Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"A Race of Atomic Supermen!"

You know, my dad has always maintained that the only way to appreciate a movie in context is to take a look at all the other shit that was made around the same time. That way you can be painfully aware just how much ground was broken by a particular movie. Take Night of the Living Dead, for example. Night is a great film in any sort of context, but, it's greatness becomes undeniable when you put it next to other zombie films at the time. Like Ted V. Mikels' The Astro Zombies, to pick something on my netflix queue. Made in 1969 (the year AFTER Night of the Living Dead), this movie has more misplaced genre cliches than a Mel Brooks film, only Mikels wasn't trying to be funny. There's some absurd mad science, a communist plot, a laboratory romance with no certainty as to who the second member might be, a deformed lab assistant, a rambling robot who murders beautiful women, Tura Satana as a scantily clad foreign assassin, a Tor Johnson-type gunmen partnered with a gay hispanic dancer running around killing people, blackmail with no possible motive, and to top it all off John Carradine pulling the strings.

The Astro Zombies
by Ted V. Mikels
Now, far be it from me to expect zombies in a movie with "zombies" in the title, but there is only one zombie in the film. Does the plural form mean NOTHING to filmmakers? That your movie has the lamest zombie after 1960 is insult enough but don't ramp up my expectations with an 's'. Anyway, off to the series of murders and drinking games this film calls a plot.

First we see a woman with enormous breasts drive her car into her garage only to be killed offscreen by a man wearing a giant robot bug mask. The credits roll over scenes of toy robots dancing over noises so loud they woke up the people on the first floor. Next we see a crafty looking Mexican steal a body from a car crash with a racist sort of gleam in his eye. Then in another movie, a dough-faced blonde headed guy rewinds a tape in an old tape player and then laughs to himself. Then in yet another movie four men who took "dress to impress" to heart all stagger into a room one at a time (my guess here is that Mikels finished writing the script and then shoved them on camera when they had a name and a back story to recite). They discuss science and the spate of Mutilation Murders in town. We'll later see a newspaper with the headline "Mutilation Murders" just in case you jokers thought they weren't serious. They talk about a doctor called Demarco who was part of a program aimed at creating a sort of man-machine hybrid they could transmit orders to via brain-waves so that men wouldn't have to be sent into space. A robot would have been easier but let's not interrupt the gentlemen, they're having so much fun with their conversation. I'm not exactly sure what conclusion they come to but next we're in a laboratory where one of two male doctors does everything to hit on one of his assistants short of pull his penis out. Everyone leaves save one other lone female lab aid who gets murdered by the Astro Zombie.
In one of the other films we've introduced the doughy blonde guy goes to a lounge with the aim of selling the tape to a woman (Tura Satana) who couldn't look more ridiculous if she were painted white like a geisha (too late!). The blonde guy demands twice his asking fee when he sits down (we assume he's probably killed someone, maybe that guy from the car crash? No, what are the odds that the bearded mexican guy was at the same car crash. It's his boss whose voice is on the tape after all...) After throwing her drink in the blonde guys face and having her squirmy assistant pull a knife on the guy they agree to give him the money, then they kill him. This is a pattern, by the way, doing something pointless to hurt someone even though you plan to kill him anyway. Later she'll burn someone with a cigarette and then shoot him 20 seconds later.

Christ, this feels like a lot of plot for a movie that feels like the product of a night of heavy drinking. We haven't even gotten to John Carradine yet, or why he's making Astro Zombies in his lab. Long story short (and this is most certainly a long goddamn story): he wants to make it so he can transfer memories into the astro zombies so that the world's greatest minds can live forever. You know if he had told this to Nasa or the FBI he might have gotten a grant for it, but he's mad after all and so the result is that buxom women are being killed daily. Everyone figures out that Demarco is behind everything we've seen so far and they all want in, so the 7 or 8 different stories all come to a head in the lamest fight I've ever seen. The bug-man grabs a machete (???) from a closet in Demarco's lab and runs around cutting off heads until Demarco flips the switch and turns him off, dying of a gunshot wound. The End.

It's a rare man who could make me pine for Ed Wood, and Ted V. Mikels is just such a man. Next to Carradine's behavior here I'd call Bela Lugosi lucid. I think the most charmingly stupid thing about this film is the way people interact with each other. Tura Satana takes a page out of the masters of Tor Johnson handbook and slaps her henchman around, shouting and swearing loudly whenever she can. John Carradine spends most of his screen time performing busy work and explaining it to his assistant, who's name he can't seem to remember. It's absolutely brilliant. He'll call him over using some variation of "Rancho", say something vaguely sciency, then look around like he doesn't know where he is. This is all cut up by reaction shots of the mute assistant who just leers evilly the whole film. "Sancho, set the heart pump valve to 5! (Carradine looks lost and confused, the assistant leers and squints). "Fancho, we must affect the brain transplant while the body is in a semi-criogenic state." Priceless. Then of course there's the scene where the Astro Zombie loses his power source (revealing that mask he's wearing to be nothing but a big skull, but that's not the best of it...) and recharges himself by sticking a flashlight against his head. He runs back to the lab and Carradine looks horrified and motherly "My god, what's happened to you? Francho, get a chair!"

Then there's the insane behavior of the heroes. We are shown an endless nude dance scene where the girl's body has been painted to look like a curtain she uses. When it's over we see the audience is all well-dressed middle aged men and women applauding politely and drinking cocktails. "Didn't I tell you sweetie, this girls' great!" then they play a drinking game and we see every second of it. One of Tura Satana's henchmen has a wardrobe change every few scenes, at one point donning a giant plush beret. He dances around, throwing his switch-blade from hand to hand at the slightest provocation and when he's shot to death at the end it looks like he's dancing.

Mikels doesn't pretend to know what he's talking about with the science and never repeats anything more than he has to. I could just picture him ashing a cigarette in the script as he buried his head in someone's bra while the camera rolled. George Romero worked in a factory in Pittsburg after he graduated from Carnegie-Mellon and he made one of the best films of all time for under 15,000 dollars. Ted had a castle and John Carradine. I guess the universe has spoken.

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