The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Zombies of the Stratosphere

Quick Facts
Released in 1952
Directed by Fred C. Brannon
Written by Ronald Davidson
Starring Judd Holdren, Aline Towne and Wilson Wood

Basic Story Line
Special Agent Larry Martin has to stop a group of Martians who are intent on detonating a bomb to knock Earth out of its orbit so that Mars can take its place.

Like the 1943 Batman serial, Zombies of the Stratosphere is a propaganda piece, but a remarkably different one.

From a technical perspective, Zombies of the Stratosphere (Warning! This serial may not contain any actual zombies) is a vastly inferior serial to Batman. The first couple of episodes of Zombies show promise with some good use of an underwater tank and decent special effects with rocket ships and a jet pack. That early promise, however, fades as the same clips get reused over and over again, characters never change their clothing, and despite the fact that they are apparently speeding along in a motorboat, their hair never moves. The writing also gets sloppy and the cliff hangers are repetitive. Unlike the Batman serial, our heroes never do anything clever. Batman uses disguises, does experiments, and sets traps. Larry Martin and his crew find out where the bad guys are because someone tells them. When they get to where the villains are their plans are never more creative than, the villains are in a cave, they take out their guns and go into the cave. The villains are on a boat; they get in a boat and follow. How did these guys ever become earth’s first line of defence? The only real selling point to this serial is the curiosity factor of seeing Leonard Nimoy in one of his earliest roles.

It is only when you look at the serials as propaganda pieces that you start to see the value of Zombies of the Stratosphere. Batman was released in 1943, only a year and a half after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and it is a very blunt piece of propaganda aimed at an angry country. The villain is Japanese and spews imperialistic tirades while Americans will often answer with patriotic drivel. Almost every character, including Batman and the Narrator make racial slurs. Zombies of the Stratosphere was released in 1952, in the middle of the Cold War. America had replaced their burning hate of the Japanese with fear of the Soviets. America had witnessed the power of the atomic bomb and McCarthy was telling all patriotic citizens to check their closets for communists trying to undermine the American way of life. Zombies took a more subtle approach.

Make no mistake, Zombies of the Stratosphere is every bit the propaganda piece that Batman is. The difference is you don’t realize that’s what you’re watching. The story is about a foreign power that’s out there, that wants what we have and they are willing to use nuclear weapons to get it. Furthermore, some of our own people, possibly even respected members of society, are willing to turn traitor and help this foreign power. It is propaganda told through allegory. Communists are replaced with Martians, they don’t want to destroy the American way of life, they want to destroy the world. It isn’t until the very end that they explicitly say, “We need to be vigilant. There are people who are out to get us.”

While Batman in many ways is a superior serial, its rhetoric does not age well. Although Zombies of the Stratosphere was probably never viewed as a good serial, its deft handling of the propaganda factor makes its story timeless. After all, the Japanese may no longer be a threat but what would reactionist America be if they weren’t telling their citizens to be afraid of something?

Things to watch for
-Leonard Nimoy as a Martian
-The control panel on Larry Martin’s rocket suit consists of three knobs that read: up down, left right, slow fast.
-Larry Martin chases a train in a mini tank

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: Characters wearing the same clothing for the whole serial, is not a plot hole. The fact that it would be easier to share our orbit as opposed to blowing earth out of it, is.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium to High

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