Summer of Impositions II: [IAN] The Banality of Bleh: An Autopsy on Drive-In Massacre (1976) and Astro-Zombies (1968)

Blake Collier is one of the men I most look up to: loyal, self-giving, insightful, possessed of wry wit, absolutely dedicated to his family, eager to learn, to excavate beneath the layers of the given. 

There are times, though, I wonder if Blake likes me all that much. Because the movies he imposed on me this summer were bad. Like, real bad. Not even bad in the “so bad it’s great” category: these movies have absolutely zero charm. Added together their sum is still somehow a negative number. Watching them was not fun. And were it not for my steadfast dedication to Grindhouse Theology and its mission I would’ve turned both off faster than you can say, “Hereditary.”

Drive In Massacre | SGL Entertainment Releasing

Drive-In Massacre features the most bungling cinematic police officers this side of Last House on the Left, their ineptitude rendered all the more frightening because they’re depicted as genuinely attempting to capture the murderer doing all the massacring of the title. Drive-In Massacre is surprisingly gnarly for its time (1976) in the house elf’s handful of murders the film depicts— the decapitation only a couple minutes into its start elicited a mild, “Oh” from me.

Detectives Mike Leary and John Koch investigate the murders with all the rigor of Huckle Cat in Busytown Mysteries, failing horrendously in their efforts at most every turn. They interview the drive-in’s manager, an Anton LaVey-lookalike creep named Austin Johnson and the drive-in’s maligned custodian, the unfortunately named Germy. Johnson does little more than complain how hard it is to run the drive-in and in good conservative fashion blames the victims for their own deaths. Germy, however, notes that he’s seen a peeping tom looking in on people at the drive-in.

Armed with this lead, Leary and Koch interrogate this peeping tom, Orville Ingleson, whose very name makes you think it might have been him. (The pornographic centerfolds he keeps on the living room wall also makes that feel like a reasonable inference.) When the detectives search his car they find a bloody piece of cloth which prompts Orville to make a run for it. But, since he’s white, he isn’t shot, just apprehended and allowed to make a defense. Analysis reveals the blood is a dog’s, corroborating Orville’s alibi, and he’s let go. A creep, sure, but not a murderer.

He does get got, though. After promising he wouldn’t return to the drive-in he goes back anyway, unable to resist the gravitational pull of being a creep, he returns to the drive-in and becomes the murderer’s second victim of the night. Oh, and it happens underneath the noses of Leary and Koch who are disguised as a couple out for a movie because… police work. You wouldn’t get it, you’re not a cop!

Blu-ray Review] Severin Films Takes a Stab at 'Drive-In Massacre' - Bloody  Disgusting

Now that the bodies are really piling up Leary and Koch call Johnson into precinct headquarters to insist he shut down the drive-in until the killer’s apprehended. But in true Jaws and COVID-19 denialist fashion, Johnson won’t have any of it: this is America, damn it! Land of the free, home of the paying! 

Afterwards Leary and Koch are called in on a hostage situation in a warehouse where a man has killed two people with a machete. Sniffing that this might be their perp they rush out to the warehouse and after a languid chase shoot him dead. Turns out he was actually just a guy with mental illness who had escaped from a psychiatric hospital a few hours previous, so it wasn’t their man. Whoops!

Meanwhile Germy, who’s been fired, goes to confront Johnson about money he’s owed and ends up getting whacked along with his caricature-of-a-human-being boss. The lights go out and we hear that drive-ins across the country are turning into bloodbaths before being told THE KILLER IS IN THE THEATER NOW. DON’T PANIC— POLICE ARE ON THEIR WAY.

Yeah, because they’ve effectively handled the threat thus far. Bored and slightly mad at Blake, I turned the TV off and went to bed.

Amazon.com: The Astro-Zombies (with optional RiffTrax): Wendell Corey, John  Carradine, Tura Satana, Tom Pace, Joan Patrick, Ted V. Mikels: Movies & TV

The Astro-Zombies at least inspired a Misfits song fourteen years later, but that’s its sole saving grace. (The song is at least 💯 X 10^23 more enjoyable than this shlock.) Exploitative go-go raunch fills the pockets of movie where plot leaked out and the whole thing has a soggy bottom. It packs all the story of a four minute planning session spread across an hour and a half and… why, Blake? WHY?!

After getting downsized by the Aerospace Research Center Dr. Demarco hatches a brilliant plot to continue his research in mind-control remotely at home where he conveniently already has a boss evil-scientist-laboratory (definitely enunciating the “-or” syllable in that one). The film pays an homage to Manos: The Hands of Fate by providing the audience with a gripping opening sequence of a woman… driving. The attention the camera pays to the mechanics of operating the vehicle is a little off given that she’s little more than fodder for the titular astro-zombie, but man that was some good driving.

The opening credits continue the waking-up-from-a-realistic-but-stupid-dream, non sequitur feel with wind-up robot figures and tanks hobbling around to the sound of warbling theremins and machine guns before swinging us into the scene of a car accident. A bandito absolutely drowning in sweat drags someone out of the wreck, occasionally leering from side-to-side in close-up so we can be reminded he’s not a good guy. He could probably gain some relief if he wasn’t wearing a big wool poncho, but what do I know— sweat tends to correlate with villainy, so I might be robbed of a hermeneutical key to understanding his character without it. 

