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Rykodisc presents
I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. (1982)

"Something's not quite right around here."
- Rex Armstrong (James Raspberry)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: August 29, 2005

Stars: James Raspberry, Larry Raspberry, John Gillick
Other Stars: Anthony Isbell, Christina Wellford, Laurence Hall, Rich Crowe, James Ostrander, Ken Zimmerman, Alan Zellner, Chris Shadrach
Director: Marcus Penczner

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:14m:28s
Release Date: August 30, 2005
UPC: 014431082191
Genre: sci-fi


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BB-B+ B

DVD Review

There is a polarizing effect that certain films have, where the cut-and-dried definition of "love it or hate it" really seems to apply. What passes for greatness to one set of eyes is dreadfully dull to another, and often vice versa. Those who grew up on 1950s sci-fi and the G-man serial adventures—or at the very least an appreciation of that comic book/Dragnet-style of short bursts of macho dialogue—have the proper mindset to appreciate writer/director Marius Penczner's 1982 cult title I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I., a film that, at first glance, would seem to be a spoof of a handful of genres all rolled into one. Even the film's title is a direct borrow from the 1951 Gordon Douglas classic, I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.

The story follows a pair of square-jawed F.B.I. agents, two dangerous criminal brothers, a couple of soft-spoken aliens with plans for world domination, the obligatory damsel-in-distress, a stop-motion monster, and a cola plant that becomes the source of zombification for the good people of Pleasantville. But instead of going purely for the high camp jugular, Penczner reels in the easy parody target somewhat and has the actors play things straight, delivering the sometimes corny dialogue without a trace of "aren't we clever" self-mockery. Or at least no more so than any self-respecting 1950s sci-fi film ever did, which is about as honest of an homage as one could expect.

Originally made for the downright paltry sum of $27,000 in 1982, the black-and-white approach employed by Penczner makes the most of what was really no budget at all, and while there are some rough moments here and there, the overall look and feel captures the blend of 1950s genres quite well. The film, for all its budgetary constrainsts, looks as good (or as bad, depending on your level of cynicism) as any B-movie of the era. But forewarned is forearmed, and one should be aware that this is not a slick, polished Hollywood production, and if you sit down expecting wild CG effects and endless action sequences you might come away disappointed. An appreciation of the films that inspired Penczner might be a requirement to really have this one sit in your wheelhouse, so if films like Invaders from Mars still make you giddy you're in luck here.

I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. became something of a cult title during the heyday of USA network's Night Flight program back in the mid-1980s (the stop-motion alien even made an appearance years later in ZZ Top's Penczner-directed TV Dinners music video at the request of Billy Gibbons). This was his single foray into feature film directing, and despite languishing in semi-cult obscurity for a couple of decades, this DVD release has been given "special edition" treatment, which oddly enough actually shortens the runtime to a lean-and-mean 75 minutes. Some sequences are tweaked, genre-friendly title cards now start each chapter, and a new score has been added, as well as a beefed-up audio mix.

Walking between the lines of parody and homage is a tricky one, and as an example Larry Blamire went for the pure comedy angle in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, a film that loudly and intentionally poked fun at those same wonderfully tacky alien flicks from the '50s. But much like a tasty dark stout, something like I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. isn't for everyone, because it doesn't go for the easy broad laughs. Certainly the CG-weened youngsters of today might find this an eye-rolling exercise in low-budget silliness, but that's their loss, not mine.

I get it and I like it.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The back cover calls for a 4x3 aspect ratio, though the print actually seems closer to nonanamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen, with thin black bars on the left and right, as well. It's tough to be overly critical on a low-budget black-and-white title like this, and any of the age-related imperfections only seem to make it appear more like an actual 1950s feature, so it sort of works in Penczner's favor. Image detail varies, though it is generally somewhat on the soft side, but the balance between blacks, whites and greys hold up remarkably well, all things considered.

Any image-related issues are more a result of the source material than the transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: One of the more interesting elements of this release is the inclusion of two new audio tracks, available in either 2.0 or Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Without a doubt the most dramatic is the 5.1 mix from Rich Machar, because it offers surprisingly deep bass and fairly active rear channels, though almost to excess considering the genre. It's a mixed blessing to have such a sweeping sound mix on a black-and-white serial sci-fi that tries to look like it fell out of the 1950s, and it does take some initial getting used to, just in terms of mood.

The presentation is generally quite good throughout, though sometimes forsaking a bit of dialogue clarity for sound or music cues. The 2.0 stereo track tones down some of the overall boominess, and actually comes closest to retaining a flatter, more genre-friendly audio vibe.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 7 cues and remote access
4 Deleted Scenes
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Marius Penczner
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Extras aren't excessive, but what's here is pretty good stuff. Things start with a commentary track from writer/director Marius Penczner that is steady stream of detailed recollections, as opposed to simply reiterating what's happening onscreen. Penczner chats freely, with nary a dead spot in the whole 75 minutes, about the making of the film as if it were shot yesterday, and even takes the time to give kudos to the importance of open-minded university film programs. Plenty of low-budget filmmaking tips along way, including the hassles of rotting hog innards or using Spaghetti-Os for that proper splatter effect, and Penczner is engagingly never at a loss for words.

A pair of featurettes from 1984 include The Making of I Was a Zombie for the FBI (08m:27s), a brief collection of botched lines, rehearsal footage, and the trouble of low-budget squibs. Frame by Frame: The Creation of ZBeast (10m:05s) features a look at the special effects of Bob Friedstand, and the time-consuming and often unappreciated process of creating the stop-motion movement of the deadly ZBeast.

A new feature called Bringing the Sound of Zombie to Life (06m:08s) has Flashframe Films' Len Epand interviewing sound designer Rich Machar, discussing the creation of the film's new 5.1 surround mix. Machar offers comparison between the original production track and the revisionist mix that feature not only all new sounds but new music as well. He goes into a fair amount of detail explaining how the ZBeast sounds are sent to different channels to create a noticeably more spacious feel in 5.1. Nice.

There are four Deleted Scenes (04m:10s), none of which are particularly fascinating in their own right, and these follow the general rule that what's chopped is usually best left chopped.
br>The disc is cut into seven chapters.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Yes, this is the same film from back in the Night Flight days, only improved. It's a spoof played straight, a very low-budget nod to the 1950s G-Men/sci-fi/serial genre that writer/director Marius Penczner has redecorated into a special edition incorporating some new footage and an enhanced 5.1 surround mix.

Penczner himself calls it an "acquired taste"—and that may be true to some degree—but if you have a soft spot in your heart for the genres he pulls together, there's a real oddball charm here.

Recommended.

 


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