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STUDIO: Cheezy Flicks Ent
RUNNING TIME: 167 minutes
You will believe a man can lie on his belly in front of a rear projection screen.
Director: Fred C. Bannon
Writer: Ronald Davidson
Cast: Judd Holdren, Aline Towne, Wilson Wood, Lane Bradford, Stanley Waxman, John Crawford, Craig Kelly, Ray Boyle, Leonard Nimoy
Bucket seats. You know all the good spaceships have them.
Mars is too cold. The Martians want to detonate a giant H-bomb on Earth to knock it out of its orbit so that Mars can take its place, and Rocket Man Larry Martin has only 12 “explosive suspense-filled episodes” in which to stop them.
Speaking from experience, as a big fan of B-movies I often find myself watching them more for specific parts rather than enjoying them as a cohesive unified whole. For example, the Japanese exploitation flick Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom is kind of slow paced, but when you get to the climactic riot where the girls rebel and tear down the corrupt high school, it’s totally worth it. Likewise, Zombies of the Stratosphere is a run-of-the-mill sound era serial for most of its runtime, but locked in here are 20 minutes worth which…well I’d trade them for some things, but I wouldn’t trade them for not having watched the movie.
Zombies of the Stratosphere is a Republic Pictures serial. The most well-known reference to Republic serials comes in Watchmen, where Veidt says “Dan, I’m not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?” In this he perhaps gives Republic serial villains too much credit. One might read what Veidt says and think of a Bond villain, where at the climax, just as the final part of his plan is going into motion (perhaps with a ticking clock), he reveals to Bond the full scheme in detail. Republic serial villains will tell you their whole scheme the first time they meet you, probably because they’re eager to make a good first impression.
This film is part of a group of rocket-man serials made by Republic featuring the same props, sets and costumes. The other two were King of the Rocket Men and Radar Men from the Moon. In those two, “Commando Cody” wore the rocket suit, but in Zombies, the rocket-man character is “Larry Martin.” These serials had to have been an influence for The Rocketeer.
The real reason personal jetpack units were never made commercially available is that the interface was deemed too complicated for the layperson.
The characters are thoroughly standard for a sound era scifi serial; the hero Larry, his male sidekick Bob and the woman Sue, (mostly around for getting tied to anchors and thrown in the harbor) who are, apparently, the entire field staff of some unnamed official organization tasked with protecting world security from interplanetary threats. Larry does a lot of flying; sometimes in a rocket ship, other times in his personal rocket suit.
The rocket suit effects are achieved variously by a miniature figure on an invisible string, and by a man in the suit lying in front of a rear projection screen. For their time period, they’re not incredibly embarrassing, except for the fact that the entire 166 minute serial has less than one minute of original rocket man FX footage, continually recycled throughout.
The setup is very familiar, and was done better in Flash Gordon and other such serials. But like I said, there lie in here about 20 minutes of b-movie transcendence that stick in my mind better than anything else in the serial.
After two attempts to acquire uranium are thwarted, Marex, lead Martian, asks about a third source. Dr. Harding says there is one, but it’d be very expensive. Marex says that’s not a problem, banks have lots of money why don’t we rob one of those? That’s dangerous says Harding. Nonsense says Marex, I can build an auto-bank robbing machine. And thus enters…
THE REPUBLIC ROBOT.
This is a robot used in a number of Republic serials. Zombies of the Stratosphere marks the first time I’ve seen the Republic Robot in action, but he’s definitely for me one of cinema’s greatest robots, and I consider him the true hero and main character of this film.
Bet you wish you had Old Glory Robot Insurance now, huh?
In Chapter 5, “THE IRON EXECUTIONER”, the Republic Robot enters Ferndale National Bank at night. Though the front door is wood, and has great big windows of thin glass plate, the Republic Robot merely burns through the lock with a roman candle, because as we all know a robot must not make a mess, nor by inaction allow a mess to be made. It staggers into the bank with the utter grace it learned in its past life as a water heater. It scrupulously closes the door behind it, and heads for the vault. Another roman candle defeats the vault door, and it enters, soon emerging with a small lunchbox which is hopefully full of money.
The Many Moods of the Republic Robot: Plate no. 7, ‘Surprise’.
Just then, a night watchman inside the bank finally notices something is amiss. Many theologians and psychologists tell us that humans suffer because they fail to recognize their place in the universe. This night watchman is no exception. Blind to the utter metaphysical superiority of the Republic Robot, he fires four shots at it with his revolver. The bullets don’t even register, and the Republic Robot treats the night watchman like any other obstacle, cutting through him with a roman candle.
However much I love this first Republic Robot scene, it set me up for disappointment in a later scene where the Republic Robot goes mano a mano with Rocket Man Larry Martin in a cave. It starts out great, with the Republic Robot pounding on idiot Larry with its clamps. Then it grabs an axe, and as it brings it down to cut Larry the episode cuts to black, promising more next week.
Unfortunately, the more we get next week is a cheat. Now, chronology cliffhanger cheating is part and parcel of the Republic serial game. Five or six of the cliffhanger endings in Zombies feature Larry having been knocked out in a vehicle (boat, car, mine cart, etc.), and the vehicle going over a cliff or a waterfall. Then next week opens with a retcon in which Larry actually woke up and jumped free at the last moment! That’s just what you accept if you watch a Republic serial. But the chapter 5 cliffhanger cheat is in my mind worse. In chapter 6, Larry grabs the axe, and smashes the Republic Robot’s control panel.
It’s not a chronological cheat, because 5 cuts out before the Republic Robot is seen to kill Larry. But in the Republic Robot they give us a beautiful, deadly marvel, the Taj Mahal of iron bank robbers, then have Larry Rocket Man take it down fast and clean. Larry, who gets knocked out cold if the truck he’s riding in gets jostled a little (even if he’s wearing a helmet.) The Republic Robot’s takedown is a sight with all the ugly absurdity of an elephant climbing up a waterfall, or Bruce Lee being defeated by James Garner in Marlowe.
Fortunately, the Republic Robot returns on two later occasions, and if you take it as the true main character of the piece, its story ends on an oddly ambiguous, almost existential note.
“Ship…out of danger?”
Aside from this robot for the ages, Zombies is a typical sound era scifi serial. That means a whole lot of CHASE CAPTURE ESCAPE CHASE FIGHT ESCAPE sneak FIGHT CAPTURE ESCAPE CHASE. If you’ve never watched one before, my advice is to space the episodes out over a few days rather than going wall-to-wall. They were made for weekly screenings, and it definitely feels repetitive once you’re watching the fourth or fifth boat chase (in Zombies this is only confounded by the fact that chapter 10 is effectively a clip show). If you’re a zombie movie completist, be warned this doesn’t have any zombies in it (the Martians are inexplicably referred to as zombies on two or three occasions). What it does have is Leonard Nimoy as a Martian; he gets two dialogue scenes total, though oddly enough plays a pivotal role in the plot.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and looks to have been taken from a tape source (maybe a broadcast tape; it looks better than VHS). It’s not incredibly sharp, there’s chroma and some print damage. On an HDTV connected with component cables motion was smooth, but on a computer with no de-interlacing software activated there was a lot of combing visible. That said, it’s plenty watchable, and with the exception of major studio releases (like Batman or Superman) or releases by VCI, a good watchable copy is pretty much the best we can expect from sound era serials. The disc includes a trailer for Zombies of the Stratosphere, 6 minutes of old television commercials, and previews for other releases by Cheezy Flicks.