The Astro-Zombies (1968) Review by RevTerry

The Misfits were an early favorite of mine and had a lasting influence on what would become RevTerry. Anyone who has ever ridden in a car long enough with me has been part of a serenade/karaoke rendition of Hybrid Moments or Last Caress at some point-- it just happens. They were one of the first "real" punk bands I became familiar with as a kid, and their music pathed a straight road towards things like psychobilly and other horror-centric genres. I never really dug Kiss or Guns and Roses, so instead it was The Misfits who showed me that bickering men in makeup, elaborate hairdos, and leather pants can construct timeless masterpieces. Even outside of music, the band had an impact on my life. I bonded with several people over the group--girlfriends, lifelong homies, scary-violent drunk people. Their existence was a natural, common ground in circles I frequented. Movie-wise, I got a lot out of deciphering the lyrics. Danzig, or whatever actual demonic being helped him write in his salad days, used some great references. A song title alone led me to the wonderful work of Ted V. Mikels long ago, by way of 1968s The Astro-Zombies.
After the opening (where someone gets killed with a gardening tool) and fifteen minutes of vintage toys on a sidewalk with war sound effects, the film moves to a fresh fucked up car wreck. As the driver moans away with some almost comedic leg placement, a strange figure approaches from the horizon. When the hobbling responder (William Bagdad with a hunched back that screams "lab assistant") gets to the wrecked vehicle, he reaches inside, grabs the injured dude and drags him out the way he came. Later, at a military facility of some kind, government stooge Holman (Wendell Corey) has called a very important secret meeting. It turns out--bodies have gone missing a lot lately, and by some miracle of detective work, they have traced the cause to their own labs. Through unintelligible means, it is determined the culprit is no other than Dr. DeMarco (John Carradine), a former colleague of the attendee Dr. Petrovich (Victor Izay). Before being fired, DeMarco was working on making super soldiers out of dead people for the Air Force, and the official's fear he has gone rogue with his experiments. After some discussion, the guys in suits play with a brain they just had hanging out on the desk to better illustrate... something. Anyway, the theory soon proves correct as the notoriously cracked researcher has successfully completed his project on the down-low with the help of his standard issue lab tech Franchot (the body snatcher from before). Unfortunately, before the mad doctor could celebrate, his two prototypes escape and hit the streets for some murder. Somewhere along the way, this attracts the attention of local bloodthirsty gang-leader/spy-person Satana (Tura Satana), who decides she could use some zombies for her criminal empire. Espionage, super science, and long-winded conversation follow as the team of officials try to bring down the franken-soldiers and prevent the technology from reaching the wrong hands. Also, the astro-people are bulletproof and powered by photovoltaics. Any light will do, a flashlight works well in a pinch.
The film's plot is a chimera of The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962), Perry Mason, and multiple Outer Limits (1963-1965) episodes, let loose penniless in the late-late 60s, while unknowingly dosed with a hit of acid. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is frequently present in the tale, both the original story itself and its various film incarnations, but with the bare minimum of deeper meaning or warning. Logic, technology, and science all play by different rules in the world of the film, and it becomes clear early on what you're in for. There's a lot of downtime spent hanging out in offices or the lab where the excessive amount of random ideas floating throughout each get their focus. Just as entertaining as the awkward violence, the exposition is a torrent of bizarre detail marinated in pulp and left-field imagination. Globs of zany off-base dialog fall out of the characters as they stand in crowds doing exciting things like looking at a table or making faces at each other. The playful lack of realism and direction never hurts, as it's all part of the package. Plus, every silly fictional bit of science you should ever need to know (and then some) is at some point explained to the viewer like a vintage, convoluted school film reel. In its own way, the gobbledygook is thought out. It has no real life base but makes perfect sense in the bizarre ageless universe the epic takes place in. Undeniably, it's slow and meanders around without cause. With a runtime of ninety minutes, it feels like three hours worth of rickety super science, non-sequiturs, and mayhem. It's a unique flavor type of trash that lands between Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein, an Eddie Romero-Hemisphere production, and student theater. Astro Zombies is exemplary of the inexplicably entertaining wayward plod found in every Mikels film. It never really makes a ton of sense (to the viewer anyway), but the dry concoction of sci-fi tropes, implied sleaze and untamed imagination have an output you can't find anywhere else.
