Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Spotlight on "The Zanti Misfits"

by Steve Mitchell

Another chat with STEVE MITCHELL

Hi, Everybody! Here we go again with another commentary with me interviewing…me… about our favorite episode of THE OUTER LIMITS: “THE ZANTI MISFITS”

INT:  Hi, Steve! Thanks for going through this with me again.

STEVE:  No problem, Steve. This is after all, “The Zanti Misfits,” our favorite TOL outing.

INT: We’re nuts for it actually. You just watched it, soooo…how do you think it holds up?

STEVE: Really well. It has been quite a few years since I saw it last, and, frankly, I was worried that it would not be worthy of my unbridled enthusiasm. Often when you get to revisit TV faves created decades ago, time is not always a friend of the show. The style of the day regarding the writing, shooting, and acting, does not always “play” compared to shows on the air today.

INT: That is often true, but I have found that really good shows from back in the day are still generally good, if not even very good when watched today. The Zantis still hold up nicely.

STEVE: Good point, Steve, but that is not always the case. You know that.

INT: Giving me a hard time already? Anyway, let’s talk about when you first saw this show back on December 30, 1963. (Date courtesy of DAVID J. SCHOW’S masterpiece: THE OUTER LIMITS COMPANION.)

STEVE: I watched this show, as I usually did, alone and in the dark for that movie-theater-like experience. The teaser hooked me right away: you had Air Force personnel, a distorted and threatening alien voice, then a look at the alien spacecraft…a nice selection of my favorite TOL food groups. I was excited.

INT: It didn’t take much did it?

STEVE: I was a kid, for cripes’ sake! Also, not showing the ZANTIS was a smart move.

INT: Worked for me. Another interesting move was to transition from the clearly 1950’s SF tease to a great shot of an old Western town…

STEVE: Really knocks you off balance for a moment, until that Ford Galaxy races down that dusty backlot street.

INT: That was a nice storytelling curveball.

STEVE: Stefano was good at that.

INT: Let’s talk about the cast; some familiar and not so familiar faces.

STEVE: Michael Tolan was a guy I never saw before. My guess is that if I had watched a lot of ten o’clock dramas, especially those produced in NY, I would have known him. He looked like a smart guy and it was easy to buy him as a historian. May be one of the only times a historian was the protagonist /action hero in a network show.

INT: As a kid, I always got a weird vibe off CLAUDE WOOLMAN, and I remember thinking that he could have been an alien in human clothing. We did not know what the Zanti’s looked yet.

STEVE: Stranger things have happened on TOL! I was also half convinced that Woolman, at some point, might peel off his human face and reveal something other worldly.

INT: Kind of a goofy thought even for a kid.

STEVE: You would know.  Anyway, Woolman was not what I think of as a typical TV choice to play a military officer, especially one who was as hawkish as he was. PETER BRECK, or NEVILLE BRAND, for example, might have been better cast in that kind of role.  But Woolman certainly made it work.

INT: ROBERT F. SIMON looked pretty comfortable in his uniform

STEVE: Like a lot of character guys from back in the day. Simon was a great utility infielder sort of actor with a benign yet firm authority. He had what a lot of character actors brought to their roles; a sense of life lived with the experience and miles to back it up.

INT: This is a fitting description for OLIVE DEERING.

STEVE: And how! Did you know she was ALFRED RYDER’s younger sister?

INT: Check out “THE BORDERLAND” which was Ryder’s single TOL appearance, and you can see the family resemblance.

STEVE: Interesting that she has only three film/TV credits after her stint in this episode. Talk about gravitas, Ms. Deering really had the weight of the world on her shoulders. She really embodied how we “puny” humans have the capacity for self-loathing and destruction. A very haunting performance.

INT: Let’s not forget BRUCE DERN.

STEVE: How could we?! Part of why it is fun for me to watch older shows are to see stars in their larval stage(s). Dern really had the goods and that is what made him so effective in a small role. Sure his bread-and-butter was playing creeps and bad guys, but he was a canny screen actor and the camera always seems amused by him.

INT: So was the audience. But let’s put this high falutin’ actor stuff behind us and get to the real stars of this outing…

STEVE: The ZANTIS! Winners of my top five personal scariest kidhood memories!  First, they are creepy because they’re bugs! Bugs were and still are Kryptonite to me. When they attacked our intrepid heroes in the hotel they scared the poop out of me!

INT: Especially when that brave yet dumb AFP officer bounded up those stairs, fired a couple of shots, then reappeared screaming and covered with our alien buddies.

STEVE: I still get chills! In fact that whole climactic action sequence still gives me a tingle. It was also tense and exciting due in no small part to the first-rate direction of LEONARD HORN, who had a short but busy directing career. Sadly, he passed on at 48. He really used a lot of speed and cutting to create a satisfying battle, and waterloo for our six-legged friends.

INT: You are touching on one of the real delights of the series for me, which was the constant use of cinematic techniques to tell the story.

STEVE: Well, every show is really a little movie. The bar was set very high right from the pilot, and the show did not look like TV of the day with the usual proscenium arch approach of most shows.

INT: No matter who shot the episode, it was always hip-deep in clever and dramatic compositions and angles… 
STEVE: With such great lighting as well. I will always wonder what CONRAD HALL would have done with this show, just for fun, but JOHN NICKOLAUS really stepped up to the plate and did a swell job, I thought.

INT: You’re getting “arty” again. Let’s get back to the ZANTIS. How did you respond to them as a knuckle-biting kid?

STEVE: Six-legged bugs with human features?! They gave me the heebie–jeebies of course. Props to the sound-effects guys too for the Zanti vocal effects. If you don’t mind, I have a question for you.
INT: When did I lose control of this “chat?”

STEVE: Ever notice that the Zantis have facial hair?

