Daniel Thomas “Dan” O’Bannon (September 30, 1946 – December 17, 2009) was an American motion-picture screenwriter, director and occasional actor, usually in the science fiction and horror genres. Although his name is still unknown by many, his influence on genre films cannot be overestimated.
O’Bannon was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Bertha (née Lowenthal) and Thomas Sidney O’Bannon, a carpenter. He attended the art school of Washington University in St. Louis, where he performed stand-up comedy routines, did make-up for campus theatre productions and provided illustrations for Student Life, the student newspaper. While there he roomed with Michael Shamberg, later the producer of Django Unchained, Skeleton Key, Pulp Fiction and many other movies, and Donald Friedman, the author, most notably of The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers. O’Bannon moved home briefly after his stint at Washington University and attended Florissant Valley Junior College where he wrote and directed a short science fiction satire titled The Attack of the 50-foot Chicken. He then attended the University of Southern California (USC) film school, where he met John Carpenter and collaborated with him on the 83-minute USC School of Cinema-Television short, Dark Star (1970).
Carpenter expanded the Dark Star short into a feature which was released in 1974 with a final budget of only $60,000. O’Bannon served in a number of capacities, including scripting, editing and acting in one of the leading roles (“Pinback”). In 1975, Dark Star won the Golden Scroll award (the Saturn Awards’ original name) for Best Special Effects, though today the film is still rather regarded as a footnote in his career and that of Carpenter, which does it a great disservice. The film is oddly meditative and uses a largely sparse electronic score to great effect. The small budget would have destroyed many a production but O’Bannon’s decision to have the main threat as a chicken-footed beach ball, enhanced with a very human personality, displays an early deftness of subtlety and humour balanced with zippy dialogue and well-structured set-pieces. O’Bannon, growing up a science-fiction and horror enthusiast, abandoned technical work (including a stint as a computer animator on George Lucas’ classic Star Wars – the TIE Fighter and X-Wing targeting screens are his) for screenwriting.
O’Bannon attended USC Film School and lived near the Los Angeles Campus in an old two-story house affectionately called the “Menlo Manor” which he shared with other USC students (Don Jakoby (writer of Arachnophobia and Vampires amongst others); and Jeffrey J. Lee, who became a well-known artist in Europe). He spent many late nights in old Hollywood editing his and other student films, though harboured thoughts of ultimately becoming a director.
He was attached to supervise special effects for a now almost mythical Alejandro Jodorowsky production of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but this fell apart in 1975 and the movie was never made as the major Hollywood studios were wary of financing the picture with Jodorowsky as director. O’Bannon’s role is prominently featured in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. The collapse of Dune left O’Bannon broke, homeless, and dependent on friends for his survival. While living with his friend Ron Shusett (later to be a collaborator on Alien as well as writing the screenplays to the likes of Total Recall and King Kong Lives), they came up with the story for O’Bannon’s career-making film Alien (1979), for which he wrote the screenplay and supervised visuals.
Using elements from a well-regarded but un-optioned screenplay he’d written called Omnivore, the screenplay to Alien was written in conjunction with Shusett; the artist HR Giger, whom he had met in Paris whilst preparing for Dune employed to design the sets and creatures. The resultant script, originally called Star Beast, was a deliberate attempt to appeal to studios in terms of commerciality and found favour with Alan Ladd Jr, the same head of Fox who had given the go-ahead to Star Wars.
Drawing on the B-movie conventions of a delayed reveal of the monster and age-old fears such as invasion and what lurks in the shadows, the film was a huge success but inevitably it was director Ridley Scott who received most of the acclaim. Contrary to many reports, the lead character of Ridley in the film was not originally intended for a male actor, indeed none of the characters had their gender mentioned. Even from the early script treatments, the ‘chest-burster’ scene was always considered the pivotal part of the film.
In 1981, O’Bannon wrote the screenplay to one of the most unheralded of the “video nasties”, Dead and Buried, an intelligent and unsettling film which even now fails to glean the plaudits it deserves. The same year he helped to create the animated feature Heavy Metal, writing two of its segments (“Soft Landing” and “B-17”). O’Bannon voiced his displeasure with his next big-budget outing, John Badham’s Blue Thunder (1983), an action yarn about a Los Angeles helicopter surveillance team. Originally written with Don Jakoby, Blue Thunder also underwent extensive rewriting, losing some of its political content.
He and Jakoby also scripted Lifeforce (1985), a film directed by Tobe Hooper that veers from alien visitation to even-more-than-usual sexually-infused vampirism and a London-based apocalyptic ending. Based on Colin Wilson’s novel “The Space Vampires”,It was not well received at the time, and was considered a box office flop, though has now developed a loyal following of fans; some might suggest an already faded Hooper and an overly enthusiastic budget did not help matters.
O’Bannon would again collaborate with Jakoby and Hooper for the 1986 remake Invaders from Mars. Purists considered it inferior to the 1950s original and it also performed poorly at the box office. O’Bannon also worked as a consultant for C.H.U.D., helping to create the design concept for the title creatures. In 1985, O’Bannon finally moved into the director’s chair with Return of the Living Dead. Sadly, O’Bannon’s track record of involving himself in as many aspects of the filmmaking process as possible, lead him to micro-managing almost every department, making him a somewhat unpopular character.
Nevertheless, his bold decision to have the zombies as speedy mutants (an attempt to distance himself from Romero lore), an entirely sound reasoning for the outbreak occurring and deeper than credited innovations such as the onset of rigor mortis in the infected, as well as the cremation scene, elevate the film to a far greater spectacle than the ‘Linnea Quigley naked’ and soundbite fest it’s sometimes regarded as.
In 1990, O’Bannon and Shusett re-teamed to make Total Recall, an adaptation of the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Phillip K. Dick. This was a project the two had been working on since collaborating on Alien. The film earned well over $100 million. An earlier screenplay by the duo titled Hemoglobin was also produced as the low budget feature Bleeders (1997 – keeping the original title on release in the UK).
O’Bannon’s second directorial feature, Shatterbrain (aka The Resurrected, 1992), was a low-budget though ambitious horror effort released direct-to-video. Based on the H. P. Lovecraft story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, it focused on a family’s ancient rituals that awaken the dead. In 1995, O’Bannon received a co-writing credit for the film Screamers, a science-fiction film about post-apocalyptic robots programmed to kill. Adapted from the Philip K. Dick story “Second Variety”, O’Bannon first worked on the screenplay in the early 1980s. Another old project sadly never came to fruition; a film titled, They Bite, which would have finally realised the original vision had for Alien, Omnivore.
O’Bannon died from complications from Crohn’s disease in Los Angeles on December 17, 2009; he credited his experiences with Crohn’s for inspiring the chest-bursting scene from Alien.
1974 Dark Star – writer, special effects, editor, production design, co-star (Sgt. Pinback)
1976 The Long Tomorrow – writer
1977 Star Wars – special computer effects
1979 Alien – writer
1981 Dead & Buried – writer
1981 Heavy Metal – writer of two segments, Soft Landing and B-17
1983 Blue Thunder – writer
1985 Lifeforce – writer
1985 The Return of the Living Dead – writer, director, voice
1986 Invaders from Mars – writer
1990 Total Recall – writer
1992 The Resurrected – director
1995 Screamers – writer
1997 Bleeders – writer