Truth be told, the word “rip-off” has an unfair connotation. It’s what you call everything from plagiarism to grifting, both as an exclamation — “What a rip-off!” — and an insult, wherein one is a “rip-off artist”. But exploitation filmmaking exists in a topsy-turvy world in which good is pretentious and bad is punk, so it makes sense that the rip-off movie would hold an exalted place. It was this movement in cinema, after all, which gave us the myriad cannibal movies in which grown men get castrated on camera — and for our entertainment, no less.
So don’t let this label fool you. Some of these movies are among the greatest, coolest, weirdest movies ever made. Some of them were made by people whose names may surprise you: Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and Joe Dante, for starters. Some of them have featured characters which have become cultural icons. And some of them I’ve ever watched more and with greater joy than the movies that inspired them.
And this is just the beginning. You can spend your whole life watching rip-off movies and not even scratch the surface. But you’ve gotta start somewhere, so we might as well start with a big one.
1. Dementia 13 (1963)
The impetus for this movie is legendary: after completing The Young Racers, Roger Corman had $22k left over from that film’s budget and decided to use it to make a whole other movie. He asked Francis Ford Coppola, who’d worked as a sound guy on Racers and directed two sexploitation films, to write a cheap Psycho knock-off, which he did — in three days.
What follows is a tale as twisty and crazy as you can imagine, all centred around a family’s inheritance and a terrible secret. It features a woman getting axed to death after coming out of a lake and a goofy subplot featuring a varmint hunter that ends in murder. (Which was directed by Jack Hill after Coppola’s version was deemed too short and too tame.) It’s the most Corman of all these old movies, taking the spirit of Hitchcock and making it bloodier, trashier and sexier.
And sure it’s an ultra-cheap Corman movie that was written in days and shot in a week, but isn’t that what you’re looking for? Don’t you want cheap gothic sets, stilted dialogue and bad horror effects? Dementia 13 has all of those, but it’s still bursting at the seams with style. Dementia 13 might not be Psycho, but it’s a thrilling, wild and crazy proto-slasher made by two masters at work.
2. Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)
Somehow or another Akira Kurosawa became a major go-to for other movies’ plots. Most famously, A Fistful Of Dollars recycled the plot of Yojimbo, to where there was a lawsuit involved that the Italian production lost; The Magnificent Seven is Seven Samurai; and none other than the mighty Star Wars took whole swathes of The Hidden Fortress’ plot. So if you were Roger Corman, and you were staring down the barrel of a Star Wars knock-off, where would you start?
Why, Seven Samurai, of course. It’s The Magnificent Seven in space!
Here’s the plot: the farming planet Akira is threatened by an evil John Saxon, piloting a ship he calls “The Hammerhead”. If the planet doesn’t surrender to him, he’ll use his DEATH STAR — oh, sorry — STELLAR CONVERTER to turn the planet into a star. Thus begins the journey of a local farm boy as he travels among the stars to find willing participants in the battle against evil.
And as if that wasn’t exciting enough, there are some seriously big names that worked on this project. None other than a young James Cameron found himself one of the many designers in pre-production tasked with designing the Akira spaceship. Whoever designed the best one would get the job working in the art department.
Cameron’s thought process went something like this: “Well, I know Roger Corman makes movies where bare-breasted women shoot Pilipinos out of trees… So maybe I should make the ship look like tits?”
It’s a design you won’t be able to un-see. Corman himself was so shocked at the thing’s appearance that he remarked, “What’s this supposed to be?”, to which Cameron replied, “Tits.”
He was hired on the spot.
Featuring a script by John Sayles and the best special effects of an Corman movie ever (so much so the FX shots were used in a dozen other movies), Battle Beyond The Stars is one of the all-time low budget movies.
3. Contamination (1980)
Luigi Cozzi is not a name most people are familiar with, and that’s probably with good reason. Contamination is one of two good movies, unless we wanna count the Cannon version of Hercules with Lou Ferrigno. (The other is a masterpiece we’ll talk about later.) And really, he’s facing some pretty stiff competition from other Italian genre filmmakers — so there’s no shame in not being Lucio Fulci or Mario Bava. But for my money, this movie allows him to join the ranks of brilliant filmmakers, and specifically those brilliant filmmakers who made brilliant Alien rip-offs.
And let me tell you, this is an awfully hallowed list. Species, Creature and DeepStar Six are all worth watching, if you haven’t already. And I know, there’s a certain sense in which, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But you know what this movie has that these others don’t? That’s right — Goblin did the soundtrack.
And that’s not all. This is a very Italian version of Alien, from the cheapness to the shots to the insanity, and Italian movies are the cream of the crop. Is it worth your time? Absolutely. And if you like it, there are a thousand more like it waiting for you on the other side.
4. Piranha (1978)
Alright, it’s still early days for this list and I’m already running out of hyperbole. But believe me when I tell you, there is no exploitation movie that matches the mighty Piranha: not for its brazenness, its wildness and — dare I say it — its artistry. That a significant amount of the movie was filmed in a swimming pool does nothing but increase its coolness.
You can probably figure out the plot by now. Mutant piranhas eat a young couple before accidentally being released into the wild, where they attack a summer camp. There’s blood, sex and excitement, all done through the unique eyes of Joe Dante, who would later become famous for Gremlins. In other words, there’s an anarchic, untameable spirit that matches perfectly with its unrepentant drive-in aesthetic.
Look, this is my favourite exploitation film ever — and I’ve seen them all. There’s a reason why Spielberg called it “the greatest of the Jaws rip-offs”, which, by the way, includes a number of movies that would make for a good marathon: I’d recommend this, Humanoids From The Deep, Demon Of Paradise and Up From The Depths.
And if you like John Sayles — who wrote both this and Battle Beyond The Stars — then there’s also The Lady In Red, The Howling and the most underrated movie of all time, Alligator.
Truly, there are some heavy hitters in this movie. Nothing has ever been able to top it.
5. Battle Truck (1982)
I know what you’re thinking, and yes — this is the most brilliant movie title of all time. If I didn’t have a word count to fill, I’d feel comfortable just listing its title and assuming that would be enough to make you buy it. (Shout Factory has it as a double feature with the unstoppable Deathsport.) As it stands, I have more work to do than that, so here goes.
What do you wanna know about the plot? It’s The Road Warrior, but in New Zealand. It has a battle truck and there’s some fighting over oil after a nuclear war has made petroleum scarce. So why watch this instead of The Road Warrior? Because it’s way trashier. It’s an absolutely shameless knock-off, with all the violence and wildness that you’d ever want. The Road Warrior is a masterpiece — this is its drunk cousin, and it’s great.
It’s the most drive-in movie there ever was. Pick up the Shout Factory double feature, pronto.