INT: Sure. Such a great design, especially with those demonic eyes as well.

STEVE: I wonder if they were meant to have a subtly subversive beatnik sort of quality. Facial hair in the early sixties, especially goatees, were the look beatniks, musicians and artists had; kind of a counter-culture ID badge, if you will.

INT: The Zantis, right out of the spacecraft, were a menace to normal, decent earth society.

STEVE: Clearly these beatniks needed to be exterminated! Once again, TOL taps into societal fears that were a few years down the road before beatniks sort of morphed into hippies.

INT: One of the things I noticed on this viewing was the stop motion Zantis had very little screen time.

STEVE: Too bad, because a few more shots, especially in the climax might have been cool. Time and money probably limited the number of shots, but the PROJECTS UNLIMITED gang deserves a shout out for a job imaginatively done.

INT: When you are right. We’re running out of time so…final thoughts and rating?

STEVE: One of my favorite “monster movies” of all time. Sure the Zantis were small but they were deadly. I did wonder, even as a petrified kid, if they bit their victims to death or stung them? I should have asked JOE STEFANO when I met him years ago.

INT: I can’t believe you didn’t!

STEVE: When you’re right. Anyway, this was a snappy hour of suspense, fear, and action with an interesting moral question as well: What makes humans so good at destroying themselves? Just as interesting a question today as it was nearly a half century ago.

Our Rating: 3 and ½ Zantis


  1. STEVE--

    Humorous but very insightful; both you's guys covered lots of territory in this chat, making for delightful reading. Your description and summary of Robert Simon was especially spot-on.


  2. A very enjoyable trip, Steve--those little feelers sure have touched a lot of lives, bless 'em.

    You mentioned something no one's brought up yet, that I'd been thinking about. Always assumed the little buggers were packin' heat in the form of pretty potent venom. When you look at what some ants carry, at a fraction of their size, it makes sense. And it just seems from that climax--victims' reactions--that that's what the show is selling, and I think it works very effectively with that in mind.

    Good job, pal!

  3. Cool overview, my friend. Never thought of the Zants as beatniks/hippies to come; I figured those beards and such were attempts to make them "grizzled," a nod to the way hardened inmates are depicted in prison-break movies. But I actually prefer your "fear of renegade youth" parallel ("Kill all beatniks!"). Excellent point: Do Zantis bite or sting their victims? Perhaps some things are best left to the imagination...

  4. Hello Steve and Steve. I represent a group of insane and drunken OUTER LIMITS fans who intend to take over THE OUTER LIMITS a Day blog and remove Peter and John. We intend to replace them with you two guys. We have not forgotten the disrespect shown the Robert Howard story during the THRILLER A DAY.

    Our battle cry is "Remember Pigeons From Hell!"

  5. Hi Guys,

    Thanks for the props, but I love what Pete and John do even though I don't always agree with them. Besides the "two of us" would be overwhelmed by the daunting task of doing what they do every day. Okay...almost every day.

  6. I love what John and Peter do and I always agree with them.

  7. And now for the rest of the story.
    (I channeled the Limbo guy for this info; that dude knows everything.)

    Not all of the Zanti's were bumped off by the air force guys.
    Several cowardly Zantis scuttled off into the dusty sunset as soon as the penal ship landed on the ghost town roof.
    They managed to reach Nevada just in time for an atomic bomb test.
    The radiation from the blast zapped the little buggers and in no time at all you had fifty foot Zantis.
    Rumor has it that they are caged up deep inside Area 51.

    Tim Fonseca

  8. I'd say you really slay me, but in honor of this particular episode's recurring theme, let's say instead that you are mine own executioner.

  9. "Do Zantis bite or sting their victims?"
    As I said elsewhere, one of the odd moments for me is when the characters themselves seem to blow the chance of finding out, by building that Zanti funeral pyre!

    I definitely agree about Robert F. Simon's General Hart. Maybe his name is wordplay, because he's one of the most "pacifist" army generals in any SF story. I always like the line "I'LL have to take the chance? What about the man I send?"

  10. Here are some little-known but unverified facts about this episode :)

    * The given name for the Planet Zanti is Zant; Zanti is actually a nickname. Zanti was chosen as the planet's name to make it less than obvious that the planet was named for an ant. It's also because it rhymes with "auntie", as in "Zanti Mame". The large mounds of earth and rock near the Zanti spaceship are known as "zanthills".

    * The inspiration for the humanoid faces on the Zantis was the 1958 horror film "The Fly", which featured, near the end of the film, a fly with the head and arm of a human being (Al Hedison). However, the fly even sounded human ("Help me! Help me!"), having exchanged atoms with a scientist, whereas the Zantis only buzzed, disturbingly so. "The Fly" then evolved, or de-evolved (either word is correct depending upon your point of view) into the 1986 film version, in which the entire scientist becomes a hybrid of a fly and a human being.

    * Ben, the Bruce Dern character, didn't use the gun in the glove compartment to attack or defend against the Zanti Misfits, because he knew it wasn't loaded.

  11. I watched the Zamti buggers again this A.M. Excellent ep, with some parts soo much better the others, but that's a minor criticism. Michael Tolan looks bored as hell as the historian (!). He had good empathy with Olive Deering but otherwise was a drag.

    Agreed on Robert F. Simon as the general. I can't help but wonder how this one would have played with, say, Leif Erickson as the general. Different vibe; more authoritative, no warmth. Simon was the better choice here.

    I love Olive Deering's seeming channeling of a wacky Tennessee Williams gal, and doing a grand job of it.

    The Zanti misfits stole the show, though. and played, whether individually or en masse on our primal fears of things that crawl. They looked and acted like something out of a nightmare, and their final scenes near the end were superbly, er,--orchestrated?


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