So is it kismet that one of Leonard Nimoy‘s first appearances on the screen was as an alien? No, not as Spock. 15 years before that iconic role on Star Trek, Nimoy played a Martian (zombie) in the 12 part serial Zombies of the Stratosphere.
Nimoy had a rocky start to his career before Star Trek. He got the title role in Kid Monk Baroni, but that film failed at the box office, so Nimoy made a decision to just take whatever he could get, which usually resulted in his being an “also-ran” in the credits. Of course, when Star Trek went into production he was in the title credits, albeit behind William Shatner, but before that you would have been hard pressed to notice his name in the credits.
In particular with Zombies, Nimoy’s name only appears third in the list of the secondary characters, behind the 5 primary stars that appear in the first on screen credits. And Nimoy (as Narab) is basically just a gofer in the film. For most of the 12 part serial his sole line is usually just “Yes, sir” to the orders of Marex, the leader of the Martian entourage. But even with that secondary status you can’t miss Nimoy’s face, and voice.
“Zombies” by the way, is a misnomer. There are no real zombies, not ones you would think of anyway. Even the 50’s version of zombies. In fact, you never even hear the Martians referred to as “zombies” until the final reel. But then, as we will see, the Martians are a sci-fi substitute for a much closer “alien” force which many in the West probably considered “zombies” in the 50’s.
Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952):
As a group of government agents (Inter-Planetary Patrol) watch, an alien spaceship enters Earth’s atmosphere. Since they don’t have any idea of it’s intentions Larry Martin (Judd Holdren) is dispatched to check it out. Why Larry? Because he has a spacesuit with rockets attached to his back. (Note: Although he is never called Commander Cody in this film, the outfit is almost an exact replica of the one used by that character in other films. In fact, this was supposed to be a sequel to Radar Men from the Moon, but apparently some snafu involving a projected TV series starring Commander Cody caused the people in charge to have to change the name).
Before Larry can get to the ship though, Marex (Lane Bradford) and his assistant Narab (Leonard Nimoy) have unloaded some supplies and take off with a couple of nefarious goons who met them at the landing site. Marex and Narab go to a local (mad) scientist’s lab/house where Dr.Harding (Stanley Waxman) is the go-to contact.
The Martians have a plan. You see, the climate on Mars is pretty shabby. So the Martians want to build an H-bomb which, when strategically planted, will blow the Earth out of it’s orbit, thus allowing Mars to take its place. (And if you have trouble with the logic of that, you are probably in the wrong theater). They want Dr. Harding to help them in their construction of the H-bomb.
So why do they think Harding will be a willing participant? Well, Harding has been selling state secrets to a competing power (Russia?) and the Martians threaten to reveal his shenanigans if he doesn’t cooperate. (See, even on Mars they understand the concept of “blackmail”).
The Martians and their Earthling cohorts proceed to try various attempts at hijacking shipments of uranium. One gets the idea that uranium wasn’t all that much of a high priority item as these shipments didn’t have hordes of armed forces personnel assigned to guard them. But then if they did, Larry Martin and his jet suit would have been pretty much an after thought, if not an unwanted presence.
Over the course of the 12-part serial we get the typical “cliffhanger”, scenes where Larry or one of his associates is trapped and apparently rides off to their death, only to have the next episode reveal some incredible luck to have them survive to fight anther day.
The only real question throughout the entire serial is why only two guys and one girl are involved in the desperate struggle to keep the Martians from fulfilling their nefarious plans. Are we dependent only on one guy in a jet pack and a few pistols to save the Earth? And there is another question: If the Martians are so advanced, why don’t they have ray guns? Even the Martians resort to primitive pistols. And none of them are good shots. I think only one person in the entire serial takes a bullet, but there must have been close to a hundred fired over the course of the serial.
Probably the funniest part of the serial (though it probably wasn’t INTENDED to be funny) is the appearance of a robot. The robot has some laser powered arms, but on several occasions it just fights with its fists like the rest of the cast.
Although the villain in the film are Martians, this film could have easily substituted Russians for the Martians and not suffered too much. To be sure, the plot to switch the orbit of Mars with Earth might have had to be altered somewhat, but then again, the underlying plot was not much more ridiculous than some of the plots to any James Bond film. So maybe SMERSH (a frequent James Bond nemesis) could have planned it and was going to colonize Mars with its “New Order”.
One must take into consideration when watching this or virtually any other serial that the potential audience for them was mostly kids. You didn’t really need a coherent plot, just lots of fistfights and gunplay and an eventual triumph by the heroes.
Personally I’m an advocate for the return of the serial. I think it would be an improvement on the theater experience.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films. This article originally ran last year and is being reprinted as part of our ongoing Halloween celebrations.