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Plot: secret agent investigates disappearances in Scotland. Hilarity ensues!

Hailed as the ultimate in 60s kitsch and camp Zeta One had disaster written all over it. Produced by Tigon on an estimated budget of £60,000 Zeta One was a genre hybrid that could only have materialized in the late sixties. Written and directed by first timer Michael Cort and based on a story from Michael Glassman’s shortlived 1968 “photo fantasy” magazine Zeta – a publication somewhere between a glamour photography magazine and a science fiction serial – it largely was a preamble to get the assembled starlets out of their clothes with the thinnest veneer of a story. In all likelihood Zeta One is the single most memorable and bonkers gathering of future Hammer babes. Imagine what Pete Walker, Norman J. Warren, or Jesús Franco could have conjured up with that budget, a truckload of expensive Saarinen designer furniture, art-deco sets and about every bosomy British starlet of note at their disposal. This should, by all accounts, have been the ultimate knickers and knockers sexploitation romp of the decade. Zeta One lampoons not only the nascent James Bond franchise, it also spoofs science-fiction from a decade before, and is a psychotronic take on that old Mexican romp Planet of the Female Invaders (1966) or a gender-swapped variation on the Larry Buchanan space romp Mars Needs Women (1967). The abundance of skin, Valerie Leon in next to nothing, and the sheer concentration of British pulp celebrity cannot mask that Zeta One is virtually plotless, frequently incomprehensible, and terminally boring.

The late sixties were a unique time in the history of British cinema. The studio system of the prior decade had collapsed, the Summer Of Love heralded a new era of permissiveness and the porno chic was the latest vogue. The little players were forcing the hand of the old houses and daring them to follow brazen new directions they wouldn’t otherwise. Pete Walker, Norman J. Warren, and Tigon shepherded horror and exploitation into a new era of excess, where any story could be improved by adding a gratuitous helping of blood and boobs. Some ideas look good on paper but don’t hold up under closer scrutiny. Zeta One is one such case where all elements for a theoretical box office smash are present, but for some reason they never quite gelled and the production never became more than the sum of its various parts. Helmed by Michael Cort and Alistair McKenzie, first-time director and writer, respectively – Zeta One was anchored by a bevy of bosomy British belles in a permanent state of undress. Yet the promise of so much naked flesh wasn’t enough. Zeta One sank to the murky depths of imagination from whence it came. Zeta One is the Holy Grail of British exploitation and not to be missed.

In the late sixties Tigon British Film Productions had some minor successes with Witchfinder General (1968) and the Lovecraft adaptation Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) and would have in the following years with The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), Au Pair Girls (1972), and The Creeping Flesh (1973). Zeta One capitalized on three cinematic trends of the day: the burgeoning Eurospy cycle that followed in the wake of the James Bond episodes Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965); the renewed interest in all things science fiction following Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Roger Vadim’s sexy space romp Barbarella (1968) from the Jean-Claude Forest comic of the same name (which was particularly successful in the UK); and bawdy sex comedies as School For Sex (1969) made in response to the laxer censorship regulations and the permissive sexual mores following the Sexual Revolution. If all of that wasn’t a crazy enough combination by itself Zeta One tops it off by being a brief feminist fable and women’s liberation fantasy in tradition of British spy romps as The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967), and Deadlier Than the Male (1967). Under the auspices of a better filmmaker Zeta One could have worked as a delicate balancing act. Alas, Michael Cort was furthest from an experienced director and he would never direct anything again. Ever. Without Zeta One the world would never have known The Girl From Rio (1969), or lovably zany excursions into science fiction pulp as Luigi Cozzi’s candy-colored StarCrash (1979) or William Sach’s equally insane spoof Galaxina (1980).

Returning home from an undisclosed mission Section 5 secret agent James Word (Robin Hawdon) is surprised to find company secretary Ann Olsen (Yutte Stensgaard) waiting to debrief him. The two engage in friendly banter, a good amount of drinking and smoking, and a bout of strip poker ensues wherein Ann ends up disrobing completely. The two inevitably end up between the sheets and Ann at long last comes around to inquiring about the more salient details of Word’s most recent investigation in Scotland. W (Lionel Murton) assigned Word the case of Major Bourdon (James Robertson Justice), an underground figure, who himself was conducting an investigation into a string of disappearances around London. In order to find the abductors whereabouts Bourdon learns from his second-in-command Swyne (Charles Hawtrey) that the next intended target is burlesque dancer Edwina 'Ted' Strain (Wendy Lingham).

