Ridley Scott’s terrifying 1979 science-fiction horror film Alien made over $100 million on a budget of only $11 million and as of 2021 had led to seven sequels, a few of them crossovers with the Predator series. The movie almost never got made at all due to the studio’s disinterest at financing a science-fiction film—that is, until the breakaway success of the first Star Wars film in 1977. Alien went on to become one of the most influential science-fiction films of all time. Film critic Phil Pirrello described it as “a movie so influential that it’s hard to think of a time before Alien.”
The notion of a predatory monster unexpectedly showing up on a spaceship has proved to inspire such lasting dread in audiences that Entertainment Weekly selected Alien as the third-scariest film of all time.
Here are 50 tidbits about the film—its conception, production, and lasting influence—that you may not have known.
1. According to actor Tom Skerritt, a theater owner in Texas told him that the chest-bursting scene led to so many patrons vomiting in the theater’s washrooms that he entirely cut it out. Fewer people vomited in the washrooms, but many theatergoers were probably baffled about the resulting lack of continuity in the film.
2. Ash’s decapitation scene reportedly caused a theater usher in London to faint.
3. Actor Yaphet Kotto was so traumatized by the chest-burster scene that he locked himself in a room and didn’t talk to his wife for half a day.
4. After the second screening of the film, 20th Century Fox President Allan Ladd Jr.’s wife was so terrified, she stayed cooped-up inside her house for more than a day.
5. At early viewings of Alien, some moviegoers were so terrified that many people in the first row requested to be moved further away from the screen.
6. At one movie premiere, religious fanatics set fire to a model of the Alien, claiming it was demonic.
7. After Alien became a hit, famed film critic Pauline Kael described why audiences loved it: “It reached out, grabbed you, and squeezed your stomach; it was more gripping than entertaining, but a lot of people didn’t mind. They thought it was terrific, because at least they’d felt something: they’d been brutalized.”
Special Effects Secrets
8. The blue laser lights seen in the egg chamber of the alien ship were borrowed from British rock band The Who, who had been practicing their light show for an upcoming tour at an adjacent soundstage.
9. The tendons in the jaws of the beast were created from shredded condoms.
10. Cast members were only given vague hints about what was going to happen in the infamous chest-burster scene. They didn’t realize that real animal blood and guts were going to be used, which is what led to the genuine look of shock on Veronica Cartwright’s face when she gets splattered with blood.
11. The newborn alien’s screech was recorded by animal impersonator Percy Edwards, who got the sound right on the first take.
12. For the closeup of Ash’s guts, the special-effects team used milk, pasta, and glass marbles.
13. The slimy substance you see on the alien was the sexual lubricant K-Y jelly.
14. As the credits are playing at the end of the movie, you can hear a pod opening if you turn up the volume.
15. 20th Century Fox was originally not very excited about the Alien project. This all changed when the first Star Wars film became a global blockbuster in 1977.
16. One of the films that influenced Alien was the 1974 independent hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Some have described Alien as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but in space.”
17. Alien is completely dialogue-free during the first six minutes.
18. The film takes place in the year 2037, which can be briefly glimpsed on a computer screen in the scene where Ripley and Dallas access Mother.
19. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon originally titled his script Memory before changing it to Star Beast. Then, realizing how often the word “alien” cropped up in the script, he changed the title to Alien.
20. In one scene, Ash refers to the Alien as “a perfect killing machine.” This is reminiscent of a scene in Jaws where Matt Hooper describes the shark as “the perfect engine, an eating machine.”
21. The film’s original cut was so mercilessly gory that test audiences were repelled. Fearing an “X” rating due to violence, director Ridley Scott toned down some of the gore.
22. The opening credits were originally going to be rendered as scraps of flesh and bone, but the producers felt this was too graphic.
23. Artist H.R. Giger originally based his design for the chest-burster on Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.” In Bacon’s work, the creatures are based on the Greek Furies but resemble phallic birds.
24. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and artist H.R. Giger were deeply inspired by the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, especially his descriptions of the Cthulhu monster, in imagining what the Alien looked like.
