One of the most visceral shocks in movie history is the moment when a newborn alien explodes out of John Hurt’s torso in Alien (1979). In an homage to that scene, which uniquely combined the horrors of childbirth, parasites, and irritable bowel syndrome, the new prequel Alien: Covenant contains multiple body-bursting aliens. The effect is as gruesome and frightening as it was nearly 40 years ago, when it involved a hand puppet, gallons of fake blood, buckets of real animal organs, and a cast of genuinely astonished actors. Here’s how the original chestburster scene in Alien came to be.
Watch the original scene (warning: disturbing and violent imagery):
The monstrous moment takes place at the halfway point of Alien, signaling the film’s shift from suspenseful sci-fi thriller into full nightmare mode. Earlier in the story, the seven-person crew of the commercial spaceship Nostromo makes a brief landing on an unknown planet in order to investigate a distress signal. There, they discover remnants of alien life, including what appear to be eggs. An insectoid creature bursts out from one of those eggs and latches on to the face of executive officer Kane (Hurt). The other crew members are unsuccessful in detaching the “facehugger,” but a few hours after Kane returns to the ship, it scurries away on its own, leaving the officer unharmed.
Or so it seems. Later, during a genial crew meal, Kane begins retching and then convulsing in agonizing pain. As his shipmates reach out to help him, blood suddenly spurts from his chest, and a wormlike creature with razor-sharp teeth — born from the egg laid in Kane’s stomach by the facehugger — emerges from his twitching corpse. The alien hisses and runs off, as the crew (including Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver) watches in shock.
The chestburster was a defining moment in Alien from the beginning; producers David Giler and Walter Hill have both said that the scene is what sold them on the script. Reportedly, co-screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was inspired by a terrible incident of food poisoning, as well as the life cycle of the parasitic wasp (whose eggs are laid inside, and then hatch out of, other living insects).
However, the script never described the creature in detail. For inspiration, director Ridley Scott pointed concept designer H.R. Giger to a 1944 Francis Bacon painting called Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. “One of the [figures] has just teeth and red flesh,” Giger, who is Swiss, said in a DVD featurette. “[Scott] liked to have the chestburster like that. And I did some designs that looked something like chickens without feathers, that he was not happy with.” In fact, Scott told Cinefex, he liked the design on paper, but when creature maker Roger Dicken constructed a model, he saw “a plucked, demented turkey … all wrinkled and ancient-looking, like some malevolent Muppet.” For the next version, Dicken and Scott pared the design down to the basics, including a body modeled on the sleek head of the grown alien. “Finally,” said Giger, “we had only the head and the tail, and that was enough.”
When it came time to shoot the chestburster scene, excitement was in the air; everyone knew that it was a big moment. As to what, exactly, would happen, Scott kept Hurt’s co-stars in the dark. “All it said in the script was, ‘This thing emerges,’” Weaver explained to Empire magazine in 2009. The cast began their morning by shooting the start of the dinner scene, when Kane begins convulsing on the table and bleeding through his shirt. Special effects supervisor Nick Allder threaded a pipe under Hurt’s clothing, attached to a blood pack and a squib, in order to get the effect of spontaneous bleeding. On the first take, the explosion of blood was unexpectedly powerful, lifting up Hurt’s shirt — and making it look as if the creature was trying to push through from underneath. That accidental shot made the final cut.
After Scott got his shots of Kane bleeding and the crew reacting, he sent all the actors except Hurt to their dressing rooms for several hours. “We’re sitting upstairs and nobody knows what the hell is going on. Harry Dean [Stanton] is sitting in the hall playing his guitar,” Veronica Cartwright, who played Lambert, told Empire. Meanwhile, the effects team set up the shot. A prosthetic chest was placed on the table where Hurt had been lying.
A panel was removed in the table so that Hurt could sit underneath it and put his head and shoulders through, making it look like the fake chest was part of his actual body. Also underneath the table were creature maker and puppeteer Roger Dicken; the chestburster puppet; a hydraulic ram that would push the puppet through Kane’s chest; and a compressed blood machine, with hoses that would spurt blood from the body. The fake chest was packed with real animal organs, obtained from a local butcher and sanitized with formaldehyde by art director Roger Christian. Hurt was given wine and cigarettes to keep him occupied throughout the tedious setup.
An effects test for the chestburster puppet:
Finally, the actors were summoned back to the set. “Everyone was wearing raincoats — we should have been a little suspicious,” Weaver told Empire. “By the time they take us down to the set, the entire thing is shrouded in plastic, they have huge big buckets of offal sitting around, the place smells like formaldehyde like you wouldn’t believe it,” Cartwright said in the 2003 DVD featurette The Eighth Passenger: Creature Design. “We were all wondering what the hell was going on,” Yaphet Kotto, who played Parker, told Empire. “Why is the crew looking at us the way they’re looking at us right now? Why are they wearing plastic shields?”
“It was a much publicized fact that the cast didn’t know what was going to happen,” Hurt noted in The Eighth Passenger. “Well, of course they knew what was going to happen; they knew that the alien was going to arrive that way. What they didn’t know is that it was going to be capped with little explosives, and that when it actually burst through there would be quite a shattering explosion and that they’d all get splattered with blood and stuff.”
Four cameras were running to capture the scene from every angle. There were a few false starts when the creature couldn’t break through because the T-shirt wouldn’t rip. (“There was quite a long time as one prop man underneath the table kept pushing this alien on a stick saying, ‘Is it coming through yet? … Can you see it? Is it coming through?’ Hurt joked in the featurette.)
Then all of a sudden, it worked — a little too well. As the creature burst out of Kane’s chest, jets of blood squirted everywhere, startling the actors. They had instinctively leaned over Hurt’s body as they tried to help his character, and now they jumped back, dodging the blood. Cartwright got the worst of it, and her genuine shock ended up in the movie. “They told me I’d get a little blood on my face. And they had an entire jet pointed at me,” she said on the Alien audio commentary. When she was hit in the face, she lunged backwards, tripped over a banquette, and flipped onto the floor (which no doubt led to the urban legend that Cartwright fainted).
After the big reveal, the creature made its getaway, puppeteered by Dicken on a wheeled dolly. And that was it. The whole scene was shot in one morning.
Much as those blood jets surprised the actors, the chestburster scene stunned audiences when Alien opened in 1979. On the DVD featurette A Nightmare Fulfilled: Reaction to the Film, actor Tom Skerritt (who played Dallas) recalled a story that Ridley Scott told him: One theater owner said that the chestburster scene “really messed up our bathrooms,” and said he cut it out of the film in order to cut down on clean-up. Another Alien legend says that theater audiences at an early Dallas screening began running and fainting after the chestburster scene, though former Fox exec Alan Ladd Jr. said it didn’t exactly happen that way. “People were too stunned at that moment — they didn’t react,” Ladd said in the featurette. The chestburster was just the first indication of the horrors to come, and audiences became progressively more terrified as the film went on.
The parody chestburster scene in the Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs (1987):
Some of that primal terror is gone now, since audiences have seen the scene parodied so many times (notably by Hurt himself in Mel Brook’s Spaceballs, above) and fans can purchase a cuddly plush chestburster from Thinkgeek. But the original scene still packs a (literal) gut punch. No matter how many chest-, back-, and throat-bursters Ridley Scott packs into his Alien sequels, audiences will never forget their first time.
Spoiler video! Alien: Covenant star on becoming the first facehugger victim:
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