Latitude Zero has a plot and it has action but all that pales in comparison to the costumes, sets, and fetishy undertone of the film. Men dressed in gold lamé jumpsuits, chains, and thigh-high leather boots battle it out with women dressed in rubber miniskirts and see-through latex capes. It is truly a sight to see. The film is an Ishirô Honda production. He’s the fellow behind Godzilla but in Latitude Zero all the rubber that would have gone into making Kaiju costumes goes into sartorial splendor.
I was unable to find any individual credits for costume or set design, but surely they deserve higher billing than the writers or the actors. Not to put too fine a point on it but what the writers deserve is some grade school, science classes. Yes, I know it’s science fiction but there are some things that are just a little hard to swallow in Latitude Zero.
The special gold jumpsuits that the hero’s don are supposed to be made of gold and platinum. It would be hard to imagine two more ill-suited materials for making clothing. It would break and tear and be monstrously heavy never mind the heat that would build up inside, but I suppose we all have to make sacrifices if we want to look good.
Other affronts to science include a bath that not only makes the bather bulletproof but when shot at point-blank range he or she doesn’t even feel the bullet’s impact. Oh! And you can catch the bullet when it bounces off. In addition, much of the film takes place miles down at the bottom of the ocean but no one needs pressure suits to swim around. Simple scuba gear and bathing suits suffice, but the coup de grâce was when the villain, the evil Doctor Malick, was doing his Dr. Moreau impression. He sews a vulture’s wings onto a lion and when the poor creature wakes up it opens its mouth and out comes a combination lion roar and vulture squawk. I mean really.
Even though the resulting griffon is hastily sewn together in an operation lasting less than half an hour and in less than sanitary conditions Dr. Malick manages to not only collage the two beasts together but transplant a human brain into the poor thing as well. Then it wakes up and immediately flies away. I hope those stitches hold. I will say that the lion, the vulture, the resulting griffin, a horde of giant rat people, and two bat/German-Shepherd/human creatures provide even more opportunities for the costume designers to strut their stuff. The creatures may all look like deranged plush toys, and sometimes you can see the zippers but the entertainment value just overpowers your sense of reason.
The brain donor for the griffon is the evil general Lucretia. She is the captain of a submarine called the Black Shark. She goes around dressed as a dominatrix complete with riding crop and high heels. Her crew is comprised of cute, little, minion boys dressed in rubber aprons. They don’t do much, mostly they just stand around looking fabulous.
The soundtrack has some interesting choices. Much of the film takes place in submarines and the interior scenes are marked by clarinet music. For some reason, clarinets are the goto instrument in science fiction films. The exterior shots in Latitude Zero entail a full symphony orchestra and lots of trombones. The interesting part is when they are visiting the good guys who live in a highly rarefied, underwater, utopia we are treated to long passages of harpsichord music. I think that the sound of the harpsichord is meant to make the place seem “classy” and “sophisticated.” Harpsichords are associated with Louis IX or Mozart minuets, so playing them while we watch people promenade in a modernist dream world is supposed to elevate the whole thing.
In this underwater utopia every human need has been sated, every problem solved and everyone walks around in gold bikinis and stiff grins like they are on Barney. Everyone lives in castles, there is no pollution, food appears from a slot in the wall like the replicators on Star Trek, and the sun is on a timer. It also seems that the nubile. young women in this perfect society prefer to pair off with pudgy, middle-aged men. Whose utopia is this?
In a nutshell, the good guys live in their secret utopia at the bottom of the sea inventing spectacular technologies and smiling all the time. Dr. Maleck lives on Blood Island and wants to steal all the utopia’s secrets. They have been battling for years unknown to the surface world until a few well-dressed humans stumble into the whole affair.
The end of the film is truly bizarre. The hard-nosed reporter who witnesses this whole undersea world returns to the surface wanting to show us, surface dwellers, the pictures he has taken and tell the amazing story of Blood Island. While making his way back to the surface the film cuts to a stock footage montage of violent and bloody war reportage. It’s not clear why but I think it is meant to show the contrast between the undersea utopia and our dark reality.
Either way, it feels completely out of place. Once the reporter reaches the surface he is rescued by a passing warship. It turns out all his film is blank and as a result, no one believes him. The strange part is the inclusion of the Wizard of Oz ending where everyone on the ship looks exactly like the people he encountered under the sea but denies any knowledge of what the reporter is talking about.
The film was based on a radio serial that ran in 1941. The film Latitude Zero was made in 1969 through a collaboration between American and Japanese production companies. As the progenitors of kaiju films. Toho studios brought a wealth of experience building detailed miniature models to stand in for the submarines, and much of the terrain.
Doctor Maleck was played by none other than Cesar Romero. The role is almost identical to his role as The Joker in the Batman television series. There’s less makeup and the laughing is replaced with leering, but it’s the same larger than life acting. I suppose there isn’t much else you can do when faced with having to operate on a giant stuffed lion.
I would guess that Latitude Zero was targeting what is now referred to as the tween set. When catering to a young crowd the plausibility bar is set quite low, in this case, they just dropped it on the floor. This is the secret to the film’s entertainment. Once we are transported to a world where a bath can make you bulletproof we can let ourselves fantasize freely. It’s like the difference between imagining that you have won the lottery or found a magic genie who can grant you wishes. One has logistics and parameters, the other doesn’t.
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