25. The spacesuits that many of the lead characters wore provided no external ventilation, which often caused cast members to pass out under hot studio temperatures that often soared above 100 degrees. Producers kept a nurse on set to provide actors with oxygen. This continued until director Ridley Scott’s children passed out while wearing the suits, at which point alterations were made that allowed actors to breathe more comfortably.
26. The vapor you see emerging from inside the actors’ helmets was aerosol being sprayed from inside the helmets. At one point, a mechanism malfunctioned and began spraying inside the helmet.
27. A lot of the dialogue was improvised and not in the original screenplay.
28. Ridley Scott says that the film’s original cut was the perfect version. The 2003 “Director’s Cut” consisted of unseen footage that fans had demanded to see. Much of the footage emerged after 100 boxes of unused clips were found in a vault in London.
29. The spaceship was originally named Snark. It was then changed to Leviathan until producers finally settled on Nostromo, which is also the name of a Joseph Conrad novel.
30. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon got the idea of the Alien laying eggs in the chest of its host from spider wasps, who were thought to lay their eggs “in the abdomen of spiders.” He was technically incorrect; spider wasps merely lay eggs on their pray rather than inside them. Wasps who actually lay eggs inside their hosts include braconid and ichneumon wasps.
31. Scenes that were filmed but not included in the original cut include one where Ripley chances upon Brett and Dallas in cocoons; one where Brett’s corpse has maggots crawling all over it; and one where Ripley obliges Dallas’s request to kill him by torching him with a flamethrower.
32. Scenes that had been planned but not filmed included one where Dallas gets killed in a giant upside-down “wind tunnel” and a sex scene between Dallas and Ripley.
33. The face-hugger and Xenomorph monsters only appear in the film for a total of four minutes. Ridley Scott did this on purpose to intensify the moments in which they actually appear.
34. The cat named Jones was actually played by four different felines.
35. Regarding the plausibility of the scene where Ripley heads back into danger to rescue her cat Jones, director Ridley Scott said, “Would I go back for my dogs? Absolutely.”
36. To heighten the feeling of impending doom for the actors, Ridley Scott had crew members push in the set walls a little bit more each day without informing them.
37. Although rated R, Alien was the first movie with such an adult rating to have a tie-in series of children’s toys.
38. When artist H.R. Giger first rendered the egg, it had a single long slit on it. The head of the art department immediately laughed, thinking it resembled a vagina. Giger then added another slit to crisscross the original slit, and the new design was approved.
39. Producers’ first choice to direct Alien was Robert Altman. Ridley Scott, who wound up directing, was their fifth choice.
40. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon scripted the scene with the Alien bursting from a stomach because he had gastrointestinal problems.
41. The Alien is never called “Alien” nor “Xenomorph” nor even a “monster” in the film. Instead, it is merely referred to as “it.”
42. Ridley Scott originally intended Sigourney Weaver’s character to be nude in the shuttle scene to portray her as more vulnerable. He also wanted to depict the Alien as being sexually aroused by Weaver’s character. These ideas were scrapped.
43. Sigourney Weaver won out over other actresses such as Meryl Streep and Kay Lenz for the role of Ripley.
44. The film’s famous tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream” was written by actress and copywriter Barbara Gips.
45. One professional reader hired by producers to review the script described Alien as “It’s like Jaws, but in space.”
46. In nine countries (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Portugal, and France), Alien was titled Alien: The Eighth Passenger. In West Germany, it was called Alien: The Uncanny Creature From a Strange World. In Hungary, it was called The Eighth Passenger Is Death. In Israel, it was called The Eighth Passenger in Hebrew.
47. In Mel Brooks’s sci-fi parody Spaceballs, John Hurt from Alien stars in a scene where another monster bursts from his chest, leading him to say, “Oh, no, not again!”
48. Alien and its sequel Aliens were the inspiration for the video game Metroid, which features a female character named Samus Aran which is based on Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley. The alien villain is named Ridley as an homage to director Ridley Scott.
49. In 2019, the North Bergen, NJ high school drama club, who had previously performed a theatrical version of Night of the Living Dead, presented a staged version of Alien.
50. The National Film Preservation Board of the United States deemed Alien to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” in 2002.