Veteran movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis passed away Wednesday night. The acclaimed Italian producer was 91. You might not know who Dino De Laurentiis is, but if you grew up watching 80s genre films, then you’ve probably seen his name before, countless times.
Of course, if you weren’t an uber-movie-geek with an endless capacity for useless information, then you might not be so quick to recall all the films that opened with, “Dino De Laurentiis Presents,” and the wave of giddy fanboy glee that followed.
De Laurentiis was a prolific producer, with a career that spanned nearly seventy years, until he gave up producing in 2007. For we children of the 80s, the “golden age” of bombastic De Laurentiis productions was from 1974 to 1993 (approximately). It was a time of science-fiction, swords & sorcery, action, adventure, and horror. However, De Laurentiis was a purveyor of more than just over-the-top spectacle. (And no, he didn’t produce Sylvester Stallone’s ode to arm-wrestling truck-drivers. Over the Top was Golan/Globus and Cannon Group.)
With a list of credits that run the gamut, De Laurentiis’ canon was called, “high-brow and low-brow, huge moneymakers and expensive flops,” by Associate Press Hollywood’s Bob Thomas.
And before I revel in some of what might be considered his “lesser” films, I feel the need to point out some of his crowning achievements.
Not only did De Laurentiis produce cult classics like Danger: Diabolik, Barbarella, the 1980 remake of Flash Gordon, the 1976 remake of King Kong and the follow-up, King Kong Lives, he also produced the Kirk Douglas classic Ulysses, Anthony Quinn’s Barabbas, War & Peace with Henry Fonda & Audrey Hepburn, and Federico Felinni’s La Strada & Nights of Cabiria, both of which won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. So, he’s kind of a big deal.
That being said, I offer a list of my top ten favorite films produced by Dino De Laurentiis, most of which have won a place in my heart through repetitive viewing in the 80s.
I will be the first to admit that this is not a very good movie. It’s pretty bad, but in the best possible way. After a mysterious comet passes over the earth, machines come to life with a serious case of blood-lust. Semi-trucks run people down. Electric knives turn on their operators. Gas pumps blind innocent truckers. Soda machines take out entire little-league teams. A rag-tag group of people, led by Emelio Estevez, do their best to survive a world where machines have minds of their own before they become slaves to the very tools designed to help them. This film also made me terrified of the Green Goblin for years. And yes, director Stephen King is THAT Stephen King, author of The Shining, Carrie, etc. This was his one and only foray into film directing, which earned him a nomination for Worst Director by the Golden Rasberry Awards.
Again, not the best movie, but I love it anyway. It’s not as good as Conan the Barbarian, but it’s better than Conan the Destroyer, which Fleischer also directed… not as good as The Beastmaster either, but that’s neither here nor there. You got swords. You got sorcery. You got Schwarzenegger. You got Ennio Morricone‘s score. You got Brigitte Nielsen in her prime. This was her first role, before she got a taste for the flavor of love. Throw in a young Ernie Reyes, Jr. It’s all good fun. So what if Schwarzenegger says it’s one of his worst movies. I still love it.
Orca’s are Killer Whales… if there’s one thing seeing this movie burns in you mind, it’s that. Seeing this movie also made going to Sea World every summer a bit less intriguing. It’s not as much fun to watch Shamu flying through the air when you think he might snap and try to exact his revenge, taking a few lives and limbs as the price for crossing him. As if Jaws hadn’t already sealed my fate as a landlubber, Orca comes along and makes me realize that even the sea creatures presented as our “friends” are not to be trifled with.
Don’t mess with Charlie Bronson. And god help you if you mess with his family. Death Wish is a cinematic milestone, an urbanized western of sorts, with its depiction of a civilian resorting to violent vigilantism in the wake of personal tragedy. It’s just an amazingly bad-ass movie.
There is a special place in my heart for Army of Darkness. It was the first Sam Raimi film I saw on the big screen, and I loved every minute of it. It’s Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell… need I say more?
Serpico would also be on my list of top ten favorite Al Pacino films and top ten Sidney Lumet films. For some reason I hear more praise for Dog Day Afternoon, which is also a great film, also a Lumet/Pacino collaboration, but I prefer Serpico. The true story of Frank Serpico, a New York City police officer who goes undercover to expose the corruption in the NYPD. It’s a crime classic, definitely not one of De Laurentiis “lesser” films, even though it is often referred to as merely a “minor classic.”
I didn’t really grow up watching Blue Velvet. I actually watched Dune a lot more, as it seemed to be on the Sci Fi Channel every other day. But, Blue Velvet is a favorite that I finally discovered later on in life. And without De Laurentiis we might not have the Blue Velvet we know and love (or hate, as most people seem to). De Laurentiis gave Lynch complete artistic freedom to make the film he wanted to make, including final cut privileges. So, I thank Dino for giving Lynch the opportunity to make the film he wanted to make. And I wasn’t completely ignorant of Blue Velvet growing up. I remember an episode of Empty Nest where Harry was dating a younger girl and her invitation to watch Blue Velvet being considered taboo. (Bonus points to anyone born after 1980 who actually remember the show Empty Nest.)
De Laurentiis had a close relationship with Stephen King, and as a result he produced adaptations of several of King’s stories, including: Firestarter, Silver Bullet, and Cat’s Eye. The Dead Zone is, by far, my favorite of these adaptations. Christopher Walken plays the tragic, Cassandra-like Johnny Smith, plagued by visions of things to come. Though it isn’t one of Cronenberg’s body-horror films, it does not disappoint. In fact, Cronenberg throws in some amazingly disturbing scenes where what he leaves to your imagination makes them all the more haunting. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. And I’ll leave you with one word before you give it go: scissors.
2. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) – Sam Raimi
I bet you were wondering why I short-changed Army of Darkness. Well, that’s because Evil Dead II is my favorite in the series. I love this movie. In Raimi’s Dead trilogy, this is the film that is just right, for me. Its blend of campy humor and bloody horror is spot on. As much as I love Army of Darkness, I have to be in the mood for how campy it is. And as for the first Evil Dead, it is a classic to be sure, but with Evil Dead II they’ve got a bit more elbow room to really make things shine.
You’ve got John Milius directing a script that he co-wrote with Oliver Stone, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the mighty Conan… this is probably one of the manliest movies ever made. And I still can’t wrap my head around the sheer genius of having James Earl Jones play the villainous Thulsa Doom. It doesn’t really make sense, but at the same time it makes perfect sense. Who else could play Thulsa Doom? I don’t care what anyone says. I love this movie. Even though I’m a pacifist and not at all a proponent of violence, there’s something almost cathartic about Conan the Barbarian. It allows us to revel in our brutal primitive past from the comfort of our civilized homes. And of course, it answers the age-old question: What is best in life? “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.”