With the recent passing of Ted V. Mikels and Herschell Gordon Lewis a few days within each other, the last of a generation of exploitation filmmakers that thrived in the 1960s are finally gone. Along with Russ Meyer, Mikels and Lewis made low-budget genre movies that were done outside of the Hollywood system and were usually shown at drive-in movie theaters. Their influence would later be apparent with filmmakers like John Waters and Quentin Tarantino, but for the most part they each had their own dedicated cult following.
I read about Mikels’ movies before I ever saw them thanks to Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films book, which was one of my most treasured cinematic tomes as a teenager. I would look at the stills from his movies and try imagine what they were like. Flash-forward many years later and for Halloween one year my wife got me a copy of The Astro-Zombies (1968) – my favorite Mikels movie – from his website. In addition to the DVD, which he signed, he also included an Astro-Zombies bobblehead, promotional postcards and a copy of the press book from his own collection, all for free and unsolicited. That was the kind of guy he was.
The Astro-Zombies begins with a woman arriving home only to be brutally murdered in her garage after getting out of her car by a superhuman monster, her blood splattering dramatically on the door. Cut to the opening credits playing over a cheeky montage of toy robots fighting toy tanks.
After being dismissed from a government space agency for experimenting on cadavers, scientist Dr. DeMarco (John Carradine) has gone rogue. He had been working on a system that transferred information from a computer to a human brain via a thought wave transmission system. He has created a zombie that runs on batteries from the organs of victims that have been murdered. It ends up going on a killing spree, which gets the attention of a couple of police detectives and a spy gang led by Satana (Tura Satana) who want to use DeMarco’s innovations to create their own astro-zombies and take over the world.
Early on, the movie is heavy on exposition dialogue as we not only learn about what DeMarco is up to but also see him in action as he works on another astro-zombie. These scenes feel like something out of a 1950s mad scientist science fiction movie. John Carradine is certainly committed to his role and makes for a believable scientist (at least within the context of this movie) but he is upstaged somewhat by William Bagdad playing his leering, hunchbacked assistant Franchot (love that name) who doesn’t appear to have any dialogue but makes the most of his expressive body language.
The legendary Tura Satana looks fabulous as always and gets to play another ruthless ballbuster. At one point, after torturing a cop by burning his face with a lit cigarette, she orders an underling to kill him and when he fails to comply does the job herself! In another scene, she even continues shooting a cop ever after he’s been killed. You have to admire that kind of commitment to a role.
Mikels certainly knows how to create a show-stopping set piece, like one where the police detectives go see a nude dance routine in a nightclub by a woman covered entirely in psychedelic paint – far out, man! I don’t know what that has to do with the story but it does get your attention. Seemingly unconcerned with the urgency of their investigation (people are dying, remember?), one of the cops even entertains his cohorts with a party trick, which has a nice touch of the absurd.
Ted V. Mikels came up with idea of heart transplants years before they were actually performed and decided to incorporate it into a horror movie: “I’m usually accused of being a few years ahead of whatever’s going on,” he said in an interview, “but many times I don’t find the money until it’s too late.”
Mikels co-wrote the movie with Wayne Rogers, who would go on to play Trapper John on the popular television sitcom M*A*S*H. It was the third movie they collaborated on. He had seen and liked Mikels’ first movie, Strike Me Deadly (1963) and wanted to put the filmmaker under contract. Mikels refused and they ended up working together anyway.
He was about to make The Astro-Zombies when an agent mentioned casting Tura Satana. He had seen her performing as an exotic dancer in Las Vegas in 1959 and never forgot her. She came in to read for him and Mikels ended up rewriting her character especially for Satana, “to make her a ‘Dragon Lady.’” They became good friends and he cast her in future movies.
Mikels made the movie for very little money – only $37,000: “When you realize we had people like Wendell Corey and John Carradine in the studio, I’m almost aghast when I think what tiny, tiny pennies we made the picture for.” It was very profitable, making $3 million.
The Astro-Zombies is vintage exploitation fare, complete with beautiful, scantily-clad women in peril, bloody violence, ruthless baddies, and a mad scientist run amok. For a movie shot on a very small budget, it looks pretty good and is ably directed by Mikels whose passion for filmmaking is evident in every frame. It shouldn’t be taken too seriously and appreciated for what it is – a fun romp that revolves around a ridiculous premise and goes for it unabashedly.
Mikels’ passing sadly marks the end of an era and a particular kind of exploitation filmmaking that is no more. There was something pure and unfiltered about his movies and that of his contemporaries for they were not bound by the constraints of classic Hollywood filmmaking because they existed outside of that system. This allowed them to pursue their passions no matter how strange or unusual and that is something sadly lacking these days.
Grimes, William. “Ted V. Mikels, Master of Low-Budget Cult Favorites, Dies at 87.” The New York Times. October 18, 2016.
Rice, Boyd. “Ted V. Mikels.” RE/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films. Edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno. Re/Search Publications. 1986.
Tucker, Ed. “Velveeta Las Vegas! Ed Tucker Interviews Cult-movie Legend Ted Mikels.” Crazed Fanboy.