Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) **½
There must have been something about working for American International Pictures that brought out the worst in Edward L. Cahn. What entertainment value The She-Creature and Voodoo Woman possessed, they came by through no fault of their director’s, but Cahn’s subsequent It!: The Terror from Beyond Space and Invisible Invaders represented a tremendous improvement. I had been inclined to chalk up the superiority of the latter films to the growth and experience that time might be expected to bestow, but now I must reject that hypothesis, for Creature with the Atom Brain doesn’t fit the pattern at all. Released most of a year before Cahn’s AIP clunkers, it nevertheless comes within shouting distance of his later work for United Artists. Part of its appeal undoubtedly derives from a script by B-movie workhorse Curt Siodmak, but Cahn’s direction here still shows considerably more imagination than was on display in any of the films he made for Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson.
Casino owner and gangland kingpin Hennessy (uncredited, but probably Richard H. Cutting, from Attack of the Crab Monsters and Monster on the Campus) is closing up shop for the night when he receives an unexpected and most unwelcome visit. While he puts the day’s receipts in the safe and records them on his Dictaphone ledger, a slow-moving man with an ugly scar and a double line of rivets circling his cranium smashes through the security-barred window of his office and attacks him. In a strangely robotic voice, the intruder introduces himself as Buchanan, and reminds the gangster of a long-ago vow to see him die. When Hennessy protests that the other man is not Buchanan, he receives the following baffling response: “I don’t look like Buchanan, but I am him!” Rivet-head then seizes Hennessy, lifts him up above his head, and snaps his spine in at least three places. Hennessy’s men burst in to rescue their boss, but it’s too late. What’s more, the killer seems not to be bothered by the several bullets striking him from their sidearms— he just climbs back out the window, gets in his car, and drives back whence he came.
We watch this scene play out from two different perspectives. The first, obviously, is from within Hennessy’s office. The second is over a real-time television link in a lead-lined laboratory, where the real Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger, from The Magnetic Monster and Anatomy of a Psycho) is running the show with the assistance of Dr. Wilhelm Steigg (Geoffrey Gaye, of Black Magic and Flying Disc Man from Mars). The remote-control assassin is a new invention of Steigg’s, although it isn’t being used for precisely the role he intended. Steigg’s thinking had apparently been that radio-controlled corpses, powered by radium batteries and operated by a network of electrodes implanted in their brains, could be used in place of normal people for all manner of hazardous jobs, but because Buchanan’s the one underwriting his experiments, he’s also in a position to dictate how the fruits of Steigg’s labors will be used for the immediate future. And although the details are hazy at the moment, it’s plain enough that Buchanan’s primary concern is some kind of revenge kick.
Captain Dave Harris (S. John Launer, of The Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Werewolf) is put in charge of investigating Hennessy’s murder, and he brings in Dr. Chet Walker (Richard Denning, from Target Earth and Unknown Island) of the Police Laboratory to help him make sense of the strangeness at the crime scene. In addition to the testimony of Hennessy’s men crediting the attacker with complete imperviousness to pain or injury, and the physical evidence pointing irrefutably to his superhuman strength, there’s the odd fact that the killer’s blood, fingerprints, and footprints all glow in the dark. Back at the lab, Dr. Walker discovers that the blood isn’t blood at all, but rather a complicated synthesis of organic and inorganic chemicals, and that the mixture is sufficiently radioactive that it would be dangerous to spend much time in the presence of a large quantity of the stuff. And while it comes as no surprise to us when the FBI identifies the fingerprints as those of a man two years dead, the report throws both Harris and Walker for a loop. Then the following afternoon’s murder of District Attorney McGraw (Tristam Coffin, of The Corpse Vanishes and The Crawling Hand) under strikingly similar circumstances adds yet another dimension to the puzzle— who the hell would want to kill both a high-ranking gangster and a high-ranking law enforcement official?
