Name: Vermithrax Pejorative
From: Dragonslayer (1981)
Classification: A malevolent dragoness of ’80s cinema.
Vermithrax is the 400 year old dragon that is the antagonist of the 1981 Walt Disney film Dragonslayer. Translated from Latin, her name means “The Wyrm of Thrace that makes things Worse”. Once her homeland, Vermithrax fled Thrace after humans there wiped out the deer herds she fed on and nearly exterminated her kind. She migrated to Urland, where King Gaiseric Ulfilas attempted to kill her. He was never seen alive again and, in retaliation, Vermithrax attacked Urland until she was placated by Gaiseric’s younger brother Casiodorus, who offered her virgin sacrifices through a lottery twice a year in exchange for peace. During this time, she was impregnated by a wandering dragon, resulting in the birth of three Dragonets.
Rumors soon began swirling that the noble families were keeping their daughters names out of the lottery and only offering up the common townsfolk’s daughters to Vermithrax. To help rid the countryside of its Dragon blight a group was sent to find the last wizard alive, Ulrich, to destroy the Dragon.
While on the journey back to Urland, Ulrich is murdered by a member of the adventuring party named Tyrian. A brash man, Tyrian thought that only a sword and a skilled warrior such as himself could bring down the mighty Vermithrax and magic was nothing more than parlor tricks and slight of hand. In an effort to prove the arrogant fighter wrong, Ulrich offered himself as proof that magic exists…at the tip of a dagger. Saying that the dagger was enchanted and that he was so powerful, Ulrich bet Tyrian that he could not die by being stabbed in the heart. Sadly, he was wrong and the chore of stopping the deadly dragon fell on Ulrich’s apprentice Galen.
Ulrich’s ashes were given to Galen with the instructions to scatter them over a lake on fire. Along with the ashes and Ulrich’s magic crystal necklace, Galen continues the trip to Urland.
Upon arriving at Urland Galen quickly gets to work and uses the magic necklace to bring down part of the mountain that houses Vermithrax’s lair. Thinking the dragon was now buried and trapped in her lair the town celebrated. The celebration soon ended when Vermithrax attacked the town in an act of revenge. To appease the now marauding dragon the town quickly holds another lottery to choose a virgin.
In an act of due fairness, Casiodorus’s daughter Elspeth rigged the lottery so that she would be chosen for sacrifice. Despite the king’s eagerness for a do over, she was readied to be sacrificed, and Galen, now armed with the enchanted spear sicarius draconum and a shield fashioned from Vermithrax’s scales, was ready to fight the dragon and save the princess.
Arriving at the mouth of Vermithrax’s lair, Galen finds the princesses empty shackles and a waiting Tyrian. Wanting to rescue Elspeth himself, Tyrian tries to attack Galen and the two fight until Tyrian is bested by Galen’s spear. Quickly Galen goes into the dragon’s lair and soon finds out that he is too late to save Elspeth as he finds her body being feasted on by three young Dragonets. Galen slays the Dragonets and journeys deeper into the lair.
Galen is soon greeted by Vermithrax as she rises from a fiery lake. Galen jumps onto her neck and begins to stab at her with his spear, only to have the spear break off into her neck and be flung to the side.
He quickly hides behind his shield as she unleashes a deadly torrent of fire from her mouth.
Galen barely escapes Vermithrax and her deadly attack. In pursuit of Galen through the tunnels of her lair, Vermithrax happens upon the remains of her children and soon takes flight and attacks the town with a fury never seen before.
Remembering his masters ashes, Galen scatters them into the fiery lake and the wizard is resurrected. Knowing he was too old to make the journey to Urland he allowed himself to be killed and would be awaken again to fight the evil dragon.
In a climatic battle, Ulrich and Vermithrax face each other in combat. Magic versus talon, spells versus fire, the tide of battle soon goes in favor of Vermithrax as she grabs Ulrich in her taloned hand and flies off. But soon Ulrich makes the ultimate sacrifice (again?) and calls down a deadly bolt of lightning that destroys Vermithrax and himself.
The town and country side are saved but sadly at the cost of one of the last dragons and the last wizard. In an uplifting end that says “everything will be ok” it also has the somber undertone of saying that magic is gone from Earth.
But for fun I like to think that Reign of Fire is the sequel and the dragons get revenge.
It is truly amazing that after 36 years there has been very few dragons in movies that have come close to Vermithrax. I tackled the subject myself last year and it was hard to find 5 dragons to populate my list that left me in as much awe as Vermithrax.
I was five years old when Dragonslayer came out and it coupled with Star Wars and Clash of the Titans started me down the road to the dork I am today. I remember renting the tape a countless amount of times and in my mind Galen was on par with Luke as far as heroes went. Back then the Force was just a form of magic and a magic spear was just as awesome as a lightsaber. I also remember having the comic book adaptation of the film by Marvel Comics and I poured over each page lovingly.
It is said that 25% of the films budget went right into Vermithrax herself. In a true labor of love she was made from three key elements full sized models, puppets, and miniature models. In two months the special effects team built a sixteen-foot head and neck assembly, a twenty-foot tail, thighs and legs, claws capable of grabbing a man, and a 30 feet wing section, essentially building a full sized dragon.
There was a dragon head sculpted and operated and used for close-up shots. The model was animated by a combination of radio controls, cable controls, air bladders, levers and by hand, thus giving the illusion of a fully coordinated face with a wide range of expression
A model was made for the scenes in which the dragon would be required to walk. The standard stop motion animation techniques didn’t want to be used so the special effect team a dragon model which would move during each exposure rather than in between as was once the standard. This process, named “go motion” recorded the creature’s movements in motion as a real animal would move, and removed the jerkiness common in prior stop motion films.
For the flying scenes. A model with an articulated aluminium skeleton was made to give it a wide range of motion. Films of birds flying were shot in order to incorporate their movements into the model. As with the walking dragon, the flying model was filmed using go-motion techniques. The camera was programmed to tilt and move at various angles in order to convey the sensation of flight.
All of the post film special effects were done by Industrial Light & Magic and took 8 months. This along with other great Sci-Fi and Fantasy films at the time all required a sense of love, art, and magic that is rarely seen anymore. Sadly the movie didn’t fair to well in theaters when it came out and it is rarely even mentioned as a Disney movie…or sadder yet, hardly mentioned at all.