Greetings, readers, Bill here again with a film by a true cult movie, the unforgettable Ted V. Mikels. With his impeccable handlebar mustache, the giant talon hanging from a chain around his neck, somehow-wider-than-ear-to-ear grin, and bevy of beautiful women (plus a castle to house them in), Mikels is a true one of a kind original, the kind of larger-then-life character who, if you saw them in fiction, would think them to be too outrageous to be believable. Tonight we’re watching one of Mikels’ best-known films, THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES, starring John Carradine (of BIGFOOT and THE FACE OF MARBLE), Tura Satana (FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!) and Wendell Corey (REAR WINDOW, WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET) in his final film role. Without going on any further, let’s settle in with this cult classic, shall we?
The CIA is deeply interested in the work of rogue scientist Dr. DeMarco (Carradine), whose work on organ transplants and thought transference, financed by the American space program (on the grounds that it’d be really useful to be able to beam information directly from a computer to an astronaut’s brain while he’s in flight), was progressing along very interesting lines prior to his termination from the space agency. Fearful that Communist spies might try to tap DeMarco and steal his work on thought-transference, CIA agent Holman (Corey) is assigned the task of locating and safeguarding DeMarco.
The CIA is right to be concerned, as a Communist plot is afoot to try and steal DeMarco’s work, spearheaded by the villainous dragon lady Satana (Tura Satana, rocking both the cocktail dress and the kimono just as vivaciously as she did the black leather in FASTER PUSSYCAT!), her agents hounding – and gunning down – Holman’s underlings every step of the way.
Meanwhile, DeMarco is using his techniques to create an army of Astro-Zombies, crazed undead cyborgs that roam the streets of L.A. butchering pretty girls left and right! Well, okay, there’s one Astro-Zombie wandering around killing people, but that’s because DeMarco was forced to utilize a criminal brain in its construction (shades of Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN) and he’s hoping to recapture and reprogram it, but in the meantime, the rest of these Astro-Zombies won’t build themselves…
You have to respect Mikels’ vision. With Commie spies, square-jawed G-men, dancing girls, mad scientists, bouncing boobies and solar-powered cyborg zombies, THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES honestly should be a surefire win. I say should, because while it’s certainly entertaining in concept, in practice it manages to feel both overloaded and underloaded.
I say overloaded because there’s so much going on that none of it ends up feeling fully developed, and subplots pop in and out with abandon, rarely getting resolved in any meaningful fashion. I say underloaded because I feel like you could cut 20 minutes from the film without impacting the story any, and long stretches of the movie just kind of drag. Such is the price of having a mad genius behind the camera, I suppose. I think not just the film, but the script itself could have used a firmer hand at the editing stage – I found it particularly irritating how nothing is ever explained or given reason until after it’s over, if at all – What DeMarco’s trying to achieve isn’t made clear until after he’s stopped from achieving it, and the same goes for Satana. We’re left with strings of scenes divested of any sense of meaning and that makes it a much harder film to pay attention to.
The Astro-Zombies themselves are fun creations, and certainly visually arresting; With a big skull head implanted with various technical bits-and-bobs, particularly black lenses filling the eyesockets and a metal grill shaped like Jack Nicholson’s manic grin over the mouth, they’re a lot more interesting to look at then the average man in a rubber mask, and I feel like some of their scenes kind of prefigure the tension and attitude of later slasher movies, though some tighter editing and some less-egregious day-for-night photography would probably emphasize that prefiguration more.
What really grabbed me here was Tura Satana, and not just for the obvious reasons; the only other film I’ve ever seen her in was FASTER PUSSYCAT, and her conniving secret agent here is a far cry from the brash, overbearing uber-amazon (or should I say mammazon) that Russ Meyer had her playing. While her character Varla in FASTER PUSSYCAT never speaks below a contemptuous snarl, the character Satana here is soft-spoken because she can afford to be; she doesn’t need to raise her voice to utterly dominate the other agents in her cell, she can do it with just her piercing eyes and a languid drag on her cigarette. And if that’s not enough…she’s packing heat. I feel like Mikels gave her a much greater opportunity to act, and she makes the most of it here. She does so much with an arched eyebrow or a leisurely hand gesture and is generally the best performer in the film outside of maybe Carradine, and he’s not exactly stretching his acting muscles in the familiar role of authoritative mad scientist.
Even more interesting is the emphasis Mikels places on Satana’s legs. Obviously, Russ Meyer was something akin to the Platonic Ideal of a slavering boob-hound, and he dressed his actresses (or undressed, as the case may be) to emphasize their chests as extremely as possible. While Tura was never nude in FASTER PUSSYCAT, her all-black ensemble and thick black mane draws the eye to the paleness of her face and cleavage. In ASTRO-ZOMBIES, she wears a variety of dresses cut high up the hip and perches on chairs or sprawls across couches in positions calculated to show the maximum amount of bare thigh allowable by the standards of 1968. While I don’t think it’s humanly possible to actually de-emphasize Tura’s bosom, Mikels comes pretty damn close in some scenes, and it shows how much a movie can reflect the mind of a filmmaker; Mikels isn’t the obsessive boob-hound that Meyers was, and so that’s not where his focus with Tura as an actress is. If it weren’t for those penetrating eyes, it’s almost hard to believe it’s the same woman in both roles, the differences in how she’s shot are so extreme.
Final Analysis: THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES is not a name that will ever echo in the annals of great horror cinema the way, for example, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE do; instead it’s found a different sort of notoriety, the notoriety of being bizarre and unlike anything the viewer has seen before, and it’s more then a little incoherent, but it’s the sort of film that, for the aficionado, is worth watching once, if maybe not worth watching twice. Tura Satana gives a great performance, John Carradine is in his natural habitat, there’s some bare breasts during a nightclub scene and the monsters are solar-powered undead cyborgs. You’ll probably want the 91 minutes back when it’s all over, but while it’s going on it’s a weird ride.
Overall, I give THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES (1968)…
TWO BARRELS OF TOXIC WASTE.