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Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Astro-Zombies (1968)

Director: Ted V Mikels
Stars: Wendell Corey and John Carradine

Ted V Mikels is a name every explorer of exploitation film eventually discovers. He may not be one of the most talented filmmakers out there, but he's certainly one of the most colourful and, in his way, one of the most imaginative too. Partly that's because he's done almost everything there is to be done on a film, often for his own independent movies. Mostly, though, it's because he's so impressively eclectic, not even attempting a sequel until almost forty years into his career. The Astro-Zombies now has three of them, which fact would surely shock anyone who saw it in 1968, but back then it was something new again. His sixth film as a director, it followed a thriller (Strike Me Deadly), a nudie cutie (Dr Sex), an sexploitation movie (One Shocking Moment aka Suburban Affair), a race movie (The Black Klansman) and a go-go dancing flick (Girl in Gold Boots). At that point, horror and sci-fi were fresh territory and he had $37,000 from Wayne Rogers (Trapper John on M*A*S*H) and his partner, Eddie Altos, to work with.

For a while we have no idea what Mikels is going for here, because it takes so long to get there. A woman with an impressive cleavage drives home to listen to crickets in her garage and apparently stand still until the man in the cool Halloween mask in the shadows finally decides to kill her with a trowel. I love the blood spatter on her white Mustang and I love the mask, but this plays about as well as the battle sequence between toy robots and tanks that accompanies the opening credits. When they're over, we watch a driver die in a crashed car, only for a sleazy weirdo to sidle up and steal his corpse. Hang on, wasn't The Corpse Grinders Mikels's next picture? Then a man rewinds a reel to reel tape while being driven somewhere in LA in complete silence, while a secret agent recruits a former suspect to help investigate some mutilation murders, having been cleared by the doctor who's been working undercover in his lab for the last couple of months.

These are all long and rambling scenes with lax editing and they don't appear to have anything in common, so we can't help but wonder what this story is all about. We focus on the last angle first, not least because it's the only one with dialogue. The secret agent is Holman, the undercover man is Dr Porter and the suspect is Dr Petrovich, but this is all about his research partner, Dr DeMarco, who was dismissed from the Aerospace Research Center despite widespread successes. He'd built a mechanical heart, pioneered thought wave transmission and developed a silicon skin that can withstand being hit by micro-meteorites. It was all for the space program, which is building quasi-men to hurl into orbit and talk to via computer. No, I'm not sure what led Mikels in this direction either, or what it has to do with mutilation murders, but it's obviously important and warrants the attentions of Chuck Edwards, from the Subversives division. That sounds important, right?

Before we find out where this is going, we catch up with some of those other silent subplots. The man with the reel to reel tape is taking it to Satana, a foreign agent unsurprisingly played by Tura Satana, who's exquisitely exotic in such a black and white way that she looks like a kabuki actor. Obviously cast because of her work in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, she's just as tough here but she has minions to do her work for her now. She's even taught them karate moves and how to use cars as weapons, but she still has to step in and get things done. The hunching weirdo is Franchot, who works for Dr DeMarco in a sparsely furnished underground lab, obviously in a cellar. They're going to remove the dead driver's mind and put it on some sort of crystal using machinery that emits enough beeps and chirps to fill an entire Krautrock album. The missing piece of the puzzle is that the tape now with Satana comprises a lecture Dr DeMarco delivered. She wants his knowledge.
The biggest problem thus far is that it's boring. It's not incapably shot, with some decent angles and fair choreography. The sound is decent, both in what we hear and how we hear it. The story is patently ludicrous but it's fine for a B movie, as long as it ties all the strands together in the end. The acting isn't even terrible, though I wouldn't praise it too highly either and it's the supporting characters who are most interesting. The problem is that every shot runs on for far too long, as if there's sixty minutes of story stretched out to fill ninety so the editing is deliberately half hearted to compensate. For instance, when Franchot replaces the blood in the driver's corpse, it runs on so long that we wonder how many pints this man has. Dr DeMarco spouts so much techno-gibberish while lecturing to Franchot that we start laying bets on whether he'll ever get a line that means anything. I found these scenes play better audibly as an ambient slice of weirdness than visually.

