From 1952, the twilight of the classic cliffhangers, this isn't hopelessly unwatchable but it does seem tired and listless, like an old horse being hitched up to the wagon one time too many. The stock footage has pretty much gained the upper hand now, as much of the action is in the form of clips from earlier serials. The shots from KING OF THE ROCKETMEN and RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON provide flying scenes, and footage from THE MYSTERIOUS DR SATAN stars that tall cylindrical robot with the clamp hands. (This guy was first introduced in UNDERSEA KINGDOM, way back in 1936-- they built appliances to last in those days!) Actually, one of the coolest moments here is when the thing attacks Martin. Rocketman fighting a robot!-- that's real 1950s stuff!
It's a minor point, but I really disliked the clunky radio set Larry Martin fastens to his belt. Big as a cigar box, with a thick cord going up to the helmet, this gizmo really ruins the elegant simplicity of the leather-jacketed flying suit. You'd think a group of technologists that can come up with interplanetary rockets and flying suits could either devise a self-contained radio in the helmet or fasten it up on the backpack, out of the way. I suppose these guys were too busy fighting alien invasions to fret over the aesthetics, though...
The plot is part of a series of Martian invasions, featuring a handful of ETs from the Red Planet landing on our beloved Earth, where they hire human thugs to help with the rough stuff and are foiled by Earthmen heroes. THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES and FLYING DISC MAN FROM MARS started this and RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON is essentially part of the series (there are hints they were Martians in an outpost on the Moon). This time we have to deal with the beefy Marex and his hirelings, here to carry out an improbable scheme. They intend to use a mega-powerful hydrogen bomb to knock the Earth out of orbit, then use a similar explosion to send Mars forward to take advantage of the orbit formerly occupied by our planet. (Sure, THAT would work fine. The Solar System would more likely have a new asteroid belt stretching from Venus to Jupiter.)
Opposing these impractical masterminds is Larry Martin. Now Larry is for all intents and purposes the same guy that George Wallace introduced in RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON, and although we may know that Republic studio heads ordered a new name instead of a direct sequel, where's the fun in that? So let's do some Baker Street style speculation...
In RADAR MEN, Commando Cody is in possession of the rocket-tube flying suit and bullet-shaped helmet earlier devised by Jeff King and Professor Millard in KING OF THE ROCKETMEN. (Nowhere do they say Cody invented it, he's just using it.) In ZOMBIES, Larry Martin is "an executive" of a government department concerned with "threats to world security" and he's been in charge of "the interplanetary zone" (quite a territory to cover).
At the same time, Republic had been releasing a series of twelve short films to theatres, like serial chapters with complete endings (pretty much indistinguishable from TV episodes, and in fact they were also shown on TV in syndication) featuring Commando Cody. Played by Judd Holdren in a Lone Ranger-style mask and odd uniform, Cody enforced law and order on the Moon and other planets. As in ZOMBIES, Aline Towne assisted him. So it seems pretty clear that "Commando Cody" was a code name, assigned first to the guy in RADAR MEN and then to Larry Martin. The fact that Judd Holdren played both Cody and Martin is further evidence (apparently, he had discarded the mask, perhaps because at some point his identity had been revealed and he went back to using his real name). Come to think of it, Aline Towne was in RADAR MEN as well. Maybe she was actually the liaison between Cody and the government department he reported to.
Strangely, ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE is best known today because Leonard Nimoy appears in it in a minor role as Narab, one of Marex's hench-Martians. In the hooded costume and heavy make-up, Nimoy's features are hard to recognize but his distinctive voice is unmistakable. Apparently, Nimoy later played an alien on some TV sci-fi show in the mid-1960s and his fans are curious to see how he looks in this earlier role.
Dir: Fred Bannon - 12 Chapters