Astro Zombies (Blu-ray)Erich Asperschlager
I can think of two things wrong with that title
The crazy new world of streaming video and boutique disc distribution means that every once in a while you’ll encounter a release that leaves you scratching your head. The latest comes courtesy of Kino Lorber. Director Ted V. Mikels’ films aren’t so much Criterion Collection as Mystery Science Theater 3000. That his low-budget sci-fi stinker Astro Zombies has a Blu-ray transfer while so many legitimately good catalog films are stuck on DVD or have gone out of print may be further evidence that we live in a cold and impersonal universe. On the other hand, it’s encouraging to see technology so democratized that even terrible films can be resurrected and made available to movie lovers. On the other OTHER hand, Astro Zombies on Blu-ray comes with a commentary track from the funny folks at RiffTrax, whose fans are probably the main reason this release exists, because honestly who else would purchase Astro Zombies on Blu-ray?
The film in brief: a mad scientist (played by John Carradine) is killing people and reanimating their corpses as horrific ghouls that go around maiming, killing, and partially disrobing innocent victims. Since that’s not quite enough to fill 91 minutes, there’s also a sexy bad spy in search of bad sexy secrets, good (well, better) scientists helping to unravel the mystery, and lengthy shots of people driving.
Is Astro Zombies worth watching by itself? Not really. That is, not for most people. I’m sure this kind of B-movie dreck has its non-ironic fans, and those folks are in for a treat. Kino Lorber does the best they can with what they have. This is a grimy, dirty, scratched up movie with a 2.0 audio track to match, but at least now it’s available in 1.85:1 1080p hi-def.
The meat of this release are the bonus commentary tracks. Yes, plural. The RiffTrax logo prominently displayed on the back of the reversible cover art (a nice touch) points to the main attraction, but Astro Zombies on Blu-ray also comes with a commentary track by “horror cinema historian” Chris Alexander and a track recorded by Mikels himself. Alexander does an exceptional job polishing this turd, putting the film and its director into context and arguing for a kind of beauty in Astro Zombies’ awfulness. I’m sympathetic to his point of view. I grew up laughing at MST3K fodder, but I understand now how hard people work to make even the worst movie. The world of film is bigger than the best of the best, and there are plenty of cinematic diamonds to be found if you loosen up and just enjoy yourself. I wouldn’t put Astro Zombies on that list, but I get where Alexander is coming from. Mikels’ track is even more enthusiastic, but not as interesting. The director clearly thinks he’s made a worthy film, and he speaks directly to fans who would agree with him. While I salute his effort, all but Mikels die hards can skip it.
Now that we’ve gotten the serious stuff out of the way, we move on to (arguably) the reason we’re here: the RiffTrax commentary track. On the off chance you’re reading this review just for the movie, a brief introduction is in order. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett used to be on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Now they run RiffTrax — a movie joke site that offers film riffing as standalone mp3 tracks, full movie / riff downloads, and pressed disc packages. Astro Zombies is available to purchase from their site as a download, making the Kino Lorber Blu-ray a little redundant unless you are in it for the movie and the other commentary tracks. Actually, if you want the RiffTrax experience, you’re better off buying it from them because the way the on-disc commentary track works — like many commentaries — is by essentially muting the movie while the commentary plays. The jokes are still funny, but not being able to hear the movie audio kills the buzz.
Unless you are already a big fan of Astro Zombies, Kino Lorber’s better-than-it-deserves Blu-ray set isn’t worth picking up. The transfer is passable, the movie is terrible, and the bonus features are commendable — though the best extra suffers from not being able to clearly hear the movie audio alongside the RiffTrax commentary. You’re better off just getting it directly from their site.