The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies!!? (1964)
Directed by Ray Dennis Steckler
Run Time: 82 min
Other Titles: "Diabolical Dr. Voodoo", "The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie"
Tagline: "SEE: the dancing girls of the carnival murdered by the incredible night creatures of the midway! SEE: the hunchback of the midway fight a duel of death with the mixed up zombies! SEE: the world's first monster musical!"
"If we're late, Angie will really blow her top."
"Yeah...and her mother wouldn't like that."
There have oozed out not a few low-budget monster-flicks from the 60's. Mixtures of hippie culture, sleazy settings, equally sleazy casts, laughable special effects. The majority of these offerings where mere "flashes in the pan": popping up into theaters for a short time before re-submerging into the dark depths of obscurity. However, a tiny fraction of them, based on their awesome incompetence and bumbling execution, managed to do what the others could not: remain icons of ineptitude for all time. Think of such monuments to artless incompetence as Monster A-Go Go, The Beast of Yucca Flats, The Creeping Terror.
I would like to present to you another picture which will forever remain nestled embedded in the sludge on the bottom of the cinematic barrel: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombie!!? Director (and leading man) Ray Dennis Steckler, working with a budget of $38,000 dollars (in other words: zero), at first wanted to entitle the film "The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie". However that same year renowned director Stanley Kubrick was releasing his cold-war epic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and threatened to sue the pants off of Steckler if he didn't change the title. The resulting unforgettable moniker is the result. (Complete with the odd "!!?" tacked onto the end.)
Stickler is best known for a seemingly endless string of low-to-no budget films starting way back in the 60's. (In an interview, Stickler said he once worked as a grip on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV program. One day he was goofing around with a large piece of equipment and nearly smashed it into Hitchcock's head!) In the 70's Stickler moved on to what appears to be an odd blend of horror-porn, including Sexual Satanic Awareness (1972), The Horny Vampire (1971), and a rather more traditional porn production: Debbie Does Las Vegas (1982).
In "Mixed-up Zombies", Stickler (credited as 'Cash Flagg') appears in the leading role of 'Jerry', along with a cast of real-life circus workers from the Nu-Pike amusement park. The park itself was in its final decline at the time of the filming, and adds a realistic, if unintentional, air of shoddiness, hopelessness, and despondency to the film. The script seems to be made up as they went along. The story is incoherent (a carnival fortune teller turns people into zombies because she's mad about somebody not having sex with her, or something), and the overall production values (sound, lighting, blocking, etc) are shockingly bad. To make things even more confusing, there are several dance numbers plugged into the story featuring some of the most poorly choreographed dancing I've ever seen.
In another funny twist of fate, one of the co-writers of the film is none other than Robert Silliphant, the man responsible for the story behind one of my favorite "bad" films of all time: The Creeping Terror (1964). It's a small world in the bad-movie business. It's strange how the same names seem to keep bubbling up from the muck over and over again.
Would the movie still be as popular to cult-film enthusiasts today if it didn't have such a bold title? I don't know.
Don't get me wrong, this movie is terrible, yet it's somehow hypnotic in its shoddy attempt to be watchable.
So, hey! Let's take a look!
Open with a grainy, underexposed shot of a beach-side carnival. More carnival footage establishes the fact that the story begins, in fact, in a carnival. Pan through a chintzy looking "midway" where a few extras try to act like their having "fun" instead of simply appearing in a terrible movie. Finally, we reach our destination: Madam Estrella's tent. Estrella is a Gypsy fortune teller, palm reader, and crystal ball seer, trying to make ends meet by hawking fortune telling to the unwary.
I am going to save my fingers by not typing "cheap", "run-down", or "second-hand" whenever I describe any of the sets used in the film. As mentioned in the introduction, the film was produced on a budget of under $40,000, so I imagine that the crew themselves made all the sets and set dressings in order to save money. And, boy, it looks like it too. Also, before I begin, most of the dialog is muddled and hard to understand. A lot of times I have to "guess" what's being said based on the context of the scene, so take all the quotes in this review with a grain of salt.
