Days Before Jurassic Park Hit Theaters, a Gory Knockoff Tried to Steal its Thunder

No budget? No problem.

Written by James Balmont
Originally Published: 
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In the spring of 1993, anticipation for the biggest blockbuster in 65 million years was at a fever pitch. Michael Crichton’s best-selling techno-thriller Jurassic Park was still flying off shelves after two-and-a-half years in print, and teasers for Steven Spielberg’s megabucks movie adaption had both dino-crazies and normies foaming at the mouth. But just as the mega-hit was about to smash its way into cinemas, another industry icon was about to pull off an audacious stunt with a notorious B-movie capitalizing on the frenzy.

Though derided as a cheap knock-off, the Roger Corman-produced Carnosaur would be king of the theaters and rental stores for a brief moment upon its May 1993 release, before Jurassic Park stamped it into submission. In 2023, this almost-forgotten, dino-rampaging rollercoaster is a cut-price joy, full of wild one-liners, bloody disembowelments, and a climax taken straight out of Aliens. On the film’s 30th anniversary, director Adam Simon spoke to Inverse about a production once ridiculed as the worst of the year, and now a relic of a fossilized era of unconventional filmmaking.

Carnosaur stars three-time Oscar nominee Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart) — mother of Jurassic Park star Laura Dern — as Dr. Jane Tiptree, a genetic scientist working for an evil corporation in the Nevada desert. As her Dr. Moreau-esque ambitions become increasingly megalomaniacal, a series of unnatural occurrences rock the badlands. Hens begin laying strange eggs, violent killings sweep local communes, and a deadly virus is causing people to become pregnant with dinosaur embryos. With prehistoric beasts rupturing the bellies of beautiful young women, and a fully-grown T. Rex wreaking havoc, it’s up to security guard Doc (Raphael Sbarge) to stop the madness before it spells the end of civilization.

“It had to be exactly 87 minutes long, including trailers, because that’s all the physical 35mm film that would fit inside the standard size shipping case,” says Simon. “Any longer than that, and it would have to go in a bigger shipping case — and that would cost an extra $50 per case.”

These were the strict conditions of the Roger Corman school of movie-making. The legendary B-movie producer and “king of the drive-ins” was making big business out of low-budget and direct-to-video filmmaking in the ’90s, but since profit margins were slim, overheads had to stay low.

“He’d watch you like a hawk during filming to make sure you weren’t having more than two or, in an emergency, three takes of things,” Simon says. “And after however many shooting days he would give us, we had a week to cut it together, and then bang — it had to go!”

Carnosaur is making a subtle reference to another sci-fi movie here. Can you spot it?

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It was hardly a system built to serve talented filmmakers like Simon, who’d been plucked out of film school by Corman with the enticement of a three-movie deal, but the producer had set a precedent for the “mockbuster” barely a decade before. Corman had launched Piranha (Joe Dante, 1978) in the wake of Spielberg’s 1975 breakout hit Jaws, and Battle Beyond the Stars (Jimmy T. Murakami, 1980) at the height of Star Wars mania; both made a profit. But with a budget of “something like $500,000,” Carnosaur’s poverty of means was always going to make it a different beast to its maximalist sibling Jurassic Park, with SFX a particularly distinguishing facet.

“I knew it was never going to work,” Simon laughs, remembering the $50,000-or-so afforded to John Carl Buechler, known for his work on the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween franchises, to make a dinosaur suit for an actor to perform in. Scenes involving a Deinonychus slaughtering a commune of hippies, and a giant T. Rex battling a forklift, were to be Carnosaur’s essential set pieces, elevated with copious green goo and dino-vision camerawork. But Buechler’s reptilian designs, clearly puppets and rubber suits, were more Goosebumps than Godzilla.

“You couldn’t compete with big Hollywood movies,” Simon says. It would be futile on Corman’s budget or schedule. Instead, you had to do what Spielberg couldn’t or wouldn’t do. “You could do sex. You could have an unhappy, if not downright bitter, ending. Or it could be way gorier.” The latter, Carnosaur offered in droves.

“Gore itself was a kind of special attraction, and I wanted it to be kind of over the top.” As a result, Carnosaur would be elevated with an excess of violence that more than makes up for its dubious creature effects, with face-maulings, dismemberments, and decapitations at the hands of rampant prehistoric menaces the source of much of the film’s appeal. “Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Mario Bava… they were all huge influences,” Simon says, referencing the Italian directors behind horror classics like Zombie Flesh Eaters and Suspiria. “As were the traumatic experiences I’d had with films like Night of the Living Dead as a kid.”

Your eyes are fooling you; this is not a real dinosaur.

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Carnosaur hit theaters just days before Jurassic Park, with a poster bearing the tagline “Driven to extinction. Back for revenge.” It got a reasonable amount of publicity, in spite of its cheapo nature. “Commercials were everywhere, there was big mainstream news coverage, and the media thought it was fun,” says Simon, citing Fangoria and the Italian audience as among its most ravenous fans. With the movie grossing roughly twice its budget, Simon claims Corman proudly called it his most financially successful film of the era. But the release would prove embittering for the director, thanks in part to the high-profile derision it received.

“Siskel and Ebert devoted literally half an episode of their show to Carnosaur,” Simon says. The film critic duo were at the peak of their powers in the early ’90s, and while Gene Siskel gave the film a thumbs up — praising its “sheer goofiness,” as well as Ladd’s performance as “one of the craziest characters we’ve ever seen in a movie” — Roger Ebert made a vigorous argument that Carnosaur was the worst movie of the year. “For a while, I felt so embarrassed that I couldn’t even leave the house,” says Simon. “I thought it was literally going to be the death of my career.”

Two straight-to-video sequels joined the Carnosaur canon as it became a cult franchise in its own right. Now, Simon looks back on it all with “a kind of pride and laughter” after conversations with Martin Scorsese (who directed Boxcar Bertha for Corman in 1972) and Quentin Tarantino (who brought a VHS copy of Brain Dead, one of Simon’s other Corman productions, to lunch) helped him find a new perspective on his work. “Every other movie my peers and buddies made for Roger were all headed straight to Blockbuster,” Simon says. “If nothing else, I’m happy and proud of the distinction of getting a full theatrical release.”

That might sound moot in an age where theatrical and home media releases are near-simultaneous, but it’s a testament to the entertainment that Simon managed to instill in the project that it managed a bite-sized box-office triumph in 1993. With films like Jurassic World: Dominion missing the point despite millions and millions of dollars worth of investment, Carnosaur is a reminder that things don’t need to be perfect or polished to be a lot of fun.

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