ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE was the third of three serials produced by Republic Studios primarily for screening weekly prior to the main matinee features at the drive-in theatres of the early 1950s.

Preceded by KING OF THE ROCKET MEN and RADAR MEN OF THE MOON, this 12-episode serial from 1952 is perhaps the most significant of the three now, if only for marking the screen debut of Leonard Nimoy (STAR TREK). He plays a Martian, and even gets a couple of lines of dialogue...

Opening with Stanley Wilson's sensational music, the serial begins with episode 1: "The Zombie Vanguard". And from the opening moment onwards, it's a breathless race of melodrama, rapid-fire dialogue and intensely amusing histrionics.

For example, in the first minute we witness a small space-craft crash-land on Earth and hero Larry Martin (Judd Holdren) inexplicably don his rocket suit so he can fly over to the desert where the vessel sits and check it out. We won't mention that Larry has to bounce on to an offscreen trampoline to get his rocket suit flying...

Larry, a National security agent along with his pal and colleague Bob (Wilson Wood), doesn't make it in time, and the three Martians contained within the crashed vessel manage to get to a hapless scientist's office where their leader Marex (Lane Bradford) explains that their planet is in danger of dying because it is too far from the sun. Their plan is to build a hydrogen bomb capable of blowing the Earth away from the sun, thus leaving a clear gap for Mars to muscle in closer.

Mental? Of course! Not half as barmy as the howlingly funny dialogue, straight-faced performances and high camp aesthetics that pepper this lightning-paced pilot episode though. Along with the brilliantly cardboard rocket suit that Larry employs, recycled from Republic's earlier KING OF THE ROCKET MEN.

At the very least, episode 1 leaves you shattered but hungry for more, packing more into it's flighty 20-minute running time than most genre pictures manage in 2 hours nowadays. Mixing stock footage from other films and some brilliantly naff superimposing effects, it's a spectacle that's easy to laugh at ... but undeniably enthralling at the same time.

From here on in, the remaining episodes are each 13 minutes in length (the total running time of this marvellous travesty is 168 minutes). All but episode 10 - "Flying Gas Chamber", which gives viewers the opportunity to catch up on what's happened up to that point (each other chapter just offers a quick text reminder of what's recently passed) - bolster the crazy story along at high speed, taking in unwittingly comedic fist-fights, sublimely shitty FX and forays into classic clichés such as scraps on top of speeding freight trains, characters gyrating in their seats as their room quakes upon being hit by rival missiles (episode 2), a speedboat chase (episode 3), conversations in cars that clearly aren't being driven for real (er, every episode!), a FORBIDDEN PLANET-type robot that actually looks more like Dusty Bin from 3-2-1 and surfaces in episode 5, and much more ...

Can Larry foil the Martians' plans to destroy the Earth? You'd best care, because that's all the plot is concerned with over the whole 12 episodes!

The black-and-white photography lends an unjust amount of class to the hokey onscreen fun, while the script and the performances remain satisfyingly ripe throughout. The consistency of the energy from the beginning to the end of this saga is admirable, compromised only by the opening and closing credits that have been preserved for each of the 12 episodes.

Kudos though to Ronald Davidson's screenplay that packs in enough action to fill 10 movies, and director Fred C Bannon for keeping the pace so vital throughout.

Plenty of ideas, an obvious lack of budget but a whole heap of enthusiasm, and a hilariously naive mish mash of ideas (the flying hero; the zombies [actually they're Martians - be pre-warned!]; the foray into Western territory midway through) make this a bizarre and almost singular example of mad-as-fuck comic strip storytelling.

The serial is presented in 1.33:1 and looks soft but perfectly watchable in this relatively clean, monochrome presentation. Specks and minor grain are not unexpected, but considering this is a cheap serial from 58 years ago - I reckon it looks pretty good.

A colourised version of the serial apparently surfaced on US television in the 1990s. Thankfully, the version offered here is the original black-and-white variant.

English mono audio is fairly problem-free, further ensuring our enjoyment of this guiltily amusing mess. Some minor dropout during dialogue was noticed, but it's exceedingly brief and doesn't hamper the overall effect.

Cheezy Flicks' Region 1 encoded disc opens with a static main menu page that leads into a static single-page scene-selection menu allowing access to the main feature via 12 chapters - these being the original episodes.

From there you can access some minimal extra features, which begin with an original theatrical trailer for the series that looks like it's in 1.37:1. It looks like VHS quality but gets by thanks to its black-and-white presentation. The trailer runs for just under 2 minutes, and at times feels more like a public service announcement - very funny.

Then we have trailers for other Cheezy Flicks delights, including KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, G-MEN VS THE BLACK DRAGON ("every scene bursting with action!"), the 3D-enhanced THE MASK, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, X - THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, DEAD END (with a young Humphrey Bogart), DUNDERKLUMPEN!, the superbly macho THE FIRING LINE, HERCULES AND THE MASKED RIDER, and RED PLANET MARS. Each trailer carries the Cheezy Flicks logo in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Playing out in a single run, these trailers will take up 10 minutes of your life - but they're worth it, as they're all wonderfully trashy.

"Intermission Time" is a curious 6 minute mixture of animation and live-action fluff, which played in drive-in theatres many decades ago in-between screenings of B-movies. The animated sequences are interspersed with public service announcements and advertisements for local services such as fast-food outlets and ... more fast-food outlets. Worn and faded, this is otherwise a highly enjoyable relic.

Finally there's a one-page text page detailing "About Cheezy Flicks", where we learn that the criteria for their releases means the films must display qualities such as "horrible acting, an abysmal storyline, and the worst set props possible". Also, this page claims that Cheezy Flicks take each release seriously by utilising their own "state-of-the-art, digital post-production and DVD duplication facility".

Cheezy Flicks have provided a decent disc for this enjoyable, endearing and undeniably preposterous serial. It's rubbish, but in the best possible sense of the word. I enjoyed every minute.


Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Cheezy Flicks Ent
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review