Anyway, Estrella is reading the palm of a drunk (cleverly characterized by having the actor take slugs from a bottle of booze), but decides she'd like to get a little closer, if you dig my meaning. The drunk shoves Estrella against the wall and shouts, "I told you to keep your filthy hands off me!"
"You shouldn't have done that!" Estrella shouts back.
Boy, Shakespeare has nothing on this!
As Estrella glowers from the corner, the drunk continues, "If it wasn't for your sister Carmelita, I'd never come around this dump!"
Drunk Guy (DG), suggest she sleep with the side-show freaks instead. ("You dirty feelthy peeg!" Estrella counters...boy, this is going to be a long movie...)
"Ortega! Ortega!" Estrella shouts, "Take him and make him like my other little pets!" Enter Ortega, some skid-row circus-freak who does Madam Estrella's dirty work. A brief struggle ensues which results in Ortega pinning DG on the floor.
Estrella grabs a bottle of acid (complete with a hand-drawn skull-and-crossbones on the label in case the viewer doesn't "get it") pours it onto DG's face while shouting "You peeg, I will make you like zee others!"
Cut to opening title credits. (You mean we haven't even come to the credits yet?! Oh man, oh man...)
OK, back to the movie. Cut to a creepy looking clown-toy laughing and bobbing about in that nightmarish-clown way.
More carnival stock-footage seems to indicate that we are still in, yes, the carnival. (And filming establishing shots in a public place certainly saves money.)
Musical #1: Ahh, yes, now we're treated to one of the film's many, many dance numbers. I don't mean just clips from a dance number, I mean an entire dance routine. These routines are so poorly choreographed that, well, it's just shocking. There are not too many movies that have scenes that defy description, but 'Mixed-up Zombies' is certainly one of them. Coupled with the lack of dancing, um, finesse, are the depressingly squalid sets that the actors are compelled to perform upon. Seriously, it looks like a wrecking crew must be waiting outside for the scene to end so they can demolish the place after the actors leave for the day.
The local "talent", Marge, dances to the best of her abilities with her partner, Bill Ward (now that's inventive) in what appears to be somebody's basement decked out to look like a night club. Marge and Bill go through the motions of performing an elegant number, more than once coming dangerously close to kicking the walls of the cramped "stage", while the manager nods his head in approval from the side.
After finishing her performance, Marge heads back to her dressing room and immediately takes a belt from a bottle of booze. The post-performance peace is shattered when she spots a black cat in her room (huh?), and screams with fright. Her manager rushes in and removes the offending feline. On the way out, he suggests to Marge that she lay off the sauce as it's starting to affect her dancing. Marge agrees just to placate him, and immediately begins guzzling booze the second her manager leaves the room.
Cut to the next day where Jerry (played by writer/director Ray Dennis Stickler), and his best friend Harold (played by Atlas King (!)) are hanging out in the living room of their apartment. By the way, everybody who writes anything about this movie always mentions Harold's accent. I have no idea where this guy comes from, but good Lord, you could cut it with a knife. I think I read somewhere that he was from Lithuania. Harold's bizarre and unexplained accent just adds to the overall atmosphere of bewilderment as the film proceeds.
Jerry and Harold
After some vapid dialog (which I will spare you, oh dear reader), Jerry and Harold decide to head out and pick up Jerry's girlfriend, Angie. Naturally, Angie's mother thinks Jerry is a loser. (Agreed.) Oh, how she really wishes that Angie would hang out with a more reputable fellow. Blah blah blah. As loud 1960's cool-cat-go-go-go music blares on the sound track, Jerry, Harold, and Angie drive off while Angie's mother can only stand in the driveway and shake her head in disappointment.
As you probably would have guessed, Jerry drives to, where else, the carnival. This locale affords the filmmakers the opportunity to subject us to even more footage of amusement park rides and attractions jammed-edited into shots of Jerry and the others laughing and having fun. (Maybe 'edited' isn't quite the correct word. More like 'shoe-horned'...) Once again, the combination of grainy footage, out-of-sync audio track, and unorthodox editing techniques (being kind there), comes together to form an unintentionally peculiar montage that can be rather fascinating.
