Monday, July 20, 2015

Zombies Over Yonder and The Phantom Empire: A few words from Stephen Mertz

Steve offers these thoughts on writing Zombies Over Yonder:

When I decided to have some fun and shake up the Blaze western series a little with the new one, Zombies Over Yonder, I returned for inspiration to my introduction to the western.

See, I didn’t really start to read and appreciate western fiction until I was in my late thirties. But I sure saw a lot of western movies before that and while my favorites are nearly all A-listers like High Noon, Unforgiven, etc., the fact of the matter is that I must place credit (or blame) for this latest Blaze entry directly at the feet of Gene Autry and The Phantom Empire.

The Phantom Empire is a 12-chapter movie serial made in 1935. Gene plays a singing cowboy who gets involved with bad guys who arrive in an airplane and speed around in cars, an underground kingdom of robots, ray guns and bad guys and a hottie queen. Shooting, singing and fisticuffing his way through this wild mix, Gene always manages to make it back to Radio Ranch in time for his daily broadcast…only to be pitched directly back into all that cowboy craziness as soon as he’s off the air.

I was an impressionable 8-year-old, watching this spectacle unfold in 15-minute increments every day after school. It was my first exposure to a western movie, and my impressionable brain apparently (and no doubt gleefully) absorbed the notion that a western was set in a wild, wondrous time and place not hobbled by the restraints of reality. As an adult Southwesterner with some awareness of this region’s history, I’ve come to accept that, yes, real life cowboys did ride horses and no doubt sang an occasional song, but they most certainly did not fight robots outfitted with ray guns in underground kingdoms.

Still, if you crumple up your disbelief and pitch it into the next area code, I think it’s still kind of cool to imagine and, thankfully, I’m not alone in my taste for a genre that has come to be known as the “weird western.”

Make no mistake. Blaze #6 is a “real” western in that there is much excitement, burnt gunpowder and hard ridin’. There are no ray guns or underground cities. Still, it is a fun romp through a fictional western landscape that has entertained over the years in film (the immortal Jesse James Meets Dracula, etc), the comics (Jonah Hex), and right up through recent Hollywood classics like Cowboys & Aliens (2011).

This is the range Kate & J.D. are riding in Blaze! #6, a rave-up that sure as hell ain’t The Searchers or Shane. But dang it, sometimes it’s just fun to have fun.

Here’s your invitation to join in!

Click HERE!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There was a re-edited feature version called Radio Ranch.

"The Secret Empire," a segment of NBC's "Cliffhangers" anthology series in the late 1970's, used the premise of a cowboy (or US marshal) hero discovering an underground kingdom. Critics compared its combination of Western and sci-fi to "The Wild Wild West," but fans old enough to remember real movie serials knew it was a remake of the Autry serial.

Mascot/Republic Pictures went out of business, and the copyright/trademark was never renewed, so Phantom Empire is probably in the public domain. Anyone can use the title or the plot, or both.

In the 1980's, a low budget shlock sci-fi movie used the Phantom Empire title. It starred Sybil Danning and had a cameo by Robby the Robot. In one scene, one of the adventurers (Dawn Wildsmith) exploring the lost world grumbles, "Now all we need is Gene Autry."

The Autry and Roy Rogers Westerns were usually contemporary, but set in a goofy never-never land. I'm sure a lot of kids in Chicago and New York watched them and thought that, in Texas and Arizona, cars and trucks shared the roads with stagecoaches.

Other "weird westerns" combined the genre with horror or sci-fi: Curse of the Undead, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, Valley of Gwangi.