W orders Wordon to protect Ted by all means necessary and thus discovers that most of the abductions are conducted by Atropos (Valerie Leon) and Lachesis (Brigitte Skay). Word deduces that the Angvians abduct terrestrial women to repopulate their own dimension as they have no biological manner of reproduction. What Word doesn’t know is that a deep undercover agent named Clotho (Anna Gaël) is using her womanly wiles to manipulate the intelligence community. Bourdon’s goons figure that the only way to lure the agents from the interdimensional realm of Angvia to Earth is by using Edwina as bait. With various Angvians minions taken prisoner over the course of the operation queen Zeta (Dawn Addams) is left with no other option but to initiate “Action 69” and let her armies of war descend screaming for the heavens upon the Scottish estate where the stately Bourdon manor is located. Word relays to Clotho how he showed up just in time to witness the aftermath of said fierce battle which prompts her to reveal her true motives. Clotho teleports James back to Angvia where he’s rewarded for his bravery with an eternity of fornication with all of the realm’s most carefully selected and perfectly proportioned belles.

No matter how nonsensical or ridiculous Zeta One gets it’s custodian to some truly outstanding production design from Martin Gascoigne. A better director would have made better use of Gascoigne’s combination of high-end Finnish plastic vacuform furniture from the Knoll line, shimmering foil walls and flashing multi-coloured chequer-board lights. Zeta One was filmed at a semi-converted wallpaper factory that was Euroscan’s Camden Studios in North London owned by producer George Maynard and Michael Cort. When production wrapped as Cort went over-budget and over time Tigon had around an hour’s worth of incoherent material in the can. Zeta One was buried in the Tigon vaults about 18 months before an attempt was made to salvage the project. A 20-minute long framing story was shot with a returning Robin Hawdon and Yutte Stensgaard as the company secretary tasked with debriefing him. It was a decent enough attempt to make something out of nothing but it’s a sad day indeed when not even a bare naked Yutte Stensgaard can manage to liven up proceedings this dreadfully dull. Like the remainder of the cast in the main portion of the feature Stensgaard was never shy about disrobing. As disjointed and detached from the main portion as it feels the 20 minute opening at least is halfway entertaining despite its static nature. Which brings us to the only reason to even bother tracking down a copy of Zeta One

The women are universally and uniformly delectable and can be seen almost wearing suede mini-dresses and white, thigh-high boots whereas the storm troops wear nothing but long black wigs, the skimpiest purple knickers and nipple tassels. It truly looks as insane as it sounds. Yutte Stensgaard, Brigitte Skay, Valerie Leon, Kirsten Lindholm, Gilly Grant and Anna Gaël all can be seen in various stages of undress with Dawn Addams appearing peripherally. First, there are the three girls that went on to become Hammer Film babes. Yutte Stensgaard featured in If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969), and Some Girls Do (1969) the same year and would go to star in Lust for a Vampire (1971). Brigitte Skay debuted in Sexy Baby (1968) and her post-Zeta One resumé includes the Mario Bava giallo A Bay Of Blood (1971), the Italian blockbuster Homo Eroticus (1971), and the Luigi Batzella giallo Blackmail (1974) and his il sadiconazista The Beast In Heat (1977). Valerie Leon would famously star in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), as well as the popular Carry On (1958-1992) comedies, and was at one point tipped to play Vampirella. Dawn Addams was the elder stateswoman who had starred in Fritz Lang’s murder mystery The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) and The Vampire Lovers (1970). Of the many Angvia extras Kirsten Lindholm (then still Kirsten Betts) and Gilly Grant are by far the most retroactively famous. Lindholm went on to play supporting roles in the Karnstein trilogy The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971). Grant was a veteran of Pete Walker sexploitation with roles in The Big Switch (1968) and School For Sex (1969). Gilly would end up in the Lindsay Shonteff actioner Clegg (1970) as well as the considerably more high profile Carry On Matron (1972). Second, none pulled off quite the trajectory as Hungarian import Anna Gaël.

Anna Gaël was born in September 1943 in Budapest, Hungary as Anna Abigail Gyarmarthy. Gaël debuted in 1962 and starred in a number of Hungarian, German, and French films before landing in the art film Therese and Isabelle (1968) and the World War II epic The Bridge at Remagen (1969) before starring in Zeta One. Most notably she could be seen in the terror film The Woman Is a Stranger (1968), the forgotten giallo The Rage Within (1969), and the French vampire spoof Dracula and Son (1976). Gaël first met Alexander Thynn, Viscount Weymouth in Paris, France in 1959 and would remain his mistress even though she herself was married to French film director Gilbert Pineau at the time. Gaël married Thynn at a London registry office in 1969 and in the process became Anna Thynn, the Marchioness of Bath. Gaël semi-retired from acting in 1970 and reinvented herself as a war correspondent covering conflicts in Vietnam, South Africa, and Northern Ireland. Thynn continued acting sporadically until retiring officially in 1981 after which she disappeared completely from the silver screen. Charles Hawtrey was another veteran of the British screen with credits dating as far back as 1922. From the middle until the end of his career Hawtrey was another regular in the Carry On (1958-1992) franchise with which he remained until 1972. More tragic is seeing James Robertson Justice in pseudo-softcore dreck as this. Justice had a long and storied career on both sides of the Atlantic and appeared in Vice Versa (1948), The Black Rose (1950), Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), David and Bathsheba (1951), Anne of the Indies (1951), the Doctor franchise (1954-1970), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), the multi Academy Award-winning World War II epic The Guns of Navarone (1961), and the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

Alistair McKenzie never wrote anything again, and who can blame him? A race of comically large-breasted, Amazon women abduct terrestrial women to repopulate their dimension and are aided in doing so by a bumbling, clumsy, womanizing secret agent. It’s practically a science fiction riff on Jess Franco’s Red Lips two-parter Two Undercover Angels (1969) and Kiss Me, Monster (1969). By 1969 James Bond was a veritable cultural juggernaut, Sean Connery’s tenure as the secret agent had come to a close after 5 movies and On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) saw George Lazenby taking over the role. Casino Royale (1967) was the earliest Bond spoof and for a while Italy and Spain took the lead in ridiculing the very target-rich spy-action genre. There’s an M character named W, there’s James Word (“his word is our bond!”) and the usual bevy of bosomy British beauties. In a bout of typically British humour the dimension the women hail from is called Angvia (an anagram of, yes, you guessed it, vagina).

For no discernable reason Anna Gaël, Brigitte Skay, and Valerie Leon play characters named after the Greek goddesses of fate and destiny, the Moirai, or the Three Fates. While they constitute principal players in the plot their Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos bear no meaningful semblance to their mythological counterparts. The idea is certainly present but McKenzie never fleshes out (there’s plenty of opportunity to ogle their bared flesh, though) their, or any other, character enough to truly amount to anything. Yet as completely and utterly bonkers as Zeta One is most of the time, it’s quite unbelievable just how boring it is seeing Yutte Stensgaard lose her clothes in the world’s most artificially protracted game of strip poker. At least you get a gander at Stensgaard’s perfectly-shaped ass as a well-deserved bonus. You’d imagine that seeing top-heavy Valerie Leon (who just like her fellow Vampirella prospect Caroline Munro never did any on-screen nudity) strut around the English woodside in the tiniest purple bikini bottoms and pasties would elicit more fireworks, yet no sparks erupt. Likewise is it easy, and completely understandable, to confuse Yutte Stensgaard with Anna Gaël. Neither really has much in the way of defining characteristics. Granted, there’s definitely something about seeing this many UK starlets disrobed so frequently. Zeta One is the kind of production that could only have been greenlit in the late sixties…

Zeta One puts exploitation back in exploitation movie. There are more than enough funbags for any warmblooded male but none of it is particularly fun. Had director Michael Cort and scriptwriter Alistair McKenzie actually had any clue this could have served as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of all the cheap science fiction and spy-action productions masquerading as alternatives to James Bond, Bulldog Drummond, and their lesser imitators. What should have been a British counterpart to the popart decadence, unbridled sensuality, and boundless swagger of Piero Schivazappa's The Laughing Woman (1969) (with Dagmar Lassander) instead became, more than anything, a cautionary tale of everything that could go wrong during film production. Not even a flamethrower, a chainsaw, or Valerie Leon’s barely-there war bikini could salvage the flaming hot mess that is Zeta One.

If Zeta One is anything (it’s a whole lot of nothing the rest of the time), it’s a spiritual precursor to Pete Walker’s hugely entertaining proto-slasher The Flesh and Blood Show (1972). If the late Russ Meyer or Andy Sidaris ever came around to making a science fiction romp it would probably have looked something like this. It’s seldom that exploitationers are boring, but Zeta One charts new highs… or lows, rather. In a post-Barbarella (1968) world the most natural response to the James Bond spoof craze was something as thoroughly and unflinchingly British as Zeta One. And the craziest thing of all? Italy didn’t try to imitate it en masse by the very next month. Germany would duly attempt such a thing with the mildly insane 2069 – A Sex Odyssey (1974) prompting Britain to its own with The Girl From Starship Venus (1975). Somebody had to lay the groundwork and Michael Cort was the one to do it.

Plot: scientists investigate occurrences at cursed manor. Hilarity ensues!

Bloodbath at the House Of Death has gotten a bad rep over the years, or ever since it came out in 1984. Margaret Thatcher had come out victorious in a landslide re-election and during the second term faced the National Union of Mineworkers 1984–85 miners' strike and survived an assassination attempt by the Provisional IRA in the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing. Britain crumbled under a crippling economic recession and experienced inflation and rising unemployment. Thatcher’s Torie administration proposed legislation touting deregulation, privatization and entrepreneurialism as the solutions to get the country up and running again. No wonder then that entertainment became lighter and Bloodbath at the House Of Death is a good example of just that. Whatever its merits it was tragically overshadowed upon general release by controversial comments made on a public forum by the creative force behind it. Granted, this is not some underseen classic that has remained buried for many years but as far as semi-comedic horror spoofs go, it’s actually wonderfully on-point.

Great Britain has a long history in horror. From the days of Hammer, Tigon, and Amicus to maverick independents as Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren. Spoofs have been around since the dawn of cinema and horror – rife with larger-than-life villains and never-changing plot contrivances and ur-character archetypes – always was a target-rich environment and ripe for a good ridiculing. The man behind Bloodbath at the House Of Death was Kenny Everett. Everett was an openly right-wing and closeted gay media personality who found fame as a DJ on BBC Radio 1 and who hosted his namesake shows The Kenny Everett Video Show, The Kenny Everett Television Show on BBC1 and The Kenny Everett Radio Show on BBC Radio 2.

Kenny Everett and Cleo Rocos in 1988

Everett was a consummate and versatile performer who specialized in lewd humor. He apparently also was something of an avid horror fan. Bloodbath at the House Of Death is a spoof of English – and American horror but does not limit itself to the confines of that genre alone. With Everett anyone and anything was and is a possible target. Sadly, Bloodbath at the House Of Death saw a troubled general release and was perhaps unwittingly sabotaged by the man himself when he embarked upon an unhinged "Let's bomb Russia!" tirade at the Young Conservatives during the 1983 general election. For this Everett was goaded by director Michael Winner and the legacy media and moral arbiters of the day embarked upon a veritable witch-hunt and critically savaged Bloodbath at the House Of Death in retaliation. Was that undeserved? Well, that depends on what you want it to be. It’s not as if this was some long lost classic or forgotten masterpiece.

Joining Everett and his frequent collaborator and assistant Cleo Rocos are domestic comedy fixtures Sheila Steafel, John Fortune, Barry Cryer, Pamela Stephenson, and sometime Page 3 girl Debbie Linden. Linden was one of the curvaceous cuties frequently on display with Benny Hill on The Benny Hill Show (1978) and Debs could also be ogled on The Dick Emery Comedy Hour in 1979. Linden was a hostess on game shows 3-2-1 (1978-1987) and Give Us a Clue (1979) and could frequently be seen in the Tennent’s Lager commercials during the 1980s. She got her start in the movies with Pete Walker’s Home Before Midnight (1979) and The Wildcats of St Trinian's (1980). As a Page 3 Girl she posed topless in The Sun and Daily Star in 1981 and thanks to her newfound fame (relative as it was) she landed the role of Old Mr. Grace's saucy secretary for a 5-episode arc in 1981 on the series Are You Being Served? (1972-1985). Problems were looming as miss Linden had developed an alcohol and cocaine dependency for some years prior and around this time was living life in the fast lane as she was dating Lemmy from legendary heavy rockers Motörhead. Towards the end of the decade legal problems caught up with her as Linden was issued a suspended prison sentence for a fraud case leading Debbie to become homeless and twice attempting to take her own life. She was interred at Kingston Cemetery, Greater London. Bloodbath at the House Of Death also marked the last British film appearance of horror legend Vincent Price who had just come off his spoken word bit on Michael Jackson’s Grammy Award-winning smash hit ‘Thriller’ and relished in the part.

