Whenever you think of zombies you're probably thinking of the George Romero kind, that devour the living and spread their virus far and wide. It wasn't always like that. Before Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies were more of the Voodoo variety, focusing on people resurrected from the dead as slaves for nefarious human masterminds. Tonight I'll be looking at four such films...
Neil Parker and his fiancee Madeleine Short have just arrived in Haiti for their wedding, to be held at the estate of Charles Beaumont, a plantation owner. Beaumont is in love with Madeleine too, and conspires with the feared Voodoo master Murder Legendre to make her fall in love with him. They accomplish this by drugging her with a poison designed to cause death-like symptoms, and Madeleine is later dug up, and made into a mindless zombie. Wanting her for himself, Legendre turns on Beaumont, and it's up to Neil and a friendly local missionary to save his paramour and stop the diabolical madman before its too late...
White Zombie is a mixed bag of a movie. Some elements are considered classic, and it's possibly the first zombie movie ever, but some issues drag it down a bit, which I'll get into later.
Some sequences are brilliant! There are quite a few almost dreamlike scenes with little to no dialogue that rely entirely on interesting visuals, such as the one of Neil in the bar, despondent on 'losing' Madeleine, and reacting to shadows. The use of sound is likewise great, such as the uneasy repetition in the zombie slave mill. The direction overall is interesting, with many very well shot and realized moments!
I also really dug that the movie was about real zombies, instead of being fanciful. Not that I would've minded more magic-based zombies, and Bela's hypnotic skills do veer a little into fantasy territory, but for the most part it's about the real life practice of drugging people into a deathlike state, letting them be buried, then digging them back up again to be a mindless doped up slave.
My biggest problem with White Zombie is that the plot feels a little underwritten, and not quite enough happened to my liking. Also annoying is the short length, which adds to the previous negative.
Another big issue with White Zombie is that the acting...uh...leaves a little to be desired. Bela Lugosi is fine, but the script somewhat lets him down, and he doesn't get a great deal to do other than stare. Boy is he great at evilly glaring though! The heavy eyebrows and devilish goatee all help make him look super evil. The rest of the performers range from ok to not so great. Never terrible, though, except for the old tribal man who may or may not have been a white dude in blackface!
The dialogue isn't that great. There's some good stuff here and there, but most of it's pretty standard and unremarkable. A couple of lines stood out, and not for the right reasons! The first was Neil's line of "Surely you don't think she's alive? In the hands of natives?! Oh no, better dead that that!". Dude, not cool! The second, markedly more amusing, was in the same scene, when Neil finds out all about zombies, and that his wife may not be dead after all. His response is a simple "Boom!".
The score is quite good. It's suitably ooky in some parts, but a little too jaunty in others.
White Zombie isn't a perfect film, but there is a reason its reputation has endured for over 80 years, and it's not exclusively because Bela Lugosi stars (though that helps).
Revolt of the Zombies
During World War 1, soldier Armand Louque has met the Cambodian priest Tsiang, and learnt about the secret to creating an unbeatable zombie army. After Tsiang is murdered, an expedition is mounted to the ancient region of Angkor to find the lost knowledge of zombies...
Revolt of the Zombies is actually quite an interesting movie, but sadly one that's very nearly sunk by its tedious and confusing first half. It seems to start off midway through the story, and the plot we see makes no sense. One minutes the top brass want to destroy the 'recipe' for zombies, and the next they want to keep it for themselves to win the war, then in the same sentence they'll say how they want to destroy it. Their opinion on whether Tsiang the priest is an ally or an enemy also changes often, depending on the scene. Then characters who've only just met are having an engagement party in the very next scene, all while Armand and his friend are damn near impossible to tell apart! For this first stretch, the film is more concerned with soap opera love triangle antics than telling a spooky story involving zombies!
Now we come to the interesting part. The lead Armand is really the villain! Hypothetically you grow attached to the protagonist, liking him, and only once this has happened does the turning point occur, and you realize he was never the hero. It would be a brilliant twist if not for the bad taste in my mouth from what came before, but it still does work to an extent. The first half hypothetically spends its time developing the characters and their relationships, then you're hit with the revelation once the second half begins, and the film takes a turn for the spooky. The problem is that not only is the first half of the film hard to follow, but the characters are all unpleasant jerks, and you don't know at this point that that's intentional. It comes across as simple bad writing. Secondly, the apparent main villain (who looks like Snidely Whiplash) appears so little you almost forget he exists, so that misdirect doesn't work as well as it should. It's also not the sign of a good horror when pretty much the entire first half of it doesn't have a single scare.
The title is disappointing for a few reasons. The zombies do in fact revolt, but it's only in the climax. This means that for almost the whole movie you're annoyed the zombies aren't revolting, and once you've finished, you're pissed that the title spoiled the ending! Secondly, where are the zombies?! They're right in the title, but aside from one brief scene, they don't appear until over half an hour in, and do very little but stand around until the end. The ending also comes across more as 'Revolt of the Humans', but that's not a problem with the movie, necessarily, as zombie meant something different back then. But then again, none of these people are even so much as undead, so...
