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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Creature with the Atomic Brain

A vengeful mobster, an ex-Nazi scientist, atomic radiation and zombies. From the barest descriptions, Creature with the Atomic Brain (CAB) movie should be about as tacky as 50s B-films get. However, CAB has some talent behind it which keep it interesting. The key ingredient is the writing of Curt Siodmak. He gave us Magnetic Monster ('53), Donovan's Brain ('53) and Riders to the Stars ('54). He will go on to give us Earth vs Flying Saucers too. With Siodmak's above-B writing, and above-B acting (Richard Denning, mostly), CAB is a better than average B film.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The action begins immediately after the credits. A hulking zombie breaks into a mansion and kills a (presumed) mobster boss named Hennesy. The police are baffled. The fingerprints are of a man who died days before. The blood stains are radioactive. (back story) A mobster named Buchanan was forced out of the country, betrayed by some mob mates. While in Europe, Buchanan finds a German scientist who is trying to re-animate the dead -- to provide a menial labor pool. Buchanan funds his research and brings Steigg to America. His goal is to send zombies to kill off those who betrayed him. The police figure out the common Buchanan connection with those killed and try to put the last three into protective custody. Buchanan uses a dead policeman to get one of them, and a dead police captain to get the other two. When the zombie captain is captured, police doctor, Chet Walker (Denning) discovers the remote control brain implants and figures out the plot. Police and army troops converge on the lead-lined mansion. Buchanan sends out his platoon of unkillable zombies to fight them off. Walker gets into the mansion and smashes the electronic controls. The zombies all fall down. Buchanan is about to shoot Walker, but the zombie captain strangles Buchanan first. All is safe again. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Normally, zombie movies are tedious, but in CAB, they're not paranormal spooks. They're electronically controlled bio-units. Siodmak puts more "science" into the tale, which makes it more fun. While the staging is a bit flat, the pacing is good and keeps your interest.

Cold War Angle
There are no commies, but the fact that atomic energy is used to reanimate the dead, CAB does pick up some of the fear inherent in the new nuclear age. Steigg's zombies were fueled by atomic energy in lieu of life.

Zombie Vision -- One cool little detail is how Steigg used implants in the eyes of the dead bodies to collect and transmit live video of what the zombie saw. This made the zombies an extension of their controllers (Buchanan) and not simply a creepy monster. Steigg also used electrodes to control their speech, so the zombie could act like a remote speaker for its controller. The zombies also took voice commands like "drive the car," and "come home" and "Kill him!".

Girl and the Beast -- A curious trope in sci-fi is the scene where the killer monster is confronted by an innocent little girl. This appeared in the early Frankenstein movie. There is something compelling, some deeper chord struck, in these scenes. The monster stops being a monster, temporarily -- charmed by innocence? The innocent has no fear, she just wants to play. The little girl's death in Frankenstein was a mistake, not malice. In The Quatermass Xperiment ('55) and here in CAB, the monsters are alone with little girls playing with their dolls. The monsters somehow have enough human decency remaining in them to spare the girls. The dolls, however, suffer a sort of substitutionary "death."

Brains on the Brain -- Siodmak was fascinated with the power of the human brain. In Donovan's Brain the big gland had paranormal powers. In CAB, the brain is more of a machine which can be controlled by very clever scientists. The 50s had an undercurrent mood of naive optimism about "science" being on the verge of having all the answers.

Extreme Recycling: Zombie Labor -- A fascinating detail easily overlooked in CAB, is Steigg's original intention for his work -- to create a working class of zombie laborers to do menial work. Here, Steigg fits the archetype of the misguided naive genius "mad" scientist. His bio-robot idea is very similar to Karel Capek's 1921 play R.U.R, (which gave us the word "robot") in which non-human bio-tissue beings were created to supply humans with a menial labor class. This is an enduring notion.

A Trace of Decency -- A common feature in zombie and man-becomes-monster movies is the idea that in the good man, a trace of his goodness will remain. In the recent Quatermass Xperiment ('55) the astronaut Caroon, though being consumed by the space monster, does not kill his wife, nor the little girl, even though he happily kills others. In CAB, the zombie police captain, "Uncle Dave" to the little girl Penny, goes on to brutally stab the last two hidden mobsters, but does not hurt innocent little Penny. (the doll doesn't fare so well, see above). This seems to show that we like to think that goodness runs deeper than monstrosity.

Bottom line? CAB is not an easy movie to find, but worth the effort. Yes, it's a B-movie and sounds absurd. Nonetheless, it's well worth watching for a sci-fi spin on the ubiquitous (and often tedious) zombie character.


Anonymous said...

This one frightened me as a child. The chilling moment where Uncle pulls the head off the doll, and everyone was fearful of Penny being killed. Sure, it was done in QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT to the same degree of chilling success. And let's not forget FRANKENSTEIN where the innocent child wasn't as fortunate.

Anonymous said...

This movie was never scary. But it sure was fun. My siblings and I watched it countless times on TV and just loved it.

thingmaker said...

I still find this movie a bit scary. I believe I may have seen part of it on TV when I was only about 5 years old, so when I saw it again, at the age of 13 or so, it had greater resonance.
It has a short enough running time to be without padding and that definitely helps it. The police procedural style is also rather effective... But what I think truly pushes it into the realm of minor classic is the pervasive fear of contamination that runs through it. The secret lab in a suburban house is reached through a plastic tunnel and radiation gear is worn inside the sealed room. The whole house has lead shutters inside the windows. Locating the secret lab is achieved by following the trail of radioactive contamination left by the little foreign scientist when he goes out shopping...
Also, pre-"Night of the Living Dead", these zombies may be the first to be seen to take repeated bullet strikes with any sense of the graphic - tommy-guns blasting rows of smoking hols right through 'em.