Category Archives: zombies

‘Lifeforce’ an oddball futuristic throwback

lifeforce alien vampire

I still remember seeing “Lifeforce” in a theater in June 1985 and thinking, “What just happened?”

The movie – which opened the same weekend as sci-fi hit “Cocoon” and was quickly overshadowed by the triple threat of warm and fuzzy feelings, Steve Guttenberg and Wilford Brimley – was one of the most offbeat big-screen releases of the year.

As I rewatched it again 29 years later, I was struck by a number of thoughts. Chief among them was what an oddball resume director Tobe Hooper had: “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the Steven Spielberg-produced “Poltergeist” and this.

I was also struck by how few movies featured a character who was frequently nude throughout. Casual nudity in movies, presented like an aside in the 1970s, was already on its way out by the 1980s. These days you’re more likely to see someone cutting someone’s head off than see a naked woman.

“Lifeforce” was based on a book called “The Space Vampires” and is exactly that. The screenplay, co-written by “Alien” Dan O’Bannon, reminds me greatly of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” A ship – in this case, a long-range space shuttle, manned by an American and British crew – returns with all on board dead. A half-crazed escapee from the shuttle (Steve Railsback, bringing some of his Charles Manson subtlety from “Helter Skelter” and “The Stunt Man”) talks about a trio of irresistible vampires the crew found in a spacecraft hidden in the tail of a comet.

lifeforce may

Meanwhile, the surviving vampire aliens – led by Mathilda May as a mostly-nude seductress – roam around London, infecting strangers and inhabiting bodies.

To continue the “Dracula” parallels, there’s even an insane asylum scene featuring Patrick Stewart, later to achieve fame as Captain Picard and Professor X.

There’s so much to love about “Lifeforce” if you enjoy the offbeat and oddly humorous:

Stewart says “naughty” as no one else possibly could.

Besides Railsback, the two male leads are right out of a “Doctor Who” adventure: Peter Firth is a no-nonsense British government agent and Frank Finlay is an eccentric, white-haired scientist.

aubrey morris lifeforce

Aubrey Morris plays the Brit home secretary. Morris, best known for “A Clockwork Orange,” cracks me up with his reaction shots, looking from one odd person or event to another and wincing a bit every time. Like in the picture above.

Henry Mancini did the score. Henry Mancini.

Classic shlock: ‘Incredibly Strange Creatures’

incredibly strange creatures lobbycard

I’ve written about the 1964 low-budget classic, “The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies” before, notably my memories of seeing it at a drive-in with an older relative.

I didn’t touch on the movie all that much, though.

Ray Dennis Steckler directed and stars – under his pseudonym Cash Flagg – and I guess you could argue he’s a forerunner to the director/stars we’re familiar with from today. His performance isn’t horrible but he’s undercut by the low, low-budget of his own movie.

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The movie follows a group of friends who visit a carnival and stumble upon bad guys who hypnotize, disfigure and enslave people, turning them into, in effect, zombie slaves.

The movie has the telltale leisurely pace of a low-budget flick. For what seems like forever, characters wander around, gazing at stuff, talking about nothing. There seem to be endless scenes of arty dance numbers, totally out of place at a nightclub. Watching one of these movies makes you appreciate how a well-written, well-edited movie … well, moves.

Considering the movie was touted as “the first monster musical,” I know what Steckler was going for. But sheesh. I lost track of how many musical numbers were included.

incredibly strange creatures dance number

A dancing girls sequence seems to have been shot in a community theater, and the producers were intent on getting their money’s worth because the scene goes on and on .. and then is followed by another musical sequence. Cue up “Let’s All Go to the Lobby!”

Likewise, scenes of a nightclub comic are so bad they almost seem like a modern-day parody.

Not to mention the interpretive dance/dream sequence.

After a quick break to hypnotize a victim … it’s another musical performance!

Endless shots of carnival rides.

