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Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Astro-Zombies

Ted. V. Mikels was a prodigious maker of low-budget films that catered to a lowbrow audience. His Astro Zombies (AZ) is a prime example of that product. It headlined actor Wendell Corey, in what would be his last movie role, and John Caridine. If Kubrik's2001: A Space Odyssey was the high point of 60s sci-fi, AZ is sample of the other end of the curve. The low level camp of 50s and 60s drive-in fodder was not quite ended. Cinematically, AZ suffers in ways typical where the writer, producer and director are all the same person. There are lots of shots that should have been edited out, but the "artist" kept.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The movie opens to a non-sequitor scene somewhat explained later. A buxom redhead drives home into her garage where a man in a skull mask jumps out and kills her. At the scene of a car crash, the driver lies nearly dead. A greasy little man drags his body away. CIA agents investigate the string of murders. They suspect a Dr. DeMarco and his work are behind the murders. On the freeways of LA, a foreign agent rewinds an audio tape. He sells the tape to a buxom foreign agent, Satana. Her minions kill him afterward. Meanwhile, Franchot (the greasy man) brought the dead driver to Dr. DeMarco's lab. They extract his memory into a small circuit board, then freeze the body for later. Back at Dr. Petrovich's lab, everyone goes home but Lynn. When alone, the skull-masked Astro Zombie jumps out and brutally kills her. Meanwhile, at a local nightclub, the two CIA agents, and Janine, take in a bit of avante-garde topless dance. Satana's thugs (Juan and Tyros) drive to evil HQ. They catch two other agents watching the house. One, they kill outright, the other is chased and shot by Satana herself. At CIA HQ, Holman (Corey) laments the lost agents, but they have a lead. The dead tape seller posed as a doctor at a conference which DeMarco spoke at (hence the tapes) before DeMarco was dismissed from the space agency. His idea was to create AstroMen from synthetic organs, and use radio transmissions to upload data into their brains. He got fired for that sort of crazy talk. Enemy agents want his plans so they can create perfect zombie armies. Turns out that DeMarco made his first zombie from a pscyhopath's brain whose last sight was of red-headed Janine. (that's why the first woman was killed. She looked vaguely like Janine, you see?). Lynn was supposed to be Janine too. So, the CIA use Janine as bait to lure the zombie. This fails. But, when Janine goes home, the zombie ambushes her. Eric fights with it, and pulls off its battery pack. Zombie runs away using a flashlight to his forehead to power his solar cells. Satana and her thugs use a radio locator to find Dr. DeMarco's typical basement lair. They burst in demanding the secret, while DeMarco is preparing Zombie 2.0 (made from a "morally pure" man: the dead driver). Zombie 1.0 staggers in needing a recharge. DeMarco hooks him up to the re-energizing unit. Then the CIA burst in and there's gunfire. Zombie 1.0, recharged, goes outside to get Janine and chops some agents while he's en route. Juan stabs Franchot, then runs outside to be shot by CIA agents. DeMarco pulls the power switch to stop Zombie 1.0, but Satana shoots DeMarco. Before he dies, he activates Zombie 2.0, who obeys her order to "kill" by pushing HER into a high voltage box, so that both die. Eric eulogizes by saying, "There's one basic element of life that can't be removed: the emotions." Janine adds, "Thank God for that." The End.

Why is this movie fun?
AZ is so eclectic and campy and just plain "bad" that is can be fascinating. It tries to be exploitive to so many tastes that it's like watching a one-man-band play a dozen instruments simultaneously. There's a mad scientist with his mute Igor sidekick. There are sinister foreign agents -- one of which regularly strikes leggy-cleavagey poses. There are stalwart CIA men who make juvenile innuendos about their dates in a topless bar. (We're talking classy here.) And, solar powered zombies (men in skull masks). AZ is a pu pu platter of stereotyped 2D characters. Things really get moving in the last few minutes when all the baddies manage to kill each other or get killed.

