81. Astro-Zombies (1968)
A woman drives home and is stabbed to death by a man in a skull like mask. A group of toy robots and a toy tank battle on the sidewalk by a smoke machine. A seemingly dead man is dragged away from his wrecked car. A tape recorder rewinds. Another man drives down the freeway. In his next feat, director Ted V Mikels will attempt to tie these unrelated plot strands (from the first five minutes of the movie) together. Except for the robots. I mean really, what the heck was that about? Although it made a hilarious title sequence, and is possibly my favourite scene of all.
Sadly the promise of a title such as Astro-Zombies isn’t lived up to. There are no flesh eating creatures, a la George Romero. Nor are there any direct links to space. The first glimmer of a plot comes when we hear CIA agents talk about a Doctor DeMarco (John Carradine), dismissed from the Space Agency for his experimentation on humans. He was working to create artificial people, using mechanical organs, that could be remotely controlled to conduct space missions. Naturally he continued his misguided experiments in a dungeon like basement, with a mute, short, hairy, immigrant assistant, named Franchot, and using the cadavers of criminals to create these prototpye ‘Astro-Zombies’. Maybe those toy robots are a cunning metaphor for these manmade, brainless creatures. I could watch them for hours.
When Doctor DeMarco’s first creation goes on a murderous rampage, rather than being the great benefit to mankind he envisaged, it gets the full attention of the CIA. He is also targeted by a group of unknown spies out for his scientific secrets. Headed by the iconic Tura Satana (best known from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), a tedious game of cat and mouse investigations is played out. Satana (also the name of her character) commands attention with her striking long, thick eyelashes, and high slit silky dresses. A femme fatale looking as though she’d wandered off a Man From UNCLE set. Unfortunately she turns in an atrociously flat performance that stands out amongst a largely mediocre cast.
Astro-Zombies is very much a product of it’s time, and one of the tamer, earlier exploitation films that were churned out on a tight budget for maximum bums on seats. It even has a kind of warning alarm when the killers attack, so you know when to shut your eyes. Although, aside from some brief gore in the finale, there’s nothing all that gruesome even for the year. On the point of gratuitous bits, it’s amusing to watch the lengthy dancing topless painted lady scene. It was still a time where that thin veneer of minority culture was necessary for a little titillation. No matter how irrelevant to the plot.
One thing I love about this period is the rich colours, oranges, reds, and the warm auburn tone of the film. It goes hand in hand with the tidy suits, JFK haircuts, attractive redheads, and sets made mostly from painted MDF. In terms of the special effects quality it does ‘get by’, but there is nothing to impress. The Astro-Zombies themselves look rather like Halloween masks. Fans of all things camp may find something to enjoy; certainly Satana’s outfits would be a good starting point.
If this film was more widely circulated I predict that the phrase ‘I’d rather watch paint dry’ would soon be replaced by, ‘I’d rather watch blood being drained from a cadaver.’ Indeed, director Mikels is certainly not afraid to hold a shot for as long as it could possibly take to watch whatever isn’t happening at the time. Let me paint you a picture. Dr DeMarco examines his solar powered mechanical heart with a lamp (light source) switched on. He switches the lamp off and notes the heart slow to a stop. He switches it on again. His assistant Franchot comes over, and the doctor gives a simple yet detailed explanation of the device. DeMarco turns the lamp off, then goes and fiddles with some circuitry on another table. Franchot looks at the heart and turns the lamp on. Watches. Then turns it off. DeMarco closely examines a microchip held in a pair of tweezers. Franchot turns the lamp on. DeMarco spouts a little technobabble about the circuits. Franchot looks at the circuits. DeMarco goes to fiddle with the settings on a large dialed instrument. Franchot smiles at the circuits. DeMarco…. GET ON WITH THE MOVIE!
This is sadly what occurs in almost all of John Carradine’s scenes, and the excitement levels rarely increase throughout the movie. Carradine’s suitably gaunt figure and strong delivery are wasted. As you can tell, some will find this an excellent insomnia cure. However, while at first this leaden story feels like torture, it soon becomes surprisingly funny. There’s something cruelly hilarious about the poorly crafted stereotypes, and hackneyed production. Give this script to a trendy modern director like, dare I say it – McG, and this would probably be over in ten minutes. Give it to Spike Jonez and it could be a masterpiece full of toy robots. Lovin’ those robots. Whereas Mikels doesn’t seem to know what to do with it at all.
The objective part of my brain is telling me this is awful, but it also had me in hysterical disbelief. If you enjoy these silly films as much as I do, then it makes for half decent entertainment with a few like minded friends. For most the slow pace and confusingly presented plot will be a major turn-off. I’ve still no idea why or where the bikini babe strapped to a table came from, went, or was going to be used for? On the other hand there is something endearing about it in an Ed Woodian kind of way.
Rated: Unrated (UK:15 would be appropriate)
Running Time: 91 minutes
On 4th January 2008, Astro-Zombies charted at number 81 on the IMDB’s bottom 100 films list. Scoring an average of 2.4 out of 10, from 796 votes.
Amazingly writer and director Ted V Mikels made a remake/sequel called Mark of the Astro-Zombies in 2002. It even starred Tura Satana again.