A History of Crocsploitation (Crocodile and Alligator Movies, That Is)
Among killer animal movies, sharks tend to get the lion’s share (or shark’s share?) of the attention. Sharksploitation has been a full-fledged genre for a long time now, even predating the explosion of Syfy original movies such as Sharknado, 5 Headed Shark Attack, and Sharktopus, most of which base their appeal on how over-the-top and outlandish the premises are.
But what about crocodiles and alligators? Surely they deserve some respect in the strange landscape of killer animal horror movies. They are, after all, the closest things to dinosaurs that currently exist, right? But it’s like they’re treated as compromises between sharks and dinosaurs in the world of monster movies. And it’s not fair.
Granted, it’s only natural that shark movies remain the most popular subcategory of the killer animal genre seeing as how the film that really catapulted the genre to popularity was Jaws. And following its release in 1975, a whole slew of cash-ins and sometimes straight-up ripoffs were made, most of them very quickly and cheaply. A lot of them also used a shark as the monster, while films like Orca, Piranha, and Tentacles took the basic formula of Jaws and redid it with a different killer animal. However, none of these substitute predators ever really launched their own subgenre of killer animal exploitation cinema.
If any of them should have, though, it’s got to be crocodiles and alligators, right? They’re the most obvious choice. And sure, there have been a number of killer crocodile and alligator movies over the years, but as far as I can tell, these movies are still not thought of as being their own subgenre or specialty exploitation category (“crocsploitation” is not a term I’ve ever heard, although I wish it were a thing). So I’m writing this to provide a brief overview of some of the more notable examples in this somehow unrecognized subgenre, and maybe by the end I’ll decide that it is, in fact, its own subgenre separate from the general “killer animal” label. Maybe.
The earliest example I could find of a movie that might be categorized as a croc/gator movie is The Alligator People from 1959. This isn’t quite a killer animal movie in the way that Jaws is, though, since it’s not about alligators attacking people. It belongs more to the long (like, really long) line of science experiments gone wrong movies that were omnipresent in the ’50s. This movie is about a drug made from reptilian hormones designed to regenerate human limbs, but of course it ends up turning them into alligator-like creatures (alligators are not among the reptiles that regrow their limbs, but I mean, are we really going to be pedantic about it?). It was released as part of a double feature with the similarly themed Return of the Fly, and it’s much closer to that film than it is to the croc/gator movies that follow, but I think it’s still worth mentioning at least as a light precursor to them. Was there a ’50s sci-fi horror movie about people turning into shark-like creatures? Not that I know of.
The first post-Jaws example of something that could *maybe* be considered a killer croc/gator movie is Tobe Hooper’s 1977 video nasty Eaten Alive, but even that one is iffy. Despite the poster prominently featuring the film’s Nile crocodile (yes, even though it takes place in Texas, it features a Nile crocodile, not an alligator), it should be noted that the poster’s tagline, “Meet the maniac & his friend,” is a bit deceiving in that the movie is much more focused on the maniac than his crocodile friend. As Hooper’s followup to his 1974 breakthrough masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, this movie is another about some sleazy Texas psychopaths, albeit one of them owns a Nile crocodile as a pet that he uses to dispose of bodies. Those looking for an all-out killer croc movie might be disappointed, however, since the crocodile isn’t in the movie for as much as the poster would suggest (it’s still well worth watching, though, and Robert Englund as Buck [who likes to fuck] is truly memorable).
The first example I could find of a movie that fully exploited the popularity of Jaws and transposed it to croc or gator is the 1978 South Korean/Thai co-production Agowa gongpo, or Crocodile Fangs. However, I can’t really find much information on it, and most sources seem to confuse it with the 1979 Thai film Chorakhe, or Crocodile, or sometimes Giant Crocodile. The first poster you see above is even attributed to both films. It’s possible the same poster was indeed used for both. But since I can find much more info on Chorakhe, I’ll talk about that one while mentioning Crocodile Fangs as a potential curiosity. Apparently it’s a shot-on-video film that’s pretty hard to find, so yeah. Let’s just focus on Crocodile for now.
Having not seen this movie, I can’t give a detailed account of it, but judging by the reviews I’ve read of it, it certainly fits the description of a Jaws ripoff, just with a crocodile instead of a shark. It doesn’t seem to be well regarded at all even among trash movie aficionados, but I’m eternally grateful that I researched it anyway if only because while reading up on its director, Sompote Sands, I discovered that he made a movie in 1985 called Magic Lizard that is — brace yourself — an action fantasy about a talking lizard who guards a sacred crystal until it is stolen by Martians, forcing the lizard to chase down the Martians all throughout Thailand, battling bears, ghosts, tigers, and even a giant crocodile (so maybe this counts?) along the way. This is instantly going to the top of my must-see list. But I digress.