The cheapness of the movie’s production really stands out when you see how many sets look cheaper than your standard 1960s sitcom living room – and that’s the most lavish sets here. The fortune-teller set, which consists of a few drapes and blackout curtains, isn’t as bad as the plywood airplane cockpit in “Plan Nine,” but it’s pretty bad.

Something has to be said about the hairstyles of the three leads. They are, respectively, a receding combover, a towering pompadour and a huge and baffling head of helmet hair.

When the “Incredibly Strange Creatures” finally break loose with about 15 minutes left in the movie … it’s time for another musical sequence. Steckler really knew how to build suspense!

For a real treat, seek out the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” version of the movie from 1997. It’s available through Hulu online and Mike Nelson and the robots’ version of “Incredibly Strange Creatures” is just as funny as you’d think it would be.

‘Fiddlehead’ wraps up steampunk series with a bang

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Cherie Priest has been the best working purveyor of steampunk – the genre that mixes sci-fi, alternate history and 19th-century technology with a twist – for several years now with her “Clockwork Century” novels.

The series – and if you haven’t tried it, you should – is set around 1880 and presents an America that is pretty radically different from the history books we know: The Civil War still rages on, with battlefield skirmishes and Union and Confederate spies crossing borders in clandestine missions. Often the action plays out in a series of skirmishes not only on the ground, in horrifying lethal “dreadnaught” locomotives, and in the air in high-flying dirigibles.

As the war rages on, another menace proves to be a great threat. In the first book, “Boneshaker,” a digging machine opens up a fissure in the earth in Seattle that releases a yellow gas. The gas turns humans into flesh-eating creatures and, even more fiendishly, is used as the basis of a highly-addictive drug that soldiers and other combatants on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line willingly ingest, creating even more zombies.

fiddlehead cherie priest

By the time of “Fiddlehead,” Priest has brought these storylines together in an explosive climax. Gideon Bardsley, an ex-slave and scientist, has created the Fiddlehead, a steampunk computer that predicts that neither the Union nor the Confederacy will win the war. Both sides, weakened by nearly two decades of fighting, will be lost in a tide of zombies that will not only destroy the United States but the entire North American continent.

It’s up to Bardsley and Pinkerton Detective Agency operative Belle Boyd and their associates to stay alive long enough to get word out about Fiddlehead’s forecast – and stop the machinations of a war profiteer who hopes to use the zombie gas to not only make money but deal a devastating blow.

“Fiddlehead” is a fun thriller that not only brings back many of the characters from Priest’s earlier books – one of the author’s techniques is to mix up her sprawling cast, making some the leading players in some books and the supporting players in the next – but a couple of important figures who have been just outside the parameters of the page in the earlier books: Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant.

In Priest’s storyline, Lincoln wasn’t killed that April night in Ford’s Theatre, but he was seriously injured and had to leave the presidency. By the time “Fiddlehead” takes place, Lincoln and wife Mary are patrons of scientist Bardsley and thus leading the campaign to spread the word about the horrors of the zombie gas.

And Grant, wearing down in his fourth term in the White House and fighting his own demons, joins with Lincoln in turning back the murderous challenge from the war profiteers and behind-the-scenes manipulators who want to keep the war going.

Priest has created an engaging set of fictional characters but, to me, really shines in her treatment of fictionalized versions of real-life characters like Lincoln and Grant. Maybe it’s no surprise that readers would find themselves rooting for Lincoln, a beloved historical figure. But the Lincoln that Priest presents here is scarred and tough and scrappy as you would hope for.

Priest’s books are fun and clever and fast-moving fun-house-mirror looks at American history. With zombies. What more could we ask?

 

‘The Walking Dead’ – Six things we want to see

Walking-Dead-Season-4-Banner

When “The Walking Dead” returns tonight for the final eight episodes of season four, your guess is as good as mine as far as what we’ll see.

But I know a few things that we want to see.

