Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Astro-Zombies [1968]

THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES is an American horror / sci-fi film that was directed and co-written by Ted V. Mikels and originally released in May 1968.  It stars John Carradine, Tom Pace, Joe Hoover, Joan Patrick, Tura Satana and Wendell Corey.  An embittered former US government scientist attempts to create zombies in order to futher his work on thought transference while US agents and a gang of international criminals try to track him down.

Ted V. Mikels is the kind of film-maker that I admire.  He works on the margins of the film business on small budgets, with actors you've never heard on films most people will never see.  Yet he makes films on subjects that he's interested in and does so cheerfully and with pride.  I don't think he sets out on his projects expecting that no-one will watch them; he's not an art-house director who makes films on outrĂ© subjects and has no interest in whether people watch them or not.  He's a populist without public.

Hunchback assistant Franchot (no really) considers how best to proceed

It's difficult to pin down exactly what makes Mikels an outsider in the film business.  It's not that he's untalented, makes films on boring themes or that he operates on a cottage industry level: after all, there are plenty of untalented director working on dull, expensive pictures and there are plenty of well known low-budget film-makers. I've pondered over this question for a long time, not just with regard to Mikels but also Herschell Gordon Lewis, Al Adamson and to a certain extent Russ Meyer, and the best answer I can come up with is that what holds them back is outlandish bad taste.  Bad taste, that is, as far as movie executives and the general public is concerned.  I don't mean bad taste in the John Waters sense, I mean bad taste in the sense of crudeness, a lack of sophistication, finesse and ambition.

Astro-Zombie attack!

Obviously films made on this scale will often be rough around the edges but that shouldn't mitigate against them being stylish or complex.  For instance, compare THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES with David Lynch's ERASERHEAD, made less than 10 years later.  Mikels had a budget of $37,000 whereas Lynch created one of the most singular films of the century on an estimated budget of $20,000.  The way your film turns out isn't always to do with money; it's what the late Frank Zappa used to call "cheepnis" which was his byword for low rent monster movies where the seams always show and everyone always does the predictable thing.

L-R: Tom Pace, Wendell Corey, Victor Izay, Joe Hoover

What Zappa also said however was that he loved movies like this, as I do.  If you've ever seen a picture of Ted V. Mikels you'll recognise him instantly as an impresario, a word you don't hear much these days, particularly since the death of Lew Grade and Dino De Laurentiis.  Mikels looks like a showman, full of self-promotion, self-confidence and enthusiasm, almost as big an event as his films. As with a lot of these directors I knew their names long before I saw any of their movies and I think that's because for all intents and purposes they are their films.  What I mean by that is that without them the films simply would not exist, and by that I mean at all not merely in a different form. Without Mikels, THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES wouldn't exist; without Ridley Scott ALIEN [1979] would still exist albeit in a different form, maybe better, maybe worse.  Without someone like Ridley's brother Tony, or Adrian Lyne, their films would probably still be exactly the same.

Franchot (no really) brings in a fresh corpse for his master's experiments in thought transference

So what of the film itself.  Well, some would have you believe it's one of the worst films of all time. It's not.  It's fun, colourful, groovy in the way that only late 60s Californian films can be, has plenty of action and one or two larger than life performances.  And of course it has acres of bad taste, something that yer mainstream film critic would hate to endorse.  More than anything it reminded me of Alex Cox's REPO MAN [1983], a film I am very fond of.  It has that film's sense of adventure, it's determination to show the dingier side of Los Angeles, and it's adolescent desire to stick two fingers up at anything which might be considered tasteful.  Mikels, I would imagine, is from the opposite end of the political spectrum to Cox who considers himself a Marxist but I think their aesthetic sensibilities are not so far apart.

L-R: Tura Satana, Vincent Barbi and Rafael Campos

It's also a much better made piece of work than anything I've yet seen by Edward D. Wood Jr, Al Adamson or Andy Milligan.  For instance, in THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES a CIA chief's office looks vaguely like a CIA chief's office and a rogue scientist's lab look vaguely like a rogue scientist's lab. This is not so with the other guys: in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE the cockpit of an airliner famously looks like two guys with a curtain behind them and in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER a police chief's office has a shelf of books and a couple of antiques.  The photography and lighting are generally pretty good and there's a barnstorming finale.  It also the awesome Tura Satana as the ruthless leader of the gang trying to get their hands on John Carradine's research and flog it to, presumably, the Commies.  She's quite a sight.

