The Astro-Zombies/Space Zombies/The Space Vampires (1968) -**
Here’s another big-name crapmeister whom I should have gotten around to a long time ago. Most of the major players on the independent B-movie scene during the golden age of the drive-in were eccentric to one degree or another, but Ted V. Mikels is in a class all by himself. An unapologetic polygamist who spent the bulk of his filmmaking career living in a castle outside of Los Angles with a rotating cast of girlfriends and common-law wives (invariably seven at a time— Mikels calls seven “the magic number”), he is a man with very definite ideas about the world and his place in it, who likes to be completely in charge of his situation, and who has absolutely no interest in compromise. When the drive-ins and grindhouses died out in the early 1980’s, Mikels packed his shit and retired to Las Vegas rather than try to play by the new rules (a retirement that would prove noticeably less than complete in the end), but during the preceding twenty years, he produced (generally with invaluable assistance from his “Castle Ladies”) a fairly voluminous and deeply bizarre body of work that often won astonishing returns on a extremely paltry investment. Mikels served as writer, director, and producer on most of his movies, and distributed them himself through a company called Cinema Features Incorporated. Meanwhile, his Hollywood castle was a virtual film school, at which he trained the Castle Ladies in such vital subsidiary functions as editing, cinematography, sound effects, and production assistance. Because of his self-appointed role as a guru of low-budget exploitation filmmaking, it is tempting to compare Mikels to Roger Corman, but there is an important point of distinction in that Mikels has nearly always worked totally outside the system, whereas Corman spent his peak years operating on its periphery, but within it nonetheless. Cheap though they were, American International and New World were studios, with all the overhead and infrastructure that implies. Cinema Features Inc. had more in common with the seat-of-the-pants operations created by the likes of David Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis, and that was just the way Mikels liked it.
While the majority of Mikels’s films have mostly faded from memory, there are a half-dozen or so that nearly any avid fan of celluloid schlock will know by reputation, if not necessarily from actual experience, and of those, The Astro-Zombies is probably the most famous of all. This is not to say, however, that The Astro-Zombies is well-liked. It is almost totally incoherent and frequently dull, and it surprises me only slightly that the distributors of at least one VHS edition felt compelled to append an opening crawl which not only tries to make some kind of sense of the action, but also resorts to that most desperate of cop-outs, claiming retroactively and with no discernable justification that the film was intended from the beginning as a spoof. Bullshit.
A woman we’ll never get to know drives around the suburbs of Los Angeles, eventually (and I do mean eventually) pulling into her garage. The cricket noises on the soundtrack are absolutely the only indication that this is supposed to be happening in the middle of the night. The moment the woman gets out of her car, she is pounced upon and savaged by what we may take to be one of the titular astro-zombies, and… Jesus. What we have here might be one of the all-time great examples of a fine idea executed with almost no success at all. The thing that kills the woman has a skull-like face that is meant to look simultaneously organic and mechanical. Its bulging eyes have black plastic lenses, a fine, metallic screen protects its rigid, immobile mouth, and there is some sort of device mounted in the center of its forehead. In concept, it’s the sort of thing that would make H. R. Giger a rich and famous man, but Mikels’s miniscule budget ensures that all it looks like in anything but the most subdued light is a guy in a crummy rubber mask. The movie’s average quality level is then diminished even further by an overly long and nearly invisible credits sequence, in which a phalanx of tin clockwork robots march against wind-up toy tanks, to the accompaniment of stock rifle- and artillery-fire noises. No, I really don’t get it either.
Cut then to the aftermath of a traffic accident. A bearded weirdo (William Bagdad, of She-Freak and Trader Hornee) absconds with the body of one of the drivers. Elsewhere, some blond guy (Egon Sirany) rewinds a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the back seat of a 1960 Cadillac. Finally, the first vague hint at a plot materializes, as a massively pomaded CIA agent named Holman (Wendell Corey, from Women of the Prehistoric Planet and Picture Mommy Dead) meets with a lower-ranking agent and a pair of scientists. The agent (also massively pomaded) is Chuck Edwards (Joe Hoover). One of the scientists (sporting so much pomade that some important law of physics must surely have been broken while applying it) is also on the CIA payroll, and we now learn that he— Dr. Eric Porter (Tom Pace, from Blood Orgy of the She-Devils and The Girl in Gold Boots)— had been specifically assigned to investigate the loyalty of the other man, Dr. Petrovich (Victor Izay, of Blood Song and The Single Girls). Holman had come to suspect that either Petrovich or his erstwhile partner, Dr. DeMarco, was somehow behind the string of “mutilation murders” that have gripped L.A. over the preceding six months, and it is only now that he is confident of Petrovich’s innocence. How’s that, you ask? Well, Petrovich and DeMarco were employed on the space program, working to develop a form of cyborg astronaut that could be controlled from Earth by radio-transmitted brain waves, and the killer has been harvesting organs from his victims in such a way as to imply that somebody wants to make something out of them. DeMarco was cut loose from the program only a couple of weeks before the first killing, and no one knows where he is today. Holman fears that DeMarco either has built or is building an astro-zombie of his own using the pilfered body parts. Furthermore, there is some indication that agents of a hostile government are on the loose in the city, seeking to secure the fruits of DeMarco’s genius for themselves. Edwards believes that some major espionage is about to go down at a nightclub called the Carriage House, which he has been staking out for some time.