Rick and Carl together and strong. The father and son left together, after the devastating loss (?) of Baby Judith, aka “Little Asskicker,” during the Governor’s raid on the prison in the first half of the season. The Grimes boys will probably take a leading role in tonight’s episode and the next couple of episodes. But despite their loss, I want Rick and Carl to pull themselves out of their misery and start making a new life for themselves as quickly as possible. We don’t want Rick, wandering, hallucinating and mumbling to himself, times two for the rest of the season.

Reunions. Daryl is that-a-way and Tyreese is that-a-way and Michonne … well, the only thing we know about Michonne, apparently, is that she ends up – based on a publicity photo – with a couple of zombies on leashes again. We want the core cast reassembled as quickly as possible and moving on to the next big confluence of plot and setting. I’m not sure we’ll get that, however.

Carol. Just when Carol became tough and complex and controversial, Rick cast her out. We want her back, on her own terms.

Some plot points resolved. Who was feeding rats to the walkers at the prison fence?

A good villain. The Governor (David Morrisey) was a great psychopath. We need his equal, someone charming and dangerous.

The big picture. When AMC announced that it was planning a “Walking Dead” spinoff series, I wondered if it would be one set in another part of the world, or if it would be in a remaining center of power. It’s been a long time since the survivors got a few answers at the CDC. It would be great to get some again. What’s the rest of the world like? Who’s working on the problem? What’s happened somewhere besides this little corner of Georgia?

One thing we don’t have to wish for, apparently, is surprises. Cast members speaking cryptically in advance of tonight’s return say the upcoming episodes are dark and eventful, with plot points that will blow our minds.

Classic horror: ‘Night of the Creeps’

night of the creeps poster

If I hadn’t seen it in theaters in 1986 – and numerous times on stone-age VHS tapes in the years that followed – I might think that “Night of the Creeps” was a modern-day spoof of low-budget 1980s horror/sci-fil flicks.

That’s because director Fred Dekker’s movie is so sarcastic, so canny, so knowing that it feels like a modern-day retro pastiche of cliches from movies of the time.

“Night of the Creeps” is very much an “everything plus the kitchen sink” kind of movie. The opening sequence, set in the 1950s, shows both a meteor landing and a homicidal maniac on Lover’s Lane. In black and white, yet.

Of course, the two calamities coincide and slug-like aliens from the meteor infect a body that is cryogenically preserved until it’s accidentally thawed out in 1986.

Before you can say “Nightmare on Frat House Row,” the alien slugs are turning people into zombies.

“Night of the Creeps” has even more than zombies and alien parasites. There are exploding heads, flame throwers, college nerds suddenly turned marksmen, topless coeds … even future Oscar bait David Paymer in a brief role as a morgue attendant who ends up slug infested. Yes, David Paymer.

There are so many funny moments in the movie, but maybe the first LOL moment – 20-some years before anybody knew what LOL meant – is when a young lover in the 1950s hears the beginning of a report on his car radio about an escape from the local institution for the criminally insane .. and clicks off the radio before the germane information.

night of the creeps tommy atkins

Tommy Atkins, well-remembered for his roles in classic John Carpenter films like “The Fog” and “Escape from New York,” is great here. As student zombies head for the sorority house, Atkins – as a tough cop whose “thrill me” catchphrase is a wee bit overused – turns to the girls and says, “The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is … they’re dead.”

Dekker pays tribute – and provides Easter eggs for fans – in the names of his movie’s main characters, who bear the last names of such directors as David Cronenberg and George Romero. Heck, the university where all the creepy hijinks ensue is names after Roger Corman.

“Night of the Creeps” is a funny, clever horror spoof that’s got just the right amount of spoofery and just the right amount of horror.

 

Classic TV movie: ‘The Norliss Tapes’

norliss tapes title card

“The Norliss Tapes” is one of those TV movies best remembered for its freaky, scary moments.

It seems it scared the hell out of a lot of kids back in the day. I know it made an impression on me.

