Stars: Fletcher Sharp and Donna Hamblin
After avoiding sequels for almost forty years, Ted V Mikels began to embrace them as the century changed. His first was The Corpse Grinders 2 in 2000 and his second, Mark of the Astro-Zombies quickly followed in 2002. Then came three more originals, a couple of horror movies and a family film called Heart of a Boy, but Mikels apparently decided that what the world really needed most was more astro-zombies. Initially aiming at a trilogy, to be completed by the clumsily titled Astro-Zombies: M3 - Cloned, Mikels has already followed it up with Astro-Zombies: M4 - Invaders from Cyberspace, and as he isn't remotely out of energy at 83 years young, who knows how more may yet see the light of day. Next up looks like The Corpse Grinders 3, but surprisingly Mikels is only serving as its executive producer, the director's chair instead being relinquished in favour of a young Spanish filmmaker, Manolito Motosierra. Perhaps he's passing the torch.
As I'm a fan of the astro-zombies themselves far more than the films I've seen them in thus far, I'm not particularly against the concept of more pictures, but they aren't working out quite how I'd hoped. The first sequel fixed every one of the problems that plagued the original film, filling the screen with machete wielding astro-zombies rampaging through strip malls and the back streets of America. Yet it was ambitious enough in its use of early digital effects that it's painfully dated after only a decade, and the traditional effects were wildly inconsistent too. It was so full of detail that it often looked like a cinematic equivalent of the Bloomberg channel. Worst of all, the acting was, with a few notable exceptions, painfully amateurish. Mikels solves all those issues here but returns to some of the original ones. It's almost as if he's in constant reaction mode to the last film, aiming to improve on it in every way but forgetting the lessons he learned when making it.
That means that Astro Zombies: M3 - Cloned isn't the next step at all, it's an amalgam of its two predecessors. In fact, it's more than that. Mikels aims a little wider than he's ever done before to combine some of his other previous work into a single chronology. There's a DC universe; now we have a TVM universe. So, to combat the astro-zombie menace, we're given the Doll Squad. I even noticed a couple of cans of Lotus Cat Food, tying us into The Corpse Grinders too. I quite like this approach, but sadly it's done almost entirely the wrong way round. This is emphatically an astro-zombies picture with the Doll Squad only brought in at the end to clean up. I couldn't feel more strongly that the film would have been a much bigger success if these two sides had been given equal bandwidth. If this had been a Full Moon picture it would have been titled Doll Squad vs Astro-Zombies and that's really how the script should have been developed.
The plot is as complex and character filled as Mark of the Astro-Zombies, but it has a much better focus. Thankfully gone are the cheesy aliens with their papier maché crocodile heads, the Jar Jar Binkses of the TVM universe. Gone too are characters like Crystal Collins, who was quirky and fun but entirely unrelated to the story at hand. Instead we're grounded in a traditional story that pits the US government against itself. On one hand, we have the astro-man project, now government funded and run out of Area 51 because the military needs insane numbers of expendable killing machines. On the other hand, we have the Doll Squad, brought in to save the day, when shock horror, the astro-zombies run wild and start to massacre the general public. The subplots tie in, such as Leonard Bullock, a conspiracy theorist who writes books about this stuff, and Malvina Satana, some sort of enemy agent with her own troupe of men in black in dark sunglasses.
Many of the actors from Mark of the Astro-Zombies return here, but in Andy Sidaris style, none of them play the same roles, making this something of a surreal experience. At least the actors who shone brightest in the last film get the bigger roles in this one. I'd called out Donna Hamblin as being worth a lot more than just a mere secretary; sure enough, this time she's playing a major character: Dr Stephanie DeMarco, granddaughter of the creator of the astro-zombies. Volmar Franz, the George Carlin lookalike, switches from a linking character to the man in black who pressures Bullock. Scott Blacksher moves up from an angry henchman to a master sergeant with a Hitler moustache, overacting hilariously. He grew on me in the second film but he's like a force of nature in the third, yakking about 'cerebral cortex tampons' and hurling out lines like, 'I don't want any more brain dissertations. I want vicious killing machines that I can control!'
Going further back, two ladies return from much earlier pictures. Tura Satana returns for her third astro-zombies movie and her last screen role, though in a rather bizarre fashion. This time she's Malvina Satana, presumably the third in a family that carelessly loses a member every time out. This sibling gets less screen time than her sisters, presumably because of health concerns, Tura spending time in hospital around this point. Her dialogue is new, recorded specially for this film, but what we see is archive footage from The Astro-Zombies of Satana in her pink outfit, displayed as a hologram. Francine York reprises her role as Sabrina from The Doll Squad, looking great and still in charge of the squad at the age of 72, even though it's been fully 37 years since we last saw her. That's over half her lifetime, but she's going strong. Sadly, she only interacts with the story over the phone, like Henry Fonda in Tentacles, as she's supposedly stuck on assignment.