We’re not done talking about movies from 1979, because later that same year, the Italian film Il fiume del grande caimano, also known as The Great Alligator River, also known simply as Alligator (but not to be confused with the next film I’ll be discussing) was released. This one was directed by the great Sergio Martino, who made the giallo classics All the Colors of the Dark, Torso, and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, the early Italian cannibal film The Mountain of the Cannibal God, and later the cult classic Mad Max/Escape from New York ripoff 2019: After the Fall of New York.
This one also obviously uses Jaws as its main inspiration, but by most accounts is a bit more successful than Chorakhe. Granted, the 2004 documentary The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made named it the 36th worst movie ever made, but frankly that documentary is far worse than any of the movies it picks on (many of which are easy targets that have been featured on MST3K, some of which are actual GOOD movies that they for some reason decided to shit on [Spider Baby, Xanadu, Bloodsucking Freaks…really?!]). But despite what that truly awful list says, it has its fans. It even incorporated some geopolitical and environmental commentary under its admittedly hackneyed surface, so there’s even some substance to go along with the inherent junk food fun of watching a killer alligator movie.
Now we arrive at what is perhaps the crown jewel of crocsploitation/gatorsploitation (okay, I’ve already decided this is its own genre now), 1980’s Alligator. Directed by the criminally under-celebrated Lewis Teague, whose later credits include the Stephen King adaptations Cujo and Cat’s Eye, I’ve been championing this movie since I first saw it years ago. It may even be the best of all the so-called Jaws ripoffs (although this one doesn’t follow Jaws too closely, so maybe it doesn’t count). This one plays off the urban legend of alligators in the sewer, albeit set in Chicago rather than New York where that urban legend began.
This is one of the movies I would point to if you want an example of a movie with a silly premise that takes itself just seriously enough to not be one of those ironic, tongue-in-cheek, self-aware horror movies that come across as desperate and pandering (like the Sharknado movies tend to, honestly), but still not so seriously that it forgets to have fun with it. It’s just the perfect balance of sincerity and self-awareness. A lot of that has to be attributed to its writer, the legendary (in the independent film world) John Sayles, who had previously written another fantastic Jaws ripoff, Piranha, and would later write the seminal werewolf film The Howling. He may downplay the value of his early genre screenplays in recent interviews, but I maintain he was probably the best genre screenwriter of the late ’70s and early ’80s. He just got it, you know? These movies showed that you could be intelligently self-aware of the genre while still fully embracing all of the tropes and having a blast being part of the genre.
The acting in this movie is also way better than it probably needed to be, with Robert Forster typically brilliant in the lead role. He lends so much relatability to the role that what could have been a bland, stoic cipher ends up being a surprisingly intriguing character study seamlessly woven into the fabric of a giant alligator movie. And Henry Silva is absolutely hilarious in a what is basically a glorified cameo, but man is he memorable.
I just can’t say enough good things about Alligator. It’s honestly the main reason why there should be a crocsploitation/gatorsploitation genre. I mean aside from the fact that crocs and gators are just generally awesome movie monsters.
A direct-to-video sequel entitled Alligator II: The Mutation was released in 1991. Nobody involved with the original returned for this outing, and it is strange that they waited eleven years to cash in on a movie that wasn’t really a financial success to begin with, but there you have it. The wonderful Dee Wallace is in it, so that’s a plus. But unsurprisingly, it’s not anywhere near as good as the original. There’s not much to say about it, really. It’s not completely awful, but there’s just nothing memorable about it. It’s only interesting as a footnote to what could have (and should have?) been a much more popular subgenre of natural horror. What if this movie had been made eight years earlier? Could it have helped propel gatorsploitation/crocsploitation (I need a singular term for this so I don’t have to keep typing both terms out) to a more prominent position in the ranks of B-movie cultdom? I doubt it. But it definitely would have seemed less pointless had they not waited so long after the original.
So like I said, in an ideal world, Alligator would have been successful enough that it split gatorcrocsploitation away from the rest of the killer animal genre and positioned it as its own distinct genre. That didn’t materialize, though, so we missed out on the batshit crazy movies that undoubtedly would have been made had the genre taken off in the ’80s. The only other really noteworthy film to discuss from this decade is the underseen Ozploitation movie Dark Age from 1987. And if I made it seem like this was merely an afterthought in this discussion, rest assured it was not intentional. This movie is really good.
