Today, director Michael Campus is best remembered as an alum of Blaxploitation, thanks mostly to 1973’s The Mack, which featured an early role for Richard Pryor, and the more obscure cult item The Education of Sonny Carson (1974). But Campus started out with the pre-apocalyptic sci-fi film ZPG (Zero Population Growth), which delectably pairs Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin as a pair of procreative rebels who defy government sanctions on population control by having a baby during a twenty-year reproductive freeze. Scripted by Max Ehrlich and Frank De Felitta (the novelist turned director responsible for the source material of Audrey Rose and The Entity), the scenario bears striking similarities to a number of genre items dealing with overpopulation and reproductive sanctions, like the preemptive echo of the world in Children of Men (2006), but without the ability to transcend the novelty of its premise. More intimate and contained than its synopsis would suggest, the most intriguing element of the film positions this as the sci-fi equivalent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as two unhappy couples awkwardly joust for control of the only vessel they can squeeze meaning out of—a child.
Much to the chagrin of the heteronormative population, it has been determined by those in control to engage a policy called Zero Population Growth upon the world’s citizens, thereby banning any new births for twenty years as an effort to quell the problematic tide of overpopulation. Instead of children, couples are issued life-like dolls to scratch their parental itch since a whole generation of humans will not get to experience parenthood (and, its suggested, purpose). Neighbors are encouraged to report any ‘illicit breeding’ and couples are allowed to have self-induced abortions in order to fix any unplanned miscalculations. But Russ and Carol (Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin) can’t bring themselves to bring home a plastic doll and decide to defy the government and have their own child. However, without proper medical attention and alone in a world designed to catch any signs of a natural pregnancy, the couple finds themselves vulnerable to the demands of their friends and neighbors.
ZPG (Zero Population Growth) is certainly not the most WTF sounding item on Michael Campus’ short (six titles) filmography, which spanned from 1972 to 2008 (check out 1976’s blasphemy exploitation film The Passover Plot for this distinction), and perhaps its greatest mistake is failing to flesh out the universe its characters live in. If anything, Z.P.G. promises to be something along the lines of the Anthony Burgess novel The Wanting Seed, with citizens of its troubled word receiving messages from the government via a floating contraption (not unlike the disembodied head of John Boorman’s more wildly ambitious Zardoz). But we spend too much time with Russ and Carol, who never are allowed to feel three dimensional, defined only by their inability to feed their parental instincts.
The social commentary regarding society’s implementation of fake baby dolls to satisfy a woman’s supposed natural mothering instincts is enough to chew on for a while, as citizens push baby strollers through an eternal fog which forces them to wear gas masks due to the low air quality, but Carol’s obsession over having her own child often seems like a desire born out of rebellion more than anything else. What really enlivens the film is their intense dilemma regarding their nosy neighbors, particularly a beautiful hysterical performance from Diane Cilento, an actress Oscar nominated for Tom Jones (1963), but perhaps best remembered as the matter-of-fact Miss Rose in Robin Hardy’s eternal cult favorite, The Wicker Man (or maybe her brief marriage to Sean Connery). The strange blackmail bartering over who gets to take care of the baby ends up making Z.P.G. more of a dark comedy than stinging social commentary, but fans of Reed or Chaplin, despite the actors’ lack of chemistry, should be enough to tune in for this forgotten oddity.
Kino Lorber resurrects this lost classic as part of their Studio Classics label, presenting Z.P.G. in 1.78:1. Picture and sound quality seem cleaned up and intact, although the oppressively gloomy mise-en-scene didn’t allow for much visual innovation (Mikael Saloman and Michael Reed are both credited as cinematographer), which doesn’t assist with building dynamic between the few interior settings and the monotonously foggy universe they occupy. Film historian Steve Ryfle provides audio commentary on a disc sans additional extra features.
While ultimately not as interesting as its compelling premises promises, ZPG (Zero Population Growth). is a forgotten cult oddity on equal footing with other similarly conceived items from the era, a sister film to more famous American B-films Soylent Green, Rollerball, or Logan’s Run.
Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