Sci-Fi Dystopia Theater: Z.P.G. (1971)

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I adore this period of early 1970’s studio film-making, when executives greenlit any number of oddball, unique, almost experimental motion pictures that usually ended up unreleased like Warner Brother’s THE PHYNX (1970) or barely released like Paramount’s Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) from 1971. As Alvin Toffler’s prophetic book “Future Shock” resonated through the culture, a dome-load of cinematic science fiction cautionary tales inevitably followed to reflect the concerns over science and environmental progress or regress. The late 60’s sci-fi templates like PLANET OF THE APES and 2001: A SPACE ODYESSY gave way to bleaker films like NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970); THX-1138 (1971); THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971); SILENT RUNNING (1971); SOYLENT GREEN (1973); THE CRAZIES (1973); and many more, each one prophecizing a brand of scientific-ecological doom and gloom. The films often suffered from equating insight with pessimism, but there’s no doubt the impulse to critique these issues stemmed from genuine concerns that are resonant today.

scg041009_1952_27Z.P.G. is one such eco-dystopian film that slipped through the cracks of movie time, starring Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin as future inhabitants of a smog blanketed, very 70’s sci-fi landscape, replete with flying ships parroting government propaganda and a “statemuseum” devoted to obsolete things like cats, dogs, plants, gasoline pumps and a typical swingers dinner. The film could be seen as a lo-tech prelude to BRAZIL or BLADE RUNNER, except that instead of animals being illegal…babies are now outlawed due to dangerous over-population. Maestro Derek Meddings did the nifty model spfx, but the low budget film is not focused on excessive effects or design (though I love the plastic smog masks). In tone it’s also similar to LOGAN’S RUN (1976), but with less action and spectacle. The issues here are so far removed from the pro-choice issue that I don’t find the story to have any religious bent, just one borne of technological depersonalization, the theme of Toffler’s book.

scg041009_1954_161The screenplay by Frank DeFellita (THE ENTITY)  and Max Erlich (STAR TREK) is more interior and metaphysical as would-be parents have the option of visiting “Babyland” and choosing a creepy animatronic plastic child that speaks and gets sick. Of course, while Russ (Oliver Reed) forces himself to accept the world, his wife Carol (Geraldine Chaplin) can no longer handle their antiseptic sterilization and rebels by not doing away with the embryo in the bathroom abort machine…Russ goes along with this most serious future crime, penalized by death via a dome that suffocates the family in 12 hours (why such a complicated system is needed is not explained). Once their neighbors (Diane Cilento and Don Gordon) find out that Carol has a baby, they blackmail her into sharing until they decide they want the child. Metaphysical drama ensues.

zpg-flyer-1Directed with uneven panache and sincerity by Michael Campus, who incongruously followed this with the blaxploitation classic THE MACK (1974), Z.P.G. has a hypnotic rhythm to its zeitgeist, and has the cold feel of British science fiction combined with very 70’s malaise; you’re not sure if this story is going to end with a cruel twist or ambiguous fate. Like any film of this period, there are always one or two great scenes. Such as the lovely moment when Carol fantasizes about having a baby, represented by the room circling her in past childhood memories. Sometimes Campus lays it on thick, especially a scene with a desperate citizen stealing their precious vegetables and the staging of angry extras is fairly lame — I’m not sure what to make of their angry repeated chants when they discover an illegal child: “Baby!”

Still, the main cast is very good. Geraldine Chaplin is convincingly intent and intense as Carol, almost to the point of disturbed obssession. Oliver Reed at the incline of his career is strong and effective, showing his humanity when he feels he can. He’s a hypnotic, fascinating actor. And I’ve always liked Don Gordon; he has his best large role here. Diane Cilento is apropos slinky and creepy as she plots to covet Carol’s child. There are some nice bits from familiar English faces as totalitarian figures. Minus the effects, this could almost be a BBC chamber play.

scg041009_2109_59Z.P.G. was lost in the shuffle of film distribution as studio heads and executives were on a rotating schedule at that transitional period. This is good for us fringe cine-philes as a slew of interesting films were produced that otherwise might not have been, the bad thing is waiting for these oddities to be released on DVD, which is why Legend Films should be applauded for pulling this out of Paramount’s vast vault for a proper widescreen edition. It’s too bad there aren’t any extras, not even a trailer, but it’s good to at least finally see this film I’ve been reading about since FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND…For devotees of 70’s futuristic dystopias, Z.P.G. is required viewing and a reminder of a more subtle cinematic era. “Baby!”

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4 Responses to “Sci-Fi Dystopia Theater: Z.P.G. (1971)”

  1. notscarenews Says:

    I have to make it public. It’s suppose to be secret, however most people in Austin, Tx knows about it. The police department has machine that can read your mind. A machine that can read someone’s mind will be used to violate EVERYONE’S CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS!!! It can also change the way you feel. Sexual impulses, anger, and paranoia are all feelings they can induce to you at their fingertips. This means it can cause a girl or boy to feel sexual, and get raped thinking they wanted to. Its like a drug. This is just one of the many crimes they commit with this machine RIGHT NOW!!!! They are using it right now to spy on their citizens RIGHT NOW!!! People will be spied on in there homes, without a warrant. (this means someone will be able to watch you during sex without your knowledge.) There are a lot of people all over the United States knowing about this machine. The police department is able to use it to spy on people in their own home. During interrogation they keep a person dazed, confused and not sound of mind to cohersed them into making certain statements. This is a violation of these people’s constitutional rights. Start thinking about how the government has given the police department a weapon to commit not only one of the biggest civil and constitutional rights violations of all time, but to commit war crimes such as rape, brainwashing, and toturing people without the victim’s knowledge. I know it is hard to believe, however if you happen to know someone in the police department who cares for you enough, just ask if they have a machine that can read and control people’s mind. After that, I would also like people to think about how we are able to get the government to stop letting the police department violate the people’s civil and constitutional rights, and committing war crimes against there own citizens. Major media companies have knowledge of this, but are not willing to broadcast it. People need to find out and talk about this issue.

  2. christian Says:

    Well, I guess you came to the right post…

    • Steve Freelance Says:

      Dear Christian,

      I’m a fan of the Warren mags myself & was curious when you wrote you had “been reading about {ZPG} since FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND”. It would be great to know what issue before I go on eBay searching for it!

      • christian Says:

        Z.P.G. only warranted a mention in one of FM’s “Coming Soon” pieces, but it was mentioned in other genre mags of the period. Just another film that slipped through the cracks of time….until now!

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