Dark Age is actually quite a subversive film in terms of the expectations I assume most people go into a giant crocodile movie with. Without spoiling too much, let me just say that the real monster of the movie is not the crocodile. Yes, like the aforementioned Alligator (the Sergio Martino one that is, not the Lewis Teagure one…this is getting confusing, isn’t it?), there’s environmental and geopolitical commentary in this film, but it’s even more abundant here, and what’s more, it’s in a movie that’s much more well crafted and serious in tone. Not that it’s too serious as to become a preachy bore or anything, because there’s still tons of fun to be had, but it does have much more of a somber tone than you would expect from it. And dare I say it even packs a bit of an emotional punch, believe it or not.
It was directed by Arch Nicholson, who sadly died just three years after this movie was released at the age of 48. His most famous movie is probably the 1985 thriller Fortress. Reading what little information I could find on him reveals that he was heavily influenced by French avant-garde director Alain Resnais (whose works include Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour), and while I wouldn’t say I could detect any traces of Resnais in Dark Age, it at least explains why the film feels more artistically ambitious than many of its genre contemporaries (which honestly wasn’t that unusual for Australian genre films of the era…see the giant boar film Razorback for further evidence of this).
My only complaint about the movie is that the great David Gulpilil is in the movie but isn’t given all that much to do in it (for those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he’s one of the great Australian actors ever, having been in such films as Walkabout, The Last Wave, The Proposition, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and yes, even Crocodile Dundee). Other than that, I’d have to say Dark Age is probably the greatest giant crocodile movie ever made, with Alligator of course being the greatest giant alligator movie ever. Together they stand as the two pinnacles of the overall gatorcrocsploitation genre that I’m trying to highlight here. They’re both quite different, but in their own ways tremendously enjoyable, surprisingly intelligent, well made, and honestly just two great movies that I think a lot of modern audiences would like if they had a bit more exposure. By all rights, they should have been at the forefront of the gatorcrocsploitation movement that never really happened.
So despite the quality of Alligator and Dark Age, their lack of success meant that nothing much happened in this genre throughout the ’90s with the exception of the aforementioned Alligator II, and again, that wasn’t going to reinvigorate anything. This changed at the tail end of the decade (should I attempt to make some kind of crocodile tail pun?) with the release of Lake Placid in 1999, a relatively big-budget take on the giant croc movie that is definitely the closest thing the gatorcrocsploitation genre has to its very own Jaws in terms of its success and subsequent influence on other films (i.e. ripoffs). Note that I am not in any way comparing Lake Placid to Jaws in terms of either its box office success or quality as a film. This is purely relative.
Which is also not to say Lake Placid is a bad movie. On the contrary, it’s actually a hell of a lot of fun. I still prefer Alligator and Dark Age for sure, but I have no problem with Lake Placid being the most famous movie this genre has to offer. With slasher stalwart Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Parts II & III, Halloween H20, House, Warlock) at the helm, this movie, like Alligator before it, injects a lot of self-aware humor into the formula, except this one leans much more heavily on it to the point that most people consider this a full-fledged horror-comedy. It’s also got a fairly star studded cast, including Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleeson, Mariska Hargitay, and Betty White in a scene-stealing role that foreshadowed the foul-mouthed dirty old lady persona she’d come to embrace over the next few years.
There are people who really love Lake Placid, and while I’m not quite as enthusiastic about it as they are, I can definitely understand the love for it. It’s something that I miss a lot, if I’m being honest: the short, to-the-point, no-frills Hollywood summer blockbuster. At a brisk 82 minutes in length, this movie knows what it is, does what it does, lets you eat your popcorn, and sends you on your way satisfied. I know that a lot of today’s blockbusters are a lot more epic in scope, complex in ideas, and sophisticated in execution (at least ostensibly), but there’s something to be said for this sort of movie, and it seems to be a lost art. The wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am Hollywood blockbuster may have been the chagrin of movie critics in the ’90s, but I for one miss it. When I think of a night out at the movies, that’s still what I think of. Popcorn, soda, and a short, to-the-point movie that just wants to provide you with some fast-paced, kinetic entertainment. Perhaps less rewarding for home viewing, but for a date night at the movies? Easily better than a three-hour epic with multiple, interweaving story arcs that you need to have seen 20 other movies to understand.
But I digress.
