The Roswell Alien Autopsy (1995)
In his latest Weird '90s column, Graham Williamson dissects the infamous 1995 Roswell alien autopsy film. Fake or fact? Welcome to Weird '90s...
The 1990s were a bad time for British horror cinema. The 1984 Video Recordings Act was still in effect, and distributors were aware that the UK was no longer a safe environment for horror. Domestic film-makers stayed well away – when a tabloid storm could envelop even low-budget obscurities like Visions of Ecstasy (UK, Nigel Wingrove, 1989) and Boy Meets Girl (UK, Ray Brady, 1994), the odds against a British horror movie becoming an international success seemed astronomical.
And yet the Weird ’90s, the obsession with the transgressive, the underground and the surreal that typifies a whole strain of the decade’s culture, could not be denied. The most widely-seen British horror film of the decade was a plotless, low-budget, graphic depiction of an autopsy, closer to the notorious Japanese Guinea Pig cycle (1985-1991) than anything Hammer Studios produced. Had it been released as a movie, it would surely have incurred the wrath of the BBFC. Instead, it was released as documentary evidence of extraterrestrial life.
It is the Roswell alien autopsy film, which celebrated its silver jubilee last year and remains a potent enough icon of the decade to receive a nostalgic nod in Captain Marvel (US, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019). Like everything to do with the Roswell Incident – the 1947 crash of an unknown aircraft at Roswell, New Mexico, and the ensuing cover-up – the film’s provenance is a near-impenetrable web of claim and counter-claim. Last year, the British Ufologist Philip Mantle released a 600-page book on the matter,  and even he acknowledges there are still unanswered questions. What seems certain is that the film is a hoax, its promoter Ray Santilli was – despite his denials – in on it, and it was made in Camden.
In the rush to discover if the footage was real or not, and who made it, few have stopped to consider the alien autopsy film as cinema. As noted above, its plotless, gore-movie nature isolates it from any tradition of British horror. Some comparisons are possible – the scene where the alien’s corneas are peeled away recalls The Man Who Fell to Earth (UK, Nicolas Roeg, 1976), but that film’s deep sadness and complex, experimental narrative are nowhere to be seen.
The Roswell film is not meant to make you think, cry or even jump, it’s meant to make you believe that this is a real alien body being dissected. The footage was first presented to a mainstream British audience in 1995 as a special episode of Channel Four’s Secret History series (UK, 1991-), and even at this early stage, Santilli is forced to admit the camerawork is implausibly messy. Did nobody think to get a tripod to document this unprecedented, world-changing event?
The hand-held camera detracts from the film’s credibility, but it certainly makes it more unsettling. Whoever the cameraman was – Mantle has named Santilli’s associates Keith Bateman and Spyros Melaris as being behind various parts of the footage – they have a certain grindhouse sensibility, leaning in eagerly to the gore, then pulling back before the audience can get too close a look. When the time comes to open the creature’s stomach, the film stock flashes, flares and goes out of focus before viewers can recognise the alien innards as sheep brains in raspberry jam.
That last detail was volunteered by Santilli himself on a 2006 Sky One documentary  where he admitted, for the first time, that the film was a fake. He also claimed it was a reconstruction of a lost original, but few, if any, took this seriously. If anything illustrates the descent from the paranoid wonder of the 1990s to the banal cynicism of the 2000s, it was this: in 1995 Santilli was promising us evidence of extraterrestrial life. In 2006 he was admitting it was fake in order to promote a comedy film starring Ant and Dec. 
The fact that anyone considered this footage, with its bizarre concept and deeply evasive promoter, to be genuine is solely down to its technical quality. The alien body is a remarkable prop, albeit one that everyone is tellingly reluctant to move. The giveaways that the film is fake have nothing to do with the quality of the effects, period detail or film stock, all of which were immediately scrutinised and found to be convincing. The giveaway is what isn’t there: a sense of occasion. A body unique in the history of the world is chopped up by two people wearing basic Hazmat gear in (according to the clock on the wall) half an hour. They don’t even measure or weigh the internal organs.
