Welcome to the world of low-budget schlockmeister Larry Buchanan. Nick Cato recently reviewed one of his theatrical films, THE LOCH NESS HORROR (1981), for his “Suburban Grindhouse Memories” column, but that was just a warm-up for ZONTAR: THE THING FROM VENUS (1966), one of several TV-movies that Buchanan made in the 60s, ZONTAR has gone on to become a notorious cult movie.
In fact, it was inevitable that I would review this movie here, since the name of this column, “Transmissions to Earth,” was originally inspired by ZONTAR (you’ll see why in a minute).
A remake of Roger Corman’s IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), with several scenes that are almost duplicates (but with different actors, of course), ZONTAR has no mention of the previous movie in its credits, in fact crediting the script to Buchanan and Hillman Taylor. So I’ll mention here that IT CONQUERED THE WORLD was written by Lou Rusoff and Charles B. Griffith.
ZONTAR begins in a NASA installation that looks like it’s made of cardboard, with doors that don’t shut properly, and oversized 50s computers that flash a lot of lights and beep a lot. Is this an Ed Wood production? Nope, but Buchanan is certainly in the same class as Mr. Wood. The men (and one woman) in the installation are overseeing the launching of a rocket bearing a “laser-satellite,” one of the first to be shot into space. Dr. Curt Taylor (John Agar) is in charge of the operation, and as they begin the countdown, his close friend and fellow scientist Keith Ritchie (Anthony Huston) arrives to beg him to stop the launch. Keith is certain that aliens are watching Earth and are concerned about mankind reaching for the stars. It seems that they don’t think we’re ready yet to leave our planet, and there might be dire circumstances if we put that satellite into Earth’s orbit. How he knows all this is anyone’s guess. Curt, despite being Keith’s friend, thinks that his friend is delusional (“How do we even know there’s any other life on other planets?”) and refuses to stop anything. Not only because he knows the powers that be would be furious if anything went wrong with the launch, but also because Dr. Taylor himself doesn’t believe anything that Keith is saying.
When next we see them, Keith and Curt are sitting at a dinner table with their wives at Keith’s house. There is a portrait of Keith’s wife, Martha, on the wall with no eyes! (Even the little details in a Larry Buchanan movie are strange). The two couples have been friends for a long time, and Keith admits that maybe he overreacted before when he tried to stop the launch. When Curt asks what changed his mind, Keith says that he has a secret he can’t hide anymore. He has to tell someone. And he brings Curt into his living room, where, behind a curtain, is a computer/radio device that looks like three air conditioners stacked one on top of another. Keith says this is how he communicates with someone on another world. He claims he has been “in communications for two months now, without the use of a satellite.” He plays some weird noises and Curt laughs at him. Keith says it is the voice of a being on Venus that has sent a transmission to Earth. Somehow, he is able to understand it via “hyperspace hypnotism.”
When Curt asks if this alien being has a name, Keith says “Although his name is untranslatable through any known Earth language, it would sound something like…Zontar.”
Meanwhile, the satellite that was launched months ago disappears. The scientists cannot locate it and are concerned that it has malfunctioned. Then, an hour later it reappears, and resumes its orbit. When the scientists try to bring it back to earth to examine what went wrong, the object takes control of itself and disappears again from the radar. This time, it has flown down to Earth on its own power. What is happening here?
Keith knows. He says that Zontar “diverted the satellite for a vehicle” so that it could get to Earth.
When Zontar lands on Earth, everything stops running, from all machines and power sources, to cars, trains..and even clocks. However, if you’re “in” with Zontar, as Keith is, your stuff works just fine. He’s the only one with a running car for awhile.
The first order of business for Zontar’s domination of Earth is the unleashing of the injectapods. These are ugly bat-like creatures (actually more like giant bugs) that Zontar grows on his body and then they separate on command. Their job is to bite someone, injecting them with some weird metal spike which takes control of their mind. The first thing a controlled human does is dispose of the body, since injectapods die after biting someone. The person they bite then becomes “a part of Zontar.”
We learn that Zontar (now holed up in a deep cave over a hot spring, which is supposed to “approximate the conditions on Venus”) can only grow eight injectapods at a time. The first batch are for the General, the Mayor, the Sheriff and Curt, and the men’s wives (it makes things go easier!). Keith and Zontar figure, with these people under their control, they can control the town.
Not sure where else to go, Curt and Anne go back to Keith’s house, where they resume their dinner party. When Keith goes on about how Zontar has come in peace to save us from ourselves, we get some good dialogue from the ladies:
Anne: Keith, you talk as if this “thing” is a personal friend of yours.
Martha: Oh yeah, they’re real chums.”
General Matt Young (Neil Fletcher) is the first to be bitten by an injectapod. He later shows up at the NASA installation, claiming that those damned communists have caused the power outage, and he declares Martial Law.
There are two soldiers who provide comic relief. They guard the installation, until the General tells them to round up some guys and go on a march into the woods (we have no idea why). When one of the soldiers sees an injectapod flying around, he says, “I saw a funny-looking boid.”
Meanwhile, Sheriff Brad Crenshaw (Bill Thursman) is evacuating the town. When the newspaper editor refuses to leave, the Sheriff shoots him. (“We don’t need newspapers anymore, anyway!”) Curt witnesses this and gets in a scuffle with Crenshaw, who strangely lets him get away (no doubt because he knows an injectapod will be attacking him soon).
When Curt’s wife, Anne, is bitten and controlled, she lets an injectapod loose in their living room and leaves. Curt fights the thing off and kills it with a fireplace poker (a close-up shows up that the injectapods are just silly-looking puppets!). When she returns, he pretends to be controlled, then shoots her when she gets close. How horrible! Can’t he even try to remove the metal spike in the back of her neck and see if that works before he kills his own dear wife?
Showing no sign of grief about Anne, Curt then goes back to Keith’s place (again). With all of the cars not running, Curt sure does a lot of walking in this movie!
Curt: Okay, I believe you now. And I also believe you are an accessory to murder!
Keith: Is that the way you greet an old friend?
It turns out Zontar’s mission isn’t so peaceful after all. He’s actually part of an advanced race that can only live if they can control other creatures with their parasitic injectapods. All of the creatures they controlled on Venus have died out. In order to survive, they have to find new species to infect and control.
When I saw this movie as a kid, I remember John Agar was my favorite character, and it’s true that this is one of Agar’s more memorable roles. But watching it again now, my favorite character is easily Pat Delaney as Martha Ritchie, Keith’s wife. Throughout the movie, she continually mocks Keith and ridicules what he says about the great Zontar. For some reason, Zontar does not try to silence her (I guess because she’s a woman, and in the 60s women weren’t seen as much of a threat). She is also the only one with guts enough to face the monster from Venus. She steals Keith’s gun and takes one of their working cars to the caves to confront the creature who has manipulated her husband.
Martha (talking to Zontar on the radio unit): I hate your living guts…and I’m going to kill you.
When she gets there, Zontar looks like a guy wrapped in a black garbage bag, or covered in papier mache, with lots of fake eyeballs glued to him and giant, cloth wings.
Martha: So that’s what you look like, Zontar. You’re slimey. Horrible!”
When Keith hears Zontar kill Martha over the radio, only then does he come to his senses and agree to help Curt get rid of the menace. Curt and Keith then head to the caves to save the Earth from the evil Zontar!
As you can see, this movie is incredibly silly and doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense. But that’s precisely why it has become such a cult favorite over the years. If you get a chance to see this one, check it out. It might just be Larry Buchanan’s crowning achievement as a bad filmmaker.
© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares