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.