The Killings At Outpost Zeta (1983)

‘As the situation develops on Zeta, we will adapt our behaviour to meet the situation.’

The authorities on Earth are keen to start the complete colonisation of a remote planet after the original survey team have been resident there for two years. However, communication with them is suddenly lost. Two rescue missions vanish, so a crack team of scientists and military personnel is assembled to investigate…

Low budget science-fiction and horror mash-up from the early days of video home rental. The co-producer-director team of Allan Sandler and Robert Emenegger also originated the story concept and followed it with more than half a dozen similar pictures over the next two years.

Commander Craig (Paul Comi) is not a happy man. The top brass is pushing for colonisation of the inhospitable but strategically important planet Zeta. The problem is that he’s lost contact with the pathfinder team preparing the way, and the two subsequent missions sent to find out why have also disappeared. So it’s time to put together a team of ‘the best of the best’ headed up by Commander Clark Young (Gordon De Vol). The scientific part of the team comprises ‘genius-level’ biologist Carol Sisko (Hildy Brooks), engineer Paul Gerry (James A Watson Jr), medical officer Linda Sands (Jacqueline Ray). Riding shotgun is security chief Sigmund Stewart (Stan Wojno) and his wingman, Gore Stadt (Jackson Brostwick).

Our heroes jet off into the great beyond and, considering the era and budgetary constraints, the SFX and miniatures are surprisingly acceptable. However, we run into our first problem when the crew reach Zeta. It arrives in the form of a signal beacon they discover in orbit. Not only do they take it intact onto their flight deck with no apparent decontamination protocols, both Watson Jr and Brostwick touch the ‘strange substance’ inside the canister to see what it might be, and no one bats an eyelash. As it happens, this doesn’t have any consequences, but it’s a fair indication of the quality of the film to come.

Once on the planet, things rapidly begin to deteriorate, both for the crew and the audience. José Louis Mignone’s cinematography does give the barren landscape an otherworldly quality, but any virtues imparted by this are offset by our heroes less than convincing attire. You can just about forgive the cheap, scarlet and white spacesuits, but the moon boots and motorcycle helmets take a fair bit more suspension of disbelief. Yes, Peter Dawson’s script does establish that the atmosphere of Zeta is not lethal, just toxic ‘like smog’, but it’s still a bit of a reach to accept this piece of headgear as interplanetary issue, even when worn with a thick neck scarf!

Before planetfall, the aggressive Wojno has laid down some pretty strict ground rules, including no going out at night and always staying in pairs. But, of course, everyone ignores these rules throughout the film, with Brooks proving her’ genius level’ intelligence by being the first to wander off alone with a torch to become monster munch. Because, yes, if you hadn’t guessed it already, the film is broadly following the template of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ (1979). Wojno is the next one to get up close and personal with one of the creatures, who ‘melt’ their victims leaving just their empty space suits behind. How nice of them to bear the film’s SFX budget in mind!

There are other obvious parallels with Scott’s classic shocker. Firstly, there’s the ongoing attempt at crew camaraderie. This mainly consists of getting each other coffee. On the one hand, it’s good to see the humble coffee mug taking its rightful place on our journeys to the stars, but it does suggest that the whole alien thing might just part of a massed caffeine-induced hallucination. Better still, though, are the scenes where De Vol and Ray delve endlessly into the station’s archives. This involves leafing through dozens of spiral-bound reports. Handwritten reports. I guess even the invention of the typewriter had passed Zeta by.

These lengthy research scenes serve a couple of purposes, the most important of which is to pad out the running time. When you’re trying to make any kind of feature-length film without much money, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll need to include a lot of chat. Dialogue scenes are inexpensive to shoot. The key is to make these scenes significant in terms of plot development, and the filmmakers do try that here, with more information on the monsters divulged as time passes. The problem is that none of it provides an escalation of the threat they pose or a sense of raising the stakes. The creatures began their killing spree immediately after the team land, so the audience is already in possession of all it needs to know. So the film bogs down completely under the weight of all this unnecessary exposition instead. When the climactic scenes finally arrive, it’s all much too little too late.