After two solid minutes of carnival-fun, we return to Marge's dressing room, which looks exactly the same as it did the day before...as in exactly the same as it did in the scene that was to have taken place "yesterday". Anyhoo, Marge is busy draining another bottle of booze while a stupendously awful stand-up comedian warms up the audience for her nightly dance number. (A stand-up comedian warms up the audience for a dance routine? Huh?)
Musical #2: Marge and Bill go through their motions once yet again. Alas, Marge is drunk, and screws up all of her moves. (Even more than before.) Their performance cumulates in Marge toppling to the floor, along with Ward, as her manager stares in shocked disbelief. As the curtain falls, Marge runs back to her room and takes another drink. Marge's manager storms in and tells her to sober up and be ready for the "third show" or else she's fired. (You know...I haven't really seen any sign of 'zombies' yet...but I've seen around 5 minutes of dancing.) On a whim, Marge picks up an Astrology magazine and wistfully gazes at the cover...hmmmm.
Cut to more carnival footage, but now it's night time. The magic of cinema.
By the way, the roller coaster pictured in the film is the classic "Cyclone Racer" from the Pike amusement park in Long Beach, California. The coaster was shut down in 1968, but at one time it was the longest and fastest roller coaster in the US.
Now back to "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?"
I guess the point of this additional roller-coaster footage is to reassure the viewer that the story is still taking place in the amusement park. Whew. Thanks.
As Jerry, Harold, and Angie (JH and A) make their way through the amusement park, Marge The Drunken Dancer, apparently inspired by the Astrology magazine, makes her way into Madam Estrella's tent for a good old fashioned fortune telling.
When Estrella asks Marge if she's sure she wants to know her future, Marge grimly replies that she knows something "evil" is headed her way. "Then we must consult the cards," Estrella says. The bogus card "reading" results in Marge flipping over a random card which is, <gasp>, the ace of spades. Horrified at having flipped over the "Card of Death", Marge tries to flee the tent. For some reason, she runs in the opposite direction than the one she come in from and opens the door to Ortega's barred (!) room. Marge screams and runs in the other (correct) direction, but accidentally drops her purse onto the floor in her haste to get the hell out of there.
Once outside the tent, Marge runs <smack!> directly into Harold, knocking him to the ground. Without saying a word, Marge picks herself up and runs away.
"I wonder what's the matter with her?" Harold queries. (Or should I say, "I wunder wuts da madder wid her?")
"Whatever she's running from is in there!" Jerry astutely notes, thus reconfirming his character as the brains of the Jerry/Harold duo. Seeing a woman running out of Estrella's tent in terror seems to be just the enticement that JH and A need to pop in and get their fortunes told.
Angie's fortune: Lucky in love, lucky in life, blah blah blah.
Jerry is next. He wants Estrella to peer into the crystal ball. Bad move, buddy. The ball sends back this report:
"I see much unhappiness for you in the near future...someone who is near to you is going to die..."
Jerry tells her that this is all a bunch of nonsense.
"The creestal does not lie!" Estrella growls.
After a unnecessarily long and drawn out 'tense' scene with Estrella foretelling doom and gloom in Jerry's near future, JH and A have had enough and head back out onto the midway.
A barker catches the attention of Jerry with the enticing shout of "Girls! Girls! And Girls!"
"Let's go check out the girls!" Jerry suggests with a little more enthusiasm than necessary since he has his arm around Angie's shoulder. The star of this side-show attraction is none other than Madam Estrella's twin sister, Carmelita. Needless to say, Carmelita is much prettier than Estrella, and her gaze soon meets Jerry's hungry eyes. Following Estrella's earlier instructions to "set the plan in motion", Carmelita, with the aide of some goofy organ music, somehow implants some sort of mental suggestion in Jerry's head. As we shall see, this little mental 'time bomb' is triggered by ...well...you'll see.
Despite Angie's protests, Jerry insists on seeing the girly show. Understandably, Angie storms off in a huff. "Take my keys and drive her home," says our Romeo as he hands his car keys to Harold.
"That suits me just fine," Harold oddly replies. (Did they improvise the dialog as they went along? Did somebody actually write this?)
