Filmmaking is the most collaborative of arts. One cannot simply sit down alone with a pencil or a guitar or a paintbrush and emerge with a finished product. Even a minor short film involves time, money, equipment, locations and manpower. It takes dedication and a willingness to work endless hours as a jack-of-all-trades in a state of constant crisis.
That kind of dedication powered filmmaker Ted V. Mikels, who once said he’d like to be remembered as “a hell of a filmmaker who did 28 hours a day, 10 days a week toward the making of films.” Mikels directed 25 movies over the course of five decades, from 1963’s Strike Me Deadly to 2015’s Paranormal Extremes: Text Messages from the Dead, spending the last 30-odd years of his life living and making movies in Las Vegas, where he passed away last year at the age of 87.
“He gave his all for the movies,” says Troy Heard, director of the Majestic Repertory Theater. Heard’s first exposure to Mikels’ work wasn’t onscreen: “I had a Corpse Grinders T-shirt as an undergrad.” But by the time he took a film class in graduate school, he’d become a fan. “For my final, I decided to interview Ted V. and get his words of wisdom.” Mikels responded to an interview request with “five single-spaced pages, his manifesto about independent filmmaking, basically saying ‘Fuck Hollywood. Do it yourself.’ I got an A.”
“I went to his studio, TVM Studios, on Ali Baba Lane, all full of his props and everything, and we just hit it off. But then I realized, he hit it off with everybody,” Heard recalls. “I asked him about doing a musical version of The Corpse Grinders and we signed the contract then and there.” Heard still holds the rights and hopes to stage the project someday. “I have to. Especially now. We were talking about it right until the end.”
Most of Mikels’ films were in the exploitation vein, such as Girl in Gold Boots (1968), the seedy saga of an L.A. go-go dancer and the creeps she meets—the shots of Hollywood Boulevard and the Haunted House go-go club are a time capsule of ’60s sleaze. The Doll Squad (1973) had babes in bikinis saving the world from peril (Mikels always felt that Charlie’s Angels had lifted ideas from him, down to naming one of the women Sabrina). But his best-known movies are weird takes on horror: The Corpse Grinders (1971) and The Astro-Zombies (1968). The Corpse Grinders is a sweet little tale of a machine that turns people into cat food. ”His ideas were great, but sometimes you had to be on hallucinogens to make it all the way through,” says Heard. “It’s outsider art. I fucking love it.”
The plot of The Astro-Zombies was basically Frankenstein, zombies, aliens and spies thrown into a blender. John Carradine appears as a mad doctor (with a hunchback assistant) who creates the zombies. Tura Satana is an enemy agent trying to seize control of the zombies, while a bunch of guys with short hair and suits try to stop them all. It cost $37,000 to make and eventually made about $3 million, as well as inspiring an eponymous Misfits song, the true mark of horror cult status.
Mikels made three sequels to Astro-Zombies, starting with 2002’s Mark of the Astro Zombies. “We worked 12 hours a day for two months,” says Christy Larson, who contributed to sets and effects for the film, as well as acting in it. “I was the only female Astro-Zombie,” she says proudly. On low-budget films, everyone pitches in whenever something needs to be done—grips become extras, actors become prop masters, cameramen become caterers, everyone does whatever is necessary to keep the film rolling. Larson handled effects and played both a zombie and a victim in different scenes, while Heard helped with locations and did a bit as a military adviser. “I had three lines,” he says.
“He was kind of the Roger Corman of Las Vegas,” Heard recalls. “He gave a lot of local filmmakers their start.” But it wasn’t just kids on their way up who Mikels recruited. His last two films featured Las Vegas legend Liz Renay, who never crossed a screen without dragging her burlesque queen/mob moll backstory behind her like a mink coat. Something of an underground film icon, Renay also starred in Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Thrill Killers and most famously in John Waters’ Desperate Living. Cult star Tura Satana also returned to the screen in Mark of the Astro-Zombies.
Heard says Mikels’ dedication and get-it-done spirit inspires him today. “When you have a project, you do whatever you have to do. How do you get the show up? How do you get the film wrapped?” Larson agrees. “Every day was fun, no matter how fucking long it was,” she says of her time working with Mikels. “It was a gift. And everyone was happy to be there.”