Z.P.G. Delivers Vintage Sci-Fi Thrills in the Age of The Sims

ZPG-movie-posterHere’s a quick recommendation for sci-fi fans seeking a vintage fix: Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) is a seriously underrated gem directed by Michael Campus. Campus has precious few other helming credits, with The Mack and The Education of Sonny Carson among them, but in this 1972 shocker that channels classic Orwellian themes, Campus’ debut proves to be admirably assured, resulting in a picture of extremely deliberate pacing while also indulging in many unsettling and near-experimental flourishes.

This particular dystopian future is one in which the curing of diseases has resulted in a population explosion of globe-threatening proportions, while the environment has been thoroughly violated by smog so thick travelers must wear oxygen masks when venturing outdoors. At the outset of the film, childbearing is officially outlawed on punishment of death. “Legal” babies are branded with a mark that’s visible when scanned by authorities, and citizens are encouraged to fink on anyone irresponsible enough to get pregnant or carry a new baby to term.

And that’s exactly what gets Russ and Carol McNeil (Oliver Reed, Geraldine Chaplin) into trouble: Carol finds herself unable to settle for adopting one of the state’s artificial children—vaguely animated dolls that first come across as amusingly campy but soon become not only a believable element in this world, but a truly chilling prediction of our current infatuation with purely synthetic life—so she allows herself to become pregnant in spite of her husband’s gentle but firm protestations.

By the time Carol sidesteps the handy radioactive abortion kit installed in the bathroom, we’ve already seen what happens when a family is discovered with an illegal child. A constantly hovering predator drone outdoors lowers a large, unbreakable dome over an offending mother, father and child spotted by a woman in the streets early on in the film. Pronounced guilty as charged without the slightest hint of anything resembling due process, the family members are left inside their airtight prison to contemplate their transgressions…as they suffocate to death.

Of course, while Russ and Carol undertake clever precautions to keep their newborn a secret, that secret is eventually discovered by the neighbors. Unwilling to take the risk of rebelling against totalitarianism on their own, the couple (played by Don Gordon and Diane Cilento) becomes overly infatuated with the McNeils’ baby. The McNeils begin to resist the jealous pair’s increasingly creepy intrusions on their time, with a dreamy and disturbing montage of the neighbors cooing over and cuddling the baby providing a really ominous and macabre moment of frisson. You can probably guess exactly where that relationship goes once the childless couple is made to feel unwanted.

Some viewers may be able to anticipate the ending. These days, we’ve been so conditioned to anticipate blow-the-doors-off-the-entire-movie twists and narrative jolts, I can only suggest that you may be pleasantly enough surprised, as I was, by the climax.

zpg-reed-chaplin-600400Low-key is truly the operating principle for this film. It’s not a noisy soundtrack by any means, but the use of sound effects and bizarre music choices throughout is effective and enjoyably surreal. It’s 1970s sci-fi, so be prepared for the jumpsuits and the occasionally primitive guesses about far-flung computer technology. The film can’t help but be a bit dated, but the production design by Anthony Masters (2001: A Space Odyssey) and art direction by Peter Hajmark and Harry Lange are surprising, too. For what seems to be very much a modestly-budgeted film, they deliver a nightmarish world created out of stark and deceptive simplicity.

Fans are bound to have all manner of free-associations bouncing around inside their heads while watching—everything from 1984 to Gattaca to Children of Men, and more. But the film doesn’t feel (reverse?) derivative in the least, and boasts two strong lead performances by Chaplin and well-known cinematic wild man Reed, who does “brooding” better than anyone. I had just viewed this for the first time while engaged in a request from home to find some “old” but “good” science fiction films, and Z.P.G. is one of those movies I think you’ll wish you’d seen a long time ago.