Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)
Creature with the Atom Brain is a movie about atomic-powered zombies. Believe it or not, I encountered zombie-like creatures just last winter.
I'm driving down the road on a freezing cold morning in January. The temperature is actually below zero. It's one of those mythologically cold days — as if the ancient viking gods had sent the mighty frost giant Ymir to batter my 2002 Civic with gale force winds.
The sky is bright blue. I squint as the sun blinds me in the outside corner of my eye where my dollar store sunglasses offer no protection (I HATE that.) I curse the sun yet marvel at the way it illuminates the frost on the windshield making it look…y'know…spider-webby.
I still have no feeling in my frozen toes since snowblowing the driveway earlier, but it will all be worth it when I reach a nearby Country Fair convenience store and a hot breakfast sandwich and coffee slide down my gullet. Tires roll over crunchy, frozen snow and I'm actually excited to be buying my breakfast from a place that sells food and gasoline from the same location - mmmm! Let's hope the heat lamps are extra hot this morning!
As I leave the car, my empty stomach grumbles and the breath from my nose makes puffs of steam like that bull in those Bugs Bunny cartoons. I enter the establishment, wiping my boots on a large door mat saturated with muddy snow and water (this sopping wet rug is to prevent me from slipping).
But skull-cracking accidents are not my concern right now. What is my concern is how quickly I can pour delicious, piping-hot coffee into an environmentally-unfriendly styrofoam cup. And so, with a large coffee burning one hand and a freshly-made egg, ham and cheese breakfast sandwich burning the other, I make my way to the finish line that is the checkout counter.
When suddenly (and yet in horrifyingly slow-motion) a mysterious, silhouetted figure enters the store and heads toward the cashier. But even in slow motion, I notice two things that signal danger like a road flare: 1. There is only one employee working here this morning. 2. This new customer is carrying a small slip of paper. Let me tell you why this is bad for me. If you want to get out in a hurry, ideally you want the other customer to have quick payment ready -- arm extended, holding a credit card or cash. But as this character darts to my god-given place in line, my place in line by devine right, it's become all too clear that he has come ... to play the powerball lottery! GAME OVER. I drop my head in defeat and let out an audible sigh. Slowly, ZOMBIE-LIKE, this stranger, this destroyer of melty cheddar cheese dreams, begins to recite his "lucky numbers" to the cashier.
The sandwich in my hand is getting colder than Paris Hilton and somehow, even without unwrapping it, I can somehow sense the melted cheese in my sandwich is beginning to congeal.
I know someone who plays the powerball and I asked him, "How much money do you spend every week on the lotto?" He replied, "$10." And have you ever won? He shook his head from left to right. I said, "I've got the greatest idea ever! OK, so you've never won any money, right? How about this: How about every week, instead of playing lotto, you give me a ten dollar bill. Then, I'll give you five bucks! I just made $5 and you just made a 50% return on your investment! We both win!" He was not amused. I mean, I get it -- it's a sort of cheap entertainment; a thrill like going to the movies or attending a monster convention (not that I've ever done that).
Back at the Country Fair, the strange, ritualistic dance between dreamer and retailer continues, “......11....(and finally)………..29.” At last, it’s over and my sandwich is still warm. Then the cashier asks, “How many are you going to play?” the walking numerical nightmare responds, “Ten.” The mere news of this cools my coffee down by at least three more degrees. And so it begins again, “.................4.................” This is torture!!! "YOU'RE NOT GOING TO WIN! ” I scream soundlessly. “Yeah, I know someone has to win, but it’s not going to be you! You know why? Because 20 million other people are also playing! 20 million! I bet if I flipped a coin right now you'd guess wrong!"
