Man or Astro-man? Solar-powered horrors shock the nation!
Ted V. Mikels has been enshrined as a trash movie king by generations of admirers, mainly on the strength of his horror comedy The Corpse Grinders and this unrelentingly weird opus. Mikels had been a successful cinematographer for years, mainly working on independent exploitation features, while directing a long string of commercials and industrial films, before getting into the exploitation racket as a director himself. In 1967, he got together with his actor friend Wayne Rogers (later to gain fame on the television series M*A*S*H) to concoct this ridiculous feature, which combines horror, sci-fi, monsters, espionage, and cult character actors in a spicy gumbo of eccentricity rarely seen outside the filmography of Ed Wood.
Proof of this comes in the first few minutes of the film, in which a young woman is attacked and killed by a weird character wearing a skull-like helmet and a brown suede jacket. We learn later that this guy is an “astro-man” (Rod Wilmoth), a cybernetically re-animated zombie. This leads right into the odd title sequence, which features a parade of electric robot toys (drool, collectors!).
The next scene takes place in the office of government agent Holman, played by Wendell Corey. We know he’s a government agent because he has a flag and a photo of President Lyndon Johnson behind his desk. By the way, this firmly reinforces the film’s 1967 copyright date, though it’s widely noted as being made in 1969, when it was re-released under the titles Space Zombies and Space Vampires. Corey was a respected character actor, notable in films like Rear Window and Carbine Williams, but in Astro-Zombies (his last film) he looks bored and drunk.
So that Corey doesn’t have to do any scenes outside his office set, we’re introduced to his younger operatives Eric Porter (Mikels regular Tom Pace) and Chuck Edwards (John Hoover), who have been called in to investigate the strange murders that have been taking place. We also meet Dr. Petrovich (Victor Izay, a familiar face on Gunsmoke, Mannix, and The Waltons), a former associate of a certain Dr. DeMarco, who had been doing experiments for the Air Force in the implementation of artificial and transplanted organs, along with thought wave transmission, in space pilots. DeMarco was dismissed when he took his scientific zeal too far, but Petrovich feels that the mad scientist may have succeeded in creating one of his “quasi-men” from an executed criminal, and that he is behind the murders and organ thefts.
Cut to a seedy night club, where a ring of spies that are also on DeMarco’s trail are meeting with an informant (who is promptly run over in the parking lot because he got too greedy). The spies are led by a dragon lady named Satana (Tura Satana, star of Russ Meyer’s classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and later in Mikels’ The Doll Squad), who likes to rub out underlings and government spooks while wearing hot & sexy ’60s fashions. Her aides are the flamboyant viper Juan (Rafael Campos, who specialized in playing dope fiends, pimps and priests) and slab-o’-beef Tyros (Vince Barbi, the café owner in The Blob). The feds are after Satana’s gang, knowing they might also lead to DeMarco.
Finally, we get to DeMarco himself, played by horror great John Carradine, hard at work on a second Astro-Zombie. Though often taking roles in movies even more crappy than this one, Carradine always gave a solid performance, somehow combining complete conviction with the slightest twinkle of humor. Mikels gives Carradine as much footage as possible, even if it’s just to watch him tinker around his bargain basement lab full of unused stage lights, transformers, bubbling beakers, and strobe lights. In one long sequence, we get to watch him repair a ham radio.
DeMarco is assisted by a demented hunchback named Franchot (William Bagdad, the comic bully Pretty Boy in She Freak). When he’s not fetching bodies from car accidents, or listening to DeMarco drone on, Franchot is allowed to conduct little “experiments” of his own, most of which involve a half-naked girl strapped to an operating table. He never seems to get anywhere though, always interrupted by the boss.
After the Astro-Zombie kills one of Petrovich’s assistants, the agents come to think that the creature may have come in search of another assistant, Janine (Joan Patrick, Dr. Kildare‘s receptionist), having met her while a test subject. Janine agrees to become the bait in their Astro-Zombie trap. The stunt works – but the Astro-Zombie attacks Janine at home instead of the lab, and Agent Porter (now dating Janine) has an awkward battle with the monster, only escaping death himself by accidentally dislodging his Astro-power pack. This leads to the amusing scene of the photosynthesizing cyborg running off holding a flashlight to his forehead receptor.
The feds jump into action, trailing the Astro-Zombie back to DeMarco’s lab. Meanwhile, electronic genius Juan has figured out how to triangulate on the Zombie’s thought wave control signal. Both groups converge on the lab, just as DeMarco is completing work on his second Astro-Zombie.
Up to now only available via cropped and edited TV prints, Image has released the full 91-minute widescreen version of Astro-Zombies on video for the first time – complete with scenes of topless dancers, decapitation, some extra blood, and an Astro-Zombie sinking a machete into a guy’s head. The print is speckled, but is sharper than any former release, with beautiful vivid colors. The DVD also includes the original shrill theatrical trailer – a poor looking copy that shows how bad this film has always looked before. The package comes with the original poster art by cartoonist Gray Morrow as well.