North Surrey. August the 12th, 1975. “Thursday… give or take a day”. Headstone Manor, a "businessman's weekend retreat and girls summer camp", is cloaked in night. Out of the nearby woods robed monk-like figures materialize. The monks burst into the mansion violently slaughtering anyone and everyone within sight. When the monks’ bloodwork is done 18 residents have met their untimely end. Some are shot, others are stabbed, slashed, hung, and defenestrated. Nobody is spared. When a nubile maiden (Debbie Linden) offers her curves for clemency she too finds herself among the victims. The next day the police arrive to investigate. Inspector Sidney Smyth (David Lodge) can find not a single clue that could explain the reason for the mass carnage and sudden onslaught of homicide. The chief (Barry Cryer) is equally puzzled. Since then locals consider Headstone Manor curse referring to it only as the House of Death. Eight years later Dr. Lukas Mandeville (Kenny Everett) and his high-strung assistant Barbara Coyle (Pamela Stephenson) are compelled to investigate strange radioactive readings in the area. For this they have put together a crack team of the brightest minds – John Harrison (Jone Fortune), Sheila Finch (Sheila Steafel), upper middle class and flamboyantly gay scientists Elliot Broome (Gareth Hunt), Stephen Wilson (Don Warrington), as well as neutral observers Henry Noland (John Stephen Hill) and Deborah Kedding (Cleo Rocos) – and take to setting up the required equipment. What they don’t know is that the Sinister Man (Vincent Price) and his blood cult still roam the foggy woods and have taken up residence in the bowels of the palatial mansion.

The main plot was meant as an obvious spoof on old those Universal haunted house evergreens as House On Haunted Hill (1959), The Haunting (1963) and The Legend of Hell House (1973) and it plays out like the then-popular slasher. By the mid-eighties the Satanic Panic hadn’t really subsided and the Satanic cult subplot feels straight out of The Masque of the Red Death (1964), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Black Magic Rites (1973) and Satan’s Slave (1976). Once all that established Bloodbath at the House Of Death then, in no particular order, pokes fun at An American Werewolf in London (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Jaws (1975), The Invisible Man (1933), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), City Of the Dead (1960), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Tingler (1959), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), The Exorcist (1973), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Carrie (1976), Alien (1979), The Amityville Horror (1979), Friday the 13th (1980), Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Shining (1980), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Entity (1982), and even Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Everett took an everything but the kitchen sink approach and while there a commendable avalanche of visual gags, slapstick and situational comedy not all jokes quite land and the entire thing is incredibly puerile. The corkscrew decapitation is splattery fun, Debbie Linden’s role as a bosomy babe is hilarious and we got a chuckle out of the “maybe a slap to the face will help?” scene. It’s almost impossible to fathom that Peter Jackson wasn’t aware of or hadn’t seen this and We’re Going to Eat You (1980) when he was envisioning his Bad Taste (1987).

There’s no contesting that Kenny Everett in all likelihood was the funniest man on British TV in the eighties. The leap to the big screen was both inevitable and expected yet his brand of lewd humor didn’t translate well to the big screen. When the jokes don’t land at least there are Cleo Rocos and Debbie Linden bouncing around but they only can do so much. While Bloodbath at the House Of Death is a decent enough horror spoof it never quite reaches the lofty heights of Blazing Saddles (1974), Spaceballs (1987) nor Naked Gun (1988-1994). Hell, Satan's Cheerleaders (1977), Nocturna (1979) and Galaxina (1980) parodied their chosen genres better and were funnier on average. Perhaps it’s telling that after this Everett never ventured into cinema again. A good spoof knows what conventions to ridicule or how to use its parodying to move the story forward. The Satanic cult subplot is genuinely funny, as are the riffs on Alien (1979) and Ghostbusters (1984). Things get a bit random towards the end where Everett throws just about everything but the kitchen sink at the viewer in hope that something will stick. For a movie called Bloodbath at the House Of Death it leans on spoofing science fiction an awful lot. If you’re expecting a parody on Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) or Amicus' And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973) – look elsewhere. Kenny Everett was a fine comedian, but this should’ve been better.