Oh you atom-brained creature you

Radioactive zombies run amuck

See that big line across that guy’s forehead? That’s a surgical incision from when a mad scientist implanted an atomic-powered remote control unit inside that poor dude’s cranium. Now he’s a bulletproof radioactive remote-controlled killer zombie. Do not approach.

The monsters in Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) look just like regular folks which in 1955 means that they wear suits and hats. If they also smoked pipes and gave their wives appreciative slaps on the ass for mixing such a fine breakfast martini they’d be completely indistinguishable from the good guys.

An exiled criminal mastermind has returned to the United States with his own personal mad scientist in tow and the two of them are making atomic zombies and killing off the villain’s enemies one by one. The victims are all taken by surprise — the last thing they see is a scar-headed man crashing through a steel-reinforced window saying “I told you I’d see you die” in a robotic voice. Meanwhile the bad guys stand around in their retro-futuristic laboratory giving commands and taunting the victims. There’s even a TV set that transmits images from the zombie’s point of view. Handy!

The cops as always are baffled. Medical examiner Dr. Chet Walker (Richard Denning) notices that the crime scenes are aglow with radiation while the assailant’s fingerprints are always a match for someone who died some time ago but has since vanished from the morgue. Once he deduces the awful truth he mobilizes planes and trucks with radiation-detecting equipment to find the culprits. The increasingly-nervous targets on the bad guy’s “must kill” list start off with 24-hour police protection (which doesn’t work) before going into protective custody (ditto).

The cops find some of the mad scientist’s research material including a film of an adorable little dog with wires coming out of his head. “This animal looks content doesn’t it? You wouldn’t suspect that it has 18 electrodes inserted in his skull” intones the film’s narrator. We see the dog do regular doggie things like lie down wag his tail and eat from a bowl while the narration assures us that the control device is making him do that.

The whole thing sounds quite silly but that word really doesn’t describe this fascinating film accurately. It’s written by Curt Siodmak who had a real knack for coming up with outlandish premises and then treating them seriously. His screenplay for The Wolf Man (1941) for example pretty much invented everything we think we know about werewolves including the vulnerability to silver. Creature with the Atom Brain feels a lot more like Siodmak’s novel Donovan’s Brain in which yet another radical medical procedure leads to a bizarre crime spree. This isn’t really a monster film so much as a crime film with a particularly odd method of homicide. We cheer on the forces of law and order as they decipher each clue and shudder as each unsuspecting victim gets stalked by a dead guy with circuitry in his noggin. It might not be perfect but the film works better than you’d expect for something with such a corny title.

That’s not to say that there’s no unintentional chuckles here and there. The film’s treatment of deadly radiation for example can be hilariously inconsistent. Sometimes the bad guys dress up in full radiation suits and crawl through plastic tunnels to get to an irradiated part of their lab and other times they just pull a rod of pure radium straight out of the reactor with their bare hands. The cops look at a Geiger counter marvel at the fact that they’re detecting radiation that can be lethal in mere minutes and continue to hang around unconcerned. It reminded me of one of my high school science teachers who once held up a gamma radiation source in his bare hand while blandly commenting that it was “probably” doing permanent harm to him. Yikes!