A woman drives home listening to pop music on her radio, but as she pulls into her driveway and inside her garage, she does not notice a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows, a tall, muscular man wearing a helmet of a skull design. Is he in fancy dress? Some kind of biker? The woman never finds out as when she emerges from her vehicle, the man attacks her with a sharp implement, splattering blood across her white car door. Elsewhere, a different man is in a car crash in the countryside and as he lies seriously injured he is approached by a hunched, greasy chap who drags him from the wreckage with nefarious deeds in mind. And then there's yet another man with a reel of tape...
Following this yet? If not, it didn't really matter as The Astro-Zombies was an excuse to string together various saleable elements into a science fiction horror flick that could be made quickly and cheaply, then sold to drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas across the United States and even beyond its borders into the bargain. Who was behind this scheme? Step forward one of the legendary - or do we mean notorious? - producer/directors of trash cinema, Ted V. Mikels, a man who took promotion more seriously than he took the manufacture of his movies, having self-created his own myth as the ultimate in swingers of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. He lived in a castle in Las Vegas, he wore a boar's tooth around his neck, he shared his home with a bevy of beauties, etc.
Indeed, reading about his exploits away from the film sets was probably more entertaining than watching his output, he was a larger than life character who grabbed life with both hands, none too worried if his films were regarded as the lowest of the low. The Astro-Zombies, along with The Corpse Grinders, was his most celebrated effort, following in the footsteps of his contemporaries Al Adamson and Herschell Gordon Lewis (he and Mikels died mere weeks apart, signalling a passing era) by adding bloody violence to the exploitation mix, though he was more sparing with the gore, after all that kind of makeup effect costs money and if nothing else, he was improvising on a distinctly tight budget (future M*A*S*H star Wayne Rogers co-produced and co-wrote).
He did have one casting coup with this, and she was Tura Satana, apparently playing herself (her role is credited merely as "Satana"), fresh off Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! which had cemented her cult status as a decadently glamorous lady of action not above turning to villainy to get the job done. The job in this instance was something to do with spies, as was the case with many a movie in the thrall of James Bond, but further than that and the C.I.A. attempting to thwart her, the specific details of what was happening tended to be muffled by poor dialogue and that patented Mikels sense of lingering tedium. Not when Tura was on the screen, she contained such a charisma and unforgettable style that your eyes would be drawn to her, but that was not for the whole movie as there were other distractions too.
None of them particularly engaging, it had to be said. Wendell Corey showed up as a representative of the law, but obviously the worse for wear from the alcoholism that would kill him before this was released, and John Carradine was continuing his long decline from A-movies to decidedly B-movies: this qualified as a Z-movie, and apparently he got the biggest salary, proving the power of his name value. As the mad scientist creating his titular Astro-Zombies, he was offered a wealth of impenetrable pseudo-scientific dialogue and very little else to do other than take part in this production's defining feature, which was shameless padding. Mikels was evidently determined to make this a ninety-minute long movie, by fair means or foul, and to that end even the dullest tasks were slavishly captured by his camera, including Carradine's pointless experiments and that first resort of the trash director, the exotic dancer sequence (this one adorned in body paint). This was truly material for the seasoned exploitation aficionado, as only they would have that mettle to tolerate it. Music by Nicholas Karras.
Ostentatious, characterful Z-grade director whose film career spanned more than 50 years. The best thing about his movies are invariably the titles, but there are some cheesy pleasures to be found in the likes of The Black Klansman,The Astro-Zombies, Blood Orgy of the She Devils, 10 Violent Women, The Doll Squad and The Corpse Grinders. Still directed, and ran film-making seminars right until his death.