Friday, May 7, 2021

Killings at Outpost Zeta, The (1980)

... aka: Farlig Planet (Dangerous Planet)
... aka: Muerte en la estación Zeta (Death at Zeta Station)

Directed by:
Robert Emenegger
Allan Sandler

This was one of a number of tame, talky, ultra low budget sci-fi flicks from the Sandler / Emenegger team, who'd previously made the schlockumentaries UFOs: Past, Present and Future (1974), narrated by Rod Serling, and Death: The Ultimate Mystery (1975), narrated by Cameron Mitchell. Other films from these guys include Captive (which starred Mitchell [playing an evil alien waylaid on Earth] plus the director's kids), Laboratory, Beyond the Universe, Escape from DS-3, Lifepod, The Perfect Woman (again with Mitchell), PSI Factor, Time Warp and Warp Speed. All ten of these quick-churn titles were made and released in just a two year period (!!) by Gold Key Entertainment. While some were used as schedule filler on late night TV, I don't recall ever seeing any of these films for rent at any video store I frequented in my youth, back when I would have snatched up literally anything involving aliens. Based on the VHS boxes I could dig up, a number of these appear to have received better distribution outside of North America.

The Killings at Outpost Zeta is one of the most widely circulated titles of the entire Emenegger / Sandler catalogue, having received not one, but two, American VHS releases: one on the United Home Video label in 1987 and another from Star Classics in 1989. It is also the most rated / reviewed title on IMDb and, to date, one of only three features from these guys to receive over 100 ratings on the site.

A pathfinder team was dispatched to an Earth-like planet called Zeta two years prior with seemingly no problems. That is until recently, when suddenly all contact with them was lost. A three-man rescue team was then sent to check up on them and also didn't return, followed by another three man team, making for a grand total of twelve missing people. Frustrated Commander Craig (Paul Comi) decides to get together yet another exploratory crew to see if they can find out just what's going on. It's of the utmost urgency because officials are desperately wanting to colonize the planet, which has a mildly toxic yet still survivable atmosphere, to further extend our reach into the galaxy.

Tapped for the new rescue team are captain and commanding officer Clark Young (Gordon De Vol), veteran biologist Dr. Carol Sisco (Hildy Brooks), engineer Paul Carey (James A. Watson Jr.), heavily-decorated security officers Sigmund Stewart (Stanley Wojno) and Gore Stat (Jackson Bostwick) and medical doctor Linda Saunders (Jacqueline Ray), who will be making her maiden rescue team voyage into space. They're informed the mission is so dangerous they'll have to get their life insurance in order and sign their last will and testament prior to leaving. They're also given body bags with their names embroidered on them (!!) just in case.

Right before landing on the planet, the team intercept a capsule with an audio recording from the previous team warning them to turn back, along with human blood on the capsule. Still, a mission is a mission and off to the planet they go. They land, find the outpost and then make the horrifying discovery of eleven blood-drained corpses of all the previous teams in various stages of decomposition. Each body is a hollow shell sucked dry of all fluids and internal organs and has a gastrolith (rock) embedded in the stomach. The female biologist, who they keep telling us has a genius IQ, becomes the first victim of this new crop when she goes outside by herself at night with a flashlight just minutes after they discover the bodies.

The killers are eventually revealed to be intelligent volcanic rock monsters that blend in seamlessly with the desert environment. They inhale carbon and sulfur yet exhale oxygen, leave behind a silver, slimy substance and reproduce asexually. These creatures were at one time docile / peaceful, but the previous expedition managed to bring out their ugly side by capturing and then accidentally killing one in their lab. Now the creatures see any human as a threat and act accordingly. After several rescue team members are killed, the survivors set up a "dimensional laser fence" around the parameter of the base and try to come up with a way to destroy the aliens and make it back to their ship.

Considering when this was released, it's almost impressive how it manages to defy nearly every single popular trend of the time. In the post-Alien wake, audiences were wanting to see either elaborate, action-packed and expensive effects-driven science fiction films or, at the very least, enjoy the sleazy B movie charms provided by folks like Roger Corman. This offers neither and is instead a curiously staid, old-fashioned, incredibly talk-heavy 50s-style outing with no profanity, gore or exploitative elements. And that's all probably entirely by design to ensure an easy sell to TV with no edits needed.

Nearly everything on display here is uninspiring in its mediocrity. There's this bland "coulda been better, coulda been worse" barely-there competence to the acting, dialogue, direction and plot. As in, while it's all occasionally bad, it's usually not consistently, offensively bad to the point where you can have a good laugh at its expense. They even do a good job with certain elements of the film, especially their choice of rocky desert shooting locations that, when combined with liberal use of a fog machine, effectively represent a volcanic planet's surface. On the other hand, the creature designs are neither here nor there as we barely get to see them outside of a few brief flashes. They do however manage to look exactly like rocks when we do, so mission accomplished there, I guess. Gratuitous circular POV shots are used to fill in the gaps.

The only aspects that really drag this down into the realm of the awful are things that can be directly attributed to the ultra low budget, which could only afford toy spaceships, laser guns clearly made from red plastic tubing, sets constructed out of aluminum siding and spacesuits that look like a grandmother's first attempt at making pajamas with her new sewing machine.

As for other potential points of interest, well, I guess Anne Spielberg being an associate producer is one. While her slightly more famous brother Steven was working on stuff like Raiders of the Lost Arc and E. T., this is what she was up to. A still from the film also ended up being used as the cover for the Boards of Canada 1995 EP Twoism.

VCI Entertainment eventually released this to DVD both as a standalone and as part of a 4 movie set, which also includes Time Warp and Lifepod, plus the Italian stinker Star Odyssey (1979).

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