In this edition of Movies Unwrapped, we’re going back to the sixties, for a far-out slice of wiggy soft-core sci-fi from the home of cheapo English exploitation. How on earth did I leave this one in its wrapping for so long?
ZETA ONE (1968)
dir: Michael Cort
scr: Micheal Cort and Alistair Mckenzie
starring: James Robertson Justice, Charles Hawtrey, Robin Hawdon, Dawn Addams
Somewhere, separated from us by a space-time barrier, lies the land of Angvia. It is a realm where women rule, and the Angvians, ruled by the powerful and autocratic Zeta, replenish their ranks by kidnapping and brainwashing girls from our world. Their nemesis is the evil Major Bourden who, along with his reptilian assistant Swyne, is after Angvia for himself. It’s down to superspy James Word to find out and expose the truth about this planet of women. But he doesn’t realise that Zeta has her own plans for him…
Made under the auspices of Tigon Films, the studio behind trashy Britspoitation horrors like Cauldron Of Blood and Scream And Scream Again, Zeta One is credited as being one of the inspirations behind Austin Powers. It’s stuffed with appearances by scream queens like Valerie Leon and Yutte Stensgaard, as well as James Robertson Justice and Charles Hawtrey slumming it as Bourden and Swyne. It’s heavy on the groovy and the sexy. Apart from Rita Webb’s turn as a mouthy bus conductor, every woman on screen is good-looking and spends most of their screen time out of their clothes.
It all sounds like saucy fun, and there are some inspired moments of silliness, but for a short film (it’s only 85 minutes) it’s curiously inert. The first twenty minutes are taken up with Word and a mysterious female who claims to be working for his boss chatting and playing the slowest, dullest game of strip poker ever. Word himself is hardly an action hero: he spends most of the movie in bed. He doesn’t even crack the obvious joke about his word being his Bond, fercrissakes.
It all kind of hangs together, but there are times when the script feels like a bad translation of a Jess Franco movie. The humour, such as it is, is painfully raised-eyebrow, and a bit creaky. It doesn’t finish so much as end, with no real clue as to what happens to Bourden and Swyne as the credits roll. Robertson Justice and Hawtrey both phone in performances from a Carry On far far away, and it’s all very cheap and cheerful.
But cheerful it is. The “Action 69” fight sequence between Bourden’s thugs and a force of Angvians dressed in costumes made out of rope and nipple covers is a treat, and it’s all so silly that I couldn’t help but feel warmly towards it. The oil-lamp special effects and heavy use of coloured lighting mean that the whole film would work perfectly as a back projection for a retro club night.
So, the big question:
Was ZETA ONE worth unwrapping?
I’m going to say yes. It’s no masterpiece, but if you’re a fan of cult horror and the low end of the British market in the late sixties, Zeta One is worth a look. The plot is a mess, the acting is pretty grim and the effects no better than you’d see in Doctor Who episodes of the era. But you know what you’re getting here. Zeta One is cheerful spy-fi softcore, a mish-mash of genres, whoops-vicar nudity and Donald Gill sauciness that defines a clear time and place in British cinema.
Besides, I can’t feel ill-disposed towards any movie that can provide an image like this.
Ooh, I say.