As a society, we were far more concerned about overpopulation of the planet during the 70s than we are now. The publication of Paul Ehrlich’s incendiary bestseller “The Population Bomb” in 1968 is a big reason for the paradigm shift, but it was Hollywood that provided us with the visuals, in lurid detail. Popular sci-fi classics like Logan’s Run, THX-1138 and Soylent Green are recognizable examples of such neo-Malthusianism, but they just skirted around the topic. Not so the creators of Z.P.G., a 1972 dystopian thriller that tackles the subject matter head on.
Bleak and oppressive in a way that only the post-hippy, head-trippy 70s could envision, Z.P.G. – short for Zero Population Growth – takes place on an uber smoggy earth, populated by so many people the only real pastime appears to be milling around in the smoke until something interesting happens. That is, when the futuristic citizenry isn’t standing in line to watch wooden stageplay recreations of hedonistic lifestyles in the 7th decade of the 20th century, from behind velvet ropes. To make things even more unrelentingly grim, the ubiquitous totalitarian government has instituted a 30-year ban on childbearing, punishable by death to transgressors.
To crank the proceedings into the creepy zone, couples of child-bearing age are sent to “Babyland,” in an attempt to curb their natural impulses, where they are provided with life-sized, dead-eyed robotic children like something out of the Twilight Zone. (Obscure fact: those creepy dolls were created by British special effects designer Derek Meddings, who helped introduce the world to “supermarionation,” as seen in such classic series as Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds.) Leave it to one “socially transgressive” couple to thwart the authorities and pop one out themselves, only to discover just how hard it is to hide the bouncing bundle of “joy.”
Featuring star turns by Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin, two of the bigger stars of the day, Z.P.G. also boasts some of the grooviest retrofuturism ever committed to celluloid. From the turtleneck jump suits and groovy hubcap-sized medallions, to the modular, claustrophobic sets and depictions of rampant capitalism and environmental disregard as the greatest sins of the 20th century, this is the future that never was with an Orwellian meets Warholian twist. If you occasionally favor deep character development and satirical examinations of sociopolitical trends over thrill-a-minute action sequences and overblown CGI effects, Z.P.G. is well worth seeking out.