Zombies of the Stratosphere

Zombies of the Stratosphere--titles
Republic, 12 Chapters, 1952. Starring Judd Holdren, Aline Towne, Wilson Wood, Lane Bradford, Stanley Waxman, John Crawford, Dirk London, Craig Kelly, Leonard Nimoy.

Marex (Lane Bradford), an agent from the planet Mars, arrives on Earth with the critical material necessary to construct a gigantic hydrogen bomb; he plans to use this bomb to cause an explosion that will send Earth careening out of its orbit, thus allowing Mars to take its place and enjoy its more hospitable atmosphere. Marex, however, still requires many secondary materials to complete his bomb, and sets out to acquire them with the aid of Earthling thugs Roth and Shane (John Crawford and Dirk London); this duo’s smuggling and hi-jacking of classified materials soon has scientific investigator Larry Martin (Judd Holdren) on their tail. Martin, helped by his flying “rocket-suit,” provides the Martian-backed gang with persistent and formidable opposition–but will he discover their master plan in time to save the Earth?

All post-war Republic serials are pretty brisk in pacing, due to their shortened running times, but Zombies of the Stratosphere is fast-moving even when compared to its contemporaries. The first chapter practically starts in media res; the serial fades in as the hero is tracking the Martians’ space-ship, while the Martians are quickly shown to have already laid most of the groundwork for their scheme; this pace is maintained for the rest of the serial, with heroes and villains alike only adjourning to their laboratory headquarters long enough to set up their next confrontation. Zombies’ narrative is not only zippy but also manages to come off as somewhat urgent–thanks to the fact that Davidson actually allows the Martians to gradually move towards the completion of their apocalyptic project despite the hero’s interference, and doesn’t subject them to the series of crippling setbacks that plagued the villains in other Davidson-penned serials like Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders. The fact that Larry Martin doesn’t even learn of the hydrogen bomb’s existence until it’s been set to explode in the final chapter also helps to raise the serial’s suspense level; his last-minute dash to disable the lethal contraption makes for a satisfyingly exciting conclusion.

Zombies of the Stratosphere--bomb
Above: Judd Holdren attempts to disable the super-bomb with seconds to spare.

Davidson isn’t able to keep the continual clashes between Martin and his sidekick Bob and the Shane/Roth henchman duo from seeming repetitive at times, but the above-mentioned suspenseful structuring of the plot makes the repetition less noticeable–as does, more significantly, the many narrative turns that Davidson takes in order to work in as many stock-footage sequences as possible. Zombies culls scenes from chapterplays that include Dick Tracy Returns (the train-tank chase), King of the Royal Mounted (some submarine scenes), and Mysterious Doctor Satan (the robot’s bank robbery), and even works in an extended piece of non-serial stock footage from the Roy Rogers feature Bells of Coronado (a desert shootout centered around a plane and a pack train). To the credit of Davidson and editor Cliff Bell, this motley assembly of pre-used scenes is fitted together with both logical and visual smoothness; the characters’ trips to the desert, the railyard, the waterfront, and other locales never seem to be shoehorned into the storyline, instead arising quite logically from heroes and villains’ ongoing tussles over uranium and other valuable bomb-making materials.

Zombies of the Stratosphere--Coronado horses Zombies of the Stratosphere--heroes on the desert
Above: Wilson Wood and the helmeted Judd Holdren (right-hand picture) react as a herd of pack horses from Bells of Coronado stampede towards them (left-hand picture).  

The new footage that links up this parade of reused scenes is not in the same league as the older material, due to the shrinkage of Republic’s budgets since the studio’s glory days, but is more than adequately handled by director Fred C. Brannon. Fistfights are scarcer than in other Republics of the period, making the action scenes seem less redundant than in many of Zombies’ contemporaries; chases (mostly stock footage) and gun battles (mostly new footage) are well-balanced with the fights that do occur. However, perhaps the most memorable pieces of new action in Zombies are the heroes’ two encounters with the old Doctor Satan robot (which is here presented as a Martian invention)–Larry Martin’s desperate one-on-one battle with the near-unstoppable automaton in Chapter Five, and the robot’s furniture-smashing rampage in Martin’s office in Chapter Six.

Zombies of the Stratosphere--robot attack
Above: Dale Van Sickel (doubling Judd Holdren) tries to fight off the robot (Tom Steele) as Aline Towne watches.

