life and begin walking the island in full view. And once you've seen them...I promise, you won't forget them. No matter how hard you try. The special effects were created by Wah Chung and Gene Warren (who later collaborated on Land of the Lost), two greats of the film industry, actually. So allow me to state simply that the effects don't really hold up very well today, even though I appreciate the 1960s era artistry.

But never mind that, when I was six years old, these dinosaurs were good as real, buddy. Absolutely real. And scary.

Okay, so the unfrozen cave man is played by Gregg Martell, and he quickly explores the island. Wouldn't you know it, right off the bat he finds a hatchet and ends up smashing the only working radio in a thousand miles. D'oh! He also confronts a 20th century woman in rollers and facial lotion...and runs screaming away like a little girl.

While the Neanderthal goes in search of his two buddies (the other Stooges...), the islanders -- led by Bart and Betty -- team up and decide to make a last stand at the local ruins. They dig a moat around an ancient fortress and wait for the tyrannosaur to show up. Meanwhile, local politician and villain, Hacker (who beats his wayward child, Julio...) thinks he could get rich off the Neanderthal...

Before Dinosaurus! has ended, there's been a noble self-sacrifice on the part of the cave man, the brontosaur fails to elude fate and ends up dying in quick sand, and Bart goes mano-e-mano with the T-Rex from the seat of a bull-dozer. He doesn't exactly say "Get away from her, you bitch," but Bart utilizes the mechanical device to duel the dinosaur to a standstill, clubbing the beastie off a high mountainside with the scoop bucket. Young Julio, who had befriended the neanderthal, is sad, but Bart explains to him how confusing it can be to wake-up with a million-year hangover.

Imagine you woke up one day in the twenty-first century, Bart offers, by way of explanation, to Julio. Or, if you are me -- seeing this movie for the first time in thirty-two years -- imagine you were a kid and loved this movie and then woke up one day in the twenty-first century to realize how ridiculous and silly the whole thing is.

Because that's kind of what happened with Dinosaurus! I told one of my friends (producer Joseph Maddrey) I was going to watch the movie and how much it had meant to me as a child, and he said something along the lines of "why are you going to do that? why do you want to ruin good memories?"

Note to self: I should listen to Joe more often.

Of course, this whole review is kind of glib, isn't it? That's because the little boy part of me (read: all of me) is wounded and sad and disappointed that - unlike, say King Kong (1933) or Godzilla: King of Monsters (1956) - Dinosaurus! doesn't really hold up to adult scrutiny. It's a perfectly adequate (if ludicrous) time-waster and B movie, but I can't make any arguments for the artistic merit of the film, and boy does that bum me out. Big time.

I made Kathryn watch this one with me last night and she was asleep in thirty minutes. Before she drifted off, I asked if he she thought our two-year old, Joel, would ever dig a movie like Dinosaurus! I mean, he likes bulldozers, right? She smiled pleasantly, but gave me a look that indicated only a six year old in 1976 could possibly love a movie this clunky. Joel is already more evolved than his father, I guess, so this may be my last run at Dinosaurus!

If I had known that beforehand, I would have made sure to attend this final viewing with my plastic dinosaurs and model kits in hand.


  1. Anonymous10:33 AM

    I had considered getting the DVD of Dinosaurus. After reading your review, maybe some things are best left to memory. That was certainly the case with another dino flick "The Beast From Hollow Mountain" (it was shown quite a bit on cable last year). Its technique of 'replacement' animation looks quite shoddy compared to Harryhausen's articulated models. I thought I read somewhere that "Dinosaurus" used the same replacement animation technique...doesn't sound too promising. Also some 'kids' films are torture to watch for adults, especially the humor aimed at children.

  2. Actually, my 6-year-old daughter just LOVES this film, right now, in 2011. She's watching it for the third time on Netflix as I write this.

  3. Yay, Eve!

    That's great. Good to know that Dinosaurus! is still fun for children. Maybe I'll run it by my son after all!

    Thanks for the comment,

  4. Anonymous7:22 AM

    I think Ienjoyed this movie, but I haven't seen it for years so I should give it a try again soon :-)