I Was a Zombie for the FBI (1982) — A love letter to ’50s B-Movies

“Excuse me doc… but did you say zombie?”

Justin’s rating: Pshaw. Mutants beat zombies any day of the week.

Justin’s review: One of the coolest things about cult movies is how attached their creators and stars get to them. They might’ve gone on to do bigger and more well-received projects since then, but if they ever get in a room with fans of that little cult flick they did way back when, their eyes light up and, oh, the stories they can tell. It’s as close to genuine love as any Hollywood filmmaker can get to a movie.

Marius Penczner’s extremely low-budgeted ($27,000) zombie ’50s B-movie spoof I Was A Zombie For The FBI might be the only film he ever made, but it’s obvious that it was love at first sight. Made in 1982, it was only in 1985 that the movie got any real coverage as a Halloween broadcast on USA Network’s Night Flight (paired up with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), after which it gained some level of cult status.

It largely stayed out of the rental market, however, until Penczner’s loyalty to the movie and the Zombie fan base made a DVD release possible. Apparently, the original version was a longer, more dud-laden affair; for the DVD, the filmmakers cut 33 minutes, added a completely new musical score, and enhanced (or added) several special effects with the magic of Com-Pu-Ters. The result? A breezy, zany flick that combines the best of the FBI with the worst (in the best way) of stop-motion animation.

Although technically a spoof of the older black & white B-movies of the matinee hayday, I Was A Zombie plays it mostly straight. A plane carrying two notorious criminals goes down in the vicinity of a soft drink packaging plant, where a pair of mysterious Strangers have put a mysterious plan into effect. It involves making everyone around them into mindless zombie workers with a patented ZomBall, feeding one or two to the stop-motion ZBeast (yes, this movie is brought to you by the letter “Z”), and altering the drink formula to enslave a nation. Oh, horror! What will we do!

Why, turn to the masculine detective work of FBI agents Rex Armstrong and his partner Ace Evans (James and Larry Rasberry, cousins). Rex is a straight-faced Joe Friday guy, delivering hilarious dialogue in a deadpan voice and never losing his cool, while Ace is there to provide funny banter and foot fungus. Rex and Ace chase down the escaped criminals and investigate the odd goings-on at the cola plant, eventually facing their greatest fear: showing up in class on the day of the big test they didn’t study for wearing only skivvies! Or, being turned into zombies themselves. Whatever.

Labeling this movie a “spoof” might be too generous; Zombie doesn’t so much poke fun at the genres it represents than pay a sort of sweet homage to an era where the monsters were far more fakey than scary, and where FBI agents were the height of cool Daddy-O’s. The look of it all definitely feels spot on, from the cars to the airport and props. Rex is my new personal hero — you’ve got to see this guy in action to appreciate what a Man (capital M) is supposed to be.

A couple really good laughs interrupted my otherwise laid-back and enjoyable viewing of this film. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes it work so well, except to say that I wasn’t once looking at the time stamp or finding my attention drifting. Old school zombies were so much more interesting than these new kids on the block.

But no zombie is perfect. It wasn’t as funny as I expected — sort of a cross in tone between the heavy-handed parody of Invasion! and the forced retro tone of Lost Skeleton of Cadavra — and some (okay, most) of the acting skirts the border of “charmingly amateur” to “that’s the last time we hire hobos and make them top billing characters amateur”.

I also have to point to the newly redone score (not having listened to the old score, I have no comparison here) — it’s a plus and a minus, with some unknown variables thrown in there for good algebraic anxiety. The music in Zombie is peppy, electronic tunes that go far in assisting scenes with a shot of energy and pace. At its best, the score goes hand-in-hand with the snappy dialogue, but at its worse, it doesn’t know when to shut off. The music is omnipresent, and at times goes against the emotional mood of the scene in question.

If taken as a contemporary of indie movie hits, and not mercilessly compared to its big-budgeted big brothers, I Was A Zombie For The FBI makes the grade effortlessly. If a stop-motion time travel device could be perfected and we could send this movie back to 1952, I’d guess that it would even be a modest hit.

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