ZPG (1971) on DVD

ZPG (or Zero Population Growth) arrived as part of a wave of eco-minded Sci-Fi thrillers that predicted dire circumstances for mankind’s not too distant future. Close in tone to Douglas Trumbull’s SILENT RUNNING (featuring Bruce Dern’s mutinous seizure of a massive spaceship containing some of Earth’s last bits of greenery) but featuring a future more along the lines of SOYLENT GREEN, ZPG is a nearly joyless effort – a dour lecture on the ills of over-population that is too bloated with self importance to even qualify as camp.
ZPG is set in a city permanently encased in a thick fog of pollution (we’re told neither where nor when the story takes place, done either to save money on production design or to make the viewer feel like this could happen Tomorrow and it could be Anywhere).  In a desperate move to counter over-population, the President decrees a 30-year ban on childbirth. Children born prior to the ban are imprinted with an infrared “BE” (Before Edict) on their forehead, whereas childbirth after the edict results in the offending family being encased in a suffocation dome, where they spend the last hours of their lives thinking about their “crime against humanity.”
At a museum of the 20th Century where lucky citizens (“I’ve waited 3 years to get in!”) get to see exhibits of extinct animals – cats, mostly – and synthetic fauna. Russ and Carol McNeil (Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin, respectively) work as actors in an exhibit of a typical 20th Century home featuring such decadences as eating and drinking real food instead of paste, and swapping partners with another couple, the Bordens (Steve McQueen pal Don Gordon and THE WICKER MAN’s Diane Cilento). Once Carol decides to break the law and have a baby, they must not only avoid the prying eyes of the Big Brother-like government, but also the growing jealously of their own friends, whose initial offer to help conceal the baby leads quickly to trouble.
Today, SOYLENT GREEN is typically the target of derision, with most reviewers unable to get past the out-sized Charlton Heston performance or the famous Rod Serling-style twist at the end. But director Richard Fleischer’s vision of a New York choked by pollution and overcrowded to the point where most people are forced to sleep in the stairwells of buildings is a far more convincing vision of the future than ZPG. A British production filmed in Denmark, the film is almost entirely set-bound featuring art direction designed to reflect a bleak, oppressive future. As a result, ZPG’s world feels like being lost in a parking garage for 90 minutes. We would normally applaud this commitment to reality, but the film’s other “future” details are sloppy: all the museum exhibits seem to date from exactly the same year as the picture was filmed (“See ___ from 1971!”), and the ridiculous medallions that everyone wears over their grey jumpsuits seem to exist only because some costume designer thought they were groovy. Imagine Andrei Tarkovsky directing a Dr. Who episode and you’re halfway home.
It will be interesting to see how recent “near future” films like MINORITY REPORT and THE ISLAND pan out in coming decades. It seems that films of ZPG’s vintage got knocked back two steps for each one taken in the direction of rendering mankind’s future on film. Is anything more quintessentially ’70s than the ‘digital’ font used for the numbers on the back of the jerseys in ROLLERBALL? Or the silly sundresses and jumpsuits of LOGAN’S RUN? Watching ZPG, I couldn’t help but think how much better the film would work as a Brechtian experiment, featuring chalk outlines on a studio floor. Where’s Lars Von Trier when you really need him?!?
The actors were clearly directed to their flat line readings and emotionless performances – an all too trite way of showing life under an oppressive regime. It’s always interesting to see Oliver Reed playing it straight; too often he was cast to reputation and would give the producers exactly what they asked for, but here he’s subdued to the point of catatonia. Chaplin, too, is always interesting to watch; she’s an unconventional beauty who always seems on the verge of crying. Unfortunately, not only do we never believe that the couple has a chance of raising a baby unnoticed by the government; we never believe that they believe it. If the audience thinks that it’s a death wish from the start, the movie isn’t working.
There are several moments that do manage to work, which makes it all the more frustrating when director Michael Campus fails to follow up on them. When we first meet the McNeils, they are waiting in a long line to receive the official replacement for a child, a creepy animatronic toddler that is programmed to react to the voice of the parents. Carol reacts in horror (quite rightly) and runs out of the building. The movie builds an interesting subplot around how psychiatrists, presumably under government order, counsels these new “mothers” and encourages them to accept their new plastic babies as real (“see how he needs you…”). It’s an interesting idea, and handled well – better in fact than Spielberg would with a similar issue in A.I. And it’s always nice to see Don Gordon get a gig where he’s not attached to McQueen’s hip, as in TOWERING INFERNO, BULLITt and PAPILLION. He’s an interesting actor.
ZPG is part of a large number of Paramount titles licensed to Legend Films (www.legendfilms.net) for DVD release. Paramount has long been on the naughty list for hanging on to catalogue titles and keeping them off the market, so this is a very welcome turn. The first batch contains a few near-classics, the Amicus production of THE SKULL (finally in its scope ratio!), and the little seen POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY, alongside several “not nearly as good as you remembered from mid ’80s HBO” titles like STUDENT BODIES and JEKYLL & HYDE TOGETHER AGAIN. This release saves ZPG from almost total obscurity; it’s only previous home video incarnation was as a budget VHS edition (recorded in the space-saving EP mode) that didn’t give the film a chance. The anamorphic image falls somewhere between 1:85 and 1.78, which looks right most of the time. Occasionally the frame seems a smidge tight, and it’s possible that it was originally shot, like many European films of the time, in the 1.66 ratio, but the difference is negligible. The colors are on the murky side (if I were really trying to sell this to you, I’d call it an “industrial color scheme”) but Legend was stuck with whatever film elements that Paramount handed them. But in general, the image is solid, and certainly reflects the intent of the filmmakers.
While ZPG may not have been the best lead-off title, it bodes well for a lineup of eclectic titles in the near future. It’s in this spirit that I mention that MANDINGO is currently available on their site. Keep ‘em coming, Legend!
ZPG (“Zero Populatino Growth,” 1971). Directed by Michael Campus. Written by Frank De Felitta and max Ehrlick. Cast: Russ McNeil, Geraldine Chaplin, Don Gordon, Diane Cilento, Eugene Blau.
CORRECTION: This article was originally posted with incorrect attribution. It now correctly reads “Posted by Drew Fitzpatrick.”