Well, there’s always Frank Buchanan. As Harris and Walker discover over the course of their investigation, Buchanan had been Hennessy’s boss many years ago, but Hennessy got sick of being the number-two man, and turned state’s evidence when McGraw came gunning for the big guy. Buchanan did five years in prison, and was deported to someplace in Europe upon his release— the last anyone heard, he was living in Rome with somebody named Steigg, who had apparently been a pretty important brain researcher in Nazi Germany. A quick call to the police in Rome reveals that Buchanan’s address in town is now abandoned, its basement converted into a rather impressive laboratory. After hearing that, Harris thinks it wise to assume that Buchanan is back in the States, and that his next target will be one of the other three key figures in the case against him. Harris puts all of them under police protection, but the cops hanging around his mansion don’t do Assistant DA Jason Franchot (Edward Coch) much good. Buchanan simply dresses one of Steigg’s zombies up in a police uniform, and that’s the end of Franchot.
Meanwhile, Walker has a talk with Dr. Kenneth Norton (Nelson Leigh) from the neurology department of the local university. He wants to know if Steigg’s old research in amygdaloid stimulation could possibly have led to anything like, say, an invulnerable, super-strong, radioactive, remote-controlled zombie. Norton calls that “fantastic,” but he does say that the technology already exists to control the behavior of a living animal by firing off electrodes installed in key sectors of its brain. The trouble with using a dead organism is that the impulses generated by the brain electrodes are nowhere near powerful enough to drive a muscular response in the absence of the animal’s metabolism. But while Norton isn’t willing to go there, Walker thinks he’s just figured out why Steigg’s zombies are radioactive. An artificial power source using nuclear fuel ought to provide more than enough energy to run a corpse’s muscular system.
The radioactivity also suggests a way to hunt the zombies and, ideally, track them to their base of operations. Walker arranges a meeting with Police Chief Camden (Charles Evans, of Cyborg 2087 and The Night the World Exploded), Mayor Bremer (Pierre Watkin, from The Lost Planet and the 1951 serial version of Mysterious Island), and General Saunders (Lance Chandler), the commander of the local military district, at which he lays out his understanding of what’s going on. Walker wants Saunders to lend the city a bunch of trucks and aircraft equipped with sophisticated radiation-seeking gear. These will search the city for any unexplained traces of radiation, and with any luck, those traces will form a trail back to Buchanan and Steigg. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to keep the lid on a story like that, and reports that the police and armed forces are on the hunt for an army of atomic zombies are soon blaring from every television, radio, and newsstand in town. Buchanan and Steigg both watch the news, and they suddenly become very interested in Dr. Chet Walker.
I can’t prove that Ted V. Mikels ever saw Creature with the Atom Brain, but the similarities between this movie and The Astro-Zombies are so numerous as to make coincidence seem highly unsatisfying as an explanation. Both films involve a renegade scientist with a secret lab building cybernetic zombies out of stolen corpses, both feature efforts to use some form of electronic signal homing to locate the scientist’s base of operations, and both have the authorities finding the bad guys in the end by following one of their creations home when it heads off to refuel after an attack. Hell, both movies even include a returning zombie making trouble for its masters during the climax. Also like The Astro-Zombies, Creature with the Atom Brain tells what would otherwise be a fairly generic sci-fi horror story according to the conventions of a police procedural detective tale (although the later movie’s investigators uncover two evil plots, while the earlier features but one). The big difference, however, is that Creature with the Atom Brain has Curt Siodmak. This isn’t one of that prolific screenwriter’s stronger scripts (Siodmak’s technobabble was never as convincing as his pseudo-folklore and magical mumbo-jumbo), but it has a fair amount of snappy dialogue and considerably more sense and coherence than the screenplays for a lot of 1950’s cheapies. Edward Cahn also directs with much more flair and energy than Mikels could ever muster. At a guess, I’d say his most likely stylistic inspiration for this project was Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s work on The Thing. Creature with the Atom Brain is similarly busy and dynamic, but it is less tiring to watch because everybody in the cast isn’t constantly stepping on one another’s lines, and it benefits from the leanness imposed by a 69-minute running time. Finally, keep an eye out for a few scenes in the third act that play almost like a trial run for Cahn’s later Invisible Invaders. The zombie attacks here happen on a smaller scale, but they’re almost as effective— especially the climactic battle in which Buchanan unleashes his whole undead hit squad against the cops surrounding his lair.