Sandler and Emenegger began their career as documentary filmmakers, most notably with ‘UFOs: Past, Present and Future’ (1974), narrated by ‘Twilight Zone’ creator, Rod Serling. Researching that project meant contacting the military authorities, and Emenegger claimed that he was given a tour of Holloman Air Force Base. There he was shown a location where ‘officials conferred with extraterrestrials’ on a regular basis.

His fictional projects with Sandler often included appearances by some well-known actors whose best years were arguably behind them. Cameron Mitchell starred in ‘Captive’ (1980), ‘Warp Speed’ (1981) and ‘The Perfect Woman’ (1981) and Adam West was in front of the camera for ‘Warp Speed’ (1981) and ‘Time Warp’ (1981). The latter also featured Kirk Alyn, who played the title role in the movie serial ‘Superman’ (1948). They also managed to secure the services of b-movie legend Marie Windsor for ‘The Perfect Woman’ (1987). She’s best remembered for cult items such as ‘The Jungle’ (1952), ‘Cat-Women of the Moon’ (1954), ‘Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy’ (1955), ‘The Story of Mankind’ (1957), ‘The Day Mars Invaded Earth’ (1962) and ‘Chamber of Horrors’ (1966). She also turned up in Tobe Hopper’s famous TV adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot’ (1979) and ran up an extensive list of other small-screen credits.

A slow plod through familiar territory, obviously restricted by resources but showing little creativity and few ideas.

Evil Spawn (1987)

Evil Spawn (1987)‘Remember that scientist who went crazy a few days ago and then was crushed by a jeep?’

A fading Hollywood star finds leading roles harder to come by, and, in her desperation, resorts to an experimental anti-ageing treatment. Unfortunately, this has been derived from Venusian spores, and she transforms into an alien creature with a lust to kill…

Welcome to the world of Grade-Z movie mogul Fred Olen Ray. This micro-budgeted, uncredited remake of Roger Corman’s ‘The Wasp Woman’ (1959) may be credited to writer-director Kenneth J Hall, but it’s Ray who seems to have been the moving force behind the production. His name might not appear on the screen, but he produced the film and even directed a little of the finished product.

The film opens with a caption informing the audience that a probe has returned from Venus bringing alien spores and that the following story we’re about to see involves the misuse of these extra-terrestrial germs. We’re even shown a less than wonderful spacecraft model approaching Earth (probably sourced from one of Ray’s other productions). After the drawn-out opening credits that follow (never a good sign), a bearded man in a laboratory (Gary J Levinson) is attacked by a nasty orange glove puppet. He gets sick and lurches out to an alleyway where he interrupts a couple of bickering lovers and ends up caught between a jeep and a hard place.

Evil Spawn (1987)

‘I’m not sure this mud pack is working…’

This incident’s been arranged by Evelyn Avery (Dawn Wildsmith, billed here as Donna Shock), who works as the assistant to mad skin specialist Dr Zeitman (John Carradine). He’s too busy dying to know what she’s up to and hands over his great work to her before he finally expires. Wildsmith, who seems to have the same hairdresser as Elsa Lanchester’s ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, then takes the serum from Carradine’s research and offers it to over-the-hill film star, Lynne Roman (Bobby Bresee). She’s desperate to regain her youth so she can be cast in the prestigious lead of a new production by director Mark Randall (Mark Anthony). Bresee takes the injections, of course, and the inevitable transformations follow.

If the finished film has more than a touch of the ‘home movie’ vibe around it, then that’s for a good reason. Most of it was shot in Bresee’s real-life Beverley Hills house. Her character only leaves it twice; to go to a party with Anthony and to visit the office of her slimy agent Harry (Fox Harris). Of course, we don’t see her and Anthony at the party, or her travelling to the agent’s office (basically a desk he sits behind with a few posters on the wall from other Ray productions, including ‘The Tomb’ (1986) also with Carradine). At least Bresee didn’t have far to go after filming finished every night.

