1979’s Alien is one of the scariest movies of all time, and one scene in particular has traumatised generations of viewers: when the monstrous Xenomorph makes its first appearance in infant form, bursting from the chest of John Hurt’s Kane. Such scenes – showing the monster’s ‘birth’ after it’s gestated inside a human host – have become so much of an Alien franchise staple it’s easy to forget how shocking and unexpected it was in the original movie.
The intensity of the 1979 birth scene isn’t just down to the impressively gruesome practical effects, but also from the shock we see on the characters’ faces. If the stunned reactions of the Alien actors seem genuine, it’s because none of them other than John Hurt knew that director Ridley Scott was planning to surprise them all with the blood-spraying ‘Chestburster’.
Origins of the Chestburster
Alien was only the second feature film from Ridley Scott. The British director was keen to make a big impression on audiences, and he recognised the potential for serious shocks in the scene when the pivotal monster makes its first appearance.
Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon suffered Crohn’s disease, and credited this as the inspiration behind the Chestburster: according to author Jason Zinoman, O’Bannon told him “The digestion process felt like something bubbling inside of him struggling to get out.”
Even so, O’Bannon’s screenplay hadn’t provided a great deal of detail about the Alien’s ‘birth’: according to Sigourney Weaver, “All it said in the script was, ‘This thing emerges.'”
Nor was Alien’s director keen to enlighten the cast further, as Scott says he “kept it very much from the actors… I never wanted them to see [the baby alien]. Remember there was no digital effects in those days at all. I’m going to somehow bring that creature out of his chest.”
The filmmakers decided on a tactile approach. Scott explains, “we had an artificial chest screwed to the table. John [Hurt] was underneath: it was an illusion his neck was attached to the body.” When it came to the viscera required, the blood (and of course the alien itself) were pretty much the only things that were fake: “Prosthetics in those days weren’t that good. I figured the best thing to do was to get stuff from a butcher’s shop and a fishmonger… You can’t make better stuff than that – it’s organic.”
Art director Roger Christian complied with Scott’s wishes: “I sent one of the team to the local abattoir to fetch a bag full of bloody animal innards… liver, intestines, kidneys, and lungs – whatever organs they could find. This was washed so that it was sanitary, but still smelt. It was sanitised in formaldehyde, which in itself smelt bad, making the set smell like an operating theatre.”
As he was vital to the makeup effect, John Hurt was by necessity aware of what would happen in the scene, but his co-stars were deliberately kept in the dark. However, as soon as they were called to the set, Hurt’s fellow actors began to get an inkling of what awaited them.
Parker actor Yaphet Kotto (who passed away in 2021) reflected in 2009, “We were all wondering what the hell was going on. Why is the crew looking at us the way they’re looking at us right now? Why are they wearing plastic shields?”
“Sigourney looked really scared”
Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) remembers things similarly. “The whole set is in a big plastic bag and everybody is wearing raingear and there are huge buckets around. The formaldehyde smell automatically made you queasy. And John is lying there.” Sigourney Weaver concurs: “Everyone was wearing raincoats – we should have been a little suspicious. And, oh God, the smell. It was just awful.”
Executive producer Ronald Shusett was present, and picked up on the genuine tension. “Nobody said a word, but Sigourney looked really scared. I said, ‘You’re really getting into character.’ She said, ‘No, I have a feeling I’m going to be pretty repulsed right now.'”
In order to capture the moment of the creature’s grisly emergence in a single take, Scott had four cameras shooting simultaneously, capturing both Hurt himself in close-up, and the faces of all the other actors – and when the explosive moment came and the alien emerged, the filmmakers got the reaction they were looking for.
Veronica Cartwright recalls, “I tell you, none of us expected it.” Cartwright got it particularly rough because – at Scott’s own instruction – one of the jets of fake blood had been aimed directly at the actress, and struck her full force in the face. Roger Christian recalls the actress “screamed in shock, recoiled back against the set, and dropped to the floor out of the shot… This was a real reaction from Veronica, a true moment of method acting, as she was beyond playing the character – she was in distress.”
While Scott had naturally hoped this moment would be as startling for the audience as it was for the cast, he feared he might have overdone it when he first saw the film with an audience. “I realised [then] how pretty scary the film was… I felt a sense of responsibility, of had I gone too far, because [the reaction] was extreme.”
Even if he had gone a bit far, Scott’s approach paid off. Although critics weren’t unanimous in their praise of Alien back in 1979, it was quickly hailed as one of the most terrifying films ever made, with the Chestburster proving a particular talking point. The scene even impressed film legend Stanley Kubrick, who called Scott to ask how he had achieved the effect.
Alien was a big box office hit, and its success boosted the careers of all its actors, Weaver in particular, while establishing Scott as one of the hottest directors around (he would follow Alien with a second sci-fi classic, 1982’s Blade Runner). Alien also became a long-running franchise beginning with 1986’s Aliens, and Scott would return to the series with 2012’s Prometheus and 2017’s Alien: Covenant.
Parodies and homages
John Hurt, meanwhile, wound up one of the most highly regarded British actors of his generation. He was a two-time Oscar nominee for 1978’s Midnight Express and 1980’s The Elephant Man, and built an impressive resume of 213 screen credits, before sadly passing away from pancreatic cancer in January 2017, mere days after turning 77.
Through it all, the Chestburster scene never left Hurt. The scene became embedded in the popular consciousness, and has been immortalised in the form of plushy dolls, Halloween costumes and all manner of parodies. Tongue-in-cheek reenactments of the iconic scene have popped up in TV’s The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Muppets and Archer, plus such movies as Despicable Me 2, Shrek 2 and many more.
Perhaps the most famous chestburster parody, however, appears in Mel Brooks’ 1987 sci-fi spoof Spaceballs. Having produced The Elephant Man, Brooks was able to persuade John Hurt himself to appear in the scene – and when the tiny alien emerges through his T-shirt (this time with no blood), Hurt laments, “oh no, not again!”