The thrust of the story follows the attempts of this new Dr DeMarco to raise a viable astro-zombie from DNA recovered from the Astro-Zombie Disintegration Grounds and then clone it. How she's supposed to achieve this, given that astro-zombies are Frankenstein-like constructs of parts from many human beings, I have no idea, but continuity has always been a tenuous concept in astro-zombie movies. This makes a lot more sense than bringing aliens into the mix like Mikels did in the last picture, though it does beggar belief that the doctor would raise her first zombie with a machete ready in his hand. I liked Donna Hamblin as Stephanie De Marco. She brags a little about feeling like God as her subject comes to life, but she's a truly dedicated scientist who won't allow herself to be distracted by things like husbands. She's also down to earth enough to wear glasses and constantly tousled hair, all the more sexy for not trying to be.
Unfortunately her superiors aren't quite so dedicated and, of course, one of them is a traitor to the cause, secretly working for the holographic Malvina Satana, who now owns the disembodied head of Dr Septimus DeMarco, Stephanie's grandfather, which chatters away in the background. Fletcher Sharp is apparently one of the focal points as Randolph, some sort of agent who fits into the chain of command somewhere, but he gets worse as the film runs on. It's only when he gets longer speeches towards the end that we realise how bad he is. Higher up the chain is Gen Ivan Mikacev, in the form of Ted V Mikels himself, who sets the project in motion at, get this, an Area 51 Bioterrorism Conference. There's no way that could ever be misconstrued, right? He believes the US army needs man-killing machines, hundreds of thousands of the things. Mikels is good as the general, but goes way over the top as his happy hippy twin brother, Crazy Peter.
To keep us on our toes, there are a host of other characters dotted around this story who we can't fail but recognise from the previous one, even though they're in new roles here. As Agent WQ9, Shanti takes a keen interest in the conference. She's as wonderful in her dark hat, glasses and coat as Agent WQ9 as she wasn't as Dr Owens, the remote viewer, in Mark of the Astro-Zombies. She works for Sen Caldwell, who was Gen Kingston in that film. Most confusingly, the President of the United States in the last picture has been apparently demoted to just Dr DeMarco's boss here. Fortunately the army of amateur actors who woodenly read their way through cue cards as lesser characters in the last film either don't reappear in this one at all or, at least, take much smaller roles with maybe just a single line of dialogue. Unfortunately Scott Miller doesn't return, which possibly explains why he's missing an IMDb credit for his role in Mark of the Astro-Zombies.
I mention all these characters because I get the feeling that the script grew around them. The heart of the story is simple: the army raises more astro-zombies, they go on a rampage and the Doll Squad gets called in to dispose of them. Unfortunately, getting to the rampage is a long and tedious process that seems designed mostly to give a large ensemble of actors something to do. I'd hazard a guess that Mikels rewrote every time a new actor committed to the project, entirely so that each of them would have something to do. As you can imagine, the wider picture suffers greatly from this approach, to the point that we wish everyone would quit talking and let us see some astro-zombies rampaging around somewhere with machetes. We don't get clones until 67 minutes in, very strange clones that are different shapes and sizes, but even then they escape their cloning room only to go hang out in the desert looking moody.
It's no less than 79 minutes in when the action really starts. The astro-zombies go wild out in the sticks and the Doll Squad finally show up with cool blowguns and explosive darts to take them down. It gets serious at the 85 minute mark, when their leader escapes captivity to join them. She's Queen Amazon, so named because Sara Dunn is a voluptuous bundle of curves, and she's a promising character, but she's unfortunately absent for much of the picture, having been torn away from it before she could join in by a drag queen assassin played by the legendary Peaches Christ. It's always great to see Peaches, a midnight movie maven and champion of underground film in San Francisco, on screen again but one reading of this story could suggest that she, by neatly crippling the Doll Squad, is the reason the movie derails. Film four should have followed a movie fan back in time to assassinate the assassin and so shift the thrust of the story back to the Doll Squad vs Astro-Zombies concept it should always have been.
And that's how I left this film. So much is improved on Mark of the Astro-Zombies. The production quality is stronger, the acting is more accomplished and the effects are notably improved. Even the continuity, hardly a key focus in a Ted V Mikels picture, is more consistent. Yet on the flipside, the frenetic energy of the second film is gone too, leaving this one overlong and a little boring. It isn't like the original 1968 picture, which was boring because nothing much happened. Here, it's that what happens isn't what we want to see. We want to see a slew of rampaging astro-zombies like we were gifted with in the second film. We want to see the Doll Squad infiltrating the military and tracking down the menace at hand. The Doll Squad is my favourite Mikels film thus far and I was excited at the opportunity to watch them kick ass again. Unfortunately we get very little of either: leaving this scant on Doll Squad and scant on astro-zombies. So what's the point?