As of this writing, today’s film, b-movie auteur Ray Dennis Steckler’s masterpiece, is on Wikipedia’s List of films considered the worst. Well, excuse me, unpaid editors of Wikipedia, but this unpaid film critic, whose list of bad movies is much more extensive, thinks this is far from the worst movie ever made. It’s not good, sure, but this dog has way too much life in it to call it one of the worst films ever made. This flick is high kitsch, high outsider art, and a glimpse into worlds many people, some of which are your friends and relatives, live in when all the popular shit we’re supposed to like just leaves one feeling empty and used.
The title is a mouthful. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. According to the internet, so it must be true, the original title when production began was The Incredibly Strange Creatures, or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie, but that was a little too close to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and Columbia Pictures threw a fit, resulting in Steckler tweaking the title. The original title was intentionally close to Dr. Strangelove’s, so Columbia had a point. Still, what a bunch of corporate douchebags. Anyway…
Steckler directed, produced, and starred in this flick, working from a screenplay by Gene Pollack and Robert Silliphant. I suppose this is a horror flick, but in reality this is one of those films that defies ready classification. There are horror elements in it. There are also occult elements, body horror, slasher scenes, monster appearances, voodoo-type zombification, and contemporary teen coming of age nonsense. One thing this film reliably delivers is kitsch. A large amount of the film’s 88-minute running time features various low-rent nightclub acts doing their numbers. Whenever Steckler needed to pad things, a scene that dealt with the plot would end, and viewers would get an interlude of lounge singers, awkward dance numbers, bad jokes, or faux-beatnik/Ricky Nelson crooning. It’s totally bizarre, and awesome, in a train wreck kind of way.
As for the plot, Steckler, billed as Cash Flagg (interlude: Ray Dennis Steckler sounds like the name of a serial killer or some loony who shoots the president, while Cash Flagg sounds like the nom de guerre on a lengthy internet manifesto of a serial killer or some loony who shoots the president), plays Jerry, a SoCal misfit youth who is mesmerized by a girlie show dancer on the midway of an amusement park. She is Carmelita (Erina Enyo), the sister of gypsy fortune teller Madam Estrella (Brett O’Hara, in gypsy brown face, including a huge mole on her cheek), who also works the midway. Estrella uses Carmelita to lure in Jerry, hypnotize him, and send him to kill people she’s annoyed with. The first target is dancer Marge (Carolyn Brandt, who was also Steckler’s wife at the time).
Jerry wakes up the next day with only fleeting memories of what he had done, but it’s enough to send him, frantic, back to the midway and Madam Estrella’s booth, looking for answers. This sets off a final act of death and destruction culminating in Steckler risking life and limb on a rocky, wave-battered shore for the climax.
If that sounds like a pretty thin plot, that’s because it is. It’s hard to state just how much running time the nightclub acts eat up, and I’m not going back to count. But I’m pretty sure this flick would have been over in about half the time without the padding. But, the nightclub stuff is just as important to the movie as the actual plot. It’s a snapshot into whatever weird scene Steckler and his friends were into, and, with the help of drugs, is some of the most entertaining schadenfreude I’ve had the pleasure to consume.
Other cast members of note include Atlas King as Jerry’s best friend, Harold; Sharon Walsh as Jerry’s girlfriend, Angela; and Don Russell as Estrella’s hunchback-like assistant, Ortega. Ortega’s makeup needs to be seen to be believed, as it looks like a good deal of it was papier-mâché. As for the performances from these players, they match every bit the other performances in the flick. That is, they all stink. Everyone. There is not a single good read in the movie, and that doesn’t matter a bit.
This movie, bad as it is, is an indispensable piece of Americana. It flies in the face of all the polished entertainment of the era that survives to this day. It, in fact, has had a tough life. Most of the prints one will find online are from a transfer that was formatted for CRT televisions. Rather than crop the film in the middle, whoever handled the transfer had the crop at the left, cutting off credits and a lot of essential action. The best print I found is an HD restoration from a 16mm print featured on the Retro Central YouTube channel. Check it out before it gets pulled.
The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is required viewing for we b-movie mutants, but it does have some serious watchability issues. As such it doesn’t make the hallowed top fifty of the Watchability Index, but slots into a respectable #107, taking over from Empire of Ash III. It’s shitty gold, but one will probably need to be in the right state of mind to appreciate what one is seeing.
Of final note are Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács as credited camera operators. The two of them would go on to very successful careers as cinematographers in Hollywood, with Zsigmond winning an Academy Award for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind.