"Attack of the Moon Zombies": monstrous mutant mayhem in the magic of Esperanto!
By Will Vaharo
Christopher R. Mihm's hilarious B movie homage "Attack of the Moon Zombies," which takes place entirely on an isolated moon base suddenly facing a space spore-induced invasion of mutated monster-men, is a loony lunar laugh-fest that manages to lovingly lampoon vintage schlock while also maintaining an innate respect for this beloved genre. It comes off like an episode of "The Outer Limits" as performed at The Second City. Mihm doesn't aim to mock the originals a la "Mystery Science Theater 3000," but to replicate the organic elements that make these films so enduringly endearing - including their low-budget shortcomings and questionable talents - with a 21st Century sensibility. This delicate balance of irony and reverence is no mean feat, but Mihm is a master of this special brand of ‘50s sci-fi satire, which has become its own subgenre, as evidenced by films like "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" and "Alien Trespass." This is actually Minnesota native Mihm's sixth creature feature. I booked his first, the award-winning "The Monster of Phantom Lake," at the (sadly defunct) Parkway Theater in Oakland several years ago. Now his new movie has its East Bay Premiere at the Woodfin Hotel in Emeryville on Sunday June 19, during the Annual National Congress of Esperanto USA! Why, you must be asking? Well, read on, as Christopher himself, with some help from co-star Rylan Bachman, explain this seemingly incongruous collision of outré cultures:
Chris, I know much of your inspiration for all six of your films so far stem from your childhood memories of watching classic B movies with your late father. Any films - or personal experiences - in particular influence "Moon Zombies?"
CM: Some classic B-movies that definitely had some influence on the world of "Attack of the Moon Zombies" include "This Island Earth," (still one of my all-time favorites—I even include a small mention of an "interocitor"), the creature costume designs include nods to "The Mole People" and "The Thing from Another World" (since the creature is plant based), plus "The Day of the Triffids" (more killer plants). The enclosed, claustrophobic location/setting of "Attack of the Moon Zombies" brings to mind "It! The Terror from Beyond Space" and "The Green Slime."
As for more "modern" films, I think you can clearly see pieces of "Star Trek" and "THX 1138" in the overall look and feel of the moon base on which "Attack of the Moon Zombies" takes place and in the costumes the actors wear. Also, some story elements were purposely created to reference the "Alien" series of films.
To be honest, the real reason I chose a moon base, as the setting had nothing to do with any other film. Instead, I simply needed to take advantage of spaces I knew I had access to. Since the bulk of the picture had to be shot in the winter in Minnesota, I pretty much had the choice of "in the snow" or "in my tiny basement." Since I didn't particularly want to freeze (and last winter was quite severe, even by local standards), an enclosed moon base was the way to go! So, knowing that was the setting, I built a story around it.
Rylan, why/how did you record an alternate dialogue track in the obscure language of Esperanto?! Did the original cast do the dubbing?
RB: Naively I/we thought it would be possible for the original cast to do it but reading Esperanto is hard as there are all sorts of accented letters. Even more naively I thought a computer could spit out a translation. Fortunately Chris contacted an Esperanto group. You can see in the credits the voices and translation team. Originally the idea sprung from the moon base patch Chris created which has the motto "Peace through Science" as in this universe Professor Jackson from "The Monster of Phantom Lake" became president of the USA and the United States followed a more Eisenhower-era vision of what the future would be like, complete with Atomic rockets and moon bases. (He was president in what our REAL universe were the Nixon Years - the distant future relative to a 1950s monster film. "Attack of the Moon Zombies" is an imitation 1950's film set in the 50's vision of the 1970's, specifically 1978/79 (I think Chris said 1978 on the commentary track - so Jackson may have got some of the Carter years too.) I don't think it was an inspiration but Eisenhower did have an "Atoms for Peace" campaign, which was really part of the cold war's getting smaller nations into America's sphere of influence instead of the Soviets' - it inspired a very pretty postage stamp as well.
I made a comment that a real full-blown 1950's international peace movement would have used Esperanto. And I made a case that Esperanto would have some value as language stunt casting, as it does show up in many movies. Just for the record, my original comment to Chris was not an entirely serious proposal but he liked the idea of the motto being in a different language (as mottos tend to be) - and Esperanto made perfect sense in-universe on an international moon base and obviously it generated extra attention for the film too (beyond expectations I think) and created a new fan base.
I also mentioned that 1950s science fiction fans tended to like the language as well, most notably Forrest Ackerman. And of course "Incubus's" place in film history would have a serious rival if "Attack of the Moon Zombies" had done a full translation. Chris contacted an Esperanto group and they got a script translated after originally merely translating the patch motto. When it became apparent it would be impossible to have the cast do it in terms of time and, more importantly, to do justice to the language, the translation group was again contacted and did the voices. Considering how critical people are of the "Incubus" performances, obviously a first time reading of a phonetic script would have been disastrous, and the script was an actual translation, not a pronunciation guide. So by having real Esperanto speakers doing the dubbing there shouldn't be any complaints about the pronunciation by the Esperanto Community (like they may do regarding Shatner's performance in "Incubus").The group included people all over the world recording the audio however they could. Chris exclusively dealt with them so I can't provide any more information. This group of people enthusiastically embraced the film as far as I know and may do translations in the future as well. Helping to create a film is an experience that most people don't normally have.
