Thursday 20 December 2012

Mark of the Astro-Zombies (2002)

Director: Ted V Mikels
Stars: Tura Satana, Liz Renay and Brinke Stevens

The Astro-Zombies­ was one of those cheap B-movies that I really want to love but can't quite find the conviction to do so. It had everything it needed to succeed: an imaginative horror/scifi monster with a cool mask and a quirky gimmick, John Carradine as a mad scientist with a bizarrely hunched mute assistant and Tura Satana as a dangerous and exotic foreign agent. Yet it fell short in almost every way. There was only a single astro-zombie for a start, even though there was nothing to the costume but the mask. He didn't get to kill often and when he did it was painfully slow. The various subplots took a long while to connect together, so we weren't sure quite what we should be paying attention to. Almost every scene was drawn out through lackluster editing. It looks awesome as a three minute trailer, but it didn't extend out well to the feature length, ending up as nothing more than a sad disappointment and a lost opportunity. And a Misfits song, of course.

When filmmaker Ted V Mikels returned to the concept no less than 34 years later to shoot a sequel and reinvention, he seems to have aimed very deliberately at avoiding every single one of those complaints. In fact he begins Mark of the Astro-Zombies with a rampaging mob of astro-zombies, raging through a strip mall with their machetes and killing with abandon. There are literally more kills by astro-zombies within the first three minutes of this film than during its entire predecessor, and that's just the first rampage. A couple of minutes later, there's another one, with more yet to come. The pace and editing are so fast that, for a while, we read the background as much as we hear it. Mikels doesn't even slow down to introduce characters or situations, substituting creative dialogue for scrolling text thrown onto the screen. He brings back Tura Satana for her first picture since 1973's The Doll Squad and even resurrects John Carradine in the form of a special effect.

So you can't accuse Mikels of not paying attention to criticism, and frankly he delivers everything an astro-zombie nut might possibly request, along with a whole lot more, updating the franchise to a new generation. Does that make this film a good one, though? Well, no. Not remotely. In many ways it's more of an unholy mess than the last one. It's a sprawling nightmare of a picture with a cast that may just include half the city of Las Vegas, most of whom couldn't act their way out of a paper bag. It's also obviously shot on video with a bizarrely inconsistent set of special effects: the CGI is primitive but actually pretty good for a 2002 movie with this lack of budget; the gore work is transparent but reasonably effective; but the aliens are awful beyond description. Most of them are like Saturday morning cartoon nightmares with half fish, half crocodile heads that don't move. Their leader, Zekith, is a humanoid reptilian, like an alien from V in burned papier-maché and a barbarian robe. He's an action figure sprung to life.

And yes, aliens. In 1968, the astro-zombie was the creation of a human being, Dr DeMarco, a mad scientist sacked from the US space programme. In 2002, that hasn't changed because he's here too as a disembodied head kept alive by a rival for its insight. Tura Satana's character is the sister of the agent he killed in the first film and she seeks her revenge in this one. Yet, the astro-zombies here are created by evil aliens from a giant asteroid who, according to the opening, 'have come to force their intentions upon us'. Presumably 'their intentions' translates into 'bloody death' and little else, because their instructions to their creations are as simple as could be: 'Kill! Kill! Kill!' doesn't leave much room for misinterpretation. This is the reinvention part, this somehow being a sequel, a remake and a reboot all in one. With aliens. Who speak in the deep manipulated voices that bad cartoons use. So get used to that, OK? If you can't get past the aliens, you might as well give up.

