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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler

Last up for the year 1971 is The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (RZW). This low-budget B film not have actually had a theatrical release, but was released directly to video. Hence the VHS cover art in lieu of a poster. RZW is included here as a precursor to several later films dealing with cloning and the ethics thereof. It stars Leslie Nielsen, in a serious role, and Angie Dickenson as the obligatory pretty doctor. Bradford Dillman stars in the title role. Wheeler is near dead from a car crash, but "resurrected" in a secret shadow-government medical lab.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Note: the dual story threads are more consolidated in this synopsis. In the film, they are intercut in small segments) Senator Wheeler is driving home from a party at night. A man in a big Suburban crosses the centerline. In the "horrible" crash, the man and his lady friend are killed. Wheeler is mortally injured. TV reporter Harry Walsh (Nielson) happens on the scene. He recognizes Wheeler, has a scoop news flash, then accompanies Wheeler to the hospital. After a mysterious phone call, the hospital denies Wheeler was ever there. Walsh is adamant, but not believed. Wheeler is flown to a secret hospital in New Mexico where the undergoes multiple transplants of his many damaged organs. The donors are "Somas", human body clones injected with a patient's DNA to make them compatible. Due to the massive coverup, Walsh is not believed, and fired from his job. He sets out to investigate, uncovering bits here and there that lead him to New Mexico. The secret lab, headed by a Dr. Fielding, performs their miracle transplants on key world leaders, giving Fielding and his "Committee" unprecedented power over the men they "save." Wheeler awakens and is nursed to health by Dr. Johnson (Dickenson). A romance buds. When Wheeler learns of the whole scheme, he is righteously indignant and refuses to be a part of it. Walsh eventually eludes his pursuers and sneaks onto the secret base. He finds a room full of generic humanoid clones, physically adult, but mentally vegetables. He finds Wheeler's extra Soma, which with the extra time has come to look like him. Walsh 'rescues' the Soma, thinking it's Wheeler. He carjacks Dr. Johnson's car. In the ensuing car chase, they crash. Dr. Johnson is critically hurt. Fielding uses his power to save Johnson to force Wheeler to cooperate. Wheeler refuses. Fielding makes vague threats to both Wheeler and Walsh, should either leak the truth. A call comes in that Chinese Premier Chou Enlai had a heart attack and needs their special resurrection process. Fielding and his chief surgeon stride off to do another "good deed." Roll credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is actually a good amount of ethical issues content to keep many a long conversation going. The issues are still relevant today, 40 years later. While not a "praise", exactly, the very low production qualities of the film are a nostalgic reminder of 70s style crank-em-out television programming.

Cultural Connection
The trope of cloning as a means to an end (usually nefarious) was growing in popularity. While RZW is a fairly obscure film, it is a precursor to other, more famous works along the same lines, such as Coma and The Sixth Day.

Ethic Battle -- Central to the story is the ethics of (a) growing generic humanoids and (b) using life-saving surgery solely as a socio-political tool. On the cloning front, the question is raised (but not resolved) as to whether Fielding's Soma creations are human life or not. Does one have to be articulate, or intelligent to have a soul? On the other front, there is the running debate over men (the Committee) deciding who ought to be "saved" and who should be allowed to die -- particularly when the deciding criteria is how useful the person is to The Committee's vague agenda. The questions raised in RZW will show up again in many later movies.

It's Da Gub'mint -- Government conspiracy themes were growing in popularity in the early 70s. The Andromeda Strain is the more famous of them. Perhaps it was a natural outgrowth of the counter-culture of the 60s -- who distrusted the establishment, presuming they could only be up to no good. In RZW, a sort of shadow oligarchy rule the nations of earth by manipulating their leaders. Blackmail for life. It takes an audience already convinced that there are shifty goings-on, secret government labs, etc. etc., for the premise to work.

Henry Ford-enstein -- Dr. Johnson describes how Fielding's lab grows generic human bodies from eggs made to grow without fertilization. Thus, the bodies are "not human", as (for some reason), the brains do not develop, so they don't think or have a soul. (how do they know this?) Thus, Fielding can mass produce Soma bodies as living organ farms. He was a cross between Frankenstein (make bodies) and Henry Ford (mass producing them).

Nielsen, Seriously -- Given his later success in comedy, seeing Leslie Nielsen in a serious role as dogged reporter, has a fascination to it. Careful watching can reveal some of his comedic style present, despite the serious role.

Uninspired Vision -- Devotees of camera work or directorial art will note the nearly constant visual "desert" in the production of RZW. Director Bob Wynn was more in his element doing television documentaries or gala specials and tributes. He was not so much a cinematic artist. Note the very many shots with plain empty backgrounds. A single actor's face or head filling the center of the screen. The fixed camera shots where a simple pan left-right counts as "action" shooting. Almost all shots are done from eye level, giving the movie a very stolid feel. The music, such as it is, is often poorly matched library tracks, enhancing the cheap TV feel.

Squeal On Dirt! -- A favorite peeve, and hallmark of B-grade productions, is when the director (or editor) dubs in tire squeal to spice up a chase scene -- even if the cars are on dirt roads. Wynn has several of these.

Bottom line? RZW is a mixed diet of interesting concepts and really poor execution. The good outweighs the bad, however. Especially since there will be several sinister cloning movies coming down the pike. RZW is not nearly as well known, but was there before its more famous siblings.


Randall Landers said...

I particularly liked the use of the actor James Daly in the role of Frankenstein. At the chilling end, when he turns to Wheeler and informs him that the politician doesn't realize how big this conspiracy is. And we learn Mao Tse Tung has had a heart attack, damn, what a moment.

Pity that it's got C movie production values.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I admire the writing style :) A little off topic here but what theme are you using? Looks pretty cool.