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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.