As crazy as the story gets, there is one and it has a whole ensemble of characters. I got the feeling that Mikels cast anyone who agreed to show up, whenever they showed up, shot their entire parts in a single day and then spliced it all together later. Certainly every scene with either Tura Satana or Brinke Stevens was shot over a mere two days. At least they're experienced actors, especially Stevens, who's a delight here as Cindy Natale, a pleasingly short skirted TV reporter for News 13. It's hardly the deepest or most substantial role she's ever landed, but she does everything asked of her with a twinkle in her eye and a spring in her step. Except when she's kidnapped by Malvira Satana, of course. As her namesake, Tura Satana gets more to do than she's had since Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which was shot 37 years earlier when she was 27. She's a lot older and a lot larger here but the old Varla magic still shows when she shouts at Zokar, her obnoxious assistant.
Of course, with an alien invasion going on, if you can call rampaging astro-zombies with machetes an alien invasion, the President has to get called. Here that's Ward Pennington, who in the form of Gene Paul Jones looks rather Reagan-esque, but the similarities stop there. Pennington can't even get the Oval Office for his debriefing, because it wasn't available. What could be going on that's so important that the president can't meet in the Oval Office to remediate an alien invasion? Well, the sort that won't call in the big guns, that's who, because it's too soon. Instead he has his military attaché, Gen Kingston, assemble a crack team of doctors, scientists and experts to figure out how to respond. Yeah, that's totally what Reagan would do. Of course he'd let Kingston hire a 'specialist in interplanetary communications' who's more than a little reminiscent of George Carlin to consult with a lecturer on remote viewing who looks like a bad fortune teller. Of course he would.

Actually, Volmar Franz, the George Carlin lookalike who plays Dr Randolph West, is one of the few lesser names here who can actually act, even though he's only made it into one film not directed by Mikels. There are a few budding hopefuls, to be fair, but none get much screen time. Donna Hamblin is capable, but she only plays a secretary. Scott Miller lives up to his brief part as a capable FBI agent even though he tries a little too hard. He's still head and shoulders above most of the cast, who are often unintentionally hilarious. I wouldn't even call them amateur actors, as that would suggest that they actually have a calling. Most of them feel like fifty-something office workers who got stuck in scrubs or suits and given a card to read. A conspiracy theorist might suggest that Mikels hypnotised them first or drugged them with serum to make them comply with his directions, if in word only. Few of them could have heard of intonation, let alone what it means.

Some of them are here because they're characters in real life. Second billed is Liz Renay, the sort of larger than life celeb who makes it into John Waters movies. Hers was Desperate Living. Renay was a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, a stripper who worked an act with her daughter and a convicted felon, earning three years as the girlfriend of mobster Mickey Cohen. She divorced five husbands and outlived two more, which helps make her role here as Crystal Collins, a bloated Liz Taylor-ish actress who was abducted by aliens, all the more believable. She has precisely nothing to do with the rest of the plot, only there to add colour to proceedings. Shanti does likewise as the remote viewer, Dr Owens, with her oversize rings, clipped accent and wild make up, but she doesn't have Renay's charisma. Best known as Dr Wendy Altamura, Mikels' latter day companion, she shouldn't be on screen. 'I'm very uncomfortable with what I'm getting,' she says and we can believe it.

There's so much in this film that it's hard to decide what to focus on next. It feels like that was a challenge for Mikels too, when trying to hold the script together. Every shot seems to bring in a new character, setting or concept, perhaps all three. Oh look, there's a gratuitous shower scene! Hey, is that a completely different set of three-eyed aliens? Here's Mikels in a cameo with his hair mussed up but his trademark handlebar moustache left intact. There's the disembodied head of John Carradine bickering with Tura Satana. 'All you are is a bad form of taxidermy,' she tells him. 'Your cerebellum has long since expired from neglect,' he replies. One minute we're at NASA, the next in a morgue, then the president's briefing room. All of them look like hotel conference rooms with that recognisaby generic decoration. And whenever we might blink, there's another horde of machete wielding astro-zombies massacring another slew of willing locals.

Watching Mark of the Astro-Zombies feels like watching a half dozen exploitation movies thrown into a blender with scenes rearranged so that they make some sort of sense. The production cost was obviously not high with Mikels shooting on digital video rather than his usual film stock, but we get past that pretty quickly. Generalising horrendously, if you make it past ten minutes, you're going to stick it out; while you're likely to shake your head at the end of it and wonder how to get that hour and a half of your life back, somewhere deep inside you're going to be a little happier for having made the effort. Never mind the aliens, there's old school fun to be had in Tura Satana's hokey auction routine, Brinke Stevens will charm everyone and I defy you not to grin a huge grin through each astro-zombie rampage. I want to follow up right now with the clumsily titled Astro-Zombies: M3 - Cloned, with Francine York, Peaches Christ and, in her last film, Tura Satana.

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