Lake Placid spawned five made-for-TV sequels produced for the Syfy channel (previously the Sci-Fi Channel), including the 2015 crossover Lake Placid vs. Anaconda. These sequels are much schlockier than the original, of course, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys those over-the-top Syfy schlockfests, you could do much worse. In fact, I suppose the Lake Placid sequels represent the biggest attempt yet at turning gatorcrocsploitation into a B-movie genre that can compete with sharksploitation. They haven’t fully succeeded, but at least with these movies, one could say they did give it an honest effort.
For those of you disappointed that Tobe Hooper’s previously discussed Eaten Alive didn’t have enough crocodile action in it, rejoice! In 2000, what could be considered the first Lake Placid cash-in was released, and Hooper directed it, perhaps to atone for not including enough of the croc in Eaten Alive (though more realistically because his career was sadly not where it was in the ’70s and ’80s and he probably needed some quick money). Released directly to video on December 26th, 2000 (one day late to be everyone’s favorite Christmas gift that year), this is…well, it’s not very good. I’ll say that much. Is it one of the worst movies ever made? Not by a long shot. It’s too forgettable to be truly awful. But it is kind of sad to watch knowing that this was made by the same director who made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, Eaten Alive, The Funhouse, and Lifeforce.
This is also a prime example of what truly atrocious results the early days of CGI could yield. I know CGI had been around since the ’80s, so 2000 wasn’t exactly the “early days,” but it was around the period when CGI started being used as a total replacement for practical effects rather than as a supplement to or enhancement of them. And it looks bad. I’m not saying the crocs and gators in some of the other movies I’ve discussed here look all that realistic, but at least they’re actually there. The crocodile in this movie is often rendered so horribly that it looks like they didn’t even attempt to make it blend into the images around it, settling for it appearing like a completely random animation that somebody added later as a joke. I strongly suspect that Tobe Hooper wasn’t even involved in the post-production when this effect was done, because even though it’s pretty clear he didn’t give any fucks while making this movie, I can’t imagine that someone of his genius could look at that and say, “Yeah, looks good. We’ll use that.”
Yet somehow it even got a sequel, 2002’s Crocodile 2: Death Swamp. I haven’t seen this one, but apparently it’s advertised as a “loose sequel.” I love it when they do that. Basically, they made an unrelated crocodile movie, and to give it some more exposure, they advertised it as a sequel to an already existing movie. They used to do that a lot in the glory days of exploitation cinema (a famous example being Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, which was advertised as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, which was called Zombi in Italy; the two films are completely unrelated, but both are masterpieces, so I apologize for even mentioning them in the same train of thought as Crocodile 1 and 2). In any case, they somehow settled on selling it as a sequel to fuckin’ Crocodile of all things, presumably because Lake Placid was still five years away from licensing its name out to low-budget “loose” sequels.
I probably should have mentioned that 2000 also brought us another direct-to-video croc movie, Blood Surf. This one concerns a group of surfers who — because they’re totally adrenaline junkies, dude — intentionally try to attract sharks by throwing chum into the water in hopes of surfing alongside the sharks. Gnarly. However, what they didn’t plan on was attracting a 30-foot crocodile. I guess they were fine with potentially attracting man-eating sharks, but a crocodile? Nah. Too much, man. I’m out.
Oh, and there are also pirates. Yep.
Just one more note on this one. Yes, I did choose to dispaly the French DVD cover because it advertises the movie as being from the producers of Point Break. That wasn’t advertised on any other release of the movie, as far as I can see. I guess they just thought that French audiences were particularly inclined to watch a movie about surfers and a giant crocodile if they saw that it was from the producers of the ULTIMATE surfer movie.
2007 was the peak year of gatorcrocsploitation. SEVEN different movies in this genre were released this year, and those are just the ones I’m familiar with. I’m not going to discuss all of them in depth, but I’ll mention them briefly before talking about one a little bit more. So we had two made-for-TV croc movies, Lake Placid 2 and Croc, the latter set in Thailand (a throwback to the earliest gatorcrocsploitation movies of the late ’70s?) and starring Michael Madsen. The Roger Corman-produced Supergator was another one released this year, which is about a prehistoric alligator brought back to life Jurassic Park-style with fossilized DNA. More on that one a little later. There was also an extremely low-budget movie called Supercroc, which I haven’t seen but is by all accounts nearly unwatchable.
Then we had two more Australian entries in the genre: Black Water, which is a fairly well regarded film that could vaguely be compared to Open Water (but with a crocodile instead of sharks, of course); and Rogue, which is also well regarded and was made by Greg McLean, who had previously directed Wolf Creek. Both of those are recommended for fans of the genre. Lake Placid 2, Supergator, and Croc, well, maybe only for DIEHARD fans of the genre — and even then, only cautiously. And Supercroc, probably not at all.
