The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?
Five years before Night of the Living Dead changed the landscape of horror movies forever, another young upstart from Pennsylvania decided to script and shoot a low budget zombie movie. Relying on a great wealth of enthusiasm to overcome a severe dearth of talent, cinematic madman Ray Dennis Steckler put all his heart into masterminding the movie he claims has the longest title in history. Though not the seminal classic that Romero’s film would be, this qualifies as the most bizarre zombie film that this reviewer has ever seen.
Yes, that is the actual title of the movie. It took me years to remember it (Hell, it took me a month to say it aloud!), but now that I have, I will never forget it. Because there is no way anybody could forget a title such as that, and the same can be said of the movie that bears it. This film is so outlandish, it can’t help but tattoo itself onto the viewer’s mind. Whether that’s a positive or a negative depends on just how much the individual viewer loves really weird, really bad cinema.
I won’t ruin the plot by even trying to describe it; better just to lay out some of the film’s elements. There’s a wart-faced gypsy who throws acid in the faces of disgruntled subjects of hypnotism, and her gruesome-faced henchman; a stripper who doesn’t strip; a James Dean rip off, essayed by Steckler himself under his pseudonym, Cash Flagg; an almost impossible to understand Greek with a tremendous pompadour; an amusement park; an incredibly unfunny night club comedian; a carnival; a carnival barker who actually tells a dancer that he wants a date at her house, and that she’ll cook the steaks he brings with him; a dancer who agrees to that date; acting that’s way South of the mediocre line; three mixed-up zombies; and way too many dance numbers. This film is a horror flick; a teen romance; a teen angst flick; a murder mystery; a generation gap flick; an inside look at carnival life; a dance revue. Hell, let’s just call it everything but a western. Steckler stuffs this film with just about everything he could get out of his $38,000 budget.
And what a film it is! This may be the best bad movie I’ve ever seen. Usually I would consign a flick of this ilk to the "never watch again" bin, but for one thing. From the very first second, I could tell that Ray Dennis Steckler put every ounce of enthusiasm he had into this film. This was an insane labor of love, so off the mark from good that it just begs to be loved. Just look at what Steckler had to go through to get this made. Can’t get professional dancers? Hire good looking girls. Can’t get the good looking girls to dance? Have them chew gum to get their timing down. Can’t get a talented actress to play the gypsy? Hire Susan Hayward’s stand-in. Not going to make a cent off the movie for a long time, but want to complete it anyway? Accept the $300 that Atlas King, the aforementioned human Greek pompadour, offers you. Your lead actress quits, because she has to go watch her boyfriend’s band the first night of shooting? Grab a dancer, who will show up as another character in the myriad dance scenes. Don’t have the masks for the mixed-up zombies yet? Shoot fill in scenes until you do. Columbia wants to sue your $38,000 production for $5 million, because its title is similar to Dr. Strangeglove (and by the way, just what in God’s name are the odds of that?)? Get Kubrick on the phone and tell him you’ll change a conjunction. This is a film made not of celluloid, but sheer chutzpah, and that’s evident in the energy that carries through every scene.
Of course, it’s also incoherent, bizarre, cheapjack and poorly acted. And let’s face it, any film for which the director freely admits that he gave it the long title to compensate for the small budget could never hope to be competent. But therein lie the film’s charms. All the things that make this a really bad movie also make it a great movie. The only real problem I have with this film is that about half of its hour and 20 minute run time is dancing. I know the film’s billed as "The First Monster Musical." But these scenes are obvious padding, and kill any momentum for the plot, which has Jerry doing some very mixed-up things as it progresses. This was meant to be a fun little film, and having to watch untalented dancers drone on and one was far from fun.
A few other things of note: I’m not sure the mixed-up zombies are even zombies, though they’re definitely mixed-up. They’re brainless, true, but they don’t really conform to typical zombie behavior. Also, this film falls under the Horror Movie Relocation Program, as Steckler released it under a multitude of titles, changing every few years to bring in a new audience. This film also boasts the camera work of Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Joseph Mascelli, three men who won multiple awards, including Oscars, for their work; they’re responsible for such works as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Easy Rider. Their work gives the film a much more artistic flair that it probably has any right to. And this film actually breaks an odd streak I’ve been on lately: reminiscent of both The Dead One and The Astro-Zombies, Jerry wants to take his girlfriend into a girlie show. Unlike the females in those flicks, she refuses to go.
The people at Media-Blasters must love this epically ridiculous film as much as I do. Why else would they load up this disc with extras? The menu breaks them up into two categories. Under "Hear," there are two audio commentaries, one by Steckler himself, the other by the king of the drive-in movie himself, Joe Bob Briggs. They act as a perfect dichotomy to one another. I get the feeling that Steckler knows he made a bad film, but he talks of everyone involved with great reverence, and mentions that he worked longer and harder than anyone else, because if he hadn’t, the film would never get finished. I can forgive him his high praise for some of the bad acting, if only because he obviously has much love for this film. As for the other commentary, Briggs gives exactly what one would expect from a Joe Bob commentary. Whether one loves or hates him, this commentary won’t change anybody’s views on him. Though he trashes the film in just about every conceivable way, it’s obvious that he too loves the film. His commentary is much more relaxed than Steckler’s, and hysterical. If any movie deserved the Joe Bob Briggs treatment, this is it. I will, however, take him to task on one comment: He states it’s obvious that these aren’t true zombies, because "everyone knows that zombies eat people." But this film predates Night of the Living Dead, Joe Bob. As king of the drive-in, you should know that zombies didn’t start munching on humans until 1968.
Under "See," there is a three minute conversation with Carolyn Brandt, Steckler’s wife at the time, and one of the leads. It’s too brief to have any real depth to it. There’s also a 14 minute interview with Steckler. It repeats some of the things in the commentary, but it’s still worth watching. There’s also the "original" trailer, but it’s altered to include info about the DVD release. One can access Joe Bob’s intro to the movie. And there’s an Easter egg; click up from "Great Egress" and the disc treats you to the original VHS trailer. As with the other trailer, this one gives away almost everything in the convoluted plot. Best to watch it after the film itself. Rounding out the package are eight bonus trailers for films from both Media-Blasters’ Guilty Pleasures and Shriek Show lines, many of them for movies Steckler made. Watch at your own risk.
Touted as the "Forty-First Anniversary Edition" (if only because 40th would have been too normal), the DVD release of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? is a testament to the greatness that is Ray Dennis Steckler’s career. This is the movie
that the phrase "so bad it’s good" was made for. Sold in a four-pack of Steckler films, at a price of less than 20 bucks, I highly recommend this film for all lovers of truly terrible zombie cinema.