Movies featuring man pitted against prehistoric beasts have been popular since 1925’s The Lost World, where Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale featured a mysterious plateau rife with dinosaurs, and with the success of modern films like Jurassic World, where genetic engineering replaced lost continents, the dinosaur genre has proven itself to always have a spot in the hearts of moviegoers. In 1960, Jack H. Harris, the man behind the classic sci-fi/horror film The Blob, gave the world Dinosaurus!, a cinematic masterpiece detailing the age-old story of man’s noble goal to encounter giant monsters and then run screaming from them.
The first problem a filmmaker has with this type of picture is in figuring out how one goes about encountering a dinosaur 65 million years after they have gone extinct, and it should be noted that finding hidden prehistoric worlds isn’t as easy as you’d think, despite what films like 1957’s The Land Unknown would have you believe, but there is always the option of waking a hibernating dinosaur by way of atomic testing, as was done in the Harryhausen classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms — though that can lead to nasty radioactive side-effects. Then, of course, we have the “Build Your Own Monster” of the Jurassic Park series, but that has its own problems, mainly production costs and the insanely high park insurance premiums you’d have to layout, which leads us to Dinosaurus! a film where the construction of a new island harbour brings two ancient enemies to life.
The plot of Dinosaurus! is fairly simple; a group of American engineers have been using explosives to increase the draft of a Caribbean harbour when one of the explosions opens a rift to a frozen undersea river, and out of this fissure comes the frozen bodies of a Brontosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Head engineer and the film’s stalwart hero, Bart Thompson (Ward Ramsey), stations a stereotypically drunk Irishman (James Logan) to watch over this prehistoric find only to have things quickly become complicated when a lightning strike brings the two beasts back to life. Now, one would think two prehistoric titans would provide enough thrills for any movie, but you’d be wrong, as we also have shady deputy mayor Mike Hacker (Fred Engelberg), who upon discovering the frozen corpse of a caveman (Gregg Martell) (who had apparently also washed ashore due to the explosions), decides to keep this finding for himself so as to make some big bucks on the sly.
Science Note: The Tyrannosaurus Rex lived during the Cretaceous period and the Brontosaurus during the Jurassic period so I’m not sure how exactly those two would have been frozen together, but then again, we also have a caveman frozen in the same area, who is about 65 million years distant from either of those creatures, basically, one must assume the writers of this film based their science on episodes of The Flintstones.
And what kind of dinosaur film would we have if it didn’t also include a plucky kid? For this film, we have Julio (Alan Roberts), an orphan island boy who is routinely abused by Hacker. I’m not sure what the exact nature of the relationship between Julio and Hacker is, other than possibly adopted slave labour, but it’s never made clear and seems only to exist so as to illustrate just how much of an asshat Hacker is. That Julio would eventually run into and befriend the caveman should surprise no one, but that the two immediately domesticate the Brontosaurus did catch me off guard.
For a movie barely over eighty minutes in length, there is a lot going on. We have the aforementioned dastardly plan to exploit the caveman — which leads to Hacker and a couple of lackeys chasing the boy and the caveman around the island — there’s Bart’s pal Chuck (Paul Lukather) getting the villagers up to a fortress to protect them from the rampaging T-Rex, and then there is Bart’s girlfriend, Betty Piper (Kristina Hanson), who catches the eye of the caveman — who, to be fair, hasn’t been laid in over 100,000 years — and he kidnaps poor Betty and drags her into an abandoned mine.
As Dinosaurus! is a family film, we don’t have to worry about sexual assault happening between these two — the caveman quickly moves on from groping Betty to forcing her to cook him dinner — but before things can get even more awkward, Hacker and the T-Rex show up. This messy conflict results in the cavemen dying, holding the mine’s crumbling ceiling up while Betty and Julio escape, but Hacker gets his own just dessert by way of being crushed under a pile of rocks while the T-Rex just wanders off to find some easier lunch.
The dinosaur action for this film is done by way of stop-motion animation, the primary method used for all such films until Jurassic Park and computer-generated images changed the monster-making landscape forever, and it’s this style of dinosaur filmmaking that I will always hold a place in my heart as there seems to be more personality in these claymation creations then there is in their later computer-made brethren. The dinosaurs in this film were also created by model maker extraordinaire Marcel Delgado, who was the man that constructed the Kong model that Willis O’Brien animated in the original 1933 King Kong — that does add a bit of pedigree to this film — and the model of the Brontosaurus itself made a second appearance in a cameo for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” where a poor passenger plane finds itself lost in time.
Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. wasn’t given a huge budget for this feature, so as a dinosaur film there isn’t a whole lot of dinosaur action, and Marcel Delgado wasn’t given enough time with the models which resulted in less-than-smooth animation, and because of this, much of the film’s run-time is spent with the rather dull humans. Lucky for us, one of the humans that the film does focus on is the confused and befuddled caveman, and we are talking comedic gold here as we get to watch him explore a modern amenities flush toilet — which he finds terrifying — a ham radio, and the confusion of his reflection in a full-length mirror, which all adds pure unadulterated fun to what would otherwise have been a rather dull affair. Gregg Martell’s fantastic performance as the Neanderthal cannot be underrated, as are the make-up effects provided by make-up artist Don L. Cash, and aside from the few cool dinosaur moments, and I do mean few, this is what makes the film so entertaining.
Overall, Dinosaurus! is an amusing adventure flick that if you are to look past its flaws, such as the poor optical work and a cast of mostly two-dimensional characters, you can have a really good time viewing this somewhat forgotten adventure film, and how could anyone not love a film that ends with a fight between a mechanical digger and a Tyrannosaurus Rex?
Final Note: That the Brontosaurus, the caveman and the Tyrannosaurus Rex all die by the end of the film kind of bummed me out, but I guess Jack Harris was going for one of those “tragic and poetic endings” so I can let that slide. So, if you haven’t seen Dinosaurus! and are a fan of the genre, this is a film you should think about tracking down, and the recent Blu-ray really shows off the cinemascope photography and the print looks fantastic.
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
I’m a sucker for dinosaur movies and with this film, Jack Harris provides a nice installment in the genre, plus the added bonus of some great caveman comedy, making this Dinosaurus! a film well worth checking out.