A Day in the Life of an Astro-Zombie
In December of 2008, I sat at a table in the Benihana Steak House in the Las Vegas Hilton listening intently as Ted Mikels described his latest feature film which was currently in pre-production. This new project would be the cult director’s third time out with his most popular creation, the Astro-Zombies. The synthetic psychopaths made their debut in 1968 in the self titled film The Astro-Zombies and returned thirty-four years later in the 2002 sequel, Mark of the Astro-Zombies. As Ted finished his pitch, I immediately blurted out what I had been thinking for the last twenty minutes – “I want to be an Astro-Zombie”!
The new film, Astro-Zombies: M3 Cloned, began shooting in March of this year and principle photography was completed in a matter of weeks. While Ted and I had remained in contact during the filming, it was difficult for him to guarantee exactly when he would be shooting so it was impossible for me to schedule a trip from Florida to Las Vegas with almost no lead time. Once I heard that the bulk of the filming was completed, I wrote off my chances of being in this film and crossed my fingers that the Astro-Zombies might make it back for a fourth one.
It was rather ironic, a few months later, when my friend Danny came up with some phenomenal airfare prices to Vegas and I decided to return to Sin City anyway. I had every intention of meeting up with Ted on this visit and at least getting to hear about how the filming went. When I told him of my impending trip, he mentioned that they might be doing some pick up shots while I was there but I refused to get my hopes up again. About two weeks before my Vegas vacation, I got a phone call from Ted posing an odd question; did I have any black pants?
A short time later, Canadian Ted Mikels fan Chris Turner, whom I had just met at dinner the night before, and I were in a rental car following our idol to a film location and I was really going to be playing an Astro-Zombie. When Ted had initially informed me about my new acting role, all he had said was that we would shoot something with me running around or possibly killing someone. With each subsequent conversation, a little more was added to the part. By the day of filming, I would not only get to kill someone but also fight a member of the new Doll Squad and eventually get blown up with an explosive tipped dart!
After briefing us at his home and fitting me for one of the Astro-Zombie masks, the three of us left for the film site with a brief detour to grab lunch before our 2:30PM shoot time. Ted, who was driving his own equipment filled vehicle separately, was insistent on going to McDonalds but all I could think of was how the grease in their food was going to mix with the Nevada heat. The only thing I could think of that could be worse than being out in the sun in a heavy latex head piece would be if I threw up in it! Fortunately, there was an Arbys right next door and I grabbed a much more easily digested roast beef sandwich instead. Chris and I also picked up a couple of extra bottles of water to begin the hydration process we knew would be crucial.
The filming for this day took place at the home of assistant director Rob Darren-Newberger and prop master / set designer Terri Brooks. The unassuming abode was situated in a reasonably quiet residential neighborhood. Since this was a week day and we were shooting in the early afternoon, nosey neighbors and drive by traffic were both at a minimum. Chris and I parked just past the house to make sure we would be out of shooting range but still close enough that we could get to the automobile’s air conditioning quickly in an emergency.
The rest of our cast and crew had all arrived almost simultaneously and we were quickly introduced to Rob and Terri as well as Marilyn Weinmann, who would play my victim, and Doll Squad agent Fran Niznik. Marilyn described her character, called “Moms”, to Ted and then headed into the house to transform. When she returned a few minutes later, she looked as though she had aged twenty years and fallen on hard times somewhere in the process! Chris switched into professional crewmember mode and was wrangling equipment and assisting Ted like the pro he is. To anyone just wandering by the shoot, they would have thought Ted and Chris had worked together for years rather than this being a spur of the moment pairing.
For my role as a murderous marauding Astro-Zombie, I was decked out in a simple outfit but not one conducive to outdoor filming in the blazing Nevada sun. I had come dressed in black jeans and combat boots and switched into a long sleeve turtle neck shirt Ted provided, also black. On my hands, I had to wear medium weight black latex gloves, similar to the kind used for washing dishes that extended under my shirt sleeves. The piece de resistance of my awful ensemble was an Astro-Zombie mask sculpted by artist Jay Gowey. The design of the masks for M3: Cloned is similar to the ones from the previous films but with a more skull like appearance and organic emphasis. Compared to the masks from the other films, I found these to be the most impressive to date.
Our small crew was huddled under an aluminum carport while we prepared to shoot. I had not received any instruction on how an Astro-Zombie was supposed to act but I had recently studied the other films in the series. I imagined that an Astro-Zombie moves essentially like a person but with slightly stiffer and more deliberate motions due to the synthetic organs and reanimation process. With today’s technology, which the original Astro-Zombies film anticipated by many years, artificial implants are used as substitutes for damaged body parts but, no matter how sophisticated they are, nothing ever works quite as well as the original. While Ted set up the first shot, Chris gave me a few pointers on holding the machete so that it would look the most impressive to the camera.
Ted called for me to take my place at the corner of the house behind some shrubs in preparation for my entrance. As soon as I stepped out of the shade and into the sun, the gloves I was wearing began to heat up and it felt as though I had plunged both hands into a sink full of hot water. The temperature inside the mask began rising rapidly as well and sweat began to pool in the slightly protruding eye sockets. As Ted signaled my queue to enter, I lunged forward and sweat splashed into both of my eyes simultaneously. Between this and the small eye holes in the mask, I was hoping I wouldn’t slam into the car my victim was supposed to be washing. I came close but luckily I managed to avoid it.