Then, UNBELIEVABLY, a woman storms in, pays no attention to me and the lotto guy and asks the cashier for cinammon-flavored cigarettes! Even the cashier (who I know for a fact is a smoker) stared at her blankly, "Huh? Cinnamon??" She then spends the next several minutes asking for some brand of cigarette -- I can't remember the brand now, something like Extra-menthol, double-filtered, Iron Lung short/long Pall Marlboro with a Flying Suplex and a twist of lemon. Finally, she asked, "Well, do you have another brand that tastes like cinammon?" That was all I could take. "IT'S SMOKE!" I yelled, "IT'S ALL SMOKE, JUST PICK SOMETHING ELSE!"
When it was all said and done I thought to myself, "I really pity these poor, addicted zombies," and walked out with my large coffee with 2 creamers and 3 sugars, ham, egg and cheese bisquit, large bag of Doritos and a box of Ho-Ho's.
But there are other zombies we shouldn't pity, nay we should fear because they are powered by...The Atom!
Creature with the Atom Brain begins with a huge 1950s American-made car zooming down a road. It screeches to a halt and the gigantic whale of a car rocks back and forth under its own chrome girth. Out steps an expressionless gangster with a scar on his forehead and broken nose which means he’s either an atom-brained zombie or simply Italian.
The hulking figure stakes out a nightclub across the street and waits for the manager to arrive. Soon, the manager is inside collecting the money from the registers (“almost twenty grand”) and hands it to the owner, a gang boss named Hennesy, who in turn puts it in a small vault behind a painting. Meanwhile, in a secret laboratory on the other side of town, a mobster named Frank Buchanan and a coerced German scientist named Dr. Steigg are watching a monitor that shows everything the zombie sees and commands the creature by remote control. While Hennesy records his earnings into a Dictaphone, they command the zombie to bend the steel bars on Hennesy’s windows (atomic brains can do wonders for your biceps) and break in. At the lab, Buchanan is able to speak into a microphone, his actual voice emanating from the zombie’s mouth slowly mumbling, “I…told…you…I’d…come…back. I…promised…to…see…you…die.”
Hennesy must believe him because he whips out a revolver faster than you can say "Ed Wood in hot pants" and fires point blank at the zombie’s stomache. Unfortunately for Hennesy, the creature’s atom brain has somehow given the creature a bullet-proof six-pack. In the next awesome scene, we see a silhouette of Hennesy being lifted over his head and his back broken in mid-air (to the sound of a rachet)! Cool! While the creature cleans out the vault, Hennesy’s bodyguards show up (nice timing, boys – way to protect your boss!)
Buchanan orders the creature back to the lab. Dr. Steigg, the brains of the outfit, begins to rue the day Buchanan offered to fund his experiments. Apparently, Steigg had NO IDEA that a mobster like Buchanan would take his innocent work in controlling the dead and use it for evil!
The secret lab is basically two rooms: a control room and a laboratory. They are connected by a very complicated decontamination passageway (a tube made from a clear plastic painter's tarp that empties through a doggy door.) But they only made it about 4 feet high meaning they have to put on their hazmat outfits and then crawl through the passageway on their hands and knees. So just to clarify, Steigg can create a way to command the dead by remote control but he can’t figure out how to make the passageway just a couple of feet taller.
The first room is sort of a command center, filled with radio and TV equipment where they transmit orders to the zombies. The second room, the laboratory, is where the dead men's brains are equipped with atomic-powered devices that look like shrimp. This room is highly contaminated with radiation, the walls of the entire house is said to be lined with lead as well as lead shutters over the windows so as to escape detection from anyone who’s weird enough to carry a Geiger counter around with him wherever he goes (Chet!)
In the next scene, Buchanan and Dr. Steigg don the radiation-proof gear (it’s cute the way they help each other put on their beekeeper hoods) and they crawl through a tube-like passageway to the lab where two atom-brained zombies sit motionless, connected to tubes and wires. Steigg can only keep the brain alive for a couple of days until it disintegrates (It’s a little glitch he hasn’t been able to work out yet).
