Carnosaur (1993): Lizard Kings

Matty kneels before Roger Corman and Adam Simon’s surprisingly serious-minded Jurassic lark. 

There’s a reason writer/director Adam Simon lifts Night of the Living Dead’s (1968) bleak coda for the end of CARNOSAUR (1993). Like Romero’s classic, Simon’s film is the distillation of social and political anxieties disguised as exploitation horror. Carnosaur swells with big ideas, touching upon post-Gulf military duplicity, environmentalism, and eugenics. The punches don’t always land and it gets a little dour on occasion — but Simon’s musings on three of the most hot-button issues of the early ‘90s offer a thoughtful counterbalance to the gory dinosaur action.

Given the job after impressing producer Roger Corman across their preceding collaborations, the excellent Brain Dead (1990) and Body Chemistry 2: Voice of a Stranger (1991), Carnosaur is the weakest entry in the Simon-Corman triptych but great fun nonetheless. The good outweighs the ropey. While noticeably shakier and cheaper-looking than Brain Dead and Body Chemistry 2 (the result of this ambitious and beautifully overreaching mini-epic stretching its $850,000 budget to breaking point), the film’s key scenes — its gruesome, creature-driven passages — drip with Simon’s patented sense of style and atmosphere. Actor Frank Novak’s laser-lined walk to ‘Rex-scoffed doom and the sequences set in a weird, Dr. Strangelove (1964)-esque briefing room are as surreal and nightmarish as they are outrageous and silly; and Harrison Page’s sheriff character’s streetside tussle with a Deinonychus is a near-perfect blend of staging, mood, cutting, and spectacle. However, it’s John Carl Buechler’s effects that are the highlight. 

With Corman and Buechler wanting to avoid stop motion, Carnosaur’s dinos are brought to life via puppetry, animatronics, and miniature work. Designed with the FX wiz’s typically cartoon-y touch, the aforementioned T-Rex and Deinonychus are a joy to behold; a pair of charmingly rubbery renderings that — along with their onscreen creator, Diane Ladd’s nutty, people-hating mad scientist — add real swagger and an imagination capturing tactility to a decent monster flick that drops marks due to a saggy midsection and Raphael Sbarge’s bland lead.

Shot in twenty-three days (broken down into eighteen days of principal photography and five days of reshoots and FX unit work), Carnosaur has achieved a degree of notoriety for the protracted game of leapfrog it’s played with the Jurassic Park franchise. Loosely based on a novel by sci-fi specialist John Brosnan (penned under his pseudonym ‘Harry Adam Knight’), Corman nudged Carnosaur into production to capitalise on Steven Spielberg’s then upcoming version of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. On the page, the similarities between Brosnan and Crichton’s texts are at once superficial and striking, with DNA noodling a central component in both. Brosnan’s spirited romp, though, actually predates the Andromeda Strain author’s. Carnosaur was originally published in 1984; Jurassic Park roared onto bookshelves and became a bestseller six years later which, in turn, inspired Corman to snag Carnosaur’s movie rights in the first place.

Development of a Carnosaur film started in 1991. Initial drafts of the script were assembled by Brosnan but his straight adaptation was deemed too expensive [1]. Next, the project was passed to John Brancato and Michael Ferris who’d written Watchers II (1990), The Unborn (1991), and an unmade iteration of Bloodfist II (1990) for Corman. When their script for what would eventually become David Fincher’s The Game (1997) was optioned by MGM, Brancato and Ferris departed [2]. Simon came aboard and retooled Carnosaur from scratch. Abandoning the book’s plot, Simon took only the basic premise of dinosaurs being genetically engineered from chicken genes and replaced the Aussie born, London-dwelling Brosnan’s very English sense of class satire (in the novel, the dinosaurs running amok in a small countryside town are due to the nefarious antics of a deranged aristocrat) with the above-noted, more U.S.-centric concerns.

Upon completion, Corman released Carnosaur on 21st May 1993, just over a week before Spielberg’s Jurassic Park — which, of course, starred Ladd’s daughter, Laura Dern — made its big screen bow. The ploy garnered appreciation for Corman’s moxie, if not for the actual quality of Carnosaur itself. Nevertheless, Carnosaur accrued a small profit (a cool $1million) during its brief regional theatrical run and found greater longevity on video, spawning two equally enjoyable sequels (Carnosaur 2 (1995) and Carnosaur 3: Primal Species (1996)) and a couple of spin-offs (Raptor (2001) and The Eden Formula (2006)) [3]. Naturally, the making and unleashing of three of them — Carnosaur 2, 3, and Raptor — synchronised with Jurassic Park’s sequels, written and cinematic. 

[1] Brosnan sports a unique credit on the finished film: his real name bags the ‘story’ tag and his nom de plume retains the ‘based on the novel by’ imprimatur.
[2] A humorous aside: when the pair left Carnosaur, the thrifty Corman insisted they return their $1,000 writing fee. As Brancato told Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty in his 2013 tome Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B-Movie, “Mike and I got paid $1,000 for our Carnosaur outline. But then we said, “We can’t do the screenplay because we have a commitment… But take the treatment, you don’t have to credit us or anything.” And Roger said, “I want my $1,000 back… The treatment was with the understanding that you would do the screenplay. I want $500 back from each of you.” I never paid him, but Mike did. I guess I still owe Roger $500!”
[3] The Carnosaur extended family: Buechler’s Carnosaur dinosaurs were also recycled in Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski’s Corman-produced T&A caper Dinosaur Island (1994), and the velociraptor suits used in Carnosaur 2 and 3 were repurposed for Dan Golden’s Corman-presented shocker The Haunted Sea (1997). Incidentally, The Haunted Sea was shot on the same boat set as Carnosaur 3.

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