For years, Latitude Zero was something of a Holy Grail of Toho monster flicks, at least for me, much along the same lines as Destroy All Monsters (1968) had been before ADV finally graced the market with a VHS release in 1998. Unlike Destroy All Monsters (1968), however, information on Latitude Zero was comparatively sparse, and I knew only that it had mutant beasties of every shape, a mysterious island, and an epic scope. The film itself would remain beyond my grasp for what seemed countless epochs, apparently due to legal issues that tied the movie up for decades.
But what a movie to be denied! Latitude Zero was directed by the legendary Ishiro Honda, from a screenplay by Them! writer Ted Sherdeman (based on his 1941 radio play), which is a truly potent genre combination indeed—enough to make a classic sci-fi movie geek's head explode. And it gets better! Latitude Zero has special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, music by Akira Ifukube, stars Cesar Romero (the Joker from the old Batman show!), and is even filmed entirely in English! No goofy dub necessary—unless you watch it in Japanese! Latitude Zero was meant to be watched in English! Akira Takarada and Akihiko Hirata speak their own English lines! Not to mention an island full of mutated monsters, underwater super-submarine battles, jet packs, power-glove weapons of destruction, and more. Much more. Oh, cruel, cruel fate! How could you keep me from this movie for so long?! No wonder I almost, almost bought the super-expensive Japanese release while I was over there in the Land of the Rising Sun…
Our story begins with a group of scientists conducting experiments underwater via bright yellow bathysphere. We are quickly introduced to our stalwart protagonists—the implacable Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada), French heartthrob Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada), and the inevitable obnoxious journalist, Perry Lawton, played by… Baywatch's Richard Jaeckel. Too bad for them they have lousy timing; just as their bathysphere nears the ocean floor, an underwater volcano erupts, severing their craft's cable to the surface and sending them tumbling through the depths to inevitable destruction…
Or so they thought. Our heroes are saved by mysterious deep sea divers and taken aboard a Jules Vernesian futuristic super sub, the Alpha, where they are treated (indeed) by a scantily clad Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Hayes), and introduced to the submarine's commander, the wise and whimsical Capt. Craig McKenzie (Joseph Cotton). McKenzie, as it turns out, is the ancient, nigh immortal leader and mastermind behind a utopian underwater advanced society located at latitude zero, and with his super advanced technology, the protagonists' wounds are easily taken care of. But all is not well beneath the ocean waves. McKenzie's former friend and fellow bicentenarian, the melodramatically named Dr. Malic (Cesar Romero!), has built his own infernal paradise—a ghastly riff on the Island of Dr. Moreau (wow, Jules Verne AND H. G. Wells!). Malic is planning to enslave the world by capturing a Japanese scientist who has developed a radioactivity immunity serum. Naturally it is up to McKenzie and the intrepid, multinational scientists (and the reporter... *sigh*) to save the world, and fight a legion of monsters in the process.
Latitude Zero plays out like a classic American serial with a higher budget; there are close escapes, hammy acting, action galore, and no use whatsoever for logic or realism. That is the deliciousness of the film, and if you can't enjoy what amounts to ten-year-old kid brainless fantasy, you're probably not going to enjoy this movie. This is a film in which soaking in bubbly colored water makes one bulletproof and impervious to falling boulders, after all. That's just the sort of madcap insanity this movie has in spades, and while the action occasionally slows to a crawl, overall, for fans of the genre, this movie is an extreme sugar rush of fun. Just be sure your brain is securely switched off—the ending really makes no sense whatsoever, and will either have you screaming with laughter or obscenities. I chose the former.
With Ted Sherdeman's writing, the movie maintains a very Western feel throughout. There is the familiar science-fiction trope of a man-made technological utopia that had been so popular for a time, and the dialogue contains that kind of good-natured homegrown humor one would expect from an American genre picture—and acting to match. So while the story follows Western stereotypes rather closely, the movie is directed with techniques and special effects from a very Japanese perspective. The flavor, thus, is truly bizarre, especially with Akira Ifukube's immediately recognizable (and much recycled afterward) themes. There is really nothing else quite like Latitude Zero, and for that respect alone it is worth watching.