Speaking of a different time, the word 'robot' is used to describe mind-controlled zombies. People in the 1940s were weird! At least they don't pronounce it 'ro-but' here.
This is labelled a semi-sequel to White Zombie, but it isn't really. They're both made by Victor Halperin, and are about zombies, but they're completely different in every single way, even down to the cultures springing up the undead. The only carryover is something I'll get into below.
For a film set primarily in Cambodia, you maybe wondering how Revolt of the Zombies does on the race front. Eh, not too terribly well, I'm afraid. Tsiang the priest seems to be getting a pretty big role, but unfortunately he's killed only 8 minutes in, and the only other Asian characters we see are servants. Also, one particular scene gives off the impression that the expedition is so racist
they have to bring their own white exotic dancers with them to Cambodia! The main servant character we see does become awesomely independent in the conclusion though, which is a small plus.
The effects here are ok. One improvement Revolt of the Zombies has over every other movie in this post is that when the zombies are shot, the bullets actually make marks! In all the others, characters shoot, but just because the zombies can't die, I guess they've also got metal skin, and remain completely unmarked. The film is lazy in one respect though-Its re-use of Bela Lugosi's hypnovision eyes from White Zombie whenever characters are hypnotized.
The Cambodian scenery on display also looks pretty gorgeous, though it sometimes gets a bit obvious that rather than film the movie itself over there, the directors just went ahead on their own, shot some footage of the country, then went back and had it rear projected in front of the actors. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the hilarious wading scene! Besides that though, it never looks too bad.
The acting is all pretty ok. Not that great, but not terrible either. The leads are all pretty dull. Roy D'Arcy is pretty fun as the over-the-top misdirect villain, and I wish he was actually the main antagonist, as he's having a ball (and the villain we do get has the indignity to refer to Robert Burns as Bobby Burns! That's just wrong!). Also, he looks Asian, but apparently isn't? I don't mean to say he's a white actor in yellowface. I mean he actually looked somewhat Asian at first. Meanwhile, the very English-y named William Crowell actually is Asian! As is Teru Shimada, who plays the main servant character. He's entirely wasted until the climax, where he finally gets to actually do something.
I may have used the word 'jaunty' in this post too early, because it's much more suited to the opening theme for this movie than White Zombie's score! The remainder of the soundtrack is ok, but unmemorable.
Revolt of the Zombies is an almost neat film, but it's sadly a failure in many respects, and not really worth watching. You'd do much better to stick with White Zombie. I do dig that poster though! It's WAY better than the film deserves...
King of the Zombies
'Mac' McCarthy, Bill Summers, and the manservant Jeff are flying to the Bahamas when their plane experiences difficulties, and they're forced to crash land on an island below, where they were able to pick up radio signals from. Despite a bumpy landing, the trio survive with only a few scrapes and bruises, and are met by the sinister Dr. Miklos Sangre at his foreboding mansion. While Mac and Bill are at first only slightly suspicious of their seemingly-accommodating host, Jeff picks up on what's really going right away, as the servants of the house tell him of the zombies that prowl the island...
King of the Zombies is a decent film and it tells a fine story, but there are certain aspects that go too unexplored for my liking, such as Mrs. Sangre's condition and her apparent motivations coupled with how she can act on them despite her condition. Then there's the villain himself, whose personal motivations are pretty unclear. I mean, we know that he's a nazi agent (though they never actually say that) wanting information from a kidnapped U.S. admiral's head, but he doesn't really have a reason for doing this besides being generally evil. I also feel not enough is done with the zombies or the Voodoo until the relatively brief climax, and by that point it almost feels a bit too little too late.
Another problem is that it feels like there are scenes missing. There's one character I suspect only survived due to a last minute
rewrite, as they're never seen again after an apparent death, and the
denouement feels empty without them if they did survive. I'm tempted to say this is a film that could've benefited from being longer than just 67 minutes long, but actually if some prior scenes had been cut and replaced with something better, the runtime might've been fine as it is. As for the mixing of the horror/comedy and spy genres, that's done marginally well, albeit hampered by the previously listed faults.
The characters are mostly a bit bland, but a few are more memorable. The villain is a neat one, even if he isn't played by Bela Lugosi or Peter Lorre, as originally planned. Also, as if you couldn't guess he's the villain from the get-go by his general ooky demeanour, there's when he pours out "some of the finest brandy in Europe", but only in three glasses, with Jeff getting a handful of nothing when he goes to grab one. Racist prick!
The direction by Jean Yarbrough (who I'm constantly disappointed isn't a woman) is good, and he frames spooky scenes really well, making great use of shadows too! One of the best is the part with the candles at midnight! The production looks great for a low budget picture, though we never really get a feel for the island as a location, presumably because the sound stage posing as one only had so much (read: so little) space.
