Ted V. Mikels’ legendary bad slice of cinema, THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES, makes it onto the Blu-ray format courtesy of Kino Lorber.
The plot concerns crazed, radio-controlled zombies which are actors in odd skull/alien masks (slit in the back clearly visible) that viciously kill people for their organs (the heads were created by a teenage Tony Tierney, creator of the monster mask in DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN). Adding to his impressive resume of rubbish, John Carradine (HOUSE OF DRACULA) plays reclusive mad scientist Dr. DeMarco—complete with a Ratzo Rizzo-like mute hunchback assistant named Franchot (William Bagdad, SHE-FREAK)—who creates the creatures. You see, Dr. DeMarco was once working for the good guys but his extremist medical practices lead to his dismissal (“When a man doesn’t know the difference between an experiment on an Air Force officer and a cadaver, I think it’s time to drop him from the team”). DeMarco mumbles scientific gibberish, fiddles with various corpses and, with his arthritic hands, plays around with electronics in his mansion basement laboratory (consisting of oversized photographic equipment, radio innards, a deli display unit, an old hot water heater, department store fish tanks and various army surplus junk and electrical gadgets that look as though they were bought from Radio Shack). In the meantime, his imbecile assistant is left to tinker with a captive cutie: a girl in a snakeskin bikini lying on downhill makeshift operating slab, strapped down by automobile seat belts.
Mr. Holman (THE SEARCH’s Wendell Corey in his last screen role) is the bigshot CIA man who sends several agents out to investigate the mutilation murders and track down the rogue madman DeMarco. His crew includes Eric Porter (Tom Pace, star of Mikels’ GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS), Chuck Edwards (Joe Hoover, HELL IS FOR HEROES) and pretty redheaded lab worker Janine Norwalk (Joan Patrick, ANGRY RED PLANET). Tura Satana (the busty, raven-haired exotic star of Russ Meyer's FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL, KILL, and later in Mikel's THE DOLL SQUAD) is a feisty dragon lady (named Satana) from some foreign country, who is very interested in DeMarco’s experiments and has a commie spy (Egon Sirany) run over by his own car (over a tiny audio tape). Her two henchmen are played by character actor greats Vince Barbi (THE BLOB, SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) and Rafael Campos (LADY IN A CAGE, OUTLAW RIDERS) as the switchblade-happy (and not too stereotypical) Juan. The pasty-faced Tura, with her cartoonish make-up, looks great reading a newspaper with her shapely thighs and ample cleavage exposed, or extinguishing a cigarette on the investigating detective’s cheek, but her acting here is surprisingly listless.
Although it reportedly made tons of dough at the drive-ins and contains an assortment of B-movie essentials (and the loudest mad scientist’s lab noises, ever!), even confirmed insomniacs will find it difficult to keep both eyelids peeled while viewing it. Still, if you allow yourself to get caught up in it and accept just how stretched-out many of the sequences are, there is some fun to be had, especially during the last ten minutes. The plotting allows for a lot uninspired dialog—penned by Mikels and actor Wayne Rogers (yes, Trapper John on M*A*S*H!, who also served as executive producer here)—and sloppy day-for-night espionage nonsense, shot on various locations in California as well as a studio (surprising, given the threadbare appearance of many of the interiors). Carradine had been typecast in B monster movies since the early 1940s, but THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES came at a time when independent economic exploitation movie makers such as Jerry Warren and Al Adamson would hire the iconic actor for a couple of days for a few thousand bucks (reportedly, $3000 of THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES’ $37,000 budget went to Carradine) to appeal to fans of this sort of film reading the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Here, Carradine is seen on one single set wearing a white lab coat for all his screen time. Starting and ending with mechanical toy robots and a wind-up tyke’s tank over the credits, and with one too many shots of a “Visible Man” model kit pertaining to important scientific research, you have to just sit back, chuckle and wonder what everyone involved was thinking when they made this gem.
First released theatrically in 1968 by Geneni Film Distributors and then re-released in the early 1970s by Jack H. Harris Enterprises (where it was often double and triple billed with other Harris drive-in perennials), THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES is one of those titles that was a mainstay of "Ma and Pa" video stores back in the day. Wizard Video had it out under its original title, and then as SPACE VAMPIRES, but this version ran suspiciously short of the supposed 92-minute running time. Image Entertainment first released the film on DVD uncut back in 2000, and Kino’s new Blu-ray also restores the film to its longest incarnation, showing off an unconvincing head-lopping, the bloody machete assault of a geeky bystander, and a go-go bar sequence featuring a painted (and topless) dancer shaking her tail feather against a paneled wall standing in for a cabaret night club while the shirtless director slaps the congo drums (and to think this got away with a “GP” rating).
Newly remastered in HD, Kino Lorber's 1080p 1.85:1 transfer looks quite good overall. The Eastman colors can be inconsistent, due to the original shoot’s use of varying film stocks, in that they luck much duller in some scenes, but are bold enough when they count (such as the sight of that enamel red paint blood). Detail is greatly improved over the previous DVD releases, though some nighttime outdoor scenes are hopelessly dark and overly grainy, likely due to the original cinematography. The print source has some scattered lines, debris and blotches, and grain remains study even in the better lit scenes, yet they are never anything to squabble about and they go with the territory, given the film’s non-existent production values and the fact that it was shot on 35mm “short ends”. The DTS-HD 2.0 track is well enough with the blaring sound effects and deliciously overbearing music score by Nicholas Carras never drowning out the clear dialogue. No subtitle options are available on the disc.
Director Mikels is on hand for an audio commentary, and he starts off by revealing that he did cameraman duties on all the exteriors (including shooting on the hood of a car) not having a crew for these scenes as he did for the studio shots. He tells us the reason the infamous robot toy shots (shot in Griffith Park) were done as he needed background footage to go under the titles or it would have cost a lot more, and he also identifies all the supporting actors, the various locations (anywhere they would allow them to shoot), states that James Caan almost had a starring role and that Peter Falk (whose backyard they shot in) had a comic cameo in the nightclub which was cut out. Mikels also goes on in detail about his tiny-budgeted shooting techniques (including the in-camera “swish pans” transitions) and that co-writer Rogers wanted the outcome to be campy in spite of Mikels’ original intentions on making a more serious movie. Full of warmth and a delight to listen to, Mikels runs out of steam somewhat in the last 20 minutes when he starts narrating what’s happening on screen, though he still manages to get another anecdote or two in at that point before it’s all over. Mikels says he had a lot of fun making THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES, and that’s easily apparent in this worthwhile commentary.
There’s an academic commentary track with Chris Alexander, who gives some background information and quotes concerning the film and tells how the team of Mikels, Rogers and Kenneth Altose got the project off the launching pad. He mentions renting the film on VHS from Wizard Video and makes parallels to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and LIFEFORCE, so naturally there’s a bit of padding here in his comments and observations, some of it based on conversations he’s had with Mikels. A third audio commentary is a “RiffTrax” track with Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett all doing it “Mystery Science Theater 3000” style. I still don’t understand the appeal of this sort of thing, and it’s there for people who think this is humorous but I couldn’t take more than three minutes as it’s just awful. Stick with the Mikels commentary. Rounding out the extras are the original trailer and trailers for BEWARE! THE BLOB, THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT and DERANGED (all available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber). The Blu-ray’s slipcover is reversible, revealing the earlier, original poster art on the flip side. (George R. Reis)
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