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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Zombies of the Stratosphere

This is the third iteration of Republic's flying rocket man hero. The first was "Jeff King" in King of the Rocket Men(1949). The second was "Commando Cody" in Radar Men from the Moon (January 1952). The hero in Zombies (ZOTS) was originally supposed to be Commando Cody too, but Republic had begun filming a TV series just before ZOTS was begun: Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. Perhaps to avoid confusion or conflict, the hero in ZOTS was renamed "Larry Martin". He still zipped around the same rocket man suit, however. (His flying sequences were re-used from King just like Radar Men had done.

Sci-fi was gaining popularity with audiences, especially the comic-book age set. TV programming was in its crude infancy, but several sci-fi adventure shows were on the air, so the market seemed ripe for yet another rocket man adventure serial. ZOTS is a formula serial, following the pattern of serials before it, including the traditional cliffhanger endings.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Mars is a dying world, cooling down because it's too far from the sun. The martians decide to knock Earth out of it's warmer orbit and put Mars there. To accomplish this, the martians set about trying to build an H-bomb on Earth, with the reluctant help of an earth scientist with "unfriendly powers" connections. Like Radar Men the few martians who come to Earth employ various earth thugs to do their bidding. In each episode, the martians' latest plan is foiled. Each episode usually had a chase scene (with or without shootout). The martians eventually succeed in getting the bomb built and armed. They flee in their rocket, but are shot down by Larry in his rocket. After the crash, the last surviving martian, Narab, (played by Leonard Nimoy) tells Larry how to find and disarm the bomb. This he does, and the world is safe...for now.

Why is this movie fun?
ZOTS is like a sequel to Radar Men which had a certain spartan charm. The rockets have a quaint-but-unrealistic 1930s look to them, what with their little zeppelin shape and pointy fins, yet equipped with ordinary office chairs. You have to love movies in which car chases have squealing tires on dirt roads and uranium being transported in plain wooden railroad freight cars. It's also fun to see young Leonard Nimoy is his first sci-fi role -- albeit a very minor one. He had worked in a couple of other minor films in 1951 and 52, but ZOTS was his first sci-fi role. He played Narab, one of two martian henchmen on earth.

Cold War Angle
Actually, the notion of subversive spies trying to build an H-bomb does have a sort of modern theme to it. It fit into the Cold War culture of the 50s, but fits pretty well today too. Just swap out martians for terrorists. Unlike most Cold War Angst films, the threat is too minor to be truly frightening. It's just not a global scale threat. Larry and his half-dozen associates are all it takes to defeat the three bad guys.

Mars Rising -- It is interesting to note that Mars is the nemesis. Earlier movies had aliens come from somewhere...out there, but not usually pegged to Mars. Aelita was the queen of Mars, but her Mars wasn't hostile, per se, just another place where the workers are oppressed by monarchs. However, no threat to earth.

 -- In Rocketship XM Mars is a tragic wasteland, it's civilization ruined by nuclear war, and its people reduced to mutant cave dwellers. No threat to earth, just a tragic example of nukes gone awry.

-- In Flight to Mars the martian leader Ikron did want to make a fleet of ships to invade Earth because Mars was cooling off (dying). But, that seemed more like just Ikron being tyrannical. Most of the martians were good -- some of them downright pretty.

 -- In Red Planet Mars the planet was actually cast as the good-guy. A role the poor planet would not often see.

 -- In Zombies (ZOTS), the martians are definitely malevolent. Again their planet is described as cooling and dying. Their plan is not to invade the earth, but send it spinning off into space so they can move Mars closer to the fire, and be all warm and cozy again. ZOTS has mean martians coming to Earth to cause trouble. This would become a very dominant plot line in 1953.

Bottom line? ZOTS is low-budget popcorn fun, not high art with noble messages about mankind, etc. It is what kids in the early 50s were watching at their matinee Saturdays, so it's a little window into the soul of an elder Baby Boomer. ZOTS is a good anti-venom for CGI special effects too. Rockets with office chairs! Life was simpler then. Enjoy!

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