People sometimes misremember the alien body as a laughably obvious phoney with visible seams and zippers, suggesting they may actually be recalling the spoof alien autopsy in The X-Files episode Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ (US, Rob Bowman, 1996). That scene concludes with an excellent joke as the shaky-handed videographer, dauntless when he thought he was filming alien guts, runs off to be sick as he realises he was looking at human guts.
A similar double standard seemed to be operating across the British media. Santilli’s story of sourcing offal to stand in for his alien innards reminds you of stories about H.G. Lewis and George A Romero struggling to make their own low-budget shockers – but their films were often subject to heavy censorship during the 1990s. Meanwhile, newspapers that would never print photos of a crime scene or a traffic accident were running gory stills of the disembowelling of an unknown life-form.
When I was trying to think of horror films comparable to the alien autopsy tape, the notorious necrophile short Aftermath (Spain, Nacho Cerdà, 1994) sprang to mind. The Roswell footage doesn’t go that far, but there is something uncomfortable about the dummy’s apparent femininity – the swollen, pregnant-looking belly, the visible shaven vulva. If this was a film by David Cronenberg or Claire Denis, we could compare it to similar transgressive imagery in their other films – but it’s hard to do an auteurist analysis when nobody’s sure who directed it.
Better to ask what it meant to us, and the world at large. I was twelve when Secret History broadcast the Santilli footage; I don’t remember if I thought it was real, but I vividly remember being very disturbed by the creature, with its blank, inhuman face and pulverised leg. I might have been able to dismiss it as merely gross if I saw it in a film, but I saw it on the news. There was a sense in the 1990s that the serious adult world was breaking down, admitting concepts and ideologies it had previously defined as irrational or unserious. It was a potent thing to see as you grew up.
The background to hauntology is the death of the postwar consensus, the end of a shared dream of a mass-produced, government-regulated future that now looks deeply uncanny in retrospect. The background to the Weird ’90s is Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, the belief that the Cold War was over and liberal capitalist democracy and rationalism had triumphed forever. Rather than creating a sense of peace and order, this created a strange sense of unreality. Files were being declassified, spies were spilling their secrets and a lot of things that had previously seemed certain turned out to be built on lies.
A persistent cloud of paranoia descended over the decade, and the revival of 1940s UFO conspiracies can be read as a safely apolitical pressure valve for that. Perhaps it always was. Books have been written  explaining how the American intelligence agencies were very active in the UFO scene, albeit not in the way people expected. Rather than concealing government knowledge of aliens, they were promoting conspiracy theories about that exact idea – presumably because the actual truth involved experimental military aircraft. Sure enough, when the fiftieth anniversary of the Roswell Incident came around in 1997, the US Air Force finally admitted that the crashed object was part of Project Mogul, a top-secret program that monitored Soviet weapons tests… and everybody laughed.
Why did we, like Fox Mulder, want to believe? The Secret History special offers no answers on this front, but it does show Roswell in the process of becoming a cornerstone of Weird ’90s culture. When director Tim Shawcross wants to show declassified footage of space program experiments, he flashes up the original warnings that preceded these filmstrips – “THIS FILM IS SECRET” – with a carnival-barker’s glee. The whole thing exhibits an outsider’s fascination with offbeat Americana, from Santilli’s claim that the military cameraman was so religious he refused to believe the creatures being dissected were aliens, to the big, wide-open desert landscapes that Weird ’90s media keeps coming back to. There is something about these landscapes – so lonely, so remote, so appropriately alien – that makes you believe incredible things happen here all the time.
For this reason, my favourite piece of media connected to the Roswell Incident is Bill Brown’s short Roswell (US, Brown, 1994), which uses time-lapse footage and the ultra-wide fish-eye lenses that were ubiquitous in the decade to chronicle the director’s trip to the titular town. Brown’s voiceover playfully transforms the Roswell legend into a meditation on time, loneliness and the American frontier. The Santilli film may have been debunked, but Brown’s film uses wit, originality and plenty of home-made charm to demonstrate why this story still fascinates.
 Mantle, Philip, Alien Autopsy: The Truth Behind the Film That Shook the World, Flying Disk Press, 2020
 Eamonn Investigates: The Alien Autopsy (UK, Keith Bunker and Isobel Williams, 2006)
 Alien Autopsy (UK, Jonny Campbell, 2006)
 Pilkington, Mark, Mirage Men, Constable & Robinson, 2010