Edwards is right. That guy with the tape reel meets up with an ersatz Mata Hari named Satana (Tura Satana, from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and The Doll Squad) to sell whatever secrets it contains. He wants twice the agreed-upon price, however, and Satana has her sidekicks, Tyros (Vincent Barbi, of Black Belt Jones and The Corpse Grinders) and Juan (Rafael Campos), kill him in the parking lot after the deal is concluded. Satana herself is no longer at the club when Edwards arrives with Dr. Porter and Janine Norwalk (Joan Patrick), Dr. DeMarco’s former lab assistant, but her men are on hand to get the hint that they are being pursued. Meanwhile, back at Petrovich’s lab, the astro-zombie strikes again, butchering Lynn (Janis Saul), the other lab assistant.
You know, if I wanted to be as numbingly repetitive as this movie, I could easily begin every other sentence here with “Meanwhile…” At the same time that our heroes are watching a brain-anesthetizing dance routine at the Carriage House (It’s 1968! We can have boobies now!) and Satana’s men are having an agonizingly confusing shootout with men who will only later be revealed as yet more of Holman’s agents, the Bearded Weirdo returns home to a nearly lightless basement laboratory, where he works for a cranky old stereotypical mad scientist (John Carradine, from Terror in the Wax Museum and Shock Waves). This, predictably, is Dr. DeMarco, and yes, he’s building an astro-zombie. This is actually DeMarco’s second attempt, for his first creation has gotten loose, and is now running around killing good-looking girls pretty much at random. Would you believe the problem stems from the criminal brain for which DeMarco was forced to settle during the first astro-zombie’s construction? Always nice to see some respect for the classics, right? Wait— say that again… you want to know why the first zombie is harvesting organs if it’s no longer under its creator’s control? Yeah, I was kind of wondering about that myself. I was also wondering about the identity of that bikini babe the Bearded Weirdo has strapped down at the other end of the lab, and what she could possibly have to do with anything. We’re never going to learn the solutions to those puzzles either, I’m afraid.
All of these plot threads (assuming they still qualify as plot threads when they never quite add up to a plot) come together when Janine inexplicably concludes that the astro-zombie attacked Lynn because it was trying to get to her instead. There is a reason (sort of), but it makes nothing like sense and I don’t feel like getting into it. She and Porter attempt to trap the astro-zombie at the lab, but the cyborg killer never shows— because it’s busy laying a trap for Janine at her house! Porter manages to save his girlfriend (or maybe she’s Chuck’s girlfriend— it’s really hard to tell), severely damaging the astro-zombie in the process. Porter then places a call to headquarters, and Holman dispatches a small army of cops and federal agents to track the wounded cyborg to its lair. And while that’s going on, Juan has determined that he and Satana can also locate DeMarco by using high-frequency direction-finding gear to home in on the transmissions whereby the scientist is feeding the astro-zombie its orders. All parties converge upon DeMarco’s lab more or less simultaneously, resulting in a big, cheesy free-for-all. (Machetes make everything better.) Nobody ever thinks to release that captive bikini babe from the laboratory, though…
When the drummer in my band lent me his copy of The Astro-Zombies, he did so with the warning, “It’s kind of interesting, and you should definitely see it if you haven’t, but in the end, you’ll kind of want those 88 minutes of your life back.” He was right on all counts. The real trouble with The Astro-Zombies is that Mikels’s inattentive, scattershot approach to storytelling robs the movie of most of its interest by fixing it so that we never have any idea what we’re seeing until well after it’s already happened. Characters are routinely introduced after they’ve been killed. Motives and agendas remain shrouded in mystery until after the schemes predicated upon them have failed. Whole subplots are simply forgotten about without ever reaching any sort of fruition. And through it all, the movie drags and drags and drags. When the combined efforts of Tura Satana and John Carradine are not enough to keep a drive-in flick exciting, you know you’re treading close to the precipice of Utter Failure. There are moments of demented joy to be extracted from the muck, it is true (as when the damaged astro-zombie holds a flashlight up to the solar cell on its forehead to keep itself functioning on the way home after its main power supply has been destroyed), but they sadly come nowhere near frequently enough.