The Bizarre History of Dinosaur Movies (And Why We’ll Always Want More)

By  · Published on June 12th, 2015

When Dinosaurs Ruled

Universal Pictures

There simply aren’t enough dinosaur movies. Even with Jurassic World in theaters right now (and Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur just a few months away), I still feel like we’re owed at least three or four more by next week. Like there’s some gnawing hole in the world that won’t be satisfied until the coolness factor of your average dinosaur (extremely high) matches with the amount of enthusiasm Hollywood has for crafting high-quality dinosaur films (middling at best).

It hurts. And if you’re a fan of really big extinct lizards, you’re probably hurting too (especially given the state of the last few dinosaur flicks to hit theaters – Land of the Lost, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie. Come on, people). So let’s do a little walkthrough of dinosaur movie history, with two goals in mind:

1. Figure out why those who love dinosaur movies will never be satisfied with what they have.

2. Offer up a few dinosaur movies you might not be familiar with. Maybe they’ll satisfy that craving, at least for an hour or two.

Our story begins in the prehistoric marshes of 1914…

Brute Force (1914)

The first dinosaur movie ever was Prehistoric Peeps (an adaptation of a dinosaur comic, also titled Prehistoric Peeps), in 1905. But Prehistoric Peeps fell behind a bookcase at some point and is now lost to history (this much we know: according to IMDB, the dinosaur effects were achieved with “simple pantomime costumes”). Then Gertie the Dinosaur, in 1914. Gertie’s far more famous (also, adorable), and she has the honor of being history’s first dinosaur cartoon, a marvel of animation, and very capable on the dance floor (if you’ve never seen Gertie the Dinosaur, it’s super cute, five minutes long and available on YouTube. Here you go).

But the real dino-imagineering marvel is D.W. Griffith’s Brute Force. Brute Force debuted just two months after Gertie did, but Brute Force is live-action, and it contains the mosquito-in-amber origins of every dinosaur special effect to be implemented for the next 60 years.

There’s not much in the way of story: Harry Falkner’s out with his best girl Priscilla, but she leaves the party with another guy. “Oh, for the good old days of brute force and marriage by capture!” Harry’s title card grumbles (just like Birth of a Nation, you can’t have a Griffith classic without a helping of early 20th century awfulness). What follows is 20-odd minutes of fairly standard caveman fantasy. But about six minutes in, a caveman and his sweetheart are beset upon by this nightmare beast:

Brute Force 1

An alligator with two pairs of jumbo bat wings, body armor and crest built from what looks like wrist-thick pipe cleaners. A “dinosaur,” in the loosest possible sense of the word. But much more impressive is the fellow who appears at the 7:30 mark: a stop-motion Ceratosaurus (according to Brute Force, “one of the perils of prehistoric apartment life”).

brute force 2

His body tilts up and down like a stiff wooden Drinking Bird and his mouth opens and closes with a range of about six inches. But Ceratosaurus is stop-motion. And he is glorious.

That’s it as far as Brute Force’s prehistoric fauna is concerned. But Brute Force was just the spark. The very next year, FX whiz Willis O’Brien was commissioned to make his very first film, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy. He followed with several more stop-motion dinosaur shorts. Then, two of the most enduring dinosaur films of the 20th century: The Lost World and King Kong.

(NSFW Warning: Dinosaur horn impalement)

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)

But after King Kong, dinosaurs were suddenly passé. Nearly 20 years would pass with only two movies worth mentioning: One Million B.C. and the prehistoric “Rite of Spring” segment from Fantasia. Then, science fiction entered the Atomic Age, and dinosaurs found a new foothold in Hollywood. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms hit in ’53 and Godzilla in ‘54- now, giant hungry beasts were in vogue and copycats were sprouting up everywhere. Fertile ground for dinosaur-related everything.

