The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)
Directed by: Ray Dennis Steckler
Starring: Ray Dennis Steckler, Carolyn Brandt, Brett O’Hara, Atlas King, Sharon Walsh, Erina Enyo, Don Russell, Joan Howard
(out of 4)
Nicolas Cage’s Lesser Known Brother
You gotta hand it to Ray Dennis Steckler. Here’s a guy who at the age of 24 scraped together $38,000 and made a low budget, no frills horror musical pretty much the way he wanted it, made himself the main lead, slapped a long funny title on it, and turned it into a minor cult phenomenon. I mean, sure, the movie is horrible – amateurishly shot (except for a few bits), with a muddy soundtrack, unattractive people, and shamelessly padded with interminable musical performances, but it’s also refreshingly earnest in the way that Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space was earnest, and nowhere near as cringe-inducing. In fact, there are a few effective sequences, one involving the bizarre hypnotism of the lead character and another showing a surreal nightmare featuring dancing demons in face paint. The fact that it makes good use of Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park helps – the combination of burlesque dancers, scary puppets, fortune tellers, and roller coasters constantly in motion lends the movie a kind of gritty authenticity that only Z-budget indie films can deliver.
Wait… aren’t we supposed to be attracted to exotic dancers?
Yes, the movie is called The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?, a nice gimmick if you ask me. It was originally based off the long title from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and I personally dig the two exclamation points closed out with a question mark, as if it was a question that a theoretical distributor or producer of the movie might have asked in disbelief over the phone. Stecker, going by the pseudonym Cash Flagg, stars as Jerry, a local miscreant who doesn’t believe in holding down a job, and doesn’t really treat women right, but still manages to attract girlfriend Angela (Sharon Walsh) despite her mother’s objections. At the midway, they visit a spooky fortune teller with a rather ugly mole and greasy appearance named Madam Estrella (Brett O’Hara), who gives them a rather ambiguous but ominous prognostication. Oh yeah, Madam Estrella happens to be a psycho who likes to pour acid on peoples faces and throw them into secret cages for reasons that the film never bothers to answer. Just go with it.
DJ Ortega and MC Estrella’s New Album Drops Soon, Beyatch!
Meanwhile, mannish-looking dancer Marge Neilson (Carolyn Brandt, later to become Steckler’s wife), after her own unfortunate session with Madam Estrella, has accidentally stumbled upon her cage of acid-scarred monsters. Estrella, along with her man-servant/pet monster Ortega (Don Russell going by the name Jack Brady), hypnotizes Jerry into doing her bidding, which of course involves offing Marge and anybody else who happens to be a threat to her caged zombie operation. Being a “mere shadow” as Estrella declares, Jerry doesn’t really seem to offer up much resistance, besides the occasional acid trip flashback/nightmare, which is admittedly cool to watch.
The plot to Strange Creatures… is razor-thin, with no complexities or twists to speak of. It boils down to a crazy carnie turning people into killer monsters, who later escape (rather easily) to get revenge, only to be shot dead by trigger happy cops. Enough for about 45 minutes, so Steckler fills out the rest of the running time with really bad musical numbers, which grind things to a halt rather quickly. I got the impression that this wouldn’t be a problem if the film was played at drive-ins (it seems like this was the intent from the start), where the musical sequences would simply serve as cues for periodic make-out sessions.
This was before shaving down there was fashionable.
Still, the film is interesting for the fact that it even exists in the first place, that it serves as a good example of guerrilla filmmaking, and that it is a giant middle finger from Steckler to Hollywood. It’s not a “good” movie by any stretch, but one still worth checking out, if you catch my drift. Speaking of drifting, the moral of the story is: don’t be a drifter. You’ll get caught in the tide created by evil gypsy fortune tellers with large moles. Hey, man, that’s just weird enough for me. Incidentally, Re/Search has good articles about the making of Strange Creatures… and interviews with Steckler, which can be found in Re/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films.
Open Mic Night did not go well for this guy.
By the way, I have the VHS version from the defunct Camp Video (with the groovy box) but the DVD release sports commentary tracks by both Steckler and Joe Bob Briggs. There’s also the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, but if you ever meet Steckler in person try not to bring that up.
– Bill Gordon
Gotta Feed The Monkey!