‘Damn, these aren’t my reading glasses!’

Carradine’s one scene in the picture was his conversation with Wildsmith (Mrs Fred Olen Ray, at the time). Ray directed it and made the dialogue as non-specific as possible so that he could insert the footage into subsequent movies, as and when required. He also supervised a different version of this film, hiring director Ted Newsom to add extra footage with actor Richard Harrison so that he could reissue it as ‘The Alien Within.’ Sadly, it doesn’t look as if Carradine had to do much research to get into character as the dying scientist. He seems to be having difficulty breathing and delivering his dialogue. This could have been great acting, of course, but, if so, it’s remarkably convincing.

If this all sounds like it makes for a terrible movie, then, yes, the film isn’t very good. However, surprisingly, there are a few compensations. To begin with, Bresee is quite good as the fading actress. Perhaps too good, if the intention was to present this as a comedy, which is possible given some of the corny dialogue and Wildsmith’s campy performance. The commentary on the problems of an actress ageing in Tinseltown is not exactly subtle, but it’s still valid. Bresee is betrayed by her agent, gets the brush off from director Anthony and finds that boyfriend, Brent (John Terrence) has traded her in for younger model, Tracy (Leslie Eve). Her only real friends are biographer, Ross (Drew Godderis) who can’t help with her career, and secretary Elaine (Pamela Gilbert), who is far too young and beautiful to be allowed to live!

Evil Spawn (1987)

‘If I write myself a few more lines, no-one will notice.’

Another plus is the full-sized creature FX designed by Ralph Miller III and executed by Hal Miles, Michael Deak and their crew. The monster doesn’t look great, and we never see the suit in motion, but, given the minimal resources that were probably available, it’s actually pretty good. Also, some of the gore FX, such as an arm being torn off, are even better. They look like they belong in a production of a far higher quality. There just isn’t enough of them. This becomes less of a surprise when we look at Miles and Deak’s subsequent credits.

Deak worked on entries in both the ‘Halloween’ series and the ‘Friday the 13th’ franchise and many productions of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. He eventually graduated to the SFX crews of major studio tentpoles such as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003) and ‘Hulk’ (2003) before supervising the FX on Michael Bay’s ‘The Island’ (2005). He also worked on the ‘Tranformers’ series and ‘TRON: Legacy’ (2010) before taking a decade-long break to return for ‘Bill & Ted: Face The Music’ (2020). Miles specialised in animatronics, and his later credits include James Cameron’s ‘The Abyss’ (1989), ‘Gremlins 2: The New Batch’ (1990), ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ (1991), ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie’ (1995), among many others.

‘This sounds like something out of a bad science-fiction film,’ Bresee mutters at one point. Quite.

Titan Find / Creature (1985)

Titan Find (1985)‘l saw a movie once where a group of people were trapped in an ice station by a carrot from another planet.’

A team of archaeologists are sent to Titan to investigate artefacts found by a previous expedition from which no-one returned. After crash landing, they meet the sole survivor of a rival team who warns them that the find is a zoo of alien creatures, one of which is still very much alive…

Although some commentators have offered the opinion that this is not a knock-off of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ (1979), it is hard to imagine the film existing without that earlier masterpiece. Matters open with helpful captions explaining that space exploration in the future is in the hands of two rival corporations, one from America, one from West Germany (I guess unification didn’t work out in the end). But it’s the Americans who have an expedition on Titan from the get-go, with two astronauts taking a few holiday snaps while sitting on the strange alien caskets they have uncovered. Shining a light into one of them reveals a being with far too many teeth and in urgent need of orthodontic assistance, but not to worry, it’s been lying there for centuries, so it must be dead, right? Umm…no. The last man standing after these gory shenanigans manages to escape being turned into lunch but flies his spacecraft into a model from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) instead.