The Chapter Four fistfight in the mine is another good piece of action; Dale Van Sickel doubles hero Judd Holdren here (and elsewhere), with Tom Steele and Johnny Daheim subbing for henchmen John Crawford and Dirk London. Other highlights include the Chapter Two rocket-ship chase, the fight on the dock in Chapter Seven, the Chapter Eight lab fight, the brief but nicely staged outdoor shootout in Chapter Nine (at Iverson’s Ranch), and the last-chapter pursuit of Marex’s fleeing rocket-ship. Most of the miniature shots of the hero’s spacecraft in this and other scenes are derived from Radar Men from the Moon, but the Martian ships are represented by new miniatures and mock-ups. The supposed interiors of both spaceships are rigged out with an impressive array of gadgetry that strengthens the serial’s sci-fi atmosphere, as does the presence of the aforementioned robot and the many scenes of Martin cruising the skies in his rocket-suit–scenes almost all derived from King of the Rocket Men, but still fun to watch. The Martians’ ability to stay underwater for long periods of time also allows for some enjoyably offbeat submerged scenes in the flooded mine tunnel leading to the aliens’ hideout.

Zombies of the Stratosphere--rocketship landing Zombies of the Stratosphere--rocketship controls
Above left: A Martian spaceship comes in for a landing. Above right: Judd Holdren and the seated Gayle Kellogg at the controls of the good guys’ spaceship.

The chapter endings in Zombies are largely derived from earlier Republic serials–the boat-over-the-spillway cliffhanger from G-Men vs. the Black Dragon, the truck crash from The Masked Marvel, and the runaway mine car from King of the Texas Rangers, to name a few. The new chapter endings scattered among the recycled crashes and explosions are much smaller in scope, such as the robot’s apparent axing of the hero at the end of Chapter Six or the apparent drowning of the heroine that concludes Chapter Seven. Most of these modest perils are set up in neat and effective fashion; only the gas-bomb cliffhanger that concludes Chapter Ten really falls flat, since (unusually for a Republic episode’s ending) it’s given a minimum of buildup.

Zombies of the Stratosphere--cliffhanger 1 Zombies of the Stratosphere--cliffhanger 2
Above left: An axe-wielding robot moves in to finish off an unconscious Judd Holdren at the end of Chapter Five. Above right: Aline Towne (almost certainly doubled by either Babe DeFreest or Helen Thurston) is pulled off a dock by an anchor rope to conclude Chapter Seven.

The actors in Zombies are uniformly capable, but only a few of them are particularly distinctive–although, in fairness, the serial’s pace and abundance of stock footage leaves its players with little to do but deliver brief expository dialogue. Judd Holdren makes an authoritative and self-assured hero, if not a particularly charismatic one, urgently rattling off orders with a perpetually stern expression on his face. Wilson Wood is a little more laid-back as Holdren’s assistant, but doesn’t really show much in the way of personality either. Aline Towne, as their secretary, remains in the background for most of the serial, but displays her usual air of calm, low-key friendliness whenever she delivers her lines. Quietly serious as these three principals are, their matter-of-fact demeanor does have the positive effect of making the serial’s more fantastic plot trappings seem quite normal and believable.

Zombies of the Stratosphere--good guys
Above: Judd Holdren, Craig Kelly, and Wilson Wood (standing left to right) watch as Aline Towne tunes in a radio report.

Lane Bradford is well-cast as the Martian leader Marex, using his characteristically cold voice and icy stare to give the character a suitably inhuman air. The slick John Crawford and the gruff Dirk London (who’s billed under the name of Ray Boyle instead of by his later screen moniker) are an acceptable team of action heavies, albeit a rather bland one; though both actors are good, their youthfulness and their comparatively non-villainous faces combine to make their villainy seem less vividly menacing than the evildoing of more grizzled or more thuggish players like Dick Curtis or John Cason in other late Republics. On the other hand, the mellifluous-voiced Stanley Waxman (a veteran radio actor) is quite memorable as the shady scientist Dr. Harding, who’s blackmailed into aiding the Martians; he conveys a combination of dignity, shrewdness, shiftiness, nervousness, and regret that makes his character the most interesting one in the serial, despite his limited screen time.

Zombies of the Stratosphere--Bradford and Waxman Zombies of the Stratosphere--henchmen
Above left: Lane Bradford explains his plans to a dispirited Stanley Waxman. Above right: Dirk London (light suit) and John Crawford (dark suit) watch a rocket-ship land.

