Lady Anachronism’s Fallout Shelter
CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955)
By Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel
Pull up a chair, pass around some rations, and get comfortable. Here at Lady Anachronism’s Fallout Shelter, I’ll take you back into time, when Atomic Age cats and dolls fretted over the Bomb and visions of alien invaders flickered on the big screen at the local drive-in. Technological or political developments may have made these films obsolete, but I hope you’ll join me in rediscovering forgotten Cold War-era cinema.
Radiation is one of those givens in many films from the 1950s. You can bet your bottom dollar that the radiation is going to make something either really big or really strong. In the CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955), a misleading title since there are multiple creatures here, radiation is used for the latter purpose.
The film opens with a bald man with stitches across his head walking zombie-style down the street. The man looks alarmingly like Ed Asner. In the next scene, he’s driving a car, which is a little disorienting, since he’s originally seen walking. He drives to a business where a man named Hennessey and his employees are closing up for the night.
Hennessey is putting the day’s cash away in a safe when Ed Asner’s twin smashes through a window and begins speaking in a robotic voice. He claims to be Buchanan, but Hennessey tells him that he doesn’t look like Buchanan. The creature assures him that he may not look like Buchanan, but he is, and he’s come back to see Hennessey die. The creature then picks up Hennessey and snaps him in two like a twig. Hennessey’s employees shoot at the creature, who lumbers away quietly, unaffected by the bullets piercing his body.
The scene cuts to a man talking into a microphone, commanding the creature to get in the car and drive back home. The creature doesn’t seem to get the message, so an egghead scientist with a bad German accent takes over and gives the commands. Turns out, the scientist is a former Nazi scientist named Steig (Gregory Gay), and Buchanan (Michael Granger), the man behind this whole operation, is a gangster who wants to exact revenge using these atomic creatures to do his dirty work. Why didn’t I think of this? The two are able to see everything the creature sees on a television screen in their laboratory.
The man who murdered Hennessey leaves behind luminous blood. After Chet Walker (Richard Denning), director of the police laboratory, conducts some experiments on the blood, he discovers that it is actually a chemical compound – and a radioactive one at that.
Hennessey was killed, according to Walker, by a creature with “atom rays of superhuman strength, and one that cannot be killed by bullets.” The journalists hanging around for the scoop are in such disbelief, they threaten to misspell the poor guy’s name. The nerve!
Buchanan and his Nazi scientist have an entire arsenal of zombies. Ed Asner’s twin is retired, and another guy is brought in to take out the district attorney, a man named McGraw. D.A. McGraw is also cracked in two by this superhuman dead guy.
By now, the police lab chief and his partner, homicide detective Dave Harris (S. John Launer), have figured out the fingerprints lifted from the original crime scene belong to a man who died weeks earlier. As it happens, the fingerprints lifted from the D.A.’s murder scene also came from a dead man.
Walker and Harris put their police noggins together and determine that there’s a connection between the two murders. The D.A. and Hennessey both worked together to get Buchanan deported to Rome.
Walker gets the military involved in this operation, as the military always seems to get involved when radioactive dead men roam the streets, wreaking havoc.
The evil duo’s plan goes a little tilt when the Nazi scientist gets a little thirsty and stops into a local tavern for a beer. When a solider stops into the bar to check the radiation levels, the scientist flees out the back door, leaving his beer and his change behind.
Apparently, dealing with radioactive zombies tends to cause one to become radioactive. The Geiger counter the solider is using goes off as he waves it around the stool on which the scientist sat. The ten dollars the scientist left behind is also radioactive, a fact that deeply disappoints the bartender, who was certain the money would be his.
A lot of strange, catastrophic things start happening. Things explode, giving us the perfect opportunity to view some stock footage.
Then something exciting happens again. Det. Harris is killed and turned into one of these zombies. Steig does something special for the good detective. He tinkers with his vocal chords, giving him the ability to use his own voice rather than Buchanan’s.
As might be predicted, Harris is used to find Walker. Walker sees his friend and gets into his car. Despite his medical degree, Walker doesn’t notice the stitch marks all over his friend’s forehead, the same stitches seen on the other creatures. The two speed off, but Walker jumps out of the moving car before Harris can take him back to Steig and Buchanan.
The car crashes, draining Harris of his energy. Walker and some other police officers notice that Harris seems to be heading mindlessly toward the source of his energy. After getting the military involved, they follow him to Buchanan’s hideout.
In one of the most half-hearted fight scenes in cinema history, Buchanan sets his atomic creatures on the military, telling them to kill, which apparently means walloping them gently with their limp arms and tossing them around like ballerinas. The soldiers’ guns are useless against the creatures.
Harris, meanwhile, comes to the hideout to regain his power. Walker happens to be there at the same time, trying to thwart Buchanan. For reasons that are never explained, Harris attacks Buchanan instead, giving Walker the chance to destroy the machinery keeping the creatures alive and saving at least some of the soldiers doing battle outside.
CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN is a cute film, but it’s hard to take it seriously. It’s difficult at times to discern whether the filmmaker (Editor’s Note: it was directed by Edward L Cahn, whose other films include THE SHE-CREATURE, 1956, INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN, 1957, and IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, 1958) was going for a cheeky laugh or a serious scare. If you’re looking for a nostalgic chuckle, this film will suffice.
© Copyright 2012 by Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The bi-weekly column “Transmissions to Earth” returns in two weeks.)