Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Astro-Zombies - review

1968 (USA)


Contains spoilers.

Twenty minutes into The Astro-Zombies as I sat patiently watching Dr DeMarco (John Carradine) the films Dr Frankenstein painstakingly remove three screws from a small metal box, drop in a small bit of a circuit board then screw them up again, only for the action to then move ponderously to his deformed Igor, Franchot (William Bagdad) who was crouching waiting for a switch to be flipped so we could watch his large bucket of blood dribble full I realised that I really do hope your guys and gals appreciate what I'm putting myself through on your behalf. That scene alone took about five minutes though it felt much longer, and that's the rub with The Astro-Zombies; it's just so damn ponderous and laboured.

I love a good-bad zombie film, and must even get some kind of masochistic pleasure from bad-bad ones as for all its problems, and there's a hell of a lot, Ted V. Mikels 60s exploitative space, pseudo scientific mumbo-jumbo spy thriller isn't actually all bad, though not for the reasons you'd think. It's not the wooden acting, the appalling masks and prosthetics, or the implausibly incoherent narrative or kitchen sink approach to content that pulls it down. Ironically it's the fact there's too much trying to present the ludicrously ridiculous as plausible and coherent, too much sincere explanation and a good thirty minutes of fluff that could easily have been cut or heavily edited out.

The story is pure b-movie super-cheese. The CIA, lead by Holman (Wendell Corey) are investigating a series of grizzly mutations suspecting it might have something to do with the missing Dr DeMarco who before he was dismissed from 'the space agency' had been working on an idea to put reanimated memory-and-will-sapped cadavers in space with solar powered hearts, disease free blood and thought wave transmission circuitry so that they could be operated from earth telepathically by highly skilled operators. Yeah. It's a bold idea and if I was the CIA I'd probably be keeping an eye out on him too.

They're not the only ones after him though. Not content for the film to be CIA vs the mad scientist and his zombies, Mikels deemed it necessary to add a third party to spice it all up and turn it into a bit of cold war spy thriller. The KGB have decided they want in on zombie space men so they've sent a crack team (I say crack team, I mean thug and camp sadist) lead by femme fatale Satana (Tura Satana) to acquire the research first by any means possible.

What we end up with a confusing tale, not helped with overly complicating editing. The CIA stumble about, the KGB stumble about, the rogue astro-zombie, or quasi-man, as they put it, stumbles about; there's a bit of espionage, a lot of 60s drinking and misogyny, a few shootings, lots of fringe-science / star trek-esque science-fiction that's over explained and even a few minutes of totally unnecessary topless go-go dancing from a painted girl to a Haitian Latin bongo beat. It's pure b-movie z-grade nonsense with hammy dialogue, poor effects and bad direction, but it did on occasion tickle my fancy so to speak. If we're honest we expected all this though; it is 1968 and the bizarre obviously fake prosthetic skulls, break away shots to blood spattered walls or silhouette whenever there's an amateur zombie fumble all attest the fact it's a shoe-string amateur production, obviously well intentioned but entirely lacking the ability to pull it altogether intelligently or cohesively.

The zombies are actually quite interesting all things considered. They're fresh cadavers, they've somehow and let's not get into it, had their emotions and memories removed to turn them into, as DeMarco puts it, pure calculating machines then they're given artificial hearts, organ transplants, a thought wave FM radio mind controller and then brought back to life. In many respects they're the perfect meeting point for the old Haitian voodoo zombies and the dead Romero-esque modern killers. They're automatons and slaves but they retain a murdering instinct and can go out of control. The rogue quasi-man is actually a rogue; he's bad, he's (with sinister music) dun dun dun, a criminal, and that's actually why he's gone off on his murderous rampage. You see, he may have been asset stripped of all that made him who he was but here central morality is all nature (not nurture). If you're a bad egg, you're a bad egg and you probably shouldn't be reborn with insatiable brutality, super strength and the ability to shake off being shot. Physically they entirely human in movement and even keep on their funeral suit; all that's different is the ridiculous head gear and all the cyborg circuitry.

The Astro-Zombie really is a clumsy cheap b-movie rehash of the Frankenstein story albeit spun as a poor early star trek episode allowed to be a bit gory and a bit less plausible. You've got to understand what you're getting yourself into with a movie like this though; it's right up there with Plan 9 and some of the worst movies ever made, with preposterous scripts and baffling audacity and ambition, especially given the lack of money and talent. The thing is, knowing all this, and going in expecting to be it all one can actually have a good time, and the absurdity becomes compelling. The Astro-Zombies is what is; the pinnacle of bad b-movie sci-fi horror film making with no redeeming quality other than having no redeeming quality. Great cheesy rubbish, 3/10.

The picture quality for such a b-movie was for the most part pretty good though there was the occasional scene or set of scenes with a lot of noise or sudden reduction in resolution. Sound was good if soft but I had no real problems with the disc. Some extras would have been nice though.

Steven@WTD.

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