Popular African-American actor Mantan Moreland absolutely makes this film! He is indeed the main character, which is a relief, and he's as funny as usual, singlehandedly pulling the movie from 'somewhat bearable but mediocre' to 'quite watchable'! He gets plenty of funny dialogue, like when he mistakes the distant beating of Voodoo drums
for his heartbeat, "Quiet, will ya? What you tryin' to do, wake up the dead?", or "Whew, if it was in me, I sure would be pale
now!", On zombies, "That's what they is. Dead folks who was too lazy to
lay down.", "I never dreamt a dream like that in my wildest
nightmares!", and the hilarious closing lines!
There was a stereotypical archetype in some spooky films of this time which tended to portray black characters as exclusively perpetually frightened wimps. This is usually groanworthy, but it works here and doesn't come across as racist or problematic, for a few reasons. There's a wide variety of black characters in the film, from the sassy maid Samantha, to the nefarious butler who seemingly holds more power than first apparent, and a Voodoo high priestess. Because of this, Jeff being scared at spooky stuff doesn't come off as a stereotype, but rather a character trait exclusive to him. One good example is when he sees zombies for the first time. He runs away like a scaredy cat, but Samantha who casually told him of the zombies and called them in is as cool as a cucumber. Also, despite being scared (and he frankly has good reason to be!), Jeff is also a quick-witted and proactive character.
The rest of the acting is all fine. The two other leads fare decently, while Joan Woodbury is ok, but the movie doesn't give her much to do, and it almost feels like her character and her quest to discover what's happening to her mother was meant for a different script entirely. Henry Victor is quite good as the antagonist, however he too is let down by the script. Margeurite Whitten is great fun as Samantha, working well with Moreland, and Madame Sul-Te-Wan is a delightful presence, though also not used a whole lot.
What I'd like to see is a remake of King of the Zombies, about a very urban American black lead who doesn't know head nor tail of African/Caribbean cultures falling into a Voodoo-infused adventure in the West Indies/around that region. It might be an interesting idea, and a potentially neat way of remaking this!
While it may have its flaws, King of the Zombies is definitely a fun time, and I recommend it! It's probably one of the best early zombie films out there, even if there is room for improvement...
Revenge of the Zombies
Scott Warrington and his friend Larry Adams, along with the servant Jeff, and the local doctor, head to the estate of Dr. Max von Alterman. Scott's sister Lila (also von Alterman's wife) has just died under mysterious circumstances, and Scott and co. suspect foul play. Jeff is the first to pick up on the freaky nature of the estate, while the others learn soon enough of the true horrors afoot, and the reason why Lila's body keeps disappearing...
While I've heard it labelled as a sequel, Revenge of the Zombies is more a remake of King of the Zombies if anything, but thankfully it's a good kind of remake. It takes the base story, but changes up the setting and characters, enough so that it's different, but not so much that it's unrecognizable from the source material. Howfuckingever, I do NOT appreciate a remake, even a well-handled one, coming out a mere two years after the original film!
The two leads here have more interesting motivations than the previous film's duo, but there's one thing that the heroes of King didn't share-They're dicks! I was hardly endeared to them thanks to their treatment of Jeff, which is in complete contrast with King. In that movie he may have still been a servant, but you get the impression that Jeff and the other guys are friends, and he's not just subservient help to them. In Revenge, however, the leads are all too happy to unconsciously belittle him, and all-round ignore his very existence.They barely interact with Jeff, and noticeably never invite him in when they visit people, instead just leaving him outside like a dog, and he's immediately put to work in the kitchens of the von Alterman estate once they reach it. Just goes to show how tolerant and accepting King of the Zombies was, because in Revenge, Mantan Moreland is stuck in a stereotypical role, getting almost nothing to do but holler and be scared. Depressing that this came out later, not before! Thankfully Jeff is able to briefly shine come the end, Shining style.
More problems with the 'heroes' are that they're terrible investigators, as they spend nearly the whole movie unaware of the truth of what's going on at the estate, which is especially stupid considering it's positively crawling with the undead! Discounting that for a second, they're rubbish investigators when it comes to their much simpler suspicions about von Alterman, making very progress over the course of the film.
The villain is quite good, while the supporting cast range from decent to meh. The love interest is pretty dim and barely contributes. There's barely even a romance, yet she and Larry still become an item come the end of the film.
The dialogue is mostly tolerable, but there are a couple of funny lines from Mantan Moreland. "I don't know where you at but 30 seconds from now I'm going to be 11 miles from here!", "Well my head keeps telling my feet there ain't no zombies, but my feet ain't convinced.". I also liked the amusingly Southern dialect, with lines like "Sho'nuff", and "Ah 'sspect". One line REALLY rubbed me the wrong way though. After being rescued from a fix by Jeff, Larry responds by either saying "Thanks boy, you're here in the nick of time", or "Thanks! Boy, you're here in the nick of time".
If he said the latter, the actor is just guilty of very poor enunciation. If
the former though, the movie and I need to