My uncle was an astro zombie. I know you don’t believe me. No one does. When I whisper it to my neighbors, their grimaces make it clear their kids won’t be playing at my house anytime soon. When I confess it to my co-workers, their polite smiles tell me I will be asked to walk down the hall again to “human resources.”
The smug fools! They must be ignoring the headlines:
Human Transplants Go Berserk!
Beautiful Girls Mutilated!
So Shocking You Will Die a Thousand Deaths!
Didn’t they see the zombie stalk down those young women? Didn’t they hear the screams and eerie background music? Dead giveaways.
I know because I witnessed it. Maybe you have, too, if you were brave enough to watch The Astro Zombies, a 1968 cult classic film that is both loved and loathed. And that lumbering man behind the mask causing the carnage was my uncle, Rod Wilmoth.
In that great pantheon of so-bad-they-are-good movies, Astro Zombies joins the mix with Plan 9 from Outer Space, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and, of course, Werewolves on Wheels. But Astro Zombies appears to be one of the first 10 movies to ever have “zombie” in the title, which means Uncle Rod was a zombie before zombies were cool.
I was lucky enough to know Uncle Rod when he was not mutilating people.
Before he was an astro zombie, my uncle was an Oklahoman who bounced between Ada and Oklahoma City. He married Katherine Ingram, my dad’s oldest sister, one of 10 children born to my tenant-farming grandfather from south Pottawatomie County. Rod and Katherine had five kids, cousins I remember as crazy fun.
Uncle Rod was not in the Dust Bowl exodus to California, and he wasn’t in the second wave that filled the World War II factories. He was among the 1950s settlers to the Promised Land, joining thousands of Okies in Bakersfield. Their modest home butted up to a railroad track, and Uncle Rod was a bus driver and did odd jobs when dollars were hard to come by. He once sold a spare tire on Route 66 to buy food for the kids. Nothing in his résumé suggested Uncle Rod would’ve ended up in Hollywood, appearing in a string of drive-in flicks about zombies, bikers, and cowboys.
He didn’t have many speaking parts. Though, when I finally watched some of his speaking scenes, I understood why.
Still, our family was fascinated—and a bit curious—about his side career in film. We would gather at Grandpa’s tiny house, on that remote Oklahoma hill, at the end of a mile of rained-washed ruts called a driveway. I remember Uncle Rod and Dad laughing about why that wagon wheels on TV westerns looked as if they were spinning backward. If I remember right, Uncle Rod also performed as a gunslinger for tourists at movie sets and amusement parks.
My ears always perked up when my zombie uncle talked about the horror movies being made, and that he was part of it all. I remember feeling queasy when my cousins told me of the gory, realistic special effects. I remember wishing we had been there the night Astro Zombies premiered at that drive-in theater. We were told that Uncle Rod wore his zombie get-up, pouncing around the cars and slinging his machete. I have to wonder if the moviegoers screamed or laughed.
Somehow while filming Astro Zombies and other flicks, Uncle Rod found himself hanging out with some genuine big-screen veterans. Like Wendell Corey, who plays a buttoned-up federal agent who tries to stop the carnage seemingly by boring the creatures do death. His most famous role was as a detective in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and Corey had served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He went from the big time to Astro Zombies, his last film, and later died from a life of hard-drinking.
There was skeletal-thin John Carradine, best known as Preacher Casy in The Grapes of Wrath before his career devolved to low-budget horror and western films. In Astro Zombies, Carradine was the wacko Dr. DeMarco, who stitches together solar-powered zombies and proclaims, “We must feed this memory circuit through the emotional quotient rectifier to determine if there’s any residual impurity!”
Tura Satana was the “insanely voluptuous” boss of some grim-looking spies trying to kidnap the zombies for their own evil plans. On the screen, Satana’s defining role was as a bad-ass homicidal go-go dancer in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! In real life, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra were among her paramours; she revealed in 2008 that “Elvis kissed like a fish. Frank was built like a studhorse and he knew what he was doing.” But Tura said that Uncle Rod was a gentleman—unlike John Carradine, who got to the movie set two hours early just to watch her snake into her leotards.
Yet, a reviewer for The Monster Times (April 1972) wrote that one of Uncle Rod’s scenes was a “highlight” of the film: “The berserk Astro Zombie (Rod Wilmoth) runs through the streets in search of a woman (he’s been in that basement lab a long time, remember). After lying on a lab slab for so long, that sudden activity begins to put a strain on his batteries and he starts to run down, lurching from side to side, until he recharges by pressing a flashlight against his skull mask!”
The brains behind Astro Zombies was Ted V. Mikels, who also gave the world The Corpse Grinders, Blood Orgy of the She Devils, and The Black Klansman. Mikels said the Astro Zombies budget was only $37,000, which was only possible because he did almost everything: produce, direct, write, edit, and promote.
“It’s hard to imagine Mikels could have spent any less. The creatures are dudes in trench coats wearing alien-skull rubber masks and wielding cleavers. DeMarco’s lab equipment includes a spice rack, a heart in a goldfish tank, a sponge cake brain, and some bubbly shit,” Michael Adams wrote in Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies, his quest to find the worst movie ever made. Adams concludes: “There’s no way Astro Zombies is the worst movie ever made, as some claim.”
Uncle Rod made other films that earned him more quirky footnotes: In 1966, he debuted in The Black Klansman as a white Klansman, cradling an infant with a matching hood. Don’t believe the poster declaring the movie was “the most shattering film of our time… filmed in complete secrecy in the Deep South!” It was shot in Bakersfield.
In 1967, Uncle Rod appeared as a cop in Hells Angels on Wheels, one of the last B-movies by a then 30-year-old Jack Nicholson before another biker film, Easy Rider, kick-started his stardom.
Spoiler Alert: In Angels from Hell, that’s Uncle Rod whose shotgun blast kills the biker hero in the final scene.
But some of Uncle Rod’s movies are not mentioned at family reunions. Starlet!, a sexploitation film hyped with history’s first triple-X rating for a movie. That guy dressed in a cheap pilgrim outfit flogging a bouncy starlet? That’s Uncle Rod. And then there was Hot Spur, branded as a “vile” and “rancid” by reviewers. One of those Hot Spur ranch hands wrestling the woman to the ground? That’s my uncle. Uncle Rod’s largest speaking role—and his last movie—was in Love Camp 7, a film recognized as the first exploitation film about women in prison. The Nazi officer forcing a naked woman prisoner to lick his boot? Thank God that’s not Uncle Rod.
Uncle Rod might be surprised by how many of his films attained some cult following. He would be more amazed that they live on through the magic of discs and the Internet. He certainly was a man ahead of his times. In his day, zombies were third-tier monsters, well behind vampires, werewolves, and giant radioactive creatures. Today, the living dead are everywhere. These days, maybe he could be signing autographs at science fiction and horror conventions.
I have to admit, he was not my favorite relative. He wasn’t around for the birthdays, baptisms, graduations, and funerals; he wasn’t the uncle who survived Vietnam with all those medals. In hindsight, Uncle Rod showed there are many temptations on the fringes of fame. He had a dark side, but I’ll leave it to others to shame him. There are always plenty of people in line to do that.
I still remember the day Uncle Rod died. It was the summer of 1969. The phone call from California rang in our living room in Saint Louis, Oklahoma. A heart attack, age 42, someone told my dad. My hard-to-cry 38-year-old oil patch dad walked outside to cry alone.
Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016