Even at this point there's plenty of B movie potential. Tura Satana looks great in a variety of exotic costumes and she gets to pose stylishly while viciously killing CIA agents. The only thing that lets her down is the continuity: she asks questions after she's given the answers and her outfit changes colour without notice. Certainly she's a lot more interesting and efficient than her assistants, Juan and Tyros, who alternate between talented promise and imbecilic disappointment. There's mystery to Franchot too, Dr DeMarco's assistant, even though we're not convinced he even understands the English language. Certainly he never speaks and he turns and squints so often that I wanted to rewind the film and count the reused shots. He constantly appears to be on the verge of doing something outrageous, not least because he has a cute Asian girl in a bikini strapped to a table in Dr DeMarco's cellar laboratory that his master keeps distracting him away from.

Strangely it's the leads who disappoint most. Wendell Corey is top billed as Holman, but he slurs his way through his lines as if he's had too many to drink. Maybe he had, as his career nosedived due to alcohol abuse from films like Rear Window and Sorry, Wrong Number, not to mention a stint as president of the Academy, to films like this and he died soon after its release. John Carradine is surprisingly restrained as Dr DeMarco, given the material. He played so many mad scientists that he could play them in his sleep. Maybe he finally did, or maybe I've seen enough of them that yet another one failed to register. Pseudoscience works better in small doses and this one is dished up in overdose quantities. To my mind, neither of them are worth watching, but Chuck Edwards is even worse. 'You can't be all things to all people,' says Dr Porter, but he hadn't been anything to anyone, except a laugh at Satana's club when he successfully completes a drinking trick.
Perhaps it's that Mikels is much better at writing female characters than male ones. Certainly the CIA agents share a lot of screen time but don't ever seem to do anything of substance. Edwards isn't the only waste of space. Holman talks a lot but never leaves his office. Dr Porter serves only as a link between other characters. Dr Petrovich is supposedly important but he never does much. Dr DeMarco, the driver for much of this story, just tinkers around in pseudo-scientific fashion but only ever interacts with Franchot. Yet the female characters are all worth watching, even if they're only in the picture to be victims. To me, the most watchable characters were Satana and Janine Norwalk, in the form of Joan Patrick, a strong redhaired lady who's like a sixties version of Shirley Manson. She's Dr Petrovich's lab assistant and Dr Porter's girlfriend, as well as being the former assistant of Dr DeMarco. She gets to act as bait too to catch the mutilation murderer.

And of course, that's the character of the title, which is plural only to suggest what Mikels couldn't deliver. He's the quasi-man, the astro-man, the astro-zombie, whatever you want to call him, and he's bizarrely enjoyable whenever we actually get to see him, which isn't often enough to my way of thinking. In keeping with the rest of the effects in the film, which range from bad to really awful, his costume consists of one Halloween mask, which is admittedly cool enough that I'd be happy to buy one. It's also fundamentally important, given that he's a mechanical monster built out of human parts (remember those mutilation murders?) rather than an actual human being. So, given that he's powered by light and unwisely chooses to attack in the dark, he needs batteries to keep him going. This prompts the logically sound but frankly hilarious concept that he has to run home with a flashlight pointed at his skull when those batteries get knocked off in a fight.

I was expecting this to be a lot worse. It's not good, make no mistake about that, but there is a story here that makes reasonable sense. It's stupid, sure, but it's consistently stupid, at least until the glaring plot conveniences and day/night discrepancies towards the end. Its key value is really as the beginning of the collaboration between Mikels and Satana. Given that he enjoyed powerful women enough to fill his bona fide Californian castle with a continuously rolling bevy of beauties known as 'castle women', it's hardly surprising that he was drawn to her performance in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! For a brief time, she was one of his castle women and she's said in interviews that she enjoyed the experience. Certainly she came back for more, shooting three more films for Mikels over 37 years. In between, Mikels made other movies, some of which he even made money on. The thirteen months he spent on this legendary trashy masterpiece didn't earn him a dime.

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