Saturday, October 26, 2019

Just In Time For Halloween, It's "The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies"!

All singing! All dancing! All zombies! Everyone is "Shook Out of Shape" by the world's first  monster musical "The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies".

Before there was "Night of the Living Dead", before there was "Zombie Land", before there was "The Walking Dead" and one month before the release of "The Horror of Party Beach", there was "The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies", Junk genius Ray Dennis Steckler's 1964 monster musical mess-terpiece where a beatnik slacker runs afoul of a carnival's gypsy fortune teller, her creepy henchman and her closet full of "little pets" (the zombies of the title).

I first saw this movie when I was 13. It was on at something, like, 4 AM on a Sunday and the title was so bizarre, I just had to see it. Besides, the local TV guide insert gave it only one star. It has since become one of my all time favorite Junk Cinema Jewels--a worthy entry in the Pantheon of Cinematic Puke.

Everything you could possibly want in a bad movie is here: bad acting, bad hair, bad writing, bad costumes, bad music, bad singing, bad dancing, bad make-up, bad sets. There is also a co-star who can't speak English, an Ed Grimly look-a-like, the worst open-mic night participants you will ever see, an unsubstantiated rumor that James Woods (!) was a teenage extra--all lovingly whipped up into a fine froth by Ray Dennis Steckler. How can we ever thank him?

"The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies" is actually several stories that converge at The Pike, a carnival in Long Beach. Our first story concerns one Madame Estrella (Susan Hayword's long-time stand-in Brett O'Hara), a fizzy haired, oily-faced gypsy fortune teller who looks like Rita Moreno after a bender. After spending an evening "entertaining" a dumpy, drunk traveling salesman, Estrella climbs on his lap, hoping for a little lovin'. Instead, he shoves her away and barks, "I told you to keep your filthy hands off me! You couldn't buy enough booze to make me go for you!" Then he adds between shots, "If it wasn't for that sister of yours, Carmelita, I never would come around this dump!"

Furious, Estrella exclaims, "You dirty, fleethy pig!" Then she screams, "Ortega!" Out pops her cigar puffing second-in-command, a slightly stooped, shambling fellow who resembles Peter Falk. And not in a good way. As Ortega wrestles the poor salesman to the ground, Madame Estrella grabs a bottle of acid. "So I belong with the freaks eh?" she seethes. "I will fix you so the freaks won't even want you!" Then she splashes the poor dope's mug with acid, cackling like an insane Magpie.

Madame Estrella and her wort: a face only a zombie could love.

And a zombie is born.

Next we move to the seedy Hungry Mouse nightclub where dancer Marge (Carolyn Brandt, Mrs. Ray Dennis Steckler at the time) is performing her latest routine with her partner (Bill Ward), a Tab Hunter-ish type whose flat top 'do could easily double as a putting green. After the show, Marge staggers into her dressing room and starts hitting the bottle. When the nightclub's manager counsels her to cut back on the liquid encouragement, the dancer agrees to try. Unfortunately, she didn't try very hard, because Marge shows up so soused for her next set, she can barely dance (not that she could dance before). Furious, the manager threatens to fire her. Determined to learn the reason behind her boozing, Marge decides to visit Madame Estrella on the fair ground. Big mistake.

See, after the fortune teller deals out her special cards, poor Marge turns over the Ace of Spades--"the death card." Becoming completely unglued, Marge races out of Estrella's booth (without paying, I believe) and inadvertently opens the door that houses all her zombies. Screaming in horror, Marge runs in another direction, where she crashes into Harold (Atlas King), Jerry (Ray Dennis as Cash Flagg) and Angie (Sharon Walsh), Jerry's girlfriend, who are visiting the carnival for a little weekend fun.

"Vat's wrong vit her?" Harold asks.

 Harold is the roommate of Jerry, an unabashedly unemployed beatnik/slacker. How he managed to hook up with suburban princess Angie (whose fiberglass bouffant barely clears the doorway) is never explained. Her mom ( Joan Howard, who looks like a Q-tip) is rightly horrified that her daughter would spend time with this ferret-faced loser. Even Angie's Ed Grimly-ish brother Madison thinks sis can do better. But Angie won't listen. "Jerry is fun and exciting!" she insists. "He takes me places I never dreamed of!" She even defends Jerry when he picks her up for their date and he honks his horn instead of coming to the front door. When mom points out what bad manners that is, Angie solemnly intones, "He wouldn't be Jerry" if he acted differently. Which is a good thing, I guess?

"Nicholas Cage is my spirit animal": Ray Dennis Steckler as Cash Flagg as Jerry. 

Back to the action.

