Born Theodore Vincent Mikacevich in 1929, colorful Oregon native Ted V. Mikels, with his distinctive handlebar mustache and famed for his unorthodox lifestyle, is one of the most eccentric and endearing figures in the cult horror pantheon. Beginning his entertainment career at age 15 as a stage magician and ventriloquist, the young Mikels moved to California in the 1950s, where he learned every aspect of the film business by working as a stunt man, editor, sound technician, cinematographer, and even music composer on films directed by figures such as Andre de Toth and Andrew V. McLaglen. In 1963, he directed his first feature, Strike Me Deadly. The film was made in Oregon to keep the budget reasonable, yet Mikels was forced to repeatedly mortgage his home to complete it. Although it played in theaters for years, he never saw a penny, teaching him a bitter lesson about the necessity for securing distribution rights as an independent producer.
Undaunted, the enterprising director explored various exploitation genres in films such as The Black Klansman, Agent for H.A.R.M., and The Girl in Gold Boots throughout the decade, earning enough money to continue from his work in television, documentaries, industrial films, and commercials. It was during this time that Mikels purchased an old castle in Las Vegas, where he lived with as many as seven different women at a time. One of the "castle women" was Tura Satana, who had acted in Russ Meyer's cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966). She appeared in Mikels' first horror film, a disjointed affair called The Astro-Zombies, which also featured a bewildered John Carradine, woefully inept monsters, and MASH star Wayne Rogers as a co-producer. It quickly became one of the most beloved titles in the burgeoning cult for low-budget, laughably bad horror films.
Mikels cemented his reputation among such other dubious trash luminaries as Andy Milligan, Ray Dennis Steckler, and Al Adamson with his best-known film, 1972's The Corpse Grinders. Made on a shoestring budget, this jaw-dropping spectacle told the tale of grave robbers selling human meat as cat food after feeding them through a "diabolical machine" resembling a cardboard box dispensing hamburger meat. In the film, cats develop a taste for human flesh after eating the food, resulting in several ludicrously staged feline attacks. The film's originality, risible production values, and unbelievably bad effects made it an instant trash classic, making it a grind-house staple for over a decade.
After his next horror film, a tame, PG-rated occult effort with the wonderfully exploitative title Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (shot in his famous castle), Mikels' productivity fell and he turned to action films and television work again. For the next three decades, Mikels continued to work steadily, however, occasionally directing such moderately successful efforts as The Doll Squad and Ten Violent Women, but never again commanding the sort of attention he received in the late '60s and early '70s. Even Mikels' late-'90s sequel to The Corpse Grinders was generally ignored, but his early films continue to play at festivals and, despite their dubious quality, are testament to the sort of twisted ingenuity necessary to sustain an independent film career spanning half a century. Mikels has been profiled in a British television documentary, runs his own website, and has distributed cult films by other directors (The Undertaker and His Pals, The Worm Eaters, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things) through his Geneni distribution company. In 2001, Mikels was busy filming Mark of the Astro-Zombies, again with Tura Satana.