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I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I.

Rykodisc // Unrated // August 30, 2005 // Region 0
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 29, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Set in the 1950s -- the same decade whose paranoia-tinged science fiction films inspired it -- 1982's I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. follows the invasion of yet another sleepy little town by an alien menace. The aliens holster their space pistols this time around, though. Instead of dominating mankind by force, they've chosen a more subtle approach, teaming with a couple of escaped convicts to tamper with America's favorite soft drink and turn everyone who guzzles it into their mindless, obedient slaves. Of course, a couple of G-men and the obligatory female reporter get caught in the middle, and only they stand between the aliens and their complete and total conquest of the human race.

With a title like I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I., you'd probably expect this movie to go one of two ways -- either it's some sort of zany, madcap stab at camp, or it'd have the "so bad, it's good" label slapped on it. So, which one is it? Well...neither, really. Some of the acting is dodgy, but the main players handle themselves well enough, and the photography and direction are both fine. (The editing's overly choppy, but that could be part of the annoying post-post-production tweaking that I'll gripe about later.) So anyway, it's not "so bad, it's good" in the sense of being hee-sterically inept. At the same time, although the premise sounds pretty clever and seems to be a deliberately campy homage to '50s sci-fi the same way Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was a nod to '70s disaster flicks, the ridiculousness of having aliens use soda to transform mankind into a race of zombies is as close as it comes to a sense of humor. It's played almost entirely straight, and although sometimes that approach can work, other times...well, you wind up with something like I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I.

Something titled I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. should be anything but boring, yet somehow it manages to be one the most agonizingly, excruciatingly dull movies I've seen in an extremely long time. Even with a lean runtime of 75 minutes, its glacial pace makes five minutes seem like twenty. A movie that barely scrapes by as feature length shouldn't feel like it needs an intermission. (The original cut of the movie ran a half-hour longer, believe it or not. This is one of those rare director's cuts that's considerably shorter than the original.) It's not funny. It's not scary. It's not exciting. It's not witty. It's seventy-someodd overly talky minutes of uninteresting characters doing and saying uninteresting things. I like the premise, and it's always great to see stop motion animation, but otherwise, I'm struggling to rattle off anything positive. I wanted to like I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I., but boredom set in within five minutes and never let up. I'd have a hard time even recommending it as a rental.

Video: The DVD opens with a disclaimer about the state of the audio and video, and...yeah, that's not a promising sign. Culled from an older video transfer, the image has an aliased, lower resolution appearance. Although there isn't much in the way of wear -- some speckling is visible, but it's pretty light -- I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. is rather soft, and its black levels tend to learn towards a muddy gray. None of that really bugged me all that much, though. The movie's a throwback to the paranoid genre flicks of the '50s, and a smeary but watchable transfer of a black and white movie like this seems like an okay fit. What did grate on my nerves a bit is the insertion of newly-produced effects, including a new credit sequence, a bunch of intertitles, corporate logos, and even some replaced special effects. It has nothing to do with being a stodgy purist -- these effects look crisp, shiny, and new, which leaves them completely jarring when slapped over the dated visuals.

Although the flipside of the keepcase lists a 4x3 aspect ratio, it's actually windowboxed to 1.57:1 or some other oddball ratio. The DVD isn't enhanced for widescreen displays, but at that aspect ratio, it doesn't really matter.

Audio: The DVD has a couple of soundtracks -- the default stereo track along with a Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kbps) mix. Like the visuals, the audio has also undergone some well-intentioned but ultimately questionable spiffing-up. The revised score is the most notable change, roaring from every speaker, coaxing a massive low-frequency boom from the subwoofer, and occasionally overwhelming the dialogue while it's at it. After A/B-ing the two soundtracks for a few minutes, I wound up sticking with the stereo track, which is more subdued than the six-channel mix but does a better job of balancing all the different elements. The new music really doesn't fit the movie at all, but both it and the dialogue come through pretty well, despite some occasionally heavy hiss that creeps in. No subtitles. No closed captions.

Supplements: An audio commentary with writer/director Marius Penczner is available under the "Audio Set-Up" menu. I didn't much like the movie, but I did like the commentary. Penczner has a great sense of humor about I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I., and even though more than two full decades have passed since it was filmed, you'd never know it with as incredibly detailed as his comments are. He notes how the movie shifted from a comedy in pre-production to something closer to an adventure serial, overcoming a non-existent budget (the actual numbers are revealed in the last 30 seconds or so), getting the most of the settings Memphis State had to offer, and how the original movie was recut and updated for this DVD. He justifies some of the flak the movie's taken for its not-flesh-eating zombies and its straight, Dragnet-ish approach, but he's not above poking fun at it himself, pointing out continuity errors (Penny's cameraman seems kinda redundant when it's revealed she works at a radio station), anachronisms, and a grip who accidentally smeared a formula by a student who went on to invent hair gel. Covering everything from getting a phone call from the F.B.I. about the movie to trying to break a cow bone, this commentary's well-worth taking the time to listen to if you buy or rent the DVD.

Two of the DVD's featurettes were originally taped in 1982. First up is, naturally, "The Making of I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I.". This eight and a half minute EPK is a mix of comments from the cast and crew, tons of behind the scenes footage (including running through one of the movie's make-up effects), and a collection of some of the flubbed lines from the film's cast. The second is a detailed ten minute look at the laborious eight-month process of filming the movie's stop-motion animation. The third and final featurette spends six minutes with sound designer Rich Macar, who comments on some of what goes into translating a mono film to a 5.1 soundtrack, comparing and contrasting several segments of the original audio with his remix.

There are also four deleted scenes that run a little over four minutes total. A couple of 'em revolve around the fact that our heroes' car only has two doors, and there's also a romantic epilogue and one scene whose name sounds like it'd have more stop-motion animation footage but doesn't.

The DVD sports a set of static 4x3 menus, and the movie's been divided into seven chapter stops. The disc comes packaged in a transparent keepcase, and both the art and the menus stick with an F.B.I. case folder theme.

Conclusion: I'd like to be scribbling down a really glowing review about how overlooked I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. is and how maybe this DVD will finally give it a chance to build the cult following it deserves. No, really...I would, but as much as I respect the incomprehensible amount of time and effort that must've gone into making a movie like this, it's b-o-r-i-n-g. Too unrelentingly dull to recommend. Sorry. Skip It.
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