Some ironies are too delicious not to mention, no matter how obscure the points of reference might be. In 1987, on an episode of the awful Suzanne Somers sitcom She's the Sheriff, daffy Deputy Max Rubin described a dire situation to dippy Sheriff Hildy Granger as being, "Just like in that old movie I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I." As usual, Max had it wrong. Zombie, which will screen at this year's Indie Memphis Film Festival as a part of its "Back in the Day" series, was shot by a crew of mostly unpaid Memphis State University students in 1982.
Although it had the look of a backlot studio screamer from the 1950s, Zombie had never received any kind of theatrical release. It entered the public consciousness on Halloween night in 1985 via the USA Network's Night Flight programming. It was aired as part of a special fright-night double feature, paired with the schlock classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Needless to say, Deputy Max's ill-informed reference probably fell beyond the frame of reference of most She's the Sheriff viewers.
But Zombie, which was director Marius Penczner's first and only film, and which was only shown once in Memphis, six times on Night Flight, and nowhere else, somehow penetrated deeper into the American psyche than its too-brief provenance might suggest.
In December 1985, Spin magazine published a column slugged "Dylan on Dylan," in which the iconic musician and occasional actor said I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. was a movie he really wished he'd been in.
With Dylan's mention, Penczner's film, which was always "out there," was now officially "out there." Today, Penczner consults for political campaigns and makes commercials.
So what was it about Zombie, a film described by its creators as a parody of black-and-white science fiction films and serialized cop dramas, that helped it into the canon of cult cinema? The irresistibly wrongheaded title certainly helps, as does the film's failure as a parody. I Was a Zombie for the FBI plays as straight as Reefer Madness, giving it a rare authenticity and deceptive charm.
Larry Raspberry, former lead singer of the Gentrys, and his cousin James Raspberry play a couple of agents investigating the alleged death of the infamous Brazzo brothers, who have disappeared in a UFO-related plane crash. But Bart (John Gillick) and Bert (Lawrence Hall) aren't dead. They're in the employ of aliens who intend to conquer the Earth by contaminating the soft-drink supply.
Zombie's credits read like a who's who of Memphis theater. Jim Ostrander, for whom the local theater awards are named, makes a brief but memorable appearance as a ruthless corporate executive. Award-winning actor/director Tony Isbell and character actor Rick Crow play a deadpan pair of alien henchmen. Raspberry was Memphis' original Dr. Frankenfurter when Circuit Playhouse staged The Rocky Horror Show in 1976.
"There were times when I spent hours tied up with my arms over my head in a basement in July," says Memphis theater veteran Christina Wellford Scott, confessing that all the suffering was worth it.
Scott plays Zombie's Penny Carson, an eternally imperiled heroine who isn't afraid to slug a zombie with a piece of heavy equipment or fill the bad guys full of lead.
"They were making the story up as we went along. Marius would make up these wild stories and tell me I was going to have to jump from a building onto a bunch of mattresses. And I believed him."
Penczner cut 33 minutes from his film prior to its 2005 release on Rykodisc, improving some effects and adding an omnipresent electronic soundtrack that moves things along to a raunchy porn groove. The result is faster paced, less confusing trash cinema that is still entirely too slow and completely confusing. And even for fans of bad film making, that's a good thing.
I Was a Zombie for the FBI
Monday, October 22nd, 9:40 p.m.