The production was put on with more determined love than physical resources. According to the filmmaker, it was shot in six days with a budget of around $37,000 (including staff and actors). Most of the film takes place in bare rooms with the lighting of a government PSA reel. The mad doctor's lab looks like a stripped down Universal set with the patchwork addition of tubes and a few fish tanks. Outside of the Astro Zombies themselves, attire is strictly suits and lab coats with little variation. The camera work and framing function well enough, although more than half of the shots have to be simply a crowd of people looking downward. Scenes go on long past their purpose and cut off abruptly. Every version I have seen comes equipped with plenty of film defects, mostly a constant, large grain. There is a fun contrast between drab, blank tones and unrealistically bright coloring, that can only be achieved by accident and in the late 60s. Menacingly unemotive the Astro-man get-up is essentially a rubber mask and a metal fanny pack. The headwear alone completes a beautifully over complicated look to go with its back story. Blood is plentiful, but it's usually during science time and looks a lot like Kool-Aid. Almost all violence is done off-screen with the classic red splatter coming from outside of the frame. Cheap but fully operative, the throbbing dismembered specimens are a highlight for me, even if the table cloth moves along with the rubber brain. It's the kind of hokey flawed filmmaking that's often parodied but never replicated without the genuine blind ambition.
Even among the eccentric greats of B movie history, Ted V. Mikels stands out as a distinctly flamboyant and unswervable character. By all accounts, the filmmaker was a weird fucking dude, both behind the camera and in his day to day life. For later products, the enterprising salesmen would have theatergoers sign a health waiver as a gimmick and hire an ambulance to park outside. At his height, he lived in a sizeable maze-like mansion in California dubbed "the castle" along with a group of females described as a "harem." Both the fantasy decorated villa and the rotating gang of bunkmates played critical roles in his projects during the time, such as The Corpse Grinders (1971) and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973). Staying busy in the seventies, he put out a variety of features including, politically charged revenge drama The Black Klansman (1966), gross-out comedy The Worm Eaters (1977), and the genuinely creepy, damn near Mormon adventure-piece Alex Joseph and His Wives (1977). Though sporadically, he continued his proclaimed life mission in entertainment for the next three decades by any means necessary, completing films with little to no funding. Mikels died in 2016. At the time, he was hard at work on a sequel to Ten Violent Women (Ten Violent Women: Part Two was released posthumously in 2017), and as far as I know, still rocking a waxed mustache without his top buttons buttoned. He has been credited with inspiring Ivan Goff and Ben RobertsCharlie's Angels, as well as countless genre filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino listed The Doll Squad (1973) among his essentials and included an almost outright reference in Kill Bill (2003). Reportedly, he never received payment for Astro Zombies, as the distributor retained all rights during its run. The script was co-written by Wayne Rogers (Capt.'Trapper John' McIntyre on M*A*S*H) who had previously collaborated with the director on the 1964 comedy Dr.Sex. Mikels would turn out three sequels, first returning to the subject thirty six years later with Mark of the Astro-Zombies (2004). 
I have never been quite sure who the main protagonist is, multiple parties are given equal screen time and empathy. I usually root for Tura Satana's “Satana” despite her cliche character’s antagonistic ways, mostly because it's fun to watch her punk people. According to the legendary actress (and sometimes Mikels), the film had been written around her character after the director had attended a dance performance and developed a crush. The role veers heavy into James Bond bad-guy territory and makes me wish Satana would have had a chance to fuck up Sean Connery at some point. John Carradine plays Dr. DeMarco through a constant squint and probably for little more than gas money to his next stage acting gig. Daddy Carradine seems half out the door as the morbid researcher, but his theatrical delivery plays well with the exaggerated surroundings. He also adds some (probably unnecessary) human depth to the scientist that wouldn't be there otherwise. The rest of the cast looks either bored or goes over the top in just the right fashion. I get my money's worth just watching Wendell Corey do crazy shit with his eyebrows.
Astro Zombies is a slow-motion submersion into a sea of insane explanation and low budget B movie cheese. It lives in its own world, stocked with genre tropes, outlandish pulp, and rubber. It is not for everyone as its pacing shakes even some "bad movie" fans, but in my opinion, it's too surreal ever to call boring. Personally, I have no trouble getting lost in the warm, trashy experience. I enjoy the fuck out of it. There is just something special about the dull thud of a Ted V. Mikels flick. Thanks, Misfits for teaching me so much. But just to be clear, I'm definitely not advocating the use of Danzig as a role model, that would be a truly terrible idea. 
1h 32min | 1968
Director: Ted V. Mikels
Writers: Ted V. Mikels, Wayne Rogers

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Review by:
RevTerry
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