Z.P.G. Zero Population Growth (1971) dir. Michael Campus
Starring: Oliver Reed, Geraldine Chaplin, Diane Cilento and Don Borden
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
There is a particular and peculiar brand of bleakness that no decade before or since the 1970s managed to bring to the big screen in the genre of dystopian science fiction. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” (2006) comes very close and it’s perhaps the best contemporary example of a film that creates a world so mired in hopelessness that simple acts of humanity, while seeming to be extraordinarily noble, also feel utterly and resolutely futile. Cuaron’s picture also feels like a perfect companion piece to Michael Campus’s “Z.P.G.”, a forgotten (albeit flawed) minor gem from 1971 that has managed to sneak its way onto the DVD shelves via Legend Films ongoing series of neglected Paramount Pictures releases.
The major difference between the two (aside from obvious production value and budget) is that the central issue of population control in one is by decree whereas in the other, it is due to the forces of nature. In “Z.P.G.”, a world as polluted and ruled by martial law as in Cuaron’s film, people do want to have children, but are outlawed by Big Brother against doing so to keep the ever-increasing world numbers down.
The central characters Russ and Carol McNeil (Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin respectively) are a childless couple working as performers in a live museum installation piece devoted to presenting typical domestic situations from the past. They work opposite another couple, George and Edna Borden (Don Gordon and Diane Cilento). The scenarios these two couples engage in for the edification of museum goers reflect a past that was the swinging late-60s and as such, they present a tale of wife swapping which is meant to be as titillating as it is a morality play.
Both couples are childless, but within the world of Z.P.G., all couples are allowed to “adopt” cyber children. These are not the almost-human Haley Joel Osments of Spielberg’s “A.I.”, but are creepy, mannequin-like dolls. The Bordens are perfectly content with their doll-child, but the McNeils are unable to succumb to the status quo and are not only childless, but sans the aforementioned creepy doll-child. When the McNeils decide to have a real baby in secret, they risk their lives. Eerie scenes of pod-like citizens ratting out families with real babies have a strange power to disturb, but nothing is more disturbing in this movie than when the McNeils inadvertently let the Bordens in on their secret and the childless couple demands private face time with the real child.
Critics who dismiss it on the basis of the picture’s obvious script contrivances and the low budget production value have unfairly maligned “Z.P.G.”. It’s not a perfect picture by any means, but it also has a strange, obsessive quality. The stolid performances of both Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin are just the right pitch for their characters and Diane Cilento’s truly insane performance as the “Mrs. Perfect” side of the equation gets weirder and creepier as the movie progresses.
Director Michael Campus is an odd duck. His output has been almost non-existent since this film was made in 1972, yet he did direct two of the coolest blaxpoitation pictures of the 70s, “The Mack” and “The Education of Sonny Carson”. He’s no hack and obviously has both talent and taste.
The screenplay for “Z.P.G.” is often annoyingly full of convenient devices to keep the story moving, but for every one of these devices, the screenplay has a gem to match it in terms of downright kick-ass sci-fi cleverness and creepiness. Co-writers Frank DeFelita and Max Ehrlich were certainly no slouches as genre hacks. Separately and together they are responsible for such solid genre material as “Audrey Rose” and “The Entity” and the totally oddball George C. Scott directed incest potboiler “The Savage is Loose”.
At the end of the day, this feels like a movie that was made with compromises – not the sorts that are studio imposed, but rather, the kinds that are forced by an incredibly low budget. In spite of this, there is both a charm and effectiveness to the use of retro models and glass paintings and cold interiors to reflect the world of the movie.
“Z.P.G.” is a movie I have always wanted to see. It eluded me back in 1972 as it played for only one week at a strange little independent grindhouse on the opposite side of the city I grew up in. I’m glad I finally got the chance. It’s not great sci-fi, but it’s certainly both solid and thought provoking and like a lot of retro sci-fi it has a lot more similarities to our modern world than differences. This is especially cool.
“Z.P.G.” is currently available on the Legend Films DVD label devoted to a variety of Paramount Pictures releases that Paramount had no interest in distributing themselves.