Back at the night club, our hero of the movie, police inspector Chet Walker, M.D., (Richard Denning of Creature from the Black Lagoon fame) listens to his cop buddy police captain Dave Harris explain the crime scene. “The owner’s back has been broken,” Dave says, “like it was twisted right off. Whoever did this had the strength of an ape. Also, the bars on the windows are bent. The owner’s boys said they shot him right in the back with no effect.” And then Dave says, “Y’know, there’s one thing screwy about this whole thing…” ONE thing?! YOU JUST NAMED THREE THINGS THAT ARE IMPOSSIBLE! But he continues, “He was shot, yet he made it to his car.” THAT’S the screwy part?!! Not steel bars bent like pretzels???
Before leaving, Chet notices something the assembled policemen overlooked -- the killer’s fingerprints and footprints are glowing! I guess that’s why they made Chet the inspector! Chet drives to the police lab and examines the blood found at the crime scene and discovers it’s a chemical composition. Then Chet gets to work on discovering why the “blood” glows. After spinning test tubes in a centrifuge and all of Chet’s really time-consuming experiments fail, he thinks to check it with a Geiger counter revealing the substance to be…drum roll…RADIOACTIVE! (applause). Chet estimages the amount of radioactivity is enough to kill a man if he’s exposed. (Well, you ARE exposed, Chet! I mean you’re EXAMINING it right now!)
Finally we meet my favorite character, the invaluable (and by that I mean “of no value”) Mrs. Chet Walker. Her first name is Joyce but as you’ll soon learn, it doesn’t really matter. It’s early in the morning and Capt. Dave (“Uncle Dave” to Chet’s young daughter) drops by to discuss important 1950’s man business with Chet. Mrs. Chet answers the door in a lovely, white satin robe that I’m sure Chet forces her to wear. She answers the door, “Hello, Dave!” Dave responds, “Where’s Chet?” (Notice Dave doesn’t even say hello. It’s because Mrs. Chet commands the authority of mildew. Too harsh? Let's continue.
Mrs. Chet goes upstairs to wake Chet. As soon as Chet’s awake, he grabs her and starts making out with her! In the throes of this awkward, Mayberrian lovefest, she mentions that Dave is downstairs and that he said it was important. Upon hearing she's kept a man waiting, Chet tosses her aside. Mrs. Chet says, “You didn’t mention to me there was a murder last night.” Chet responds, “I don’t believe in talking shop at home,” and then goes downstairs to talk shop with Dave in his home. But before he does, Mrs. Chet has the first of many helpless female scenes: she goes to leave but she can't turn the doorknob to her own bedroom!
Next, we meet the other women in Chet’s life: young daughter Penny and her doll named “Henrietta.” Both Penny and Henrietta wield more power in this household than Mrs. Chet. Chet waits until all three females have left the kitchen, then talks shop at home once again going against Chet’s deep-seeded "no-talking-shop-at-home" belief system.
Uncle Dave ran the killer’s fingerprints and came up with a rap sheet revealing the killer was tubercular. Chet asks, “How could a tubercular man bend steel bars like that?” HOW COULD ANYBODY BEND STEEL BARS LIKE THAT?!!! Does Chet routinely find bent steel bars laying around all over the place?!! Actually, the question he should be asking is, "Can you catch Tuberculosis from a creature with an atom brain! They decide to go back to the office and hear what was recorded on the Dictaphone. As they pass Mrs. Chet, she says, “Now with Penny off to school, we can relax and…” Chet interrupts, “See you, honey. I’m off to work,” giving her a condescending peck on the cheek. As they walk off, she yells, “But you haven’t had any breakfast!” Oh, good god, woman!
In the next scene, a D.A. named McGraw steps into his garage to leave for work. Out of the shadows steps another creature with an atom brain. Once again, Buchanan transmits through him, “I told you McGraw…I will see you die.” He rips out the steering wheel with his bare hands, then lifts McGraw by the neck, breaking it. (I can just hear the cops now as they look at the bent steering wheel, “Y'know, ONE thing doesn't make sense – Why was his radio turned on?”) So the new mystery is: Who would want to kill a gangster like Hennesy AND a law-enforcing D.A. like McGraw?
