Despite how they were advertised over the years, the It’s Alive films are more than a prolonged riff on Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Writer-director Larry Cohen’s trilogy owes more to films concerned with radioactive fallout and its effects on communities, such as Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla and Arthur Crabtree’s Fiend Without a Face. It’s easy to see how, in the years after the release of the films in Cohen’s series, subsequent staples of this genre, from Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes to Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case, took the premise of a mutant offspring running rampant as a starting point for redressing the atomic and familial anxieties of their respective eras.
It’s Alive is the strongest entry in the series because of its deft commentary on how the political complacency of the 1970s middle class allowed for the continued emergence of unchecked military operations. Cohen builds to this overarching critique through conversations that indicate how the supposedly safe spaces of American life are in for rude awakenings. As a man in a hospital waiting area explains to father-to-be Frank Davis (John P. Ryan), his efforts to create a chemical capable of wiping out cockroaches only created “a new breed of roaches” that are “bigger, stronger, and harder to kill.” While this isolated moment could be read as commentary on the dangers of scientific experimentation—the film took its title from the most famous scene in 1931’s Frankenstein, and it makes reference to Boris Karloff’s monster in James Whale’s classic—Cohen places it within a greater context of technological development that seems to be outpacing our American consciousness.
Made shortly after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, It’s Alive walks a tightrope between lampooning right-wing efforts to police women’s bodies and lamenting the trigger-happy tactics adopted by the U.S. government in the wake of national or global calamities. Moreover, Frank’s greatest anxiety in the aftermath of his child’s birth is having several “important accounts” taken away from him at work. Frank lost himself in the muck of office politics, which now makes him unable to articulate his feelings, let alone find a meaningful sense of compassion for his grief-stricken wife, Lenore (Sharon Farrell), in the face of personal and, eventually, national catastrophe.
Much like the zombified mall dwellers of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Frank and Lenore have bought into the lie of mass consumerism that manifested in postwar American culture and has stuck around ever since. In It’s Alive, purchasing culture (Frank’s office is adorned with various statues and artworks that appear to be of Asian origin) replaces creating culture. Accordingly, the flesh-eating offspring in Cohen’s film can be read as a manifestation of the bourgeois couple’s malformation; pursuing comfort through class status, they discover how the things that just don’t happen anymore, to paraphrase Lenore on the safety of childbirth, may indeed return bigger, stronger, and harder to kill than ever before.
The pathos of the film’s finale, in which Frank finally sees his child as a wounded being rather than a monster, is largely absent in the subsequent entries in the series, which swap out a critique of apolitical American family values for a less honed, though still effective, conception of the way white Americans tend to be culturally myopic. The premise remains largely the same in 1978’s It Lives Again, though now the mutant-baby epidemic is spreading across the country, with Frank crashing a baby shower held by Eugene (Forrest) and Jody (Kathleen Lloyd) to announce the probable outcome of Jody’s pregnancy. After dismissing Frank’s plea to take precautionary measures for the probable delivery of a mutant baby, Jody and Eugene discuss the process of childbirth in other countries, to which Jody concludes: “Glad I’m not in India.” Cohen skewers such certainty of cultural supremacy, turning the film more into a satire of hubris than a tragedy of circumstances.
Released nine years after the second film, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive launches into full-on horror-comedy, beginning on a rain-soaked night in New York City and winding up on a deserted island where Jarvis (Michael Moriarty), father of a malformed child, travels with a crew of doctors and scientists to study what are now adult mutants. The film follows in the footsteps of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond. Both films were made over the two years preceding Cohen’s, and they helped shift sci-fi-inflected horror toward a template informed by extensive makeup work and tongue-in-cheek humor. Still, just as in the first two films in the It’s Alive series, Cohen’s socio-political acumen shines through, particularly in an early scene where Jarvis sleeps with Sally (Laurene Landon), a sex worker. In a perceptive reversal of what would in more commonplace circumstances materialize as whorephobia, it’s Sally who’s freaked out to learn of Jarvis’s identity as the father of a mutant and the possibility that she may have contracted an STI.
Although made in various cultural and production contexts, the It’s Alive films retain at least a pulse of outrage even when they’re indulging in the purely generic pleasures that a depiction of mutant offspring can afford. At his finest, which is more or less the whole of the first film, Cohen mounts a damning critique of pretending one’s own comforts and pursuit of success and pleasure don’t always come at the expense of someone else’s.
Each film in the series boats evenly balanced color saturation. Almost all signs of dirt or damage have been removed from the original negatives, while healthy grain levels are on display throughout. There’s a slight variance in quality between films (It’s Alive II: Island of the Alive probably looks the sharpest from beginning to end, with image depth and clarity rarely wavering), but all three films have never looked anywhere near this solid on home video. The monaural track on the first two films and the stereo track on the third are equally strong, though each is limited to a certain range by their technological origins. Rest assured: Bernard Hermann’s score blares through at an appropriately spine-tingling volume, while dialogue is mixed at an even keel.
Across his three commentary tracks, Larry Cohen frontloads his discussion of creative and production contexts before spending the rest of his time sporadically popping in to add a comment here or there. When he does chime in, it’s always enticing, as when he explains his take on why certain actors find a long, rich career of leading roles while other, just as talented actors wind up inhabiting character roles without ever quite breaking through. A new featurette contains numerous members of the cast and crew from all three films. If it covers some of the same terrain as Cohen’s commentaries, the overlap is justifiable given the recent interviews with familiar faces, making the proceedings feel like a joyous family reunion. Additionally, the set includes trailers for all three films, radio and TV spots, and a stills gallery.
Shout! Factory’s finely packaged Blu-ray box set is a red-carpet affair that boasts remastered versions of all three films and a slew of extras.