*for Paulie, with whom I discussed the redundancy of the term ‘Zanti Misfits’ one evening in Phoenix 100 years ago.*
On December 30, 1963, Bruce Dern, all hooded eyes and upturned nose and unshaven bank-robber jaw, drives carelessly into a restricted area in the middle of a desert. His reward for this otherwise mild bout of trespassing will be an entymological bitch-slap to end them all. In the car with him is his silent, odd-looking, angular, hideously chain-smoking moll, an actress named Olive Deering who is scarier by several orders than the alien nemesis they will soon encounter.
Dern has just robbed a bank. He is fleeing by car the scene of his most recent lapse in judgment. But as he is rocketing through the desert something catches his eye, a glint of silver descending through the sky like an inept drawing. It comes to rest on a hilltop and there goes the neighborhood. Dern has to investigate. He leaves the car to shamble up the side of one of those loose-rocked hills that little spaceships tend to land on with some regularity, and whose gravelly gradient makes for useful horror-slipping as our B actors try without success to flee the various repulsive meanies that pursue them. Dern quizzically approaches the silver conical spaceship, a little door pops open and out marches a not terribly threatening army of ants the size of prairie dogs, each with a little nose and strange little cupie doll lips one might be tempted to kiss if they weren’t affixed to ant heads. The invaders step out onto conquered earth in a stop-action goose step that makes them appear very easy to escape, but startled Dern slips down the hill and is knocked unconscious. He awakens to find a Zanti with Drew Barrymore lips strolling up his forearm, which insectoid sashay inexplicably kills him. It develops the Zantis are themselves criminals from the planet…wait for it…Zanti. It’s that same ill-conceived sci-fi t.v. convention that gives us Vulcans from the planet Vulcan; a strangely ubiquitous bit of screwy extraterrestrial nomenclature that would have people of this planet called ‘Earths’.
By previous arrangement we had agreed to accept the landing of the ship in a Death Valley-like location and to provide the passengers a desert cordon in perpetuity. We probably also told them this g*d forsaken baked hill in the middle of desert nowhere was a popular beauty spot here on Earth, keeping Hawaii and La Jolla secret. “Secure for us your most beauteous place for exile, Earths!” Okay, you dumb ants. Here are the coordinates. Happy landings! At any rate Dern screws the whole agreement up and the affronted Zantis, feeling pretty good for having killed him just by walking on his arm, take off in their little ship and land atop the U.S. Army’s flyblown command post/Zanti Welcome Wagon in a nearby tumbleweed-choked desert ghost town. The diminutive and ill-advisedly cocky ‘invaders’ exit their ship, rappel haughtily down the side of the clapboard army building and begin a slow, twitchy march in the direction of heavily armed men in khaki who waste no time dispensing with the uppity space ants with pistols and grenades and clubs and, yeah, shoe leather. It’s not much of a fight, and indicates the Zanti criminal element did not do its homework before choosing this particular planet to terrorize. One or two men in khaki, probably aspiring stage actors in 1963 who, like Dern, thought they would sidle into Hollywood history via this hastily executed teleplay, are ‘attacked’ by Zantis and run screaming around the room. One unfortunate soldier has a Zanti climb under his uniform and seems to go to sleep on the floor. Even a jug-eared 7 year-old sitting cross-legged in his flannel pajamas could see the foolishness in this.
When the Zantis are vanquished we learn they were sent here deliberately by their overseers to be killed by the bloodthirsty humans, as executions of even the most hardened criminals are illegal on the awkwardly named planet Zanti. So this was a sort of extraordinary rendition. We must suppose that the passengers on the doomed Zanti penal ship selected for this expensive route to the Death Chamber were chosen based on the delicacy of their beautiful little mouths, which on the unfortunate planet Zanti are considered to increase the sense of facial Zanti menace. We know the opposite is true.
What are the takeaways from The Zanti Misfits?
1. If an ant is as big as a field rodent and has a human countenance, it is likely a thug from space.
2. Don’t simply step on a bug when you can shoot it or blow it up or laboriously beat it to death with an army-issue baton.
3. Don’t make deals with government officials from other planets concerning their jailbirds. If the Zantis had been armored grizzlies or acid spewing giant starfish or face-hugging trachea enthusiasts we’d’ve been really screwed.
4. If you agree to having a plastic ant placed on your arm and screaming for the camera you may be nominated for an Oscar one day.
There is also a valuable lesson here about cultural relativism, as one man’s horrific goggle-eyed bug from space is another man’s DMV misstep from the stars. Back on Zanti the ineptly produced teleplay thrills the little ones in their Zanti exo-pajamas, but there the episode is called ‘The Great Parole Board Fuckup’, and is used to frighten the kids into cleaning their Zanti rooms and not falling in with the badass Zantis at school.