After a few shots of me running up on “Moms”, Ted changed the camera angle slightly for a close up of me whacking her with my machete. My first blow knocks the hapless housewife to the ground and then I proceed to get medieval on her in my lust for blood. While my machete was only painted plywood, it still had some bulk to it and I was trying my best not to hit Marilyn too hard. Ted called for retakes on this shot several times and continually instructed me to slash harder and faster. I knew that if I made contact with a full swing, I could have dislocated her shoulder and the limited field of vision caused by the mask made misjudging one of my blows and grazing her face a real possibility. On one take I actually did break the skin on her arm in my attempts increase the intensity. As Ted called cut, we realized Marilyn was also cut and the blood on her arm was the real thing. We took a break so she could get cleaned up and, trooper that she is, Marilyn even refused a bandage to avoid a continuity error.
The final shots I had with Marilyn went much smoother. For this, she had to lie on the scorching hot stone driveway while covered in fake blood. My machete was swapped for one with a large half moon shape cut out of it that fit perfectly in my victim’s shoulder. As Ted called for action on this scene, I had to move the blade menacingly as though it were stuck in bone and then quickly withdraw it from her shoulder out of camera range. We managed to get this shot in just a couple of takes and we were both very happy. If Marilyn’s moans seem unusually realistic in the finished film, that’s because her sun dress did not cover her legs and that pavement was really hot! By this point, my mask was becoming a sauna after only being on a few moments and I was looking for any opportunity I could find to take it off.
Following my scenes of murder and rampage, I got to cool off for a few minutes in the shade while Ted did some shots of Fran in her Doll Squad uniform. As I sat in a chair drinking my fifth or sixth bottle of water and resting a cold wet rag on my neck, I noticed the thermometer under the carport read one hundred and two degrees! I asked Terri if the gauge was correct and she assured me that not only was it but that the reading was from in the shade. She said it was more like one hundred and seven in the sun. All I could think of was that I was going to get heat stroke and miss the Beatles’ Love show that I had tickets for that night at the Mirage!
After Fran finished her scenes running around the house and brandishing her dart gun, it was my time back up at bat. I donned my mask again and we shot a few scenes of me running up and stopping on a gravel path. Ted positioned the camera in the spot Fran’s character had been standing and held his hand where her face would be. I had to look in her direction as I ran and then freeze as a dart strikes me in the chest. For this effect, I had foam taped to my bare chest and the dart was inserted into the padding. The dart had fishing line tied to it that was colored black so the camera would not pick it up. The shot starts with the dart in my chest and the line held tight by Chris off camera. When Ted yelled action, Chris yanked the dart out. Ted called for a second take but the fragile dart fell apart before Chris could re-rig it. We took a break to figure out what to do and luckily Chris and I were able to cobble together a matching dart from various pieces of other ones Ted had. The second take was the charm and the dart flew out at the speed and angle Ted wanted. This footage will be shown backwards in the finished film to make it look like the dart flies into me and then CGI effects will be added to make me blow up.
Ted had one more shot in mind before dismissing the crew for this day’s filming and, while I was integral to it, I didn’t have to be dressed as an Astro-Zombie. As I changed back into my street clothes, I removed my rubber gloves and poured several ounces of sweat out of each one. Ted had noticed the Lincoln MKX rental car I was driving and decided the windows were the perfect size to film out of. He wanted to get a shot of Fran running down the sidewalk in her uniform, so we moved a few hundred yards up the street from the house and got into position. Ted yelled action as Fran ran up along side the vehicle and then I accelerated to keep pace with her to the house.
After saying our farewells to Ted and the rest of the crew, Chris and I hopped in the car and immediately turned the air conditioning up to maximum. Coming from Florida, I was used to a certain type of heat but the climate in Nevada is considerably dryer and pulls moisture out of your body much faster. As a native of Canada, the heat was harder on Chris even though he was wearing shorts and polo shirt. As we headed back to the hotel, I checked on him several times to make sure he wasn’t too far gone. By the end of our return ride, the a/c had revived both of us a little. We were not the only victims of the heat that day either. Ted’s professional camera began having problems about half way through the shoot and required several minutes of preparation time before each shot. Chris had brought his personal video camera to document the proceedings but it had stopped working after only a few minutes in the sun. I would find out later that the damage was permanent and the camera was, as Chris put it, toast.
I have known Ted Mikels for several years now and he has always been a very friendly and congenial person. When he gets behind a camera though, Ted becomes a man with a mission and while he is still courteous, he is clearly focused on getting the job done. In the natural sunlight, Ted never required more than one or two assistants for a shot, usually to hold a reflector or clap the slate. He kept everything and everyone in constant motion and always knew exactly what he wanted from us. I can easily see how this man could get one hundred and twenty set ups done in a single day. We may not have been the most professional of casts or crews but everyone was eager to deliver. I was also very impressed to see that in spite of his dedicated thought process, Ted never ceased to appreciated and care about the people helping him. Even though we were pressed for time, Ted was constantly checking to make sure that none of us were getting over heated or in need of a break, which I personally was very appreciative of.
As Chris and I parted company at the hotel, I realized my day as an Astro-Zombie was over. I knew it was one of those things I would appreciate much more in hindsight than while in the middle of the process. After a few more bottles of water and a cold shower, I even felt human enough to eat dinner and take in a show that night. I wouldn’t mind being in a movie again but I think I will make sure the set is indoors and air conditioned next time!
Special thanks this week to Chris Turner and Marilyn Weinmann for their photographic contributions and to Ted Mikels who made it all happen.