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Review: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?

What a title! What a film!

Ray Dennis Steckler’s jaw-droppingly incomprehensible Monster Musical from 1964 really has to be seen to be believed. Steckler, an auteur if ever there was one, not only produced and directed his opus, but also starred under the pseudonym Cash Flagg. But what the hell is it all about, I hear you ask. Well….

In a gripping opening sequence, carnival gypsy Madame Estrella and her monstrously deformed hunchback, Ortega, throw acid into the face of a drunken traveling salesman – for reasons I wasn’t too clear on – and set the wheels motion for a one hell of a cinematic ride.

So begins The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed- Up Zombies!!? The longest titles in cinema history – quiet why the title is followed by two exclamation marks, plus a question mark, is anybodies guess. Does the question mark mean that they weren’t Mixed-up Zombies after all? Who knows? Who cares? Back to the plot!

Juvenile delinquent Jerry, played by Cash Flagg, a.k.a Steckler, takes his roommate (played by Atlas King, a creek actor who doesn’t seem to be able to speak English, but tries anyway) and his goodie-two-shoes girlfriend, Angela, to the carnival – yes, the very same carnival that Madame Estrella and Ortega wasted the salesman, so you just know there’s gonna be trouble. Once there, Jerry becomes entranced by an exotic dancer by the name of Carmelita, and wastes no time in ditching his girlfriend (and his mate) and goes backstage in search of the bewitching harlot. But our hero Jerry gets more than he bargained for when he is suddenly hypnotized and turned into a total and utter homicidal manic. He goes on a rampage, slicing and dicing innocent victims up and down the carnival midway. (I still have no idea why he’s turned into a homicidal exactly, and I’ve watched this bad boy four or five times.) Yet all this murder and mayhem is interspersed, at random sections of the story – a word I use in the broadest sense – with several production numbers which, quiet frankly, defy belief. Almost every five or ten minutes, the film comes to a graining holt, for no reason whatsoever, for a song and dance sequence of such awfulness it makes one wonder how in hell this nonsense ever in played actual movie theaters. But it did, right up until the late sixties, and perhaps well into the early seventies.

Such trains wrecks as ‘The Piped-Piper of Love’, ‘How Do I Stand With Your Heart’, the almost passable ‘Shook Out Of Shape’ – and let’s not forget, ‘The Zombie Stomp’ – are slotted into the flick every time the story threatens to get going. Steckler shot most of the numbers in one day, and boy does it show. The dance routines are simply bewildering – the dancers look bewildered anyway.

As for the Mixed-up Zombies of its incredible title, well they don’t even turn up until the final reel. When audiences came into the theater to see Creatures back in the sixties, they were given one sheets that announced MONSTERS BECOME REAL! CRASH OUT OF SCREEN! INVADE AUDIENCE! ABDUCT GIRLS FROM THEIR SEATS! So during the last act of the movie, when the Mixed-up Zombies finally show up after about 70 minutes of knife-wheedling maniacs and Las Vegas showgirls stumbling through badly choreographed dance steps, actors, also dressed as the aforementioned zombies, would burst out from behind the screen and rampage up and down the theatre. Ah, them were the days. The place would abrupt into a frenzy. These live shows were so successful that by 1966, entire acting companies would tour the flick up and down the States. What’s even more remarkable is the Ray Dennis Steckler himself would appear in person dressed as his homicidal character Jerry and grab screaming girls from the front row.

By the late sixties, the film had been around the country so many times that they had to keep changing the title. Creatures became known as simply The Incredibly Strange Creatures, then Diabolical Dr. Voodoo, before becoming my personal favourite, The Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary, even though there isn’t a character called Mary in the movie.

While the film was in production in 1963, Steckler originally planned to call his magnum opus The Incredibly Strange Creatures: or How I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-Up Zombie. But that same year Stanley Kubrick was also making his soon-to-be classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, and the great director and Columbia Pictures threatened to sue Steckler’s little movie for five million dollars, because they thought the titles were far too similar. After months of trying to negotiate, Steckler finally managed to get in touch with Kubrick and said, ‘How about I change the title from Or Stopped Living to Who Stopped Living…?’ to which Stanley simply replied, ‘That’ll be fine’ and put the phone down on our 23 year old auteur, and Steckler heard no more about it. Guess that’s Hollywood for you.

What is even more remarkable about this flick is that the three cameramen on the movie, Joseph V. Mascelli, Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács became possibly the most important Cinematographers of the last forty years. Mascelli wrote the text book for D.O.P’s, The Five C’s of Cinematography, which is still used by cameramen the world over to this day, while Kovács went onto shoot everything from Easy Rider, to New York, New York to Ghostbusters, and Zsigmond shot the likes of The Deer Hunter and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for which he won an Academy Award. Quite how Steckler got these guys is anybodies guess. I suppose everyone has to start somewhere.

Creatures was made for $38,000, the largest budget of Steckler’s entire career, and for all its shortcoming – and there are a lot – it’s almost impossible not to love. Steckler went onto make such pictures as The Thrill Killers, the also brilliant Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher, among others (including pornos), before setting up a chain of successful video stores in Las Vegas. Sadly, he passed away in 2009.

Check out this little gem of a movie this Halloween! Happy viewing!

© A.D. Barker: October 11, 2012


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