The Killings at Outpost Zeta (1980)

Now I’ve mentioned before the curious history of Robert Emenegger, who in a sudden, two year burst produced nine low budget science fiction films (well, ten, if you count a rather silly comedy), creating the scores, writing most of the scripts and stories, and directing six of them himself.

And he hasn’t made another film since.

I’ll confess I have no idea how they were distributed.  Some, like the weird spaceborne ghost story, Warp Speed (1981), are listed as TV movies on IMDB — but not all of them.

Whatever the case, there are two noteworthy things about these films:  One, they were very cheap (and perhaps even cheaper than they look as props, sets and models get reused from film to film); and, Two, they all have just a little bit extra to them — interesting ideas, mood, atmosphere and unexpected plots.

The Killings at Outpost Zeta was the first of these films according to IMDB, although that doesn’t tell us whether it was the first made or merely the first released.  I’ll admit that one scene, which features two spaceship models sitting on an office coffee table, makes me a bit suspicious.  While one of the two appears in later in the film, the second one would only show up in the later films.  Robert directs, with the help of his frequent collaborator, Allan Sandler.

The plot has a very classic B-Movie quality typical of Emenegger’s films: the Pathfinders are the first ones to explore and study new worlds and only volunteers who are willing to put their lives at risk are sent in first.

Outpost Zeta, however, has already killed three Pathfinder teams — although no one knows why they died.  Zeta is incredibly important, as it would make a good jumping off point for further exploration of the Galaxy.  While it is an Earth-like planet, it has far more volcanic activity and, like primitive Earth, its atmosphere is laced with poisonous gasses.

By the time the new team reaches Zeta and finds the partly-dissolved dead bodies of the past crews, it should come as no surprise to B-Movie audiences that a mysterious creature is at work.

I have to give Robert Emenegger credit:  He keeps his creature out of sight for most of the film giving us a few quick glimpses and a lot of monster cam.

That’s a good thing because the creature is so awful.

I can only think of one movie which has a worse monster — although, ironically, the two have a lot in common and look quite similar.

Still, the idea of the monster is pretty good, even if it was never going to have star quality.

What really distinguishes The Killings at Outpost Zeta is its use of mood and atmosphere.  The scenes on the planet are harsh, full of mist and apparently shot with a filter, giving it all a very alien feel.  The small sets make it all far more claustrophobic, while his cast of unknowns (who are generally adequate if not exactly brilliant) means that it is harder to guess who’s going to get killed off.

And I’ll note that the first to go is a sympathetic character.

Look, this is a very cheap film.  Yes, Emenegger uses that budget well, giving his sets a clean Fifties-Modern look with lots of buttons and dials; finding incredible desolate-looking locations, and using simple tricks to build mood.  He had a knack for this sort of thing, and it is one of the reasons I keep searching out his movies.

Mind you, it helps that they are a bit smarter than your average B-Movie, and that he obviously made an effort to develop his ideas and put them on the screen.  You have to give him a lot of credit for that.

So, if you can’t stand any film with less than perfect effects, or which lacks world class acting,  avoid this one.

But those of you out there who love a good B-Movie, no matter how cheap, may find much to like in The Killings at Outpost Zeta.

In its own moody and atmospheric way…

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