Cold War Angle
This is peripheral, but Satana is vaguely representing a hostile foreign power (China?) which wants the zombie secret in order to create unstoppable invading armies. Amid the various spies and CIA agents is the usual Cold War spy game.

Frankenstein for the 60s -- As eclectic as the plot of AZ is, it amounts to the classic Frankenstein story (1931 movie version) modernized for the late 60s. You have your mad scientist assembling new bodies from old parts. He's thinks he's doing it to benefit mankind, but his monster is uncontrollable and killing people. This basic story is modernized in that the doctor's work is coveted by sinister foreign agents who want an army of such monsters. They are being chased by CIA men. Dr. DeMarco even has his stereotypic "Igor" character in the mute and leering Franchot -- who steals bodies to give the doctor parts to work with. And, while it is still electricity which animates the monster, in AZ, they're solar cells! Monster science has advanced!

Crank Up the T&A Machine -- Mikels aimed his production at the usual lowest common denominator for an audience. As such, there is plenty of female exposure. Most notable is the topless dancer scene in the night club. She wears only a G-string and groovy swirly body paint. Her modern improv dance goes on for two minutes or more. Close ups of her gyrating butt (just like the many beach movies) and long looks at her colorful chest, leave no doubt about what Mikels figured his audience wanted to dwell upon. After THAT bit of raw cheesecake, Satana's many outfits seem almost tame. All were dresses slit up to the hip (ideal for leggy lounging poses) and deep cut tops which barely contain her amplitude. And then there's the girl in the gold bikini, strapped to a table in DeMarco's lab. Franchot putzes around her, leering at her. She wriggles and whimpers a lot, but she has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot. You could cut all her footage and not change the story a bit. She's just there as added T&A.

Gratuitous Gore -- Movie makers were pushing the envelope of gore and violence. Low-budget film mongers followed in their wake. Mikels starts off with a brutal murder of the buxom redhead. He later inserts a quasi-rape murder scene of Lynn the lab assistant. Gratuitous. Later, the zombie goes for another quasi-rape scene in Janine's bedroom. Near the end, zombie 1.0 finds the "razor sharp machete" on top of the re-energizing unit (and why would a machete be there?), he chops off the head of one CIA agent, so it rolls on the lawn. (this is more amusingly bad than seriously violent.) The zombie then buries the machete into the forehead of another geeky looking agent. Those last two are more campy than disturbing, but Mikels was clearly appealing to the baser elements with AZ.

The Art of Slow -- AZ is more like one man's "work of art," than a studio film. Many shots do nothing to advance the plot, but must have been kept for some "art" reason. Extended dashboard-cam shots. A wheel splashing in a puddle, etc. Then there's the long monster-bait scene. Nothing happens. The night club dance scene is another long stretch for no reason (other than the T&A mentioned above). Then there is the obtuse scene in which DeMarco unscrews several screws in order to pull out a metal drawer, so he can unscrew yet another screw in order to open a hatch and drop in a little circuit board. After he's flipped a few switches and made some lights blink we get to watch him do it all again to get the little circuit board out. Why? It must be art, but it's painfully slow art.

And Yet, There's More -- Something about Mikels' AstroZombies touched a chord in audiences. He returned to the topic to make a sequel (of sorts) in Mark of the AstroZombies in 2002. A third movie was done too. There is a segment of the movie-going market that likes killers in masks.

Bottom line? AZ only barely tries to be a sci-fi flick, while really being a crazed-killer-of-beautiful-women and gore flick. At 91 minutes for a 60 minute story, it can be tediously slow at times. John Caridine does a lot of monologuing science blather to his mute assistant. Tura Satana makes an interesting evil babe. Acting was not the strong suit of any of them besides Caridine. Fans of more serious sci-fi are likely to be annoyed with AZ, for all its alternate lowbrow agenda. It's poles apart from 2001. Fans of trashy slasher movies may enjoy it for its trashiness.

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