American independent filmmaker Ted V. Mikels died yesterday at his home in Las Vegas after an unspecified “long illness,” according to The Las Vegas Review-Journal. While Mikels filmed a Brylcreem commercial with Joe DiMaggio and a promo reel for Chris Rock, he will be best remembered by fans of cult cinema, sci-fi and horror thanks to films such as The Black Klansman, Girl In Gold Boots, and The Astro-Zombies. He was 87.
Mikels was born Theodore Mikacevich in St. Paul Minnesota. As a youth, Mikels dabbled in photography and acting, as well as performing magic, acrobatics, and fire-eating. He discovered filmmaking when he began shooting his own performances. “I figured out that you have to move the camera around to get different angles, and then you have to edit the film when you’re done,” the director told Unitshifter in 2008.
Mikels moved to Bend, Oregon in the 1950s, where he produced educational documentaries, short dramatic features, and assisted in Hollywood productions being shot in Bend. On the set of The Indian Fighter, Mikels assisted the studio special effects crew by teaching them a technique to make flaming arrows look more authentic. In 1959, Mikels left Oregon for Hollywood with, as The Bend Bulletin put it in 1961, “100,000 feet of film and soundtrack, all the self-confidence he inherited from his Croatian ancestors, and determination to market his first full length film,” 1963’s Strike Me Deadly (originally titled Crosshair), which he had shot in Oregon.
Throughout the early ’60s, Mikels cranked out exploitation films such as Dr. Sex, The Undertaker And His Pals, and The Black Klansman, which, set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, told the tale of a black man who disguises himself as a white man in order to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and exact his revenge. In 1968, Mikels released two of his most well-known films: Girl In Gold Boots, which featured the popular fad of go-go dancing (and was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000) and The Astro-Zombies, which featured cult cinema favorites John Carradine and Tura Satana. Astro-Zombies was co-written by Wayne Rogers of M*A*S*H fame, and was shot on a budget of $37,000, with $3,000 of which was used to pay Carradine.
Mikels wrote in the forward to Kevin J. Lindenmuth’s Making Movies On Your Own, “The first and most difficult [part of filmmaking] is raising the money. The second most difficult thing is getting the money back. The third thing, and the easiest, is the actual making of the film. (The first two prerequisites are so difficult, it makes the making of the film amazingly simple.)” Mikels had a pragmatic view of filmmaking, but while he was certainly interested in making money, he truly believed in the creative process. In the same forward, he mentions that “you may never experience getting back any dollars at all from your production, even though many other entities and businesses may make a lot of money from selling and marketing it. However, take hope. You can always entertain yourselves and close friends by showing your film in your own home late at night.”
With that mantra driving him, Mikels continued working in film into the ’70s, executive producing Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and writing, directing, producing, and editing 1973’s The Doll Squad (a.k.a. Seduce And Destroy). The film featured a team of hand-picked, buxom female operatives on a mission to stop a madman’s devious plot; its influence can be felt on Aaron Spelling’s Charlie’s Angels, as well as Quentin Tarantino’s fictional television pilot Fox Force Five (as mentioned in Pulp Fiction) and his Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Kill Bill. Mikels continued cranking out drive-in fare throughout the golden age of exploitation cinema. “It takes your guts and your entrails and your soul to make a film,” Mikels told Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films. “You have to be as obsessed as a religious fanatic.”
Mikels ‘80s output was few and far between, but the filmmaker reemerged in 1993 as the head of TVM Studios based in Las Vegas. From there, Mikels wrote and directed his only G-rated film, Heart Of A Boy, as well as two Astro-Zombies sequels and a second chapter to 1971’s The Corpse Grinders. The one film that Mikels was never able to get off the ground was his dream project: a film adaptation of Beowulf starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Mikels had a larger-than-life personality: Always seen with a big mustache and a gigantic tooth around his neck, the filmmaker lived in “The Castle,” a Las Vegas mansion decorated in the Norse tradition, with a cadre of women. That very same castle was featured in his 1972 film Blood Orgy Of The She-Devils. At the time of his death, Mikels was working on a sequel to his 1982 film, 10 Violent Women. “He lived a good life,” Mikel’s daughter Cherisse Gomez told The Las Vegas Journal-Review. “He always would tell people he was going to live to 104.”