Although her last customer fled in fear, Jerry, Harold and Angie decide to visit Madame Estrella. When Estrella receives the trio, she inquires, "Do you want your fortunes told?" To which Harold retorts, "Vhat? Deed you tink ve came in here to reed?"

 That gets things off to a testy start--and it only gets testier as the session continues. Although the gypsy fortune teller assures Angie "she will be lucky in love" and marry a rich man (which should comfort her anxious mom), Estrella is miffed when Jerry doubts her psychic abilities and has the nerve to call her crystal ball "a fish bowl." When she can't come up with a fortune for Jerry, he refuses to pay her. That does it. The trio quickly depart for the midway with Estrella steaming.

Seconds later, Jerry locks eyes with "exotic gypsy dancer" Carmelita (Erina Enyo), Estrella's kid sister. He wants to see her show, but Angie doesn't. When Jerry insists, Angie (and her fiberglass hair) flounce off. Jerry tells Harold to follow after Angie, while he slips off to watch Carmelita's act.

Little does Jerry know, Madame Estrella and her stripper sister have some fiendish plans in store for him. But first Jerry has to watch Carmelita's set, where the "exotic gypsy dancer" strips to a number called "The Pied Piper of Love." Alas, as a performer, the exotic Carmelita is a real stiff. My favorite comment about her number comes from Crow on "MST3K", who cracked, "Watch an average housewife get ready for bed!" Still, Jerry is spellbound. Later on, he's lured to Carmelita's dressing room (via a note delivered by Ortega),  where Estrella ambushes and hypnotizes him with a spinning pinwheel. "You will obey!" she repeats endlessly, while her pop-eyed patsy blinks his eyes in response.

Jerry in thrall to Madame Estrella's evil powers...or did he just watch the final episode of "Game of Thrones"?

What does Madame Estrella want Jerry to do? She wants him to murder Marge before the drunk dancer tells everyone about her closet full of zombies. Thus, when Marge and Bill begin their latest dance routine, a shadowy stranger in a hoodie appears from backstage. To the horror of the audience, he stabs Marge and Bill with a long nasty knife and escapes into the night. What a fiend!

Back in the hovel he shares with Harold, Jerry is tormented by a horrible dream. Showgirls with their faces painted a variety of hues call his name and cackle like crows. Poor dead Marge stretches out on a hot dog cart and cries, "Help! Help me!" The images of Madame Estrella, Ortega and Carmelita swirl around him. Then Jerry himself appears, his face painted in exotic shades, his hoodie pulled up, leaping about a la Bob Fosse and trying to escape a maze made up of dancers. As the nightmare builds to its climax, jerk Jerry is hoisted into the air as if he's a virgin sacrifice being carried to the pyre. Whew! No wonder he wakes up sweaty and confused, although I bet Jerry wakes up sweaty and confused a lot.

Staggering around town, trying to piece together what happened, Jerry winds up at Angie's house. She's sunning herself in the backyard and mighty miffed that Jerry ditched her for a carny stripper. While Jerry tries to explain himself, Angie starts twirling a beach umbrella. Oh, no! The umbrella reminds Jerry of Madame Estrella's pin wheel! Suddenly Jerry has his hands around Angie's throat, choking the living daylights out of her! Only when brother Madison leaps to his sister's aid does Jerry snap out of his violent trance.

Horrified that he's capable of such unexplained violence, Jerry races over to Madame Estrella's...where she promptly hypnotizes him again. Turns out the evil Estrella has another dancer she wants him to kill. Why?  Because this hoofer remembered Marge running out of Madame Estrella's booth right before she was murdered. When the fortune teller denies ever having met Marge, the dancer (named Stella) says, "If I didn't know you any better, I'd think you had something to hide." Then she flits off for her date, which ends abruptly, thanks to Jerry and his long knife.

Back at Estrella's  yet again, the zonked out Jerry stands passively as she splashes acid in his face. "It's tooooo bad you remembered soooo much," Estrella  sighs. "Ortega! Put him with the rest of my pets!"

Madame Estrella pours acid on Jerry's face, while henchman Ortega looks on.

