The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?

Image from The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?
May 23rd 2024

At the very least, it is safe to say that Ray Dennis Steckler’s idiosyncratic carnival horror film, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?, had one of the most memorable titles to adorn a film in 1964, perhaps only matched (or bested) by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Though the two films couldn’t be any more different, they were both helmed by filmmakers with a flair for the unusual who found humor in unlikely places; Kubrick found comedy in the United States government’s sterile war rooms and Steckler in the tawdry backrooms of small-town carnivals.

The Incredibly Strange Creatures is the product of an eccentric filmmaker who directed over fifty films, running the gamut from character dramas (Wild Guitar, 1962) to pop-art superhero opuses (Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, 1966), gory horror (Blood Shack, 1971) to genre-tinged hardcore sex films (The Sexorcist, 1974). Yet The Incredibly Strange Creatures never feels phoned in. Instead, it offers a singular amalgamation of horror, stand-up comedy, musical performances and, yes, some zombie conventions. It’s an erratic tale about a man named Jerry (played by Steckler himself, credited as one of his many pseudonyms, Cash Flagg) who takes his girlfriend to the local carnival only to end up hypnotized by a gypsy who turns him into a psychotic killer. What immediately sets The Incredibly Strange Creatures apart from many of its peers isn’t just Steckler’s commitment to the bit, both on and off screen, but the talents of his camera crew. The constantly moving camera, particularly in the opening carnival ride sequences which are shot in first-person, isn’t just the work of Director of Photography Joseph V. Mascelli, but also his assistant cameraman László Kovács and camera operator Vilmos Zsigmond. You can especially see Kovács’s influence in the extended nightmare sequence at the halfway point, which feels prescient in predicting much of his work in Easy Rider (1969), particularly the graveyard acid trip sequence.

Like many of Steckler’s films, The Incredibly Strange Creatures isn’t easy to pin down. Taxonomy is hardly the friend of any exploitation filmmaker, but with Steckler it's even harder since even the term “exploitation” doesn’t feel apt here. Ultimately, the film plays out like a lurid go-go dancer and proto-slasher version of Nightmare Alley (1947), with flourishes of dark humor and a heavy dose of misanthropy. If Steckler and Kubrick’s floridly titled films share a particular worldview, it is one of general malaise with bursts of unbridled violence. Oddly enough, Steckler found himself in hot water with Columbia Pictures over the title of his film since its original title was meant to be The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie. With Kubrick’s film releasing only weeks prior to Steckler’s, the studio threatened to sue Steckler until he offered to change the title so that it could be released with Kubrick and the studio’s blessing. It was likely the first and last time a major Hollywood studio paid any attention to Ray Dennis Steckler, and that was all for the better.

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? screens tonight, May 23, and on May 31, at Spectacle Theater.