The movie, which aired in 1973, was pretty clearly inspired by the success of “The Night Stalker” a year earlier. The two movies shared a premise – a writer investigating the undead – and Dan Curtis, the producer of “The Night Stalker,” produced and directed here.

“The Norliss Tapes” is no “Night Stalker,” however. But it’s a pretty good scare-fest.

The story begins with David Norliss, a writer with a contract to write a book exposing phony psychic phenomena, talking to his publisher and sounding bleak. Norliss (played by David Thinnes of “The Invaders” fame) recounts – via audio cassettes – how he found it easy to debunk mystics and psychics … but then he got caught up in the story of Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson). Cort tells Norliss that she’s been attacked by – and she subsequently shot – a particularly strange intruder in her home: Her late husband Jim.

the norliss tapes creature

The storyline plays out not unlike “The Night Stalker,” with seemingly random murders by a supernatural being running counterpoint to the mystery of the apparently resurrected Jim Cort. The plots tie together, of course. As a matter of fact, there’s not a lot of mystery or subtlety, as Cort – freaky eyes and blue skin prominently displayed – is clearly the attacker.

Norliss begins investigating the possibility that Cort – whose body rests peacefully in his family crypt – is getting up and attacking people in the dead of night. And what about that mysterious Egyptian ring Cort was wearing?

dan curtis

Director Curtis was the man behind groundbreaking supernatural TV shows like “Dark Shadows” and “The Night Stalker,” and “The Norliss Tapes” shows that. The movie has a style and a music soundtrack familiar to fans of those shows. Robert Cobert, a Dan Curtis regular creative partner, was the composer of the score here.

Some cast members of “The Night Stalker” even recur here, including Stanley Adams as a witness and Claude Akins as a gruff sheriff who’s only too happy to keep a lid on spooky happenings.

Michelle Carey, a gorgeous 1960s and 1970s actress with a breathy, throaty voice, plays Ellen Cort’s sister and a friend of Norliss.

Keep watching through the end credits: There’s a recapping series of  scare scenes, ala “The Night Stalker,” among the credits.

Revisiting ‘World War Z’

world war z book cover

It had been a couple of years since I read “World War Z,” Max Brooks’ “Oral History of the Zombie War,” but in light of seeing the Brad Pitt-starring movie version this summer, I decided to revisit the book.

Reading it recently emphasized two thing to me:

Although I liked the movie fairly well, the book is much, much better.

The book was probably unfilmable as a two-hour movie.

The latter observation isn’t a new one or even new to me, of course. Brooks’ 2006 story is deliberately episodic. Every chapter has a different narrator and is set in a different location around the globe and a different time. True, there is an overarching framework – a United Nations researcher collects first-hand accounts 10 years after the zombie apocalypse – but there’s no place for a starring character – or actor, like Pitt – in the book. A few characters show up again but for the most part only as codas to their earlier tales.

The book’s strength lies in its episodic nature. No narrator, even an omnipotent, all-seeing one, could be as effective as the first-person accounts of the doctors, soldiers, government leaders, opportunists and even International Space Station astronauts as the zombie plague grows from initial outbreak into world-changing calamity.

Despite the premise – the walking dead, to coin a phrase – Brooks’ story is for the most part starkly realistic. There are few superheroics here. Civilians and soldiers fight to survive the onslaught of an enemy that is unlike any army on any battlefield.

Random observations:

I look forward, a few years hence, when somebody gets the idea of turning “World War Z” into a cable TV series. But I hope they’re faithful to Brooks’ story this time. And I hope they don’t decide, for the sake of an ongoing series, to turn Brooks’ book into a multi-year story like the producers of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” apparently have done.

There’s a nice inside joke, late in the book, referencing Brooks’ father, renowned director and writer Mel Brooks. It’s a sly reference to “Free to Be You and Me,” the early 1970s Marlo Thomas production and one sketch in particular, in which Brooks and Thomas play newborn babies.