“Although his name is untranslatable to any Earth language, it would sound something like Zontar.”
An often word-for-word remake of Roger Corman’s low-budget classic It Conquered the World, Zontar is the result of some particularly restrictive budget constraints. At a cost of approximately $22 000, Larry Buchanan was charged with remaking Corman’s film in colour, and this is the result. Buchanan’s known as one of the worst directors of all time; Zontar, however, isn’t a complete disaster. The film definitely benefits from being a remake – the plot remains interesting and engaging, although it undoubtedly lost some of its cultural relevance in the years that passed between the two versions. Whereas It Conquered the World is a classic 1950s narrative, capitalising on the fears of communism, Zontar lacks a similar association. There is, however, an unexpected cynicism that emerges in Buchanan’s movie; his direction seems quite detached thanks to some particularly terrible acting and a frequently perfunctory editing style.
Anthony Houston replaces Lee Van Cleef as Keith, Zontar’s associate on Earth, while regular Buchanan collaborator John Agar takes on the protagonist’s role, Curt. Agar, who was once married to Shirley Temple, is the closest the film has to a “star” – he had made a name for himself in minor roles in mainstream Hollywood films, appearing alongside John Wayne several times. He is, however, better known for his cult movies, notably Revenge of the Creature and those by Buchanan, and he’s generally decried as one of a number of particularly wooden performers – the Medved’s nominated him for the Lifetime Achievement Award of Worst Actor of All Time in their Golden Turkey Awards; he eventually lost to Richard Burton. Yet while the Medveds claim Agar’s style is that “he refuses to act,” in Zontar he is required to do very little more than play the straight man. As such he is perfectly adequate, and far better than some of the other cast members – Houston is dislikeable in a slimy kind of way, while Pat Delaney is truly dreadful as Keith’s wife Martha. Poor Martha, who is strong and fearless in Corman’s version, is whiny, neurotic, and supremely irritating here – everything she says is actually true, but Delaney’s combination of wooden and overwrought results in her appearing to simply be a nag. Quite frankly, it’s difficult to not sympathise with Keith when he’s subjected to yet another impassioned speech of hers, and it’s a relief when Zontar finally takes her out.
There’s very little here that surpasses Corman’s film. The colour is a pleasant, if garish and obviously low-budget addition, although it makes the “night” scenes rather unrealistic. The comic relief included in Corman’s movie is brought over to Buchanan’s as well – the two dunderhead soldiers may have a familiar quaintness to them in It Conquered the World, but here they’re just dreadfully, embarrassingly unfunny. Everything here is tinged with cheapness and ineptitude – exposition is related via static, long takes in which one person listens to another deliver a lengthy speech, and there is little to engage the viewer. The acting definitely doesn’t, and the sets are basic and uninteresting, while the camera moves only when it really needs to. The result is a poorly paced, frequently dull movie; a testament to Buchanan’s lack of talent. He has, however, added a few extra scenes, predominantly those at the government installation that had previously lost control of the satellite that allowed Zontar to travel to Earth. Apart from that, it is a generally faithful remake, with two notable differences.
The first is Zontar itself. While Beluah the space carrot was never named in It Conquered the World, here, we find out its name. The final reveal, in the Venus-esque caves as before, shows Zontar to look nothing like a space carrot whatsoever, and more’s the pity. Beluah was naff, cheap and not even his permanently grumpy expression could make him appear scary, but it was at least memorable – Beluah is what distinguishes Corman’s movie as a cult classic rather than a standard addition to the world of 1950s sci-fi. In contrast, Zontar is a slimy, indistinct creature – we never properly get a moment to look at it, but it is evidently a person in a suit, and it has wings and a rather plaintive expression. In a way, it’s far more believable that Buchanan’s vision birthed the “insectapods” that attacked the important members of the town – Beluah had little in common with its own pod creatures – but it’s a weak substitute for the delightful kitsch appeal of Beluah and, although I’ve seen Zontar before, I couldn’t remember for one second what it looked like.
The second difference is Agar’s final voice-over, a long speech heard over a montage of dead bodies – the scientists, the wives, the policeman, the General (who doubly died, having been both shot and electrocuted). In fact, the death rate is far higher here – or at least, more explicit, and it would appear there is little hope despite Zontar being defeated. Offering the audience a slight glimmer of hope at the end of what has been a particularly bleak (if reasonably entertaining) film, Curt becomes uncharacteristically philosophical – this being the man who calmly shot his own wife earlier – and tells us that “Man is the greatest creature in the universe.” Wait, what? Yes, it turns out all this destruction and death has made him realise that us humans are totally awesome. Except, of course, there is a price. Poor Keith, he says, “learned that a measure of perfection can only be slowly attained, from within ourselves. He sought a different path, and found death… fire… disillusionment… loss. War, misery and strife have always been with us, and we shall always strive to overcome them. But the answer is to be found from within, not from without. It must come from learning; it must come from the very heart…” It’s a strange final message; bleak and hopeful; arrogant and humble; profound and inane at the same time – like the film itself, a bit of a garbled, confused mess, but perhaps there’s a nugget of truth in there somewhere. You’ve probably got Roger Corman to thank for that though.