Astro Zombies (1968)

The Horrors, the Horrors, or Get Your Halloween On

This bevy of B or Z horrors upclassed to Blu-ray will help you get scared the old-fashioned way.

As Kino Lorber continues its Blu-ray avalanche of classic, semi-classic and non-classic horror titles, we confess to being a little overwhelmed. There are hardly enough hours in the day to keep up with these low-budget cult offerings while still sleeping and eating. If you feel like buckling down for a Halloween marathon, here’s a sampling of recent releases in chronological order by year.

Invisible Invaders (1959)

What gives?: Invisible aliens issue an ultimatum for Earth’s surrender. Their secret weapon is to revive the dead as mindless shambling zombies, leaving four heroes to save the world while holed up in a bunker. Those walking dead look like a clear influence on George Romero, and therefore all later examples of this posthumous infestation.

What’s good? This scared the hell out of yours truly on a Saturday afternoon TV showing decades ago. Today, it looks like people wandering around Bronson Canyon as a stentorian narrator explains the plot amid stock footage of fires and floods. That said, the zombies are still good and justify their queasy memory. Too bad we don’t see more of them, or more of John Carradine’s effective performance as the head corpse. The HD remastering makes this low-budget wonder crisper than ever, as directed in “cut and print it” style by Edward L. Cahn and running under 70-minutes.

What’s extra? Tom Weaver, one of the most informed historians of monster movies, offers a background commentary while being audibly unimpressed with the picture. Dr. Robert J. Kiss adds remarks on the original distribution.

Panic in Year Zero (1962)

What gives?: A jolly middle-class paterfamilias (Ray Milland, who also directs with intensity) leads his wife (Jean Hagen), son (Frankie Avalon) and daughter (Mary Mitchel) on a family outing when a mushroom cloud suddenly erupts over Los Angeles. Quicker than you can say “hell in a handbasket”, society devolves into savagery while Daddy unleashes his inner caveman to protect his tribe by brute force, as if he’s been waiting all his life for anarchy.

Jay Simms and John Morton’s script implies that testosterone is the problem. Since international aggression reflects these tribal “nuclear family” types writ large, these ironically labeled “five good ones” and other “thieving and murdering patriots” will rebuild society exactly as before. It’s a sobering bit of bottled lightning from the jittery era that gave us the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What’s good? Another excellent HD remastering offers a dark, depressing, vivid, well-shot black & white vision of the type of paranoia and selfishness that tends to create tragedies more than result from them. Countless disasters over the last century have shown that strangers tend to pull together and help each other, but that movie’s rarely been made in the post-apocalypse genre. This feels like a dry run for The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and other ’70s assertions that civilization is a thin veneer over atavistic brutality.

What’s extra? Joe Dante offers a brief talk, and Richard Harland Smith’s commentary discusses many examples of apocalypse fiction.

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

What gives?: Like the beginning of 1960’s Village of the Damned, from which this lifts footage, vehicles crash and people drop in the street. A handful of survivors who missed the fun come together in an English village to figure things out, only to conclude they’ve been invaded by robots who can re-animate corpses. They adjust to the situation with surprising stiff-upper-lipness as personal tensions percolate.

What’s good? The wonderful if inaccurate title, the no-nonsense one-hour running time scripted by Harry Spalding (as “Henry Cross”), the hackle-raising avant-garde score by Elizabeth Lutyens, some spooky black & white compositions with glowing key lights on eyes (looking great in HD), and Terence Fisher’s tight direction. This movie comes across as one of the links between Invisible Invaders and George Romero.

What’s extra? An excellent informative commentary by Richard Harland Smith, who gives background on cast, crew, the filming, and connections with other movies.

Astro Zombies (1968)

What gives?: Onscreen title: The Astro-Zombies. Okay, there’s John Carradine endlessly fiddling with dials in a lab while his hunchback grunts and nods, there’s cleancut FBI types having interminable meetings with the chief (Wendell Corey) before hanging out in strip clubs, there’s somebody in a Lucha Libre mask attacking random women who stand around gaping, and there’s Tura Satana lounging buxomly in tight split-thigh cocktail dresses as she puffs on a long-handled cigarette holder and occasionally shoots said FBI guys so they fall into swimming pools and such.

What’s good? Not much beyond Satana’s contemptuous if bored aura. Rafael Campos gives a welcomely committed performance as her psycho sidekick. Producer/director Ted V. Mikels, shooting in color that’s wonky even remastered (because shot on “short ends” of film), proves himself one of the most gamely incompetent executors of promising pulp material, with little sense of pacing, composition, or scripting. He shares the latter credit with Wayne Rogers, later of TV’s M*A*S*H. You can see Mikels in the movie, shirtless and playing conga drums while a topless young lady in body paint offers an interpretive dance to pad a picture that’s all padding.

What’s extra? Ironically, by far the worst film on this list is graced with the most commentaries: three! One’s a Mystery Science Theatre type of “Riff Track” from Mike Nelson and pals, and if all the jokes aren’t funny, a few are very much so. In reference to the conga dancing, for example, they aver that police raids were an issue in these “underground Laugh-In shows”. If you catch the reference, that’s hilarious. This track is the best way to endure the feature, which may otherwise encourage thoughts of self-immolation.

But wait, you also get a track of background info by the friendly Mikels himself. You can’t knock endurance, and you can tell he’s proud of his work. It can help you appreciate the movie to know how he got this shot while holding on to the car’s hood, or that shot while rolling backwards in a wheelchair. The third track is by Chris Alexander, who offers nostalgic riffs on his childhood. Ted V. Mikels has passed away on 16 October 2016 at age 87.

Daughter of Dracula (1972)

What gives?: Jess Franco applies his languid, woozy, zoomy, padded style to a nonsensical story about a young woman (Britt Nichols) who becomes a vampire because her glowering be-coffined ancestor (Howard Vernon) needs her to deliver take-out to his crypt under the garden shed.

What’s good? It’s an international law that virtually no lesbian vampire picture can be without interest, and this example offers gracious, stylish settings and genuinely romantic female encounters that are much nuder and more passionate than standard for 1972, such that this aspect overshadows the plot. And although you have to wait for it, there’s a surprisingly mature and refreshing subplot about adultery at the end. Still, many fingers will itch for the FF button to move things along.

What’s extra? Tim Lucas’ excellent commentary puts the film in a new light. He speculates that, as Franco made it as a side project between two Frankenstein pictures, it originally must have been a remake of his (much better) The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus, but he turned it into an unconvincing vampire movie at the last minute for box-office reasons. If so, this explains a lot. The print has damage and fluctuating values but probably still looks better than it has in decades, and some reversed shots have now been printed correctly.