Well, it's been about 10 minutes since the last dance number, so hey! Let's have another!
Musical #3: A strange little number to be sure. A scantily clad lead dancer dances around with a bunch of women in white-and-black striped dresses, reminding the viewer of a bunch of zebras, or a NFL referee convention. I would like to add that the timing of the back-up dancers is a bit, how shall we say, unsynchronized.
OK, the number is over. After a solid two and a half minutes. That doesn't sound like much, but try this experiment: Watch your fingernails grow for two and a half minutes. See what I mean?
After the number, we see the side-show barker smooth talking one of the prettier dancers.
"I could bring over a couple of thick steaks and you could broil them," side-show barker man suggests. Ahh, love springs eternal.
Cut to another musical number. Yup, it's been 10 seconds since the last one.
Hey, Dennis Streckler: Are there any freakin' zombies in this movie?!
Musical #4: Watch in fascination as a woman sings a song about something or other. Yippee. I mean, what's the point? What's going on? Why do I run a bad-movie web site? Why? When the woman stops singing we see Jerry applauding wildly from the audience. But wait...where the hell was the previous dance routine taking place? There's no way in hell that stage is in the same cramped building as the one where the woman is singing. Just what the hell is going on here? Oh...crapola! Why do I even bother.
Musical #5: "The Gypsy dancer...Carmelita"... OH MY GOD! Another musical number? Beer! Beer! Oh beer! Rescue me from this hell. Yes that's it. This is like watching Xanadu while having a bad acid trip.
Oh ok, I guess the plot continues at this point. Ortega shuffles over to Jerry and hands him a note (supposedly) from Carmelita:
"Meet me in my dressing room after the show....Carmelita"
After the show, Jerry finds Carmelita in her darkened dressing room. The alluring Carmelita pulls back a curtain and reveals a spinning black-and-white thingee that supposedly hypnotizes Jerry, or does something with that mental-time-bomb that was implanted earlier in Jerry's brain.
Do you follow me?
Oh gee. Guess what?
Musical #6: Back in the night club sings a sub-mediocre kid strumming an acoustic guitar and singing a song about...yippeee...love. Blah blah. What the hell!
Hey! Guess what follows that?!
Musical #7: Marge and Bill Ward...dancing around to some crappy music...
but wait! Out of the shadows comes Jerry, wielding a large kitchen knife...hack hack..scream scream...
Bye bye, Marge.
Later that night, Jerry twists and turns in his bed, tortured by terrible images. Oops. I mean flashbacks from the film. Look, it's all very strange at this point. Imagine the writer / director of a film entitled "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?" coming up with a sequence of scenes meant to convey the angst of a nightmare. No, I don't mean the movie itself. Steckler blasts the viewer with a storm of freaky images and muted sounds from Jerry's nightmare. Emphasis on freaky.
The next day, Jerry wakes up late and stumbles outside to see Harold puttering around with his car. As Jerry tries to shake the cobwebs from his head, Harold, concerned about his friend's unrest, asks him if anything is wrong. (Please, please see this movie if you ever get the chance. This dude that plays Harold is one of a kind.) After some more unintelligible dialog (including lines that have been wiped off the sound track!), Jerry heads over to Angie's to try and patch things up with her.
Angie's still upset about the night before, but Jerry can explain. Before he can explain, Angie lays back and starts to twirl her umbrella right in his face. Now, why on Earth would anybody just...you know...lean back and twirl an umbrella in somebody's face is beyond me. It was probably beyond the script writer too, which is why it is left totally unexplained.
Oh well, now we know. Angie's twirling umbrella has the unexpected consequence of triggering Jerry's madness and he starts to strangle her. Fortunately for Angie, her brother, Madison (!), is barbecuing in the driveway and hears her screams. Madison runs around to the back of the house, and shoves Jerry to the ground. As Angie and her family look on in stunned silence, Jerry runs off in shocked confusion.
Musical #8: Watch Jerry, dazed and confused, even more than normal, staggering through the city streets accompanied by some sort of country-western folk song. After a while Jerry passes by some dude listening to a radio. Jerry overhears the radio announcer declare that there's been a brutal murder of a popular dancer at "The Hungry Mouth" nightclub. Gee, will Jerry discover what has happened to him?