Back at the police lab, Chet, Uncle Dave and several officers listen to Hennesy being murdered on his own Dictaphone recording. Dave asks, “Does anyone recognize that voice?” Uncle Dave responds, “I do... and I don’t.” (It's becoming more clear how Chet got to be inspector). Then they receive word that McGraw’s been murdered in his garage so they drive to the scene. The cops at the scene scatter like mice when Chet's giant, American-made whale of a car pulls into the driveway. Once again, his erstwhile Geiger counter detects radioactivity in the garage, yet he’s getting nowhere on this case. If only Chet had help! If only he could summon the combined power of the chief of police, the mayor of Los Angeles and a U.S. military general to a special meeting, and convince them of the existence of atomic-powered dead men and get them to provide Air Force planes and army trucks to solve this murder mystery. But that would be ridicul…oh wait, that’s exactly what happens.
But back to my favorite storyline – the Chet household! Chet returns home to find his wife bending over to pick up the morning newspaper. He gets that smile on his face that only Richard Denning can deliver and smacks her on the butt, the way a cowboy says howdy to a horse. “I was wondering if you’d be home in time for dinner,” she says, (the sad part being that’s probably ALL she’s been wondering). She opens the paper and sees the headline “DEAD MEN WALK CITY STREETS.” At a time like this, she must be glad to be married to the detective who’s actually working the case so that he can reassure her, calm her nerves…“How about getting me a nice, cold martini?” smiles Chet.
Dave drops by to give Chet an update. Mrs. Chet, after barely summoning enough backbone to send Penny to her room, tells the guys that this is her house too, adding, "I'm not a child," with little effect. Dave informs Chet that Hennesy and McGraw had one thing in common – they both helped convict Frank Buchanan. Buchanan was once the gang boss. When district attorney McGraw went after him, Hennesy (then his number two guy) turned on Buchanan. He was then deported to Europe for five years (Prisoners deported to Europe? Were our prisons that overcrowded in the 1950s or was there some sort of foreign-exchange prisoner program?) It was in Europe that he met brain-control guru Dr. Steigg.
Unfortunately, just when Chet and Dave are really beginning to cook, Mrs. Chet (a FEMALE) enters the room trying to LEARN! When she asks a question, Chet gives her the most insulting awkward silence ever! The men take their conversation outside to the porch, away from prying female ears. Alone, Mrs. Chet contemplates trying Chet's martini. She looks to see if anyone's watching, then takes a sip only to gag on it seconds later. She can’t get a definite time her man will be home for dinner, and she can’t even hold her liquor!
Chet and Dave round up the remaining men who squealed on Buchanan in an attempt to save their lives. Dave, perhaps hoping criminals really are dumb, suggests to these former convicts that, rather than police protection, they simply go back to jail! As you can imagine, this idea does not go over well with ex-convicts. They do, however, agree to a kind of house arrest until the killers can be found.
Dave receives a telegram from police in Italy that Buchanan had once converted a house in Europe into a lab and was seen with cages containing dogs, cats and monkeys (Was he rooming with Michael Vick?) He was also seen associating with German scientist Dr. Steigg (Man, his neighbors see everything! My neighbors wouldn't know if I dropped dead on the front lawn!) All these vague clues, which you and I would never have pieced together, lead police inspector Chet to guess -- there was experimentation going on!
Late at night, the evil twins dress up a zombie in a policeman’s uniform to infiltrate the house where Buchanan’s stool pigeons are under police protection*.
Within moments, everyone in the house is murdered. Then we see a TV news anchor apologizing for his previous news cast after laughing at the notion of atomic-powered dead men roaming the streets. He concludes that these latest murders PROVES atom zombies are for real. (Uhhh..why, exactly?)