The one I want to touch upon a little bit more is Primeval, which is not as well regarded as Black Water or Rogue but has built up a little bit of a cult following since its release and is definitely an interesting film at the very least. The first thing to note is that it was marketed in an unusual and largely deceiving manner, and I think that may actually explain why a lot of people didn’t like it when they saw it (I mean of the people who saw it at all, of course, which wasn’t exactly “a lot” of people). The trailer gives very little indication that it’s about a killer crocodile. It boasts that it’s about “the world’s most prolific serial killer,” and one couldn’t be blamed for assuming it was a slasher movie.
In fact, Primeval is based on the true story of Gustave, a crocodile in the nation of Burundi that has killed somewhere in the vicinity of 300 people and has still yet to be captured (the most recent sighting was in 2015). The film doesn’t go for 100% faithfulness to the true story, but I would argue it takes an interesting approach and is overall pretty well done. There are some really good set pieces, and while these individual scenes are stronger than the movie is as a whole, it’s still worth checking out if you want to see some good croc action in a movie that tries to be a serious take on the genre rather than a goofy B-movie (which I obviously love too, but sometimes it’s nice to see what filmmakers do with B-movie genres when they’re trying to elevate them to the level of “serious” cinema). If it doesn’t achieve its ambitions, it’s at least notable in that it has those ambitions.
Lastly, it’s only fair that since the majority of sharksploitation movies made recently have been of the over-the-top Syfy schlockfest variety, we need to address the gatorcrocsploitation movies that fall under that category. The earliest one (depending on what you count as full schlock, I suppose) was Dinocroc, made in 2004 and produced by Roger Corman. Shockingly, it actually received a limited theatrical release, but it was then reappropriated as a Syfy (then still Sci-Fi Channel) movie later in the year. The aforementioned 2007 film Supergator was a quasi-sequel to it in the respect that it exists in the same fictional universe. And this was a year before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, so suck on that, Disney.
The two eventually crossed over in the inevitable Dinocroc vs. Supergator, which premiered on Syfy in 2010 and was directed by the INSANELY prolific Jim Wynorski. Seriously, look at his IMDb page. At the time I’m writing this, he’s directed 109 movies. His most famous and celebrated is undoubtedly the 1986 cult classic Chopping Mall. The rest of his filmography is largely made up of softcore porn films that aired late at night on Cinemax and Showtime, as well as Syfy schlockfests such as this one. It is exactly what the title suggests. No more, no less. If the title intrigues you, I imagine you’ll be entertained. There is definitely a virtue in that.
There are several more movies along these lines, maybe the most notable of which is 2010’s Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus. While not as infamous as the previous year’s Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, which became a viral sensation due to the hilarious scene in which the Mega Shark jumps out of the water and attacks an airplane mid-flight, it’s a worthy successor for fans of this trash-tastic series of films produced by The Asylum, perhaps the foremost studio in modern-day Z-movies. The problem with these movies as they pertain to the subject of this article (they have many other problems, to be sure) is that they venture into the territory of prehistoric, dinosaur-sized crocs and gators, which isn’t really what I’m trying to cover here. I was trying to stick more to actual alligators and crocodiles, albeit many of them of a larger size than they would be in real life. But not the size of a fucking building. I mean, come on. There’s also a giant mutant crocodile monster in the 2018 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle Rampage, but I hardly count that as part of this genre.
So there you have it, a not quite comprehensive but hopefully satisfying rundown of this oft-neglected subgenre of natural horror. Gatorcrocsploitation (which I admit, does not have a ring to it) will never catch on to the extent that sharksploitation has, and I get it. People have more of a primal fear of sharks (for whatever reason). There’s probably more fun to be had in a beach or ocean setting than there is in a swamp or lake. There’s no movie in which a giant crocodile or alligator jumps out of water and grabs an airplane to the mild surprise of the passengers onboard. Sharks have objectively been treated as the cooler, more vicious, and more versatile predator in cinema. But if this article serves any purpose (and that’s certainly up for debate), I hope it’s that even if it’s a lesser genre than sharksploitation, gatorcrocsploitation deserves at least some love too.
And probably a different name. You know what? Alligators are still part of the order Crocodilia, so even if the pedantic people want to be like “you can’t call it crocsploitation if you’re including alligators” (you know who you are), we can call it crocsploitation anyway and just tell them it’s named for the ORDER Crocodilia, which includes both crocodiles and alligators. Zoology, motherfucker.
Crocsploitation. It’s settled.
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