Horror creepy skull GIF - Find on GIFER

We’re then treated to another driving sequence, one in which a new person— I don’t know these people’s names— rewinds a reel-to-reel in its entirety because… look, I don’t know. Stuff just keeps happening without any explanation whatsoever. But it isn’t interesting, intriguing stuff. I’m an adult filmgoer and can handle delayed explanation and enjoy the slow coming-together of the jigsaw puzzle. But this is not that. I don’t know what this is. Besides the first eight minutes, I mean.

You would think a movie titled Astro-Zombies would go for broke depicting the creation and invasion of zombies from space or something closely akin to that, but oddly the plot (such as it is) focuses on international intrigue surrounding Dr. Demarco’s experiments. The CIA is on his trail after deftly putting together that the local “mutilation murders” from the last few months fit the M. O. of an astro-zombie. But also hot on his heels are Tura Satana of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! fame as a deadly secret agent from China (definitely enunciating that in true Trump style as “Chy-nuhhh”) and her colleagues/lackeys who aren’t very good at anything. Most comical of all, perhaps, is the fact that Demarco is currently working on his… second astro-zombie. Yes, the movie’s title is apt insofar as two of them qualify as a plurality.

Anyway, all these intelligence agencies the world over are after Demarco’s plan to create a “quasi-man,” remotely operated zombies for space exploration. It turns out that the reel-to-reel we saw earlier was a recording of a lecture Demarco gave where he straight up explained the details of his Space Age-Frankenstein plot to an audience of other scientists… you know what they say: always exhaustively explain your mad scientist plans beforehand.

Which Demarco then proceeds to do throughout most of his screen-time the rest of the movie. John Carradine tries to pad all the time he can outlining the procedure for creating an astro-zombie to Franchot (oh, that’s the bandito’s name). So that’s what an emotional quotient rectifier does! By a rough estimate, one third of this film is Carradine walking us through the minutiae of astro-zombie construction and it’s just as gripping as it sounds. I haven’t heard this much pseudo-science since that YouTube video your uncle linked to on his Facebook explaining why it’s more dangerous to wear a facemask. 

Radiator Heaven: The Astro-Zombies

After a good deal of waiting and tinkering around, things get rolling. The spies from Chy-nuhhh lug around a big box emitting some kind of frequency that relays the whereabouts of Demarco’s hijinks, creeping closer and closer to the final showdown (please make it soon). But just when you thought it couldn’t get any more clandestine and inscrutable, Tiros turns out to be a double agent! You’d be forgiven for wondering who that is: he’s the big Greek guy taking orders from Tura Satana (whose character seems to share her IRL name… huh). The Cold War was crazy, wasn’t it?

Satana wants the qusai-man technology for Chy-nuhhh but Demarco has a Doc Ock change of heart and unleashes Astro-Zombie 2.0 on her. He dies, and she dies, and Franchot dies, and someone gets their head chopped off by an astro-zombie who takes the machete Demarco keeps handy in his laboratory for situations just like this, and… man, it’s a mess. I gargled Scope for ten minutes straight after this one.

Aside from production values in keeping with the skits you’d film with your cousins on your grandma’s camcorder when you were twelve these two films share something else: a surely unintentional concentration (how’s that for a paradox?) on mundane detail and the banality of procedure. Both films plod along at the pace of living, one of the foremost things we seek escape from with cinema. 

But it’s also the banality of procedure that the protagonists of both films share that troubles me. The naive faith we place in Drive-In Massacre’s police reproduces the faith we are inculcated in as Americans towards the instruments of the state, the faith that they are dedicated to protecting our interests and competent to do so. And that faith is proven time after time to be misplaced as they egregiously fail to bring the murderer to justice. The slain of Drive-In Massacre have no answer, there is no restitution for the heinous evil done: we are left with only the imperative to stay calm, the police are on their way. They’ll make everything okay. But we know that isn’t so.

Similarly, Dr. Demarco isn’t some Nazi scientist dedicated to evil. He isn’t a bad seed predestined to blossom into death: he is simply a cog in the military-industrial complex, fulfilling his purpose by pursuing the objects of his research to their fullest extent. If the United States government is interested in developing drone-humans as part of the Space Race against the Soviets then scientists like Demarco are within their rights to do what it takes to make that vision reality. “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success,” J. Robert Oppenheimer once explained. “That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” Never mind if it’s a horrifying object, a morally repulsive object, a goal that, once developed, will be used to unleash ruin and misery— technical sweetness is the only criteria for pursuit, the only canon against which to measure the goodness of your work and the rightness of your aim. 

The twentieth century was the first time human beings could blandly fall into horrendous evil without recognizing it simply by following orders, by following the protocol of their station. The banality of evil came home to roost in the procedural exhaustion of the working day. Without intending to, both of these films encapsulate that dreary, industrial age nihilism that haunts us to this day. We are the quasi-men, the hollow men, “Paralyzed force, gesture without motion” (T. S. Eliot), consigned to the machinery which mass produces our own extinction.

I hate you, Blake. But I also love you.

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