The office of CIA bigwig Holman

I can't deny that there are things wrong with the film.  In fact there are quite a few things wrong with it.  The special effects are terrible; the actual Astro-Zombie and, as far as I can tell the budget only stretched to one, is a guy in a suede jacket and slacks and a rubber mask, and there is a contender for worst decapitated head of all time.  The plot which is basically very simple is hopelessly complicated by an extraordinary amount of time spent on what is presumably complete mumbo jumbo.  There are sci-fi / monster movies in which the pseudo-science sounds reasonably convincing; this is not one of them.

A decapitated head (no really)

There's an awful lot of padding too: the pre-credits sequence of the Astro-Zombie's first victim features almost two minutes of totally unnecessary footage of her driving home.  The credits themselves gone on for over two minutes.  Similarly there's a sequence in Carradine's lab where he's doing some dastardly scientific thing which features almost three minutes of him repeatedly screwing and unscrewing a metal panel.  So that's seven minutes out of a 91 minute movie which are devoid of any entertainment value.  There's also a Jess Franco-approved nightclub sequence where our heroes watch a go-go dancer do her whole routine.  I'm not saying this bit lacks entertainment value but three minutes is a too much.  It's also leeringly crude.

In the end though I enjoyed it despite these faults.  Yes it's very silly but that's partly why I liked it. The least that can be said of it is that isn't po-faced.  Put it this way, I'd rather watch this twice than see Christopher Nolan's recent INTERSTELLAR [2014] which tells the story of a pompous, humourless man disappearing up his own black hole.

At this point I would normally give you a potted history of Ted V. Mikels' life and career but instead I shall just relate three bits of information about him from his imdb page:

Handlebar moustache
Always wears a boar's tooth on a necklace

Lived in a castle-styled mansion in Los Angeles, replete with live-in strippers.

Tura Satana as Satana

Tura Satana is of course one of the great B-movie icons as a result of her performance as Varla in Russ Meyer's FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! a film which will be a scarcely believable 50 years old this year.  Considering that she only made 10 movies, and four of those were for Mikels, her reputation beyond fandom is impressive.  She died aged 73 in 2011, having lived what can only be described as a full life.

John Carradine as Dr DeMarco

I've written about John Carradine before and while recognising that he too is an iconic figure I've never thought a great deal of his abilities, such as they are.  In the majority of films of his I've seen he brings nothing to the party in terms of performance; instead the film-makers are using his name and his visage to lure in unsuspecting punters.  It's as though he's making a public appearance at a fan convention.  Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and, especially, Christopher Lee all made their fair share of trashy films but they were almost always the best thing in it and could be relied upon for a charismatic turn.  I'll say one thing for Carradine though: no-one looks more like an insane scientist than he does.  I'm sure there are Carradine completists out there but I'm not one: apart from anything else imdb credits him with 348 appearances.  Let's say his films last 90 minutes on average - if you watched them all back to back it would take you three weeks!

Wayne Rogers (L) with Alan Alda (R) in M*A*S*H

On the technical side a lot of the crew spent their entire careers - some long, some short - in b-movies and genre movies.  One name, however, stands out: that of co-screenwriter and executive producer Wayne Rogers.  Now that name might not mean much today but in the early 70s he was a household name, particularly in the US, for his role as 'Trapper' John McIntyre in the TV series M*A*S*H.  His double act with Alan Alda was absolutely brilliant and made that show one of the most beloved TV sitcoms of all time.  To my mind the series was less essential and less anarchic once he left, apparently because he felt his character was becoming secondary to Alda's.  Quite how he came to be working with Ted V. Mikels is anyone's guess; I suppose he was just trying to find his niche in show-business.  I do love it though when big stars have these crazy items on their CV and love it even more when they are proud of them.

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