What do you get when you mix a plot that seems borrowed from Jules Verne with comic book style heroes and villains that would make Batman envious, costume designs that could be right out of Mario Bava’s Diabolik, combined with a mad dash of James Bond and pulp style adventure? You get the terrifically fun and entertaining Japanese science fiction and fantasy film Latitude Zero (Ido zero daisakusen, 1969) directed by Ishiro Honda!
Honda’s name should be recognizable to most fans of Japanese science fiction films since he’s responsible for the original Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) and many other terrific movies including Rodan (Sora no daikaijû Radon, 1956), The Mysterians (Chikyu Boeigun, 1957), Mothra (Mosura, 1961), Attack of the Mushroom People (Matango, 1963) and Frankenstein Conquers the World (Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon, 1965).
Latitude Zero is an often-overlooked film in Honda’s impressive body of work and considered a lesser science fiction effort from Toho Studios. The movie definitely has its flaws, including some of the most shoddy looking movie monsters you’re likely to ever see. But the entertainment value, great cast and amazing look of the sets more than make up for the film’s flaws. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that they sort of add to the film’s unusual charm. Thankfully a new audience of science fiction fans will be able to discover Latitude Zero and make up their own minds about the movie since Media Blasters has recently released a spectacular two disc DVD presentation of the film with lots of terrific bonus materials including two versions of Latitude Zero (the original Japanese release with English subtitles and the original American release in English), interviews with the Japanese film crew and an image gallery.
In 1969 Ishiro Honda made Latitude Zero at Toho Studios with a Japanese crew and American producers and writers. One of these producers was fellow director Don Sharp. Although Sharp is only credited with producing Latitude Zero, the movie often seems more like a collaborative effort between both men since it differs from Honda’s previous films in various ways. Don Sharp made many entertaining genre movies during the sixties such as Curse of the Fly (1965), The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), Our Man in Marrakesh (1966), Rocket to the Moon (1967) and Psychomania (1971). He also made two good films for Hammer Studios (The Kiss of the Vampire, 1963 and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, 1966) and directed episodes of terrific television shows like The Avengers and The Champions. Sharp’s creative influence on Latitude Zero seems rather hard to miss and he may have contributed some of his own ideas to the film.
These are just assumptions on my part and the interviews with the Japanese crew members that appear on the new DVD don’t confirm my suspicions. They do make it clear that the American and Japanese film crews had trouble working together. In the interviews that appear on the DVD the Japanese crew complains a lot about the way Hollywood was making films in the sixties. Compared to Japan where directors were often given full control of the movies they made, American producers were used to having control and making creative decisions. Producers clearly flexed their financial muscles on the set of Latitude Zero and this clash of basic movie-making sensibilities obviously caused a lot of tension between the international cast and crew. I only wish Media Blasters had included some interviews with the American crew on the new DVD so viewers could hear their side of the fascinating behind-the-scene action on the Latitude Zero set.
Latitude Zero begins when a couple of scientists (Akira Takarada and Masumi Okada) and one American reporter (Richard Jaeckel) find themselves lost at sea after an underwater explosion and are rescued by a submarine run by Captain Craig McKenzie (Jospeh Cotten) along with his beautiful assistant Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Haynes) and tough henchman (Susumu Kurobe). Captain McKenzie takes the three men to a mysterious underwater world known as Latitude Zero where scientists and artists have secretly gathered together to create an international utopian society without government interference. Of course, all is not well in Latitude Zero and the men soon find out that the utopian city is under constant attack from an evil genius known as Malic (Cesar Romero) and his two wicked mistresses Lucretia (Patricia Medina) and Kroger (Hikaru Kuroki). After Malic kidnaps another Japanese scientist and his daughter who are making their way to Latitude Zero, Captain McKenzie invites the three men to strap on some jet packs and head out on a mission to save the scientist and his daughter with the hope of putting an end to Malic’s reign of terror. As the adventure unfolds the men are forced to fight off giant bloodthirsty rats, man-like bat creatures and finally a strange giant size beast that is part lion and part vulture.
The film takes a somewhat unusual anti-war stance that is probably due to the times in which it was made. In 1969 the American war in Vietnam was raging and parts of Japan were still under American occupation. Students in both countries were often involved in protests against the war. In the film, the citizens of Latitude Zero don’t use violence against their enemies. Instead of aggressively attacking them, they mostly use protective measures and the idea of a peaceful utopian culture that is home to multiple people from various nations must have seemed extremely appealing at the time.
As I mentioned above, the film brings together a wonderful international cast that includes many popular Japanese actors who appeared in countless science fiction and fantasy films, as well as the great American actor Joseph Cotten and his real-life wife, the talented actress Patricia Medina. Cotten is one of my favorite actors and I love watching him in anything, so I really enjoyed him as Captain Craig McKenzie even if he’s obviously a little too old for the role. Patricia Medina manages to steal just about every scene she’s in with Cesar Romero and both actors seem to really be enjoying themselves on the set. Supposedly Cotten and Medina decided to appear in the film so they could work together and spend time in Japan, but unfortunately they only have one scene together in the movie.
The amazing Eiji Tsuburaya was responsible for the special effects in Latitude Zero and he did a great job on many of the miniatures and set designs, but much of the film’s backdrops are made up of impressive matte paintings. The creature designs on the other hand leave a lot to be desired. Most of the monsters featured in the movie are obviously men wearing rather shabby costumes or poorly constructed puppets. The climactic battle at the end of the film is somewhat marred by a lion with vulture wings that looks like it belongs on the Island of Misfit Toys created by Rankin/Bass for their Christmas special Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).
Even with its obvious flaws, muddled script and ridiculous plot-twists, Latitude Zero has a lot to offer adventurous viewers and I’m really glad that Media Blasters has made the effort to release the film in a lavish two disc collection DVD package. The new Media Blasters DVD marks the first time that this film has been made available to American audiences in any format and it’s easily one of my favorite DVD releases of the year. The restored widescreen print of the film looks fantastic and I was also impressed with their choice to use the original Japanese poster art for the DVD case. If you’re a fan of Japanese Tokusatsu films or just want to see an entertaining science fiction and fantasy movie with a good cast, then I highly recommend giving the movie a look. Latitude Zero is currently available from Amazon for only $14.99 (it normally retails for $19.95).
If you’d like to see more screen shots from the film please visit my Latitude Zero Flickr Gallery. The movie contains so much fabulous eye-candy that I hard time selecting which images to share.