Social Predators: Welcome to Planet Earth (1996)

Dave gets on the blower to Lev Spiro to talk college, Corman, and sci-fi comedy.

In 1979 Lev Spiro enrolled on an undergraduate course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study Political Science and Communication Arts. Boasting a fierce intelligence and rabid ambition, the moustachioed former reggae drummer is as surprised as anyone that, a decade later, he was wielding a boom mic on the set of Naked Obsession (1990). However, just as Spiro was entering his final semester at UWM, he stumbled, Cheech and Chong style, into something that would take his life in a totally different direction.

“I was really stoned for those four-and-a-half years,” laughs Spiro. “In the last semester at Wisconsin-Madison, I took my first film class and fell in love with it. I’d been acting through high school and had done some television production too, but the process of going out with a film camera, then editing, adding music, as well as the drama and psychology – I loved it. I then went to graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin to study film – ’85 to ’90.”

“I made a couple of shorts, and one of them, The Convict, did very well on the festival circuit, and I came out to L.A. at the end of ’89 and got an agent within three months based on the strength of it. I thought that was great. “I’m going to be a director, and someone is going to give me $20million to make a film!” That didn’t happen, so I marketed myself as a sound guy and I spent my first three-and-a-half years in L.A. working as a boom operator. It was great experience, and I was able to watch a lot of directors work including a lot of bad directors, which taught me what NOT to do. You know, they’d spend an hour with the actors, figuring out what was what, then they’d spend an hour with the DP wondering where to put the camera. These crews were paid a flat daily rate and they’d end up working eighteen hours. It wasn’t right.  So, by the time I got my chance, I thought I was very well prepared.”

That chance came when Spiro was offered the opportunity to direct a heady tale of survivalism and strippers with Hot Ticket (1995) – though it was his second feature, WELCOME TO PLANET EARTH (1996), that brought the helmer the creative joy that he’d been yearning for.

Charlie (George Wendt) and Rhonda (Shanna Reed) are a freakishly happy married couple who, along with their stunningly attractive daughter Daphne (Anastasia Sakelaris, her first film role), head away on vacation to the most rundown, crime-filled, gang-populated part of Los Angeles. Their place of stay is a dilapidated boarding house [1] which, due to the recent death of his mother, has been left to a resentful Joseph (Christopher M. Brown, Menace II Society (1993)). Joseph is at a loss trying to understand the motivation of this maniacal middle-class family, but, alas, the truth is beyond what he could ever comprehend: Charlie, Rhonda and Daphne are, in fact, aliens and they’re here to participate in an intergalactic safari, offing the lowlifes of urban America and doing so with gleeful satisfaction.

Like a cross between The Donna Reed Show, Predator (1987), and William Lustig’s Vigilante (1982), Welcome to Planet Earth is a trippy delight from start to finish. Wendt and Reed are a great pastel-coloured union, switching from picket fence perfection to psycho in the blink of an eye. There’s a real political and heavily satirical undercurrent present in Michael McDonald’s script too though Spiro is quick to point out that there might be a flaw in that assertion.

“Michael wrote the screenplay and unbeknown to me he’s actually a Republican! So, in some respects, you could look at Welcome to Planet Earth as some right-wing vigilante fantasy [laughs]! I’m very left-wing, though, and I did write in one line when Joseph is showing Daphne around his home, and he accidentally utters “shit” and apologises straight after. Daphne asks him why he’s apologised and comments how “it’s just a word – like Republican or cocksucker.” At the screening party, Michael came up to me and said, “I love everything you did with the script. Honestly, I love the entire film – except for this one line…” [laughs]”

Part of the Roger Corman Presents series of movies that the legendary mogul produced for Showtime in the mid-‘90s, Welcome to Planet Earth premiered as ‘Alien Avengers’ [2] at 10PM on 17th August 1996, three weeks after Scott Levy’s Spectre (1996) kicked off the strand’s second season.

“This was a $650,000 budget,” recalls Spiro, “But Corman says it’s $1.5million because he skims all that money off the top to pay for overheads and buy cars and all that stuff. Now, when he saw the finished picture, Roger liked it so much that he told me to take the sex OUT of it. The last time he’d actually instructed someone to take the sex out of a film was Jonathan Demme and Caged Heat (1974).”

Sadly, the press didn’t like it as much as Corman, with Tony Scott in Variety stating that “the humour’s obvious, the lingo crude, [and] the situations are mostly lame.” [3] It’s better than that and as the gulf between the haves and have nots continues to widen, Welcome to Planet Earth will only become more acerbic, biting, and pertinent.

[1] The same house was later used for interiors in Jim Wynorski’s Project Viper (2002).
[2] A sequel followed in 1997, titled Alien Avengers II. McDonald returned as scriptwriter and Wendt returned in the lead role. Dave Payne (Reeker (2005)) was allocated the directors chair and the action was switched from the inner city to the Wild West – and without the same level of success.
[3] Roger Corman Presents: Alien Avengers by Tony Scott, Variety, 15th August 1996.

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