Hard-boiled G-men. Shape-shifting aliens. Mind-altering cola.
Back in 1985, viewers tuning in to the USA Network’s notorious “Night Flight” programming block sat back to enjoy Attack of the Killer Tomatoes in all its campy glory. Following that film, though, came a true oddity. I Was a Zombie For The FBI was a black-and-white throwback to the sci-fi classics of the 1950s, with a sense of humor that was more dry and subtle than others of its kind. Here, viewers discovered tough-talking cops, sinister aliens, violent criminals, and a monster straight out of B-movie heaven. An independent film in the truest sense, Zombie developed a cult following after that late-night airing, and now it has crash landed on DVD.
Sometime in the 1950s, the country’s most dangerous criminals, the Brazzo brothers, are being transported on an airplane, which suddenly collides with a flying saucer. The two thugs are joined by a pair of sinister aliens, who have a plot to zombify the Earth’s population via a popular soft drink.
But all is not lost. Fighting for America are Rex Armstrong and Ace Evans, two upstanding, hard-as-nails FBI agents. It’s up to them to rescue a lovely lady and a brilliant scientist; but first, they must contend with a deadly flying “Zomball” and a dinosaur-like Z-Beast.
At the time of its production, all the makers of I Was a Zombie For The FBI hoped for was a showing on cable, and perhaps a home video release. Instead, the film developed a following and a reputation over the years, causing fans to seek it out whenever they could. Some of its admirers include singer Bob Dylan, actor Dennis Hopper, and the bands ZZ Top and the Everly Brothers.
The tone here is a very specific one. The humor of the piece is evident, and yet this is not a comedy that relies on jokes or slapstick. Instead, there’s a heavy satirical aspect to it; for example, a popular soda turning people into mindless zombies. But beyond that, most of the humor is derived from the mood of the film. All the actors play their roles straight, as if they’re actually in a 1950s sci-fi thriller. Through some unknown magic of acting and filmmaking, that makes the film all the more hilarious. Nostalgia is another key element to the film’s success, with references everywhere to classic movies of the ’50s.
Some have called the acting in the film “Shatner-style,” which is an appropriate compliment. As our protagonists, Larry Raspberry and James Raspberry (the actors are cousins) are partially over-dramatic, and partially earnest, which creates a similar heroic blend to that made famous by the great captain. The actors playing the aliens have the thankless job of delivering all their lines in a low deadpan. But they too can see the humor inherent in their characters, and make the most of their roles. The most emotive of the bunch are John Gillick and Laurence Hall as the wild Brazzo brothers. Equal parts goofy and scary, the brothers almost walk away with the entire film.
There are two other characters to deal with here. First is the Zomball, an alien device that almost seems to have intelligence all to itself. It’s great fun watching the small, light bulb-like object zip through the air and transform hapless townspeople into zombies. The film picks up whenever the Zomball appears, especially since you never know where it might turn up. And then there’s the Z-Beast. The aliens’ monstrous henchman is a pure throwback to the glory days of Ray Harryhausen, long before today’s reliance on CGI to create memorable monsters. If the jerky-yet-textured style of stop motion animation is more to your liking than computer graphics, then you will be in retro heaven when the Z-Beast makes its grand debut.
But more than anything else, what makes the film stand out is its “indie” spirit. Some of the best movies out there are ones in which the filmmakers have limited resources and manpower, forcing them to rely on just their imaginations and ingenuity. That was the case here, with locations, props, and vehicles all borrowed from friends or scrounged from pennies. There are no Hollywood millions to spend or big-name stars to rely on. This left the director with only some clever shortcuts and some sly, subtle humor to carry the film, and it’s all the better for it.
That being said, this is a director’s cut, and a number of changes have been made, resulting in a different film than the one seen on “Night Flight” so many years ago. New exterior shots have been added, as well as title cards to give an “adventure serial” feel to the film. Also, many scenes have been shortened, and a number of slower moments have been excised; they are now only viewable in the disc’s deleted scenes section. Viewers coming to the film for the first time will find it tough to determine just what is new and what is old, but traditionalists seeking to relive those ’80s glory days might balk at the changes.
Long stretches of dialogue with little to no action might be true to the era to which this film pays tribute, but it might move a little too slowly for some of today’s viewers. Also, humor derived from tone is always a tricky thing. Whether you “get” the humor is based on your own personality, and your own sense of humor. Penczner himself has described the movie has “an acquired taste,” so cautious viewers might want a rental first before buying.
Picture quality on the disc is quite sharp, considering the movie’s age and low budget. The audio has been painstakingly re-mastered into 5.1 surround sound, and all the sound effects, dialogue and quirky music come through loud and clear, making use of all the speakers. The 2.0 stereo track is not as dynamic, but shows relatively few flaws.
Any aspiring filmmakers will want to seek out this disc for the commentary by director Marius Penczner, who covers all the nuts and bolts of zero-budget filmmaking. The commentary is a continuous stream of information, including topics such as pulling off cheap effects, reusing sets, and how to make the most of every shot. Penczner also offers some anecdotes from the set, and his reasons for making the changes in this director’s cut. The “Making Of” featurette was recorded in 1982 during filming, and shows the crew hard at work on putting the film together. It’s a nice curiosity, but is a little too brief. The “Creation of the Z-Beast” featurette, also made in 1982, is much better, with a detailed explanation of how the stop-motion animation beastie was brought to life on screen. Bringing things into the new millennium, the sound featurette shows all the work that went into re-mastering the movie in 5.1 surround sound. The four deleted scenes add some nice character moments, but they would have slowed down the movie considerably.
I Was a Zombie For The FBI is a genuine film oddity. It’s a comedy with no jokes, a recreation of 1950s style with plenty of modern-day irony, and a sci-fi thriller with tongue firmly in cheek. Some might walk away wondering what the big deal is, but if you’re looking for something retro, this is the movie for you.