I first saw the 1968 movie Planet Of The Apes in the early 70s when it made its television debut on ABC. I was around 7 years old. The most adult films I had seen up to that point consisted mostly of Disney movies, Abbott and Costello and Hope And Crosby and the occasional horror movie on Sunday afternoon’s Sci-Fi/Horror Theater. The closest thing to a scary villain I had seen up to that point were those found in the old Batman TV show. And while I found the Universal Monsters films exciting and fun, I didn’t find any of the monsters all that scary as they were often portrayed as being somewhat sympathetic and misunderstood. Then came Doctor Zaius.
Dr. Zaius scared the living hell out of me. It was Dr. Zaius that introduced me to something I’d never heard of, read about or experienced before: conspiracy. I didn’t know at the time what a conspiracy was, obviously. All I knew was that there was a guy trapped on a planet of apes who was shot in the throat and couldn‘t talk, trying to convince people he was intelligent, unlike the other mute savage humans, and no one would listen. And when he finally convinced them all by actually talking and gaining the sympathies of two kind apes who believed in him, Dr. Zaius was there to bring it all crashing down on them by destroying all evidence of truth and those who dared speak it. I hated Zaius. It scared me how he convinced people to hate Taylor. I hated that he had the power to destroy and undermine the hero, his friends and anyone who helped him. I had never seen anything like Zaius in all my 7 years. This was one damn scary ape.
I remember the exact moment in the film when I realized that Zaius was bad. After Taylor is captured there’s a scene where he’s put in a cage outdoors. Zira is showing her fiancé Cornelius the unusual human she has named “Bright Eyes” when Dr. Zaius approaches them. I could tell right away that Zaius was the leader by the way Zira and Cornelius suddenly lowered their voices as he approached them. I recognized the body language of Zira and Cornelius as it wasn’t far off from my own when the school principal walked by. Taylor(Charlton Heston) is recovering from a gunshot wound to the throat and can’t speak. So he tries to get Zira’s attention by writing his name in the dirt. Unfortunately, Zira, Cornelius and Zaius are too involved in their conversation to notice. Then the mute girl Nova wipes away the words that Taylor has written and soon after that Taylor gets into a fight with one of the savage humans he’s caged up with. The gorillas break up the fight and haul Taylor back to his cell. Zira and Cornelius leave to go about their business and only Zaius is left. He goes to walk away but stops suddenly. He looks down and see’s several letters remaining from Taylor’s message.
It’s at this moment that I expected Zaius to be shocked. I was sure he’d see the letters, realize that one of the caged humans was intelligent and run off to do whatever I thought he should do. Tell someone, do something. But no. He simply scrapes away the words written in the dirt with his cane and walks away. I didn’t understand it. Why did he do that? I asked my parents but my Dad just smiled and said “keep watching”. And Mom wasn’t any help to me at all. She was knitting and wasn’t even watching! Knitting!
It only got worse after that as I fell down the rabbit hole with poor Taylor. I was horrified right along with Taylor when, after making his desperate escape, he see’s his friend Dodge stuffed in a museum. I was shocked. I had high hopes that, at some point, Taylor would be reunited with his two astronaut friends. Well, at least there was a good chance that Landon was still alive. Right? I was so caught up by this point, so angry and scared for Taylor and his seemingly hopeless predicament that I was giddy with excitement when he speaks his first words of invective to the apes. That’s right! Get your stinking paws off him!
During Taylor’s trial, I still entertained hope that some how, some way, Taylor would win the day. I mean, that’s what happened in movies. The hero wins. Taylor is shown a group of humans that were captured along with him at the hunt and spots his friend Landon. I wasn’t sure what the big scar on his head was all about. I was just happy to see he was still alive. But those hopes were dashed as I finally realized just how evil Dr. Zaius was. He had done something to Landon to make him just like all the other dumb savages. When Taylor looks up at Zaius and says “you did it”, I was sick with the hopeless resignation that Taylor was doomed. There was Zaius, standing up at the top of those stair thingies, looking down at Taylor. Zaius was untouchable, triumphant and the hero was doomed. He even lied about doing that thing to Landon but I knew he did it. Nothing could stop Zaius. All the other apes seemed to believe everything he was saying as gospel truth. The few offering dissent were being destroyed.
Yup, it wasn’t All The President’s Men or Three Days Of The Condor or Paralax View that introduced me to the idea of a darkness out there that could consume truth and justice and destroy those seeking to find it or offer it to others. It was Zaius. It wasn’t the Spanish Inquisition or Jim Jones or Jimmy Swaggart that introduced me to the concept of religious zealotry, it was Zaius. It wasn’t corrupt cops and politicians and godfathers that introduced me to the concept of corruption and insidious abuse of power, it was Zaius. Zaius’ villainy wasn’t informed by greed or insanity or a desire for power. He didn’t commit acts of evil in front of people but instead used their hate to normalize his evil. When he first appeared on screen I even kind of liked him. Zaius, as brilliantly played by Maurice Evans, comes off at first as a somewhat charming authority figure. He didn’t twirl his mustache or dress in all black. Zaius wants to hide a truth and promote a lie. And if you try to stop him, well, he was lobotomizing people who pissed him off long before nurse Ratched. Zaius made me realize, for the first time ever, that the good guys might not win. Zaius scared the shit out of me.
At the end, Taylor, Zira and Cornelius prove their case but Zaius wants none of it. He knows the truth, always did, and it makes no difference. Once again I was excited when Taylor gets the drop on Zaius and ties him to that rock on the beach at the films finale. But I wasn’t going to be fooled again. Taylor was outnumbered, he only had one gun and there was a whole planet of apes on Zaius side. It wasn’t fair, but that’s the way it was. Taylor only gets away because Zaius lets him. Zaius is sure that whatever horror is in the forbidden zone will consume Taylor and do Zaius’ dirty work for him. And ultimately he’s right.
I would go on to become completely obsessed with Planet Of The Apes, the sequels and television series. Over the years I’d learn to appreciate it’s commentary on society and humanity. Most film buffs have that one movie that changes their life and begins them on the path of being a lover of movies rather than simply a watcher of movies. After watching Planet Of The Apes, I never looked at movies the same again. Planet of the Apes made me realize that movies can be unpredictable and thrilling and scary in ways I never knew they could before. I would never be scared by another movie villain the way that Zaius scared me. I would never hate a villain the way I hated Zaius. All other villains seemed tame compared to Zaius. Over the years I even learned to respect and admire Zaius for the feelings he was able to elicit. And as I got older I realized that Zaius’ evil wasn’t the evil of the man hating ape society, it was the evil of Man. Zaius beliefs, seemingly innocuous on the surface but dark and complex the deeper one looked, informed his terrifying deeds. He was capable of anything. He used the hatred of humans by his fellow apes as a mandate for evil. Doctor Zaius was, to me, undoubtedly the scariest, greatest movie villain of all time.