Chris, please explain a bit about how you recreate the "authentic" 1950s drive-in aesthetic, right down to the use of original library music.
CM: I think one of the things that add to the "authenticity" is the ridiculously low budgets for each of my films. Out of some bit of necessity, the films can't look that high quality. I'm not saying some people don't create miraculous things on shoestring budgets but, for what I do, being stuck with a miniscule budget actually becomes an asset. When you have so little to work with, you really have to figure out novel ways to create these outlandish things. "Attack of the Moon Zombies" takes place on a sleek, technologically wondrous, "futuristic" (by 50s standards) moon base. To effectively and realistically create that environment, you'd need a highly skilled, well-paid crew with large amounts of money at their disposal. When, instead, you have $3,000 and four or five people with day jobs and only their ingenuity, the best thing you can hope for is melamine and lots (and lots) of white duct tape!
A lot of those classic B-movies were low budget "quickies" made for the drive-in market and they obviously didn't have the technologies available to today's filmmakers. So, back then, they just made do with what they had—and that led to movies that, by today's standards, look cheap and cheesy (though quite charming). To some extent, what I do is exactly what they did back then—so I definitely think that plays a large part!
Like you mentioned, using public domain music (all of which was recorded back then using old techniques) adds a nice touch of aural authenticity. You literally can't get any more authentic than using the actual library music! Plus, I think only releasing films in black and white is important. I absolutely love black and white and I swear if I can help it, I will never release a film that isn't monochrome! Maybe not always 100% black and white, but still, monochrome!
How do younger viewers (under 30), who probably aren't familiar with the specific genre you're referencing, generally react to your films?
CM: To a certain extent, it depends on their personal experiences. If they're like me and they were raised on them secondhand or they discovered them at some point in their lives, they get it and tend to take to my films easily. Little kids (under 10, usually) almost always get it. I think for them, they just see my films as something fun. And, it doesn't matter that they aren't in color because they haven't yet gotten to a point where they care! Basically, little kids tend to see my movies as scary enoughto give them a little thrill, but not so frightening as to scar them for life. Plus, they're kids! What kid doesn't like monsters and aliens? I know growing up, I lived for the monsters and aliens—and alien monsters!
Cynical teens and young modern types don't always seem to like or get my films. Maybe they're not violent enough or there's not enough sex (or any, actually) or they don't challenge their preconceived notions of anything. Instead, my films are purposely made to do nothing more than entertain and, hopefully, keep an old art form alive. I even freely admit that my films are, in essence, family-friendly. Whether you're 8 or 80, they're "safe" enough for you to see. And I think calling anything "family-friendly" tends to scare off a certain subgroup of people.
Lastly, one of the things I do on purpose is sprinkle my films with references to a wide swath of modern genre fandom. One of the biggest audiences for my films tends to be what I would dub the "convention crowd," a subgroup that I personally identify with. They're uber-geeks like myself who have internalized and memorized a lot of useless pop culture and (said proudly) "nerd-centric" entertainment. Those references are for those folks!
Chris, word is your next planned film is a tribute to William Castle. Care to share any more details of this and any other future projects?
CM: Of the six pictures I've made, they're all either straight sci-fi or of the "science-run-amok"-monsters-attack genre. To avoid getting stale, I kind of felt like I wanted to try something a little different while still staying within my particular "comfort zone." Now, William Castle was the ultimate showman of the 1950s B-movie era who made some great classics, including "House on Haunted Hill," "13 Ghosts," and "The Tingler." A lot of times, he had a gimmick attached to his films, like wiring seats with "joy buzzers" for screenings of "The Tingler" that he'd fire off to literally scare people out of their seats! I wanted to so something along those lines, although not quite that crazy. So, I came up with a goofy, somewhat purposely stupid imitation gimmick and then started coming up with ideas. One rule though: any idea I came up with had to be different from my previous films while still "fitting in" with the rest. The idea of a picture having to do with ghosts (and the supernatural) was the one that really stood out, mostly because I'd never done one before and it would automatically bring William Castle to mind.
Also, this brings me back to something I said before: making movies based around places I know I have access to. Sid Korpi and Anthony Kaczor, a husband and wife team and two of the great actors that appear in "Attack of the Moon Zombies," own this really nice old house in Minneapolis. Before their involvement in the latest picture, they had volunteered their place as a possible shooting location for a future film. When the ghost story idea came up, I instantly knew it could work because I had access to this perfect location. Naturally, I asked first before I decided to go ahead, but they were more than happy and excited to let me shoot there!