A voluptuous woman in a low-cut orange dress is driving a convertible through some California suburb while quasi-surf music plays. The next Tarantino film? No, it’s the opening scene of Ted V. Mikels’ excruciating Astro Zombies.
Mad scientist Dr. DeMarco (John Carradine) has developed a way to transmit information from brain to brain. This means the U.S. can send artificial men into outer space whose heads contain all the technical knowledge they need. Naturally, other countries will kill for this technology, including a Chinese Communist named Satana (Tura Satana) and her two Mexican henchmen. Various government agents circle the proceedings ineffectually. There’s a scene in a nightclub featuring an erotic dancer wearing only body paint and panties. This all makes even less sense in the movie itself.
Ah, good ol’ T.V. Mikels. Closing in on his eightieth year, he’s still cranking ’em out, as he has done since Kennedy was president. Astro Zombies is one of his more notorious efforts, partly for its high level of MST3K-ability (there’s a celebrated bit when a wounded astro zombie, who needs light to function, flees into the night with a flashlight pressed against his forehead), partly for its ready-made cult-fave cast. I find Carradine worth watching in anything, though Astro Zombies surely tests that hypothesis. In a scene almost mesmerizing in its narrative slackness, we watch Carradine’s long fingers unscrew the screws in a drawer, open the drawer, unscrew a box inside, open the box, place a computer chip inside, screw the box shut, screw the drawer shut … and then, after the experiment that’s supposed to zap a dead man’s memories into the chip, we get to see all of this all over again. Carradine also has interminable one-sided scientific conversations with his mute, bearded, greasy-haired minion Franchot, leading to one of those lines of dialogue that make me glad I have ears: “Quickly now, Franchot — the blood exchanger.”
Fans of Russ Meyer’s seminal Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! — still, as of this writing, lamely unavailable on Region 1 DVD — and of that film’s hissing-cobra star Tura Satana in particular will probably want to sit down with Astro Zombies at some point, though Tura doesn’t get to kick nearly as much ass here. She does, however, get to smoke what seem like cartons of cigarettes while ordering her lackeys around (“Don’t you ever question my orders again!”) and occasionally shooting hapless men while resplendent in the sort of outfit and bad-grrl stance that probably gave Tarantino more than one sweaty fap session.
I’m more than willing to give absurdist Z-budget horror the benefit of every doubt there is — I love this sort of stuff, and I don’t apologize to you or anyone else for that. But Astro Zombies commits the cardinal sin of being slow and boring on top of being heedlessly bad. Whenever the camera is on Carradine or Satana, all is forgiven, but anything having to do with the government agents — especially a drawn-out sequence in which they use a sexy lab assistant as a decoy, hoping to snare one of the astro zombies, though absolutely nothing happens — is dead, dead air. Sadly, this is another case of the trailer (also included on the Image Entertainment DVD) giving you pretty much everything the movie has to offer in a fraction of the movie’s padded-out running time.
As must be duly noted in every review, Wayne Rogers — who later played Trapper John on TV’s M*A*S*H — cowrote the screenplay and was one of the executive producers. Rogers, however, had nothing to do with the sequel — yeah, there is one — made by Mikels in 2002 and also featuring Tura Satana. I’ll have to track that one down. Or at least its trailer.