Astro-Zombies (1969)

Director: Ted V. Mikels

Also known as: Space Zombies; The Space Vampires

Tagline: “Sex, drugs, & mind control!”

Choice IMDB keywords: Living dead, science, electrocution, bra, upskirt

Plot: A mad scientist and a murdering mechanical man cross paths with the CIA while being pursued by an international spy ring, in what should be a tremendously exciting, action-packed movie, and is actually more like an epic exercise in stalling. B-movie king John Carradine (the star of dozens of films time has forgotten, including Billy The Kid Versus Dracula) plays a scientist working on a plan to replace a man’s organs with artificial, battery-operated parts; strip all the emotions out of his brain; and then send him telepathic orders via “thought-wave transmissions.” He wanted to use the technique to create remote-controlled “quasi-men” to send into space, in place of fragile human astronauts, but he was drummed out of the Aerospace Research Center for vague reasons having to do with attitude problems and freakish mad science. As a CIA honcho (character actor Wendell Corey, in his last role) explains to his various ineffectual underlings, “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.”

After six months of “peculiar murders,” like the stabbing that eventually ends the opening sequence, the CIA has somehow determined that Carradine made an astro-man, and it’s running amok. Unfortunately (as the film finally reveals toward the end), the only brain available for his early experiments belonged to a psychopathic murderer, and he was unable to electronically strip all the crazy out. Meanwhile, an international spy ring consisting of Chinese vamp Tura Satana (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and her Mexican henchman Rafael Campos is also trying to find Carradine and steal his research for their governments.

Key scenes: There are a few of them, like the one where Carradine’s requisite mute, hunchbacked, squint-eyed lab assistant (William Bagdad) just happens to find a crashed car in a field, and drags the dead driver home for retrofitting. Or the one where the rogue astro-man attacks Carradine’s old lab assistant, Joan Patrick—just as she’s undressing in her room, naturally. Or the big ending, described below.

But most of Astro Zombies’ scenes are about either talking or waiting, and most of them look something like this scene:

At least three-quarters of the film feels like a sustained, uncomfortable pause, or like an actor stuck onstage, talking endlessly to cover a peer’s blown cue. Corey explains Carradine’s history and work to his underlings at great length. Carradine spends long, long scenes either silently fiddling with knobs and switches, or delivering meaningless explanations of his made-up technology to Bagdad. Just to make the experience more unpleasant for viewers, both the CIA group and Carradine illustrate their scientific theories by generating ear-splitting, ghastly noises and then standing by placidly while their machines shriek.

In one particularly non-thrilling scene, the CIA crew decides Carradine’s flawed, murderous astro-man will remember Patrick and come after her, so they set her up as bait in a lab, where she stands around. And fiddles with test tubes and retorts. And reads a book. And paces. And watches liquid drip into a flask. And looks at the clock on the wall, which ticks the minutes by slowly, as if to say, “Yes, you’re still watching this.” There’s no payoff; the monster fails to show up, and everyone admits defeat. In another, similar scene, Satana just wanders around her room aimlessly, waiting for her minions to get back.

The film even manages to make exploitation boring: For no apparent reason, Carradine has a lovely woman dressed only in underwear tied up in his lab. Bagdad periodically returns to leer and watch her writhe. For some reason, though, she doesn’t scream or even talk, even though she isn’t gagged. Eventually Bagdad gives her a shot, which either knocks her out or kills her—it’s never addressed, and she never appears again.

Finally, though, the spies track Carradine down and burst into his lab. Shortly thereafter, the CIA follows the damaged rogue astro-man back home. For some reason, as everyone converges, it’s broad daylight in the rutted dirt field where the police are positioning their cordon, while it’s nighttime around Carradine’s nicely manicured country home, complete with loud cheeping crickets:

As the CIA arrives, the rogue astro-man finishes recharging and activates, setting off a final wave of violence. Bagdad tries to resist Campos, who stabs him. The astro-man grabs a machete and chases Campos outside, where they find similar continuity problems regarding the time of day:

One question: If Carradine had the ability to shut down his rogue astro-man at any moment with the flip of a switch, why did he let it run around for six months, stabbing women and getting the CIA honchos so upset that they had to give their agents several long, boring lectures about his history?

At any rate, as he dies, Carradine activates the second astro-man, who comes to life just long enough to grab Satana and push her into that open fusebox, electrocuting them both and simultaneously ending both the astro-man threat and the sexy Chinese super-spy threat.

Can easily be distinguished by: The astro-zombies, which are men in skull masks with extra-large, insectile eye-holes. It’s never really explained why replacing a man’s internal organs with machines and stripping the emotions out of his brain turns him into a skeleton-bug-thing.

Sign that it was made in 1969: A picture of President Lyndon B. Johnson on the wall of CIA headquarters, and a plethora of boat-sized cars with rear fins. Also, an erotic dance sequence in a club, where a mostly naked woman painted to look like the curtains behind her gyrates around to bongo accompaniment. It feels like any of various dancing-women scenes from the original Star Trek series, except with more toplessness.

Also, when Satana and Campos meet a contact to buy his illicit, super-secret information about Carradine’s research, and he attempts to extort more money out of them, Campos pulls a switchblade on him rather than a gun. And when they finally come to terms, the contact gives them… a reel of quarter-inch magnetic tape. (This, incidentally, turns out to be a tape of a lecture Carradine gave at an astro-science conference. All that skullduggery over a recording of a convention speech?)

Timeless messages: For goodness’ sakes, if you absolutely must create horrible, unliving monstrosities out of corpses, don’t power them with the brains of psychopathic killers. Why doesn’t anyone ever learn this?

Memorable quotes: Very little of the dialogue stands out amid the endless spates of dry exposition (“Doctor, what exactly do you mean by this ‘thought-wave-transmission’?” “Well, here, let me demonstrate.”) and meaningless technobabble. (“These are the receivers that will relay the knowledge from the memory-retention cell into the brain of the transplant. You see, these are tuned to a pre-designated frequency cycle beamed from the transmitter.”) Though when lab doctor/useless CIA flunky Tom Pace repeatedly hits on a lab assistant, another doctor in the lab wryly notes, “The young are never satisfied with anatomical experiments on plastic models.”

And once in a while, Carradine gets to give his Peter Lorre-like assistant a fun order, like “Quickly, Franchot, the blood-exchanger!” or “Prepare him for brain transplant and total astro-mobilization!”

Finally, as the film ends, with Pace, Patrick, and fellow useless agent Joseph Hoover looking down on the dead Satana and the fried shell of the last astro-zombie, Pace utters a dramatic-sounding line that has nothing to do with anything: “There is one basic element of life that can never be removed. The emotions.” Shouldn’t he have said “the murderous insanity”?

Filed Under: Film

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