Well, we won't find out just yet because it's time for...no, not another musical number...
carnival stock footage! Yes!
Whoops! I spoke too fast! It's time for another musical number, too! Hazza!
Musical #9: Some woman singing "Get Your Shick Out of Shape" or something. Look, I'm doing my best here. Whatever she's singing, she's accompanied by the Unsynchronized Dancing Troupe, which we are forced to watch yet again.
May I be so bold as to point out that there has not been one single freakin' zombie so far!!!
Not to be rude here, but the timing of the dancers here is the worst so far. And that says a hell of a lot. Absolutely jaw-droppingly atrocious. Please see this movie with a 12-pack of beer if you ever get the chance.
Later that night, one of the carnival workers stops into Estrella's tent for a chat. You see, she remembers seeing the murdered dancer, Marge, leaving Madam Estrella's the night before. Estrella plays dumb, and gives the little busy-body girl the evil eye as she leaves the tent.
Yes! Finally! It's time for...
Musical #10: "The girl with the golden voice" graces the stage at "The Hungry Mouth". The term "golden" is certainly arguable. I'm not going to try and describe it, there's really nothing to describe. It's a woman singing on a stage in a sleazy club in a movie called "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?" Everybody should understand exactly what I mean.
Well, Jerry eventually sneaks in the back door of the club and into Carmelita's dressing room. <Sigh>, Jerry is hypnotized again so now it's time to...
Cut to Angie's house, where Angie's family, along with Harold, are discussing Jerry's strange See-An-Umbrella-Strangle-Somebody behavior. Angie's mother wants to call the police, but Harold begs her for some time to try and find him and talk to him first. In a turn of events that are just as illogical and unbelievable as everything else in this movie, Angela's mother agrees to give them 2 hours to find Jerry. Sooooo, Harold, Angela, and her brother Madison, (HA and M) head off to the carnival to find psycho Jerry.
Through the clever use of carnival stock footage, the director establishes the fact that HA and M are headed to the carnival, even though they plainly said they were headed to the carnival about 100 times already.
Oh let's see. The nosey-woman-dancer-who-just-visited-Estrella is sitting at home waiting for Side-Show-Barker-Guy to come over with the steaks for dinner. (Wasn't that, like, 2 days ago?) Anyway, Estrella has hypnotized Jerry and sent him over there to kill her. Ahh, yes, and he kills Side-Show-Barker-Guy too.
So let me get this straight: Jerry is the zombie? Oh...no no no no...don't you dare you damn film!!! Bastard!
Jerry heads back to Estrella's, still in a hypnotic state. "It's too bad you have remembered too much," Estrella says before splashing acid in Jerry's face. (Please, try to make sense of all this if you would like.) As Ortega leads the blinded Jerry into the Zombie Cage, the imprisoned zombies (all 3 of them) burst out and kill Ortega and Estrella. Carmelita just happens to drop by and is killed too. Blah. The zombies head out into the carnival to wreak havoc...
Yes, this is the big payoff.
Musical #11: Some sort of 'jungle' theme song, with lots of women in lion-skin bikinis, lots of bongo drums, oh...oh...God, I hope this movie ends soon. Out burst the zombies onto the stage and start strangling the dancers. (Yeah!) The police are summoned and quickly dispatch the zombies with a barrage of gunfire.
Hmmm, almost done, folks.
Jerry, with a horribly disfigured face (sort of), also manages to escape Estrella's tent and runs wildly along the beach with Angie on his tail screaming "No! Jerry! Wait!" and so on and so on and so on...Of course it's broad daylight now, when 2 seconds ago it was pitch black. Hmmm.
A long, long scene ensues where the police, Harold, and Angie chase Jerry through the rocks along the beach. This is not exciting. This is not exciting. This is not exciting. Jerry eventually climbs to the top of a cliff and out onto a large rock outcropping and is....shot by the cops.
But wait, Jerry washes up onto the beach where he is amazingly still alive. He clambers up onto the sand and...dies.
Camera pull back, cut to ending credits.
Dennis Grisbeck (December 2005)
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