Rambaldi’s job was to take the fantastical visions of others and find a way to bring them to life, and at this he was a virtuoso. His depictions of mutilated dogs for the Italian film A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) were so convincing that they landed director Lucio Fulci in court on charges of animal cruelty. Fulci was saved from two years in prison when Rambaldi demonstrated his animatronic creatures in court, showing that no animals had been harmed.
While Rambaldi made his reputation in the blood-soaked horror films of Italian directors like Fulci and Dario Argento, his masterpiece was the title character for E.T. After director Steven Spielberg spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an earlier prototype that never measured up, Spielberg turned to Rambaldi. Rambaldi worked between 15- and 20-hour days to finish the creature, which—in its various incarnations—was capable of over a hundred different movements.
Artists are often thought to live on in their creations, but this may be almost literally true with Rambaldi. Rambaldi created the alien creatures for David Lynch’s Dune, and in a later interview Lynch said that he thought that he could see Rambaldi—not just his sensibility, but his likeness—in his creations:
I have a theory about Carlo Rambaldi: He always builds himself. And so, somehow, the Navigator looks to me a bit like Carlo Rambaldi. And E.T. looks exactly like Carlo Rambaldi!While Rambaldi certainly also looked outside himself for his designs—Spielberg suggested that the alien’s face should be a combination of a newborn baby and the eyes of Albert Einstein, while its butt should waddle like Donald Duck’s—but looking at the two together I can’t help but see a resemblance. Similarly, while no one would want to be compared to one of Rambaldi’s gassy, spongy Navigators, Lynch may have been onto something.
Regardless, there’s no better way to remember Rambaldi than by watching the magic of his creations. Rambaldi himself even said that, no matter how aware he was of the strings that pulled his puppets, the illusions still moved him. Speaking of E.T., he said, “When I finally saw the finished movie, even I cried a little.”
By Forrest Wickman