It was all schlock, of course (even films boasting Ray Harryhausen stop-motion still had dino-roping cowboys and Raquel Welch a in fur bikini). Among the very shlockiest is Planet of Dinosaurs, which limped into theaters in 1977- just as the ’50s dinosaur revival had dwindled to only the cheapest, stupidest films.

Planet of Dinosaurs is a thing of beauty. Terrible, awesome, point your laser cannon at the T-Rex and FIRE! beauty. Nearly the entire budget went to the effects, so a crop of totally generic actors play a spaceship crew that crash lands on a desolate planet… that conveniently resembles prehistoric Earth. Human and dinosaur savagely murder each other for two hours, in between gratuitous bikini shots.

Just take a look at the scene above, as two characters examine a clutch of dinosaur eggs.

Harvey: Can you imagine what must have laid these? We’re looking at fried chicken for a month!

Nyla: Harvey, I don’t think a chicken laid these.

Harvey: Well, I’ll tell you something- it wasn’t a streetcar, baby!

Moments later, Harvey is gored and flung off a cliff by a rampaging Centrosaurus, because Planet of Dinosaurs is crappy ’70s perfection.

Prehistoric Beast (1984) / Dinosaur! (1985)

Historically, you know what comes next. The Land Before Time triggers another few years of hardcore dino-mania in 1988, hitting its peak with Jurassic Park and a perfectly realistic T-Rex (which is still the case today- the further we scooch away from practical effects, the more lifelike that animatronic T-Rex head becomes).

We’d all like another hit of that sweet, sweet ’90s dinosaur vibe. And preferably, one that’s not as embarrassingly awful as Theodore Rex (unless that’s what you’re in the mood for). Luckily, there’s Prehistoric Beast, made by Phil Tippet years before dinosaur fever set in.

Prehistoric Beast, filmed entirely in Tippet’s garage, is ten minutes of the oldest dinosaur movie cliche out there: T-Rex vs Triceratops (actually a Monoclonius, but close enough). Monoclonius munches vegetation. Little glimpses of T-Rex peek out from between the trees. He’s watching. Salivating. The entire short’s an exercise in slow builds- we spend a good three minutes just watching Monoclonius eat salad. And when the face-off arrives, its far shorter (and considerably gloomier) than you’d expect.

Tippett’s dinosaurs were so spot-on that CBS asked him to flesh out Prehistoric Beast into an hour-long TV documentary. The final project, Dinosaur!, contained a bevy of new dinos, but only a few minutes of the Prehistoric Beast short. To see Prehistoric Beast in its entirety, click here.

Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs (2015)

There have been dozens of dinosaur films released in the past ten years. Seriously, dozens. Affordable CGI spread like a contagion, and Syfy, The Asylum and countless others have been churning out trashy dinosaur flicks ever since.

Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs is one such flick. I’ve never seen Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs (although after watching the trailer, I think I have to). But we’ve reached a point where there are so many dinosaur movies, shows and Walking With Dinosaurs-cloned TV documentaries that dinosaurs themselves don’t cut it. Today, a T-Rex needs a gimmick or he’ll blend into the crowd of fellow Rexes all waving their little claws for attention. So we get T-Rex with cowboys or T-Rex underwater (Poseidon Rex) or T-Rex in ancient Mexico (Aztec Rex).

This may be why the crowd hungry for dinosaur movies is never satisfied (also, I think it’s the general principle behind Jurassic World). Dinosaur movies exist in cycles. When they’re a hot fad, Hollywood churns out as much dino-fluff as it can, as quickly as it can, and the people hungry for dinosaurs end up with a lot of Theodore Rex. Not exactly satisfying stuff. Jurassic World might treat its dinosaurs with respect, but it’s the rare movie that does so among a thousand that don’t. When it’s through, how long will we wait before next serious-minded dinosaur movie? How long has it been since the last one? (King Kong, maybe? Even that was ten years ago). At least we have The Good Dinosaur coming just a few months later. For the rest of us, the only option is descending into the dino-fluff.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go inhale Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs like a junkie chasing a high.