Dispatched to Titan to pick up the pieces is Captain Mike Davison (Stan Ivar) and his crew of working stiffs, most of whom are archaeologists. Ok, senior company man Lyman Ward is also along for the ride and he has brought security expert Diane Salinger with, but it does seem as if they could have had a few more military types, given the mysterious demise of the first expedition. Ward isn’t sinister at all, of course (he might as well have ‘hidden agenda’ stamped across his forehead) and orders Ivar to land the ship without carrying out any surveys or safety procedures. This turns out to be sound leadership indeed, as the ship falls part-way through the moon’s fragile crust and is seriously damaged.

Titan Find (1985)

‘What did Werner call me?’

On their way in, they’d noticed a rival West German vessel, so it seems like a good idea to nip over for tea and maybe scrounge a few spare parts. Unfortunately, there’s a strange and dangerous lifeform on the loose; a halfway demented survivor of the German crew. Or perhaps he’s completely sane. As he’s played by Klaus Kinski it’s kind of hard to tell. Oh, and there’s that monster thing with far too many teeth that I mentioned earlier.

This production is a fairly typical example of what you would find at your local video rental store in the 1980s. Ok, this feature did get a theatrical release in many markets but, really, it’s only the presence of a name like Kinski and some decent model work that make it stand out from dozens of similar projects of the time. The creature itself is not badly realised, and its method of reanimating its victims to kill everyone else is a clever notion, especially given that the man in the monster suit doesn’t look too mobile. Actually, the film’s main FX team went onto work on ‘Aliens’ (1986) just a year later, and it is possible that it was their contribution here that caught the eye of director James Cameron. After all, he started his own career doing production design and visual effects in low-budget science fiction flicks, such as ‘Galaxy of Terror’ (1981).

Titan Find (1985)

The neck massage        therapy was not a great success.

So, technically the film is a little above average. The main problem here is the script and dialogue. The situations are familiar, and the characters flat and uninteresting. There’s almost nothing for the actors to work with and the audience has no-one to invest in. There is a pleasing repetition of the blue collar aesthetic of the Ridley Scott movie, particularly in the spacecraft’s functional interiors, but it’s really just for show; the crew never really engage in any ‘work’ as such, although some effort is made to give them specific roles within the team.

Lighting is also an issue. Whether it was down to practical limitations or budget, the action largely takes place in shadows and semi-darkness, which may be good for atmosphere but becomes a little wearing over an hour and a half. Unsurprisingly, the only cast member to make a real impression is Kinski, even though he’s little more than a generic ‘nutter’ and probably filmed all his scenes in a couple of days. This was probably good news for everyone else, as his questionable behaviour on film sets was notorious. The only example here is the scene where his character heavily gropes Salinger, something that was not in the original script. Pleasingly, she gets her own ‘Ripley’ moment late on, which is probably the highlight of the entire film.

The post-release history of the film is a little curious. VHS and DVD releases by different companies over the years seemed to infer that it had fallen into the public domain, but director William Malone released a Blu Ray in 2013, apparently believing that he owned the rights. Unfortunately, MGM’s legal department disagreed, and the release was withdrawn, meaning second hand copies now fetch high prices on the internet. This is probably because Malone released a longer, widescreen director’s cut, which added at least 5 minutes to the running time. I have not seen this version, but its existence might explain a few disjointed moments and odd editing choices during the climactic action scenes. Malone went on to direct the interesting (and unfairly maligned) remake of ‘House On Haunted Hill’ (1999), but followed that with the execrable ‘Feardotcom’ (2002).

This isn’t a bad variation on the horror/science fiction template pioneered by Ridley Scott, but neither it is a particularly remarkable one. A watch of Malone’s own cut would be desirable, of course, to give a more informed opinion. But who doesn’t want to see Kinski as a living dead astronaut on a murderous rampage? There’s always that.