Craig Kelly plays Mr. Steele, the government official who gives Martin and his team their orders; he’s just as grave and even more colorless than leading man Holdren. The voice of Roy Barcroft is heard at several points throughout the serial–issuing radio bulletins on behalf of the good guys’ “Central Communications” office, and (somewhat disconcertingly) dubbing the voices of heavies Clifton Young and Norman Willis, in order to link stock-footage shots of the two actors to the serial’s new footage. Stuntmen Dale Van Sickel, Johnny Daheim, and Tom Steele all have small parts, Gayle Kellogg is the affable pilot of Martin’s spaceship, and future TV character actor Roy Engel is lively in a bit as a stationmaster. Another (and far more famous) TV performer has a small but noticeable role in Zombies: Leonard Nimoy is seen throughout the serial as Marex’s aide-de-camp Narab. He’s properly sinister in manner and appearance, but doesn’t have all that much to do–although he is spotlighted briefly in the final chapter.

Despite its extremely heavy reliance on stock footage and its largely unremarkable (albeit competent) cast, Zombies of the Stratosphere is overall quite watchable and frequently enjoyable, thanks to its colorful array of science-fictional gimmickry and the sheer deftness with which it was pieced together by Republic’s production team.

 Zombies of the Stratosphere--last
Above: Leonard Nimoy climbs an underwater ladder to reach the Martians’ secret headquarters.

5 thoughts on “Zombies of the Stratosphere

  1. Excellent and, for me, an accurate review and evaluation. I think it by far the best of the 1950’s Republics. Great special effects and good action (cribbed from other serials, but still fun to watch) make up for ordinary cast. **** out of *****

  2. I could never get excited over ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE, I always felt it was a couple of steps below RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON. IMHO, Stanley Waxman wasn’t a strong enough actor to be the villain, I much preferred how James Craven handled a similar part in FLYING DISC MAN FROM MARS.
    The footage borrowed from DICK TRACY RETURNS seemed to old style to match a modern film, and I just couldn’t buy stock footage from a Roy Rogers western in a sci fi serial.

  3. Well, Pa, it had been a while since I watched Radar Men, so I re-watched both serials over the last few days, a chapter of each at a time. That “by far” in my above comment was too strong, as Radar Men is good, but I still found Zombies the better serial. It just held up as more plausible. The few Martians made sense as terrorists. The Moon scenes in Radar Men raised the issue of where were the Moon Men. They didn’t have the extras to put on alien city scenes although the sets were fine. Radar Men has the better cast, but I found Barcroft a bit miscast. He just didn’t look or sound alien enough. Lane Bradford was better in Zombies. I might have recommended Barcroft switching roles with the creepy-looking Don Walter who would have made a great alien. Bradford not only looked odd, but really seemed intelligent and commanding enough to be leading a group of terrorists sent to Earth to destroy it. Stanley Waxman was okay in a smallish role. Both serials relied on all kinds of great special effects, but, for me, the robot, and the better last chapter, give the edge to Zombies. Radar Men ***1/2 out of *****. Zombies **** out of *****

  4. A good discussion here; the Zombies vs. Radar Men contest is a very close one indeed. I agree that Zombies has by far the better plot; having the villains in Radar Men rob banks and hold people for ransom in order to finance their invasion plan doesn’t exactly make them seem formidable, while the master plan of Zombies’ villains is simple and feasible enough (within sci-fi perimeters) to be threatening. However, I found Radar Men’s George Wallace and William Bakewell a stronger hero/sidekick team than the one in Zombies, both actors having a bit more personality than Judd Holdren and Wilson Wood. I also liked the sequences on the moon in Radar Men (particularly the moon-tank chase), which gave the serial wider visual scope than Zombies. I had no problems with Barcroft in Radar Men, but would have to admit he wasn’t quite up to his Purple Monster form, coming off as less aloof and eerie than he did in that serial. Zombies’ ending definitely trumps Radar Men’s–we don’t even get to see the capture of the Moon Men’s truck fleet in the latter’s final chapter, and Barcroft is destroyed when he’s already fleeing defeated, instead of on the verge of success like Bradford and his crowd. Being wishy-washy, I’d call it a tie; both serials have their weaknesses and their strengths.

    I too would have liked to see Don Walters as an alien, or some kind of villain in some serial; he looked and sounded like a lighter-voiced version of Christopher Lee, and would seem like a natural for sinister roles; as far as I can find, he made few other screen appearances of any kind. Waxman I thought was quite good in Zombies, his weaselly but dignified manner reminding me of 1950s sci-fi actor Whit Bissell; to my mind, Waxman was actually superior to James Craven in Disc Man in one notable regard–he actually seemed worried and ambivalent about his collusion with the Martians, and afraid of having to go live on Mars; most Earthling accomplices of serial aliens have no qualms about assisting in the subjugation or destruction of their home planet.

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