Meanwhile, Dr. Steigg steps out for a little stroll (when you're stuck in a lab working with brains all day - sometimes you just need a little air!) Suddenly, one of those special government trucks with a radiation detector (tv antenna) rotating on the roof drives by and picks up Steigg’s radioactive residue (He should have worn his beekeeper outfit outside - then noone would have suspected a thing!) He gives them the slip and hightails it back to the evil lab.
In one of my favorite scenes of the movie, Chet meets with fellow pipe-smoking scientist Dr. Norton who shows us an unintentionally hilarious short film featuring a Benji-type dog with two wires taped to its head. When a lab technician turns a dial, the dog performs a trick such as laying down or barking (while carefully watching his handler off camera!) Absolute 50s b-movie magic!
Chet asks Dr. Norton if the same thing would work on a dead brain, if powered by an outside atomic source. Actually, Chet asks "would it work on dead ones?" Surprised, Norton responds, "Dead ones?" (I love that these two "geniuses" instead of using technical terms would ever say "dead ones"). In any case, Dr. Norton comes up with a GREAT way to say “I don’t know” and I’m going to use this line every chance I get – Norton replies, “Well, your question is too abstract to be answered at this point.” That’s fantasic! I’m using that line the next time anyone asks me anything -- like where I put the checkbook or why my pants are down around my ankles.
Meanwhile, back at the evil lab, instead of fleeing the country, Dr. Steigg and Buchanan decide to stay and make the following terroristic threat: If the military doesn’t turn the planes and trucks around and leave them alone, “many people will be hurt in one hour.” Hurt?! Are they going to release atomic creatures or atomic wedgies? So, with time of the essence, you know what these geniuses do? They take all this time to prep another zombie (It’s not like they have an army of zombies ready to go. Each stiff has to be hooked up to machines -- it’s a whole production). Anyway, this atomic creature’s SOLE PURPOSE is to…MAKE A PHONE CALL! The zombie lumbers to a payphone and calls in the threat. Here's the best part: They keep the call brief so that it can't be traced. BUCHANAN COULD HAVE MADE THAT CALL HIMSELF FROM THE LAB!! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? CREATE A ZOMBIE TO MAKE A PHONE CALL???
Then the spinning newspapers begin! Did you ever notice that real newspaper headlines provide information and b-movie newspapers always read, “WORLD CONFUSED!” or “NOONE HAS CLUE!” The governor declares a state of emergency, even cancelling public transportation. There’s a great scene, not stock footage but actors in soldier uniforms motioning for a lady to close her window! How is that going to keep out zombies or radiation? I ask you – HOW COULD ANYONE NOT ENJOY 1950s B-MOVIES?
Chet asks Dave, “Could you do me a favor and drive my convertible back to the lab? The Geiger counter’s in the trunk. Tell the boys it needs a little adjustment.” Dave replies, “Sure. You can take my car home." Later at a stop sign, Dave is killed by a zombie from a blow to the head (his last thoughts must have been "great idea switching cars -- thanks for sticking me with the convertible). I can't remember which scene it is, but there's a mistake in the movie: the evil guys can see what the zombie sees on their TV. But, when the zombie is driving, for some reason they're seeing the road behind the car! Steigg can not only make the dead rise -- he can teach them to drive backwards!
Dead Dave is taken to the evi lab where his brain is retrofitted with a dangling, shrimp-like device. Later, the new and improved Atomic Dave is introduced! He would look scarier if he wasn’t crawling on his hands and knees through a doggy door. When he’s not barhopping, Steigg has been busy, having figured out a way to get the zombie’s to speak with their own voices, rather than Buchanan’s. Steigg can do this but he can’t get his monitor to stop buzzing.
Soon, Dave (controlled by Buchanan) plops his deceased butt (which probably doesn't smell too good) down on the couch for a visit. And…even…
While Chet tries to communicate with a dead man, my wife entered the room laughing, “He can’t tell that guy’s a zombie?!” I said it’s even worse than that. Normally, just because a guy has a scar, it wouldn’t be polite to accuse that person of being a zombie (ask Ann Landers). But Chet is actually on the LOOKOUT for creatures who recently have had brain surgery AND Dave's his best friend! It’s only when Chet hears on the police scanner, “Attention: two men murdered…Police Captain David Harris, suspect...” that his brilliant inspector mind begins to suspect something’s up! Buchanan commands Uncle Dave to “Smash the car! Smash it up!” But before the wreck, Chet jumps out of the car (which seems to be going about 65 mph) and in a cutaway scene, Richard Denning slowly, gently rolls into some bushes. Chet’s stuntman classes really paid off! Dave is not so lucky -- he's killed in the crash. Oh, wait...he was already dead.
Dave is flown to a hospital where an X-Ray of Dave’s noggin reveals that indeed, his brain has been pimped with atom-charged circuitry. Chet deduces that the wires connected to Dave’s retinas transmit images that he sees and those images are sent to some receiving device such as a buzzing TV in a secret lair. (He figured this out, but can't tell when his closest friends are zombies!) Suddenly, zombie Dave is reactivated and instinctively tries to walk back in the direction of the evil lab. Unfortunately for Dave, the straightest path to the lab happens to be out of the window! Thus, Dave falls out the hospital window, dying a third time.
Chet follows by helicopter hoping Dave will lead them to the secret base before his energy runs out completely. Ordered not to apprehend, the police allow Dave to “borrow” a squad car and follow behind from a safe distance.
As the whole world advances upon him, Dr. Steigg has a change of heart (Hurray! I KNEW a German scientist with mastery over the living dead just COULDN’T be evil). He attempts to destroy his own machines only to have Buchanan knock him out cold (Oooh! Good try, Steigg!) Within moments, zombie Dave returns to the lab, (for a zombie, he sure has a lead foot!) leading the army and police to surround the house. In typical b-movie character, the general wants to burn the house to the ground with everyone inside (nice). But Chet (Does he have to think of everything?) warns that a fire could melt the lead shielding, exposing the whole city to Gamma Rays (yeah…duh! All we need are a bunch of Hulks running around. Say!)
Desperate, Buchanan grabs the microphone and commands that the entire army of zombies (I counted 7 of them) leave the lab (room A) and enter the command center (room B). They don't show it, but I can assume it took several hours for that many zombies to crawl on their hands and knees through the tube and doggie door.
They saunter outside right into the arms of the waiting police. The cops attack with gunfire! No good. They back off to let the army let loose with machine gun fire! But the bullets rip through their unfeeling bodies. When that plan fails, they utilize what has to be THE WORST hand grenades in history! They explode with no effect. If world wars were fought like this, there would've been a lot fewer casualties! Guys would've come home from the war saying, "Yeah, we were pinned down for awhile, but then they started throwing hand grenades so we just walked out of there."
With Plan B in the drink, the army is forced to get physical with hand-to-hand combat! Unfortunately, noone must have relayed the intel about the zombies ripping out steering wheels from dash boards to the army because soon the soldiers are tossed by their faces!
Just then, zombie Dave arrives in Chet’s car. With his last remaining ounce of power, he makes his way to the lab window and smashes open the lead-lined shutter, just before collapsing from power loss. But it's just the opening a born hero like Chet needs to crawl through and face Buchanan. The wirey Chet gets in a few good licks but the paid killer ultimately knocks Chet…well…out.
Then the inexplicable happens. Zombie Dave inexplicably has enough juice to sneak in and strangle Buchanan! Then Chet inexplicably knows which machine holds a radium rod that he inexplicably knows has been luring Dave there the whole time! Chet throws the rod out the window which causes Dave to fall to the floor again powerless. Chet continues to smash the machines until they all blow up. He stumbles outside, smokey yet triumphant. As they assist him, they find zombie Dave who in the previous scene fell inside, inexplicably is now laying on the ground outside! Wow, Dave is like the Energizer Bunny!