While Ortega fumbles with the door, the other zombies decide it's the perfect time to make a break. They over power Ortega, swarm out of the closet and attack their keepers. Now, I must take the time to point out that Estrella only has about three or four zombies at her disposal, so that's not exactly as impressive a number as the movie lead us to believe. Also, if you're use to big, hulking zombies with greenish skin, blood-shot eyes, super-human strength and a taste for cannibalism, you're going to be disappointed. These zombies have misshapen heads, thinning hair and horrible make-up. They also run around in ripped PJs. Not quite up to "The Walking Dead" standard, I grant you, but our bargain-basement zombies are able to off Ortega, Estrella and Carmelita in quick order. Then they decide to head for the midway.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, Harold, Angie and Madison decide to team up and find the missing Jerry. That means heading back to the carnival, naturally, where pandemonium has struck. Estrella's zombies have crashed the flick's latest floor show--a totally bizarre tableaux where white chorus girls in orange costumes with brown fur and head-dresses perform as African "tribal dancers". Disgusted by this tasteless display of cultural misappropriation, the zombies attack the performers and the audience. Amid screaming and stampeding spectators, the police arrive with guns a-blazin'. While the cops battle the zombies, Harold, Angie and Madison arrive, frantically looking for Jerry.

Angie's screams lead the law to Madame Estrella's lair, where the drunk salesman we met at the beginning of the picture is staggering around all the dead bodies and moaning, "Ahhhh!" Although the poor dope's face has puffed up like a pimple ready to pop, his sport-coast and hat are in good repair. As if that wasn't horrifying enough, Jerry suddenly appears, dazed and confused, his face marked with red acid splashes. Angie screams at the sight of him, causing Jerry to bail out through an open window.

Next we see Jerry--staggering, stumbling, running and falling all at the same time!--at the near-by beach. Angie is in hot pursuit, with Harold, Madison and the police close at her heels. Perhaps thinking Jerry is too zombiefied to be saved, the law unleashes a hail of bullets, sealing his fate.

Let us now pause and mourn the passing of an unemployed beatnik/slacker and his beloved hoodie.

"We're free! Let's hit the Karaoke Bar!": The mixed- up zombies make their debut.

Ray Dennis Steckler, the star/producer/director of this monster mash-up, got his start as an army photographer. He later spent a year at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens with the Army Pictorial Service of the Signal Corps. He found work in Hollywood as a camera man, cinematographer and director of photography, earning 20 on-screen credits for his resume. It's been said--but not confirmed--that he was fired from Universal Studios because he almost hit Alfred Hitchcock(!) with an A-frame. He then hooked up with Arch Hall, Sr. and began his ascent as a bad movie legend.

Like so many low rent auteurs, Steckler made his movies by the seat of his pants, often without scripts, money, professional crews or working equipment--and "The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies" was no exception. Atlas King (Harold) didn't speak English and spoke his lines phonetically. When Steckler became short on funds, King gave him $300 to tide him over. Susan Walsh was cast as Angie after the original actress quit. Jerry's car was Steckler's own vehicle. The scenes at Angie's house were shot at a friend's house. The dance numbers were filmed in one day--and Steckler instructed the gals to chew gum in one number hoping it would distract viewers from the awful choreography! The musical interludes provided by Don Snyder, Carol Kay (who warbled "Shook Out of Shape" decked out in chicken plumage) and Teri Randall (scatting "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie") don't advance the story one bit, but, hey, they are diverting--and they pad out the film.

However much I love this movie, I still have a few quibbles to air:

* None of the victims in this movie were "incredibly strange creatures" before Estrella turned them into zombies; they were just salesmen who refused her sexual advances.

"Note to self: My face hurts": The "exotic gypsy dancer" Carmelita.

* What was Estrella going to do with her zombies? Other than storing them in her closet, she didn't have a plan for them to actually do anything. Was she just a zombie hoarder?

* Why didn't Estrella have one of her other zombies kill Marge and Stella? I mean, they were just sitting there in her closet; why did she have to drag Jerry in?

* Did the family/friends/employers of Estrella's zombies ever file missing persons reports about them?

* If Jerry is unemployed, how does he pay for all his dates with Angie? Do they go Dutch?

For a mere $38,000, Ray Dennis Steckler cobbled together a film that featured zombies, an evil fortune teller, a star crossed couple, horrible music and additional footage shot at a Masonic hall co-owned by Rock Hudson. Then he gave the flick the longest title in movie history and bragged that it was filmed in "Bloody-Vision" and "Hallucinogenic Hypnovision". When early screenings weren't encouraging, Ray took his baby out on the road where he (and various movie theater employees)  would don masks and run down the aisles, scaring viewers. Besides "Cash Flagg", Steckler used other surnames through out his career, including "Sven Christian" and "Cindy Lou Sutters"--the latter being his porn name. For all of this and more,  Ray Dennis Steckler, Junk Cinema salutes you!

"Death of a (Zombie) Salesman"?

 "African tribal dancers": No wonder the zombies attacked.

One of the newspaper ads promoting our flick: Who could resist?

The author wishes to extend thanks to Wikipedia and IMBb for additional information.