And the performances are an equally topsy-turvy mixture. Usually in Toho films, when a Western actor appears, he speaks English regardless of what his costars speak, or stumbles through broken Japanese lines that are almost as laughable. But here, all the Japanese actors are the proverbial fish out of water, reportedly reciting their lines phonetically rather than mastering the English tongue first—and it shows. It's fascinating to hear Akira Takarada's real English voice, and he acquits himself the best of the Nippon thespians. It's a stretch to say he is comfortable with his English lines, but his pronunciation is understood readily enough, and his performance, while perhaps somewhat artificial, is not wooden. On the other hand, the wonderful Akihiko Hirata is given short-shrift, and with good reason—though I think he still has strong screen presence when he manages to make it on screen, his lines border on incomprehensible. Meanwhile, an evil submarine captain, the femme-fatale Hikaru Kiroki (in her second and final big screen role, apparently), delivers her lines with overblown sinister glee, which, combined with her questionable pronunciation, made me fall in love with her scenery-chomping she-wolf. It's a stretch to call any of this particularly good, but it sure is entertaining. Something should also be said for the character of Chobo (who I believe is identified erroneously as “Chin” on IMDb)—this Japanese fellow, the standard overweight strong-arm sidekick to McKenzie, has no English lines, and instead says "haikachou" in response to just about anything. Why is he speaking in Japanese when everyone else speaks in English? If he doesn't understand the English language, how is it that he comprehends all of McKenzie's commands? And, most pertinent of all, who cares? He's fun!
On the other hand, for what must be the only time in the history of Toho films, the non-Japanese actors give the best performances in the movie. Joseph Cotton is great, despite his gaudy, ludicrous wardrobe. As McKenzie, he has a wizened appearance, a patient, measured speech, and a sparkle in his eye. He sells the part. Cesar Romero, meanwhile, is the exact opposite, radiating a sort of mustache-twirling menace with his megalomaniacal performance. It's more or less the same performance he gave for the Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and its sequels, plus an added dollop of blood-curdling malice that really comes out in a gruesome surgery scene. Patricia Medina plays a sly, cartoonish evil woman as Lucretia, Malic's malevolent mate, and Medina, too, sneers and snarls and whoops it up with the rest. Richard Jaeckel's reporter character, Perry Lawton, is somewhat less successful, or at least less enjoyable—I hated Lawton the first time I saw the movie. Upon repeat viewings, however, Jaeckel's broad, boorish interpretation of the ultimate close-minded American stuck-up has its odd delights as well, once the viewer embraces the spirit of the film. The biggest disappointment of the movie is the resident pretty face Linda Haynes as Anne Barton; as is often the case, she was obviously written into the film just for her looks and for the costume designers to hang diminutive bits of bizarre and/or transparent clothing from her shapely frame. That is, when she happens to be wearing any clothing at all. (Don't worry, there's no nudity on screen.) Her "romance" with Masson doesn't help; if anything, it inspires contempt, as she is his doctor. Fraternizing with the patients must be deemed acceptable in the "enlightened" underwater world. It's the 60s, baby!
The entire production design compliments the “groovy” wackiness and off-kilter style. I mentioned the wardrobe earlier, and it really is off the wall, with plenty of clear plastic, shiny discs, and glittery gold body suits. More than once I had to wonder just why on earth the characters were wearing such awful clothing, because it doesn't look good, and it certainly doesn't look comfortable. But such is fashion, and I really am not complaining. McKenzie especially has to wear a number of eye-searing outfits, but manages to retain his dignity nonetheless—an astonishing accomplishment.
Latitude Zero must have been plenty expensive as well, with two super subs, an underwater kingdom (and quite a few models and matte paintings to depict it), several battles, Malic's island, and something like ten monster suits altogether. Something had to give, and the effects, along with everything else, vary considerably in quality. The giant rats have visible seams running down their backs, and the bat people, when flying, proudly display their shiny wires for all to see. The visual nadir is probably an attack by regular-sized bats, which looks completely unconvincing. On the other hand, the super subs look really nice, and are displayed lovingly, with battle sequences below and above water. A number of the sets, too, are fairly elaborate and add to the atmosphere. As for the flying lion, okay—the monster looks silly, but I think Black Moth is great. And Haruo Nakajima really brought the beast to life with energy to spare.
Akira Ifukube provides beautiful themes to back up all that snazzy action, but I'll be honest. I've heard a lot of these themes in other movies—or at least extremely similar themes—so the soundtrack felt largely mismatched to me. The music works well enough, but it just seems wrong, as if Godzilla should show up any minute, and I was left wishing that Ifukube would have provided a more unique set of musical cues than what he gives us here. This may well be my problem, though—having seen Latitude Zero well after other movies could come and borrow its music. Be that as it may, Ifukube's themes simply felt derivative to me.
Nevertheless, Latitude Zero is an utter delight in its offbeat mixture of American and Japanese sci-fi fantasy tropes. The film is unmistakably dumb, and occasionally even gruesome (beware the surgery scene), with nutbar acting, a logic-challenged plot, and loopy aesthetics, but for anyone looking for a really fun high seas adventure made by a diverse, and very unexpected, pool of extremely talented people, this movie is not to be missed. If you can't enjoy its silliness on some level, then I just might rate your attitude zero.