Whenever a bunch of Bad Movie Fans get together, and discuss their favorites, the usual suspects crop up. Plan 9. Robot Monster. Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot. There is one film, however, that almost never crops up in these conversations: The Astro-Zombies.
There is a reason for this.
Astro-Zombies opens with a segment - one minute, thirty seconds long - of a pretty woman driving a white Mustang convertible around southern California, giving us our necessary dose of low-budget travelogue footage (at this point the movie is indistinguishable from a porno film of similar vintage). She drives into her garage, the door shuts behind her, and although it is broad daylight outside, crickets begin to sing. We also hear the low dull quick sound of a heartbeat, which always announces the presence of... an astro-zombie!!!!! One pounces out of the shadows and does her in with a gardening tool. Man, that was... uh.... scary.
Things do not get more comprehensible from there. From what I can decipher, CIA chief Holman (Wendell Corey, in his last role) throws a whole slew of agents at a problem at some government lab, including the handsome Agent Chuck, who keeps glancing at the camera. In some rather painful exposition, we learn of the work of Dr. Demarco, who was working on an indestructible artificial man who could be remote- controlled on spaceflights....an astro-zombie!!!!!!! Somehow, they are also certain that the discharged DeMarco has created.... an astro-zombie!!!!!!!.... and that this creation is responsible for "the recent mutilation murders".
DeMarco (John Carradine! Yes!) is, in fact, hard at work creating another robot, apparently to chase after the first, defective one. He is aided in this by an archetypal hunchbacked assistant, Franchot. Concurrent to all this, a group of spies, led by the delicious Tura Satana (of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! fame) is trying to track down DeMarco, no doubt to put his discoveries to Evil Use (not that their current usage is philantropic, by any means).
DeMarco's former aide, Janine (The World's Most Glamorous Lab Assistant) somehow figures out that her old boss used the brain of the last case they worked on - a psychotic killer - and that the killer is now after her (he does, indeed, breeze right into a government lab and off another lab assistant). The clever a-zombie, however, bypasses the trap set for him at the lab and assails her in her own apartment (and did I mention that the a-z's make this electronic Horror Horn sound when they attack? No, I didn't think I did). In the ensuing tussle with Janine's oddly- accented CIA beau, the a-zombie's Power Storage Cell is knocked off, and, in the film's most famous scene, the zombie flees back to DeMarco's lab, a flashlight pressed against the solar cells in his forehead to keep his heart beating.
Satana's gang locates DeMarco's lab by triangulating radio transmissions to the ro-man - sorry, the a-zombie - and are interrupted in their threatening of the mad scientist by the arrival of the ailing a-zom. Our crack CIA team simply follows the murderous mechanoid to his lair. (Hm.... bad guys go high-tech, CIA just follows the wounded killer...who's to say which approach is better?)
DeMarco patches up the damaged a-zom so he can go berserk with a machete. Satana, whose solution to every problem involves shooting somebody, shoots DeMarco as he pulls the a-zom's self-destruct switch (now why didn't he do that in the first place?). The dying DeMarco throws another switch, activating the second a-zom, who forces Satana into a high voltage box, frying them both. The end.
Keep in mind that I had to order all these events in my head to write the plot summary - the film itself is amazingly incoherent. Characters are introduced, mutter a few lines, get killed or simply vanish, and we care not a whit for any of them. It's an hour into the film before you figure out who all these characters are and what they are doing, or even who the good guys are (me, I was waiting for agent Chuck to do something, but No Go). Fortunately, the battle lines are drawn by the time all parties wind up at DeMarco's basement laboratory, but also, by that time, we are five minutes away from the film's merciful end. It's like watching three strands of cooked spaghetti being woven into a bungee cord - the film's story has some resemblance to a plot, but it would be disastrous to actually use it as a plot.
Not aiding things is the fact that, in order to fill out the running time, everything is filmed in real time. If Tura must wait for her gunsels, she will sexily smoke a cigarette for a few seconds. The worst instances of this happen in the Mad Lab sequences, whilst Carradine dutifully drones the details of his mad experiments to the faithful Franchot (a slathering of silver-age techno-babble, a fossil precursor to Voyager), and then some lights flash and some fluids flow, but nothing ever really happens - they are like Zacherle sketches with no punch lines.
Also filling time is one of my favorite absurd sub-plots of all time: for some reason, there is a Bikini Babe strapped to a table in Dr. DeMarco's lab. Every now and then, Franchot walks by and leers at her. If one wants to expend any skull sweat on it (if, for instance, one was trying to fill out a Web page review), one could surmise that Franchot wants to make her a Jeffrey Dahmer-style sex zombie. But that would require more mental energy than this movie deserves, so let's just say that this part of the film exploits women, and get on with our lives.
Tura Satana - ah, how far would she have gotten with a few more acting lessons? She's quite striking - and you just know she's a Super Spy the instant you see her, because only Super Spies wear those slit-skirt gowns - but her onscreen presence in this film is somewhat, shall we say, insubstantial. And on the subject of John Carradine - well, there is no faulting his work ethic. You don't appear in over 400 movies by turning jobs down, not even landfill like The Astro-Zombies. I had hoped his presence would provide a soothing island of calm and competency amongst all this - but even he could not rescue me, alas.
In the interest of Not Letting the Guilty Escape Punishment, it must be mentioned that a portion of the blame for this does not rest solely on the head of director Ted V. Mikels.... he has other crimes to answer for, and will no doubt appear again in these pages... but we must never forget that the co-writer and executive producer for this walking-wounded exercise was none other than Wayne Rogers, he of the TV show M*A*S*H*. Rogers has had questionable judgement in his acting assignments since, but you can't fault his business sense. Through clever deals with Southern drive-in circuits and decent TV ads, The Astro-Zombies reportedly made over three million dollars.
Zombi 3, Viewers 0
- January 25, 1998