Planet Zeta is supposed to become an important stepping stone for further interplanetary explorations for an entity called “Star Fleet” that surely has nothing at all to do with a different organisation called “Starfleet”. Alas, contact with the first preparatory mission on Zeta breaks off after a while, with no hints at what might have happened to the new, small outpost made out of cardboard and spit. The first rescue mission disappears without a trace too, as does the second one, and for mysterious reasons, regular contact with one’s rescue missions that might suggest what happens to them seems not to be Star Fleet’s modus operandi, which gets particularly interesting once the audience gets to experience how slow this film’s particular menace actually operates.
Because three is the magic number, Star Fleet – in form of a very concerned looking gentleman with a liking for coffee that suggests him for a guest spot in the coming revival of Twin Peaks – decides to send out a third rescue mission, this time the sort of special suicide mission whose elite volunteer team members get extra insurance and have to make their testaments before going out. Must be very reassuring.
Once our heroes – character names and such seem rather irrelevant here, but of course there’s a female rookie who will do a lot of screeching and panicking as well as a paranoid security man who will fail very hard, and a Hero – arrive at Outpost Zeta, they soon discover the sucked out corpses of most of their predecessors and of the initial base team. Would you believe aliens (and a humungous amount of human stupidity) are involved in the affair? Our heroes might investigate, but it’s nappy time first.
Some of my readers do perhaps have vague recollections of The Killings at Outpost Zeta’s directors, producers, etc. Robert “Bob” Emenegger and Allan Sandler as part of the fascinating mixture of bullshit, paranoia and authentic weirdness that is US UFO culture (have a semi-random link), and that has given me much joy over the years. However, apart from Fortean documentaries and such, the partners also cranked out about ten ultra cheap SF movies for the TV and/or early home video circuit during 1980 and 1981. These movies shared parts of their casts, their sets, and their props, with no set too barren and no prop too ridiculous looking to reuse, an approach to movie making Roger Corman and I approve of.
Not surprisingly, the futures of Outpost Zeta and its brethren are highly influenced by other low budget films, Star Trek and pulp SF, describing a time when all rooms will have a somewhat cardboard-like look to them, people will dress in the most peculiar uniforms, and a laser gun (a prop that’s used in all the Emenegger/Sandler films I’ve seen, because it is just that incredible) will be a red plastic tube with a glued on handle that begs the question why the producers didn’t just buy some toy guns for more believable looking weapons. Not cheap enough, I suppose. In other words, Outpost Zeta is a visual brother to things like the much beloved (by me) science fiction films of Alfonso Brescia (with whom they also share the recycling approach to material), though in the plot and idea department, Outpost Zeta never reaches the heights of lunacy – or lunatic metaphor – Brescia aimed for, instead arriving at more sane cardboard pulp Sci Fi. Formally, on the other hand…
If cheap sets, ridiculous costumes, and horrible to mediocre acting aren’t things to dissuade one from a film, one might find a lot to love about The Killings at Outpost Zeta, and not just the sheer power of its cheap sets, ridiculous costumes and horrible to mediocre acting. Emenegger’s and Sandler’s direction, for example, is a thing to behold, full of fisheye lenses, curious camera angles, alien-eye view shots that combine into a kind of garage-made psychedelia. This slightly fevered mood is even strengthened by performances that often seem to grasp wildly – and randomly – at pathos, or psychological turmoil, or DRAMA, and a wonderful/horrible, definitely wonderfully strange synth soundtrack by Emenegger himself. In space, it seems, things are very different.
While the form of Outpost Zeta suggests the 70s in its home made tendency to mild trippiness, its content would have found a place among the films of US horror/SF cinema of the 50s without a problem, having not a single idea that wouldn’t have fit in these simpler times.
Surprisingly enough, the film’s monsters even make sense -at least they are coherent in a pulp SF sort of way instead of developing random powers whenever the plot needs them. The script as a whole is unexpectedly well-paced, containing a lot of somewhat loopy ideas it still brings together coherently in so far as it does take care to establish the rules of its universe and then stick to them, developing the action – as far as it can afford anything that can be called action at all without having to show its monsters too often – logically from there. This makes for a pleasant sort of old-fashioned SF monster movie that just happens to be delivered in a delightfully strange form.
That is of course exactly how I like my low budget SF films, and consequently, I had a lot of fun with The Killings at Outpost Zeta. This surely won’t be the last time I’ll spend with an Emenegger/Sandler production.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?