The Original Predator Design Was Ridiculous – Here's How They Saved It

35 years ago, the original "Predator" hit theaters, kick-starting the long-running action horror franchise that's still cranking out new installments today. The movie introduced audiences to a species of extraterrestrial hunters called the Yautja, known most commonly as "the Predator." The massive creatures have a very distinctive look, which includes sharp mandibles, hair-like growths, and a hulking frame that's designed to kill.

As memorable as the Predator creature design is, the aliens didn't always look like the ones audiences are familiar with now. Like many genre classics, the original "Predator" movie featured an earlier version of the creature design that didn't end up on screen. Unlike most movies, though, the original Predator design is a legendary dud, a decidedly un-scary costume that various members of the cast and crew have in turn compared to a chicken, a rat, a lizard, and a duck.

The red chicken

Tales of the original Predator design go as far back as an early pitch meeting, which special effects designer Steve Johnson described in an interview with "The Monster Show." Johnson said that producer Joel Silver, director John McTiernan, and execs for 20th Century Fox were discussing the original idea for the Predator, and, "with great pomp and ceremony, McTiernan comes in and slams down a bunch of designs that have already been done by a production designer."

Johnson described the design as both "awful" and "ahead of its time," with reptile-like legs that bent backwards and an extended set of arms. "They wanted to shoot [with it] on the muddy slopes of Mexico, in the real jungles," Johnson said, "and it was virtually physically impossible to do." To make matters worse, the team actually needed two versions of the costume: one that was true to color and one that was bright red, to contrast with the green jungle for scenes in which the Predator's cloaking effect would be achieved through an optical trick.

In The Hollywood Reporter's oral history about the making of the film, assistant director Beau Marks explained that the team began shooting the movie in Mexico before they received the Predator costume. "Probably a couple weeks before we needed the Predator a box comes," Marks said, "And we open it up and it looks like a giant red rubber chicken." Marks wasn't impressed, and no one else was either. "It's pretty hard to have the most deadly alien from outer space coming to hunt man and it looks like a f***ing chicken unless you're doing a comedy," he told THR. Star Arnold Schwarzenegger put it more plainly in his autobiography "Total Recall," saying that the final product "looked like a guy in a lizard suit with the head of a duck."

A disastrous design

The suit, which can still be seen today in test footage, didn't last long. "We shot some tests with it and it became quite obvious that this was a disaster," Marks said. Up-and-coming action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme was cast as the original Predator, but was later replaced. Johnson described a fitting with the actor and martial artist in which Van Damme expressed disgust with the suit, saying, "I look like a superhero!" He also remarked that the actor didn't seem to realize he wouldn't be wearing the red version of the suit for the full shoot.

In addition to just looking goofy, some involved with the project say the first iteration of the costume was also not conducive to shooting conditions. Actor Bill Duke told THR that the summer humidity caused Van Damme to pass out several times on set, which ultimately led to his dismissal.

Although stories about the way the actor exited the project vary wildly, Van Damme spoke to THR's Heat Vision about "Predator" in 2019, describing what sounds like an utterly miserable situation involving being fit for the costume. "The put me on sticks...and they start to melt all the cast on me, you know? And it's boiling hot," he explained. Van Damme says the crew even covered his head with what sounds like hot plaster, initially ignoring his attempt to tap out with a pre-discussed signal when it got too overwhelming. He also says Silver asked him to jump in stilts, which he thought wouldn't work. "I was happy that I listened to my intuition," the actor said about leaving the project, calling the later version of the costume that Kevin Peter Hall would eventually don "more safe."

A better Predator

Despite all the flack it's caught in the years since "Predator" came out, behind-the-scenes photos of the non-red version of the original creature costume show that in terms of visual design, it's not actually that bad. With a flat, insect-like head and thinner frame, it looks more like the prawns from "District 9" than like a skilled hunter, but it's still a unique and visually striking design that's really not much sillier than the current iteration.

Yet according to pretty much everyone involved, audiences are lucky to have ended up with the version of the Predator they got, a version designed by legendary special effects artist Stan Winston. This predator seems to be more practical for the actors wearing it, plus it's not unintentionally funny like that so-called chicken suit was. Screenwriter Jim Thomas put it best in THR's oral history: "To see a guy in a red suit running around in the jungle when you have all of these guys in military garb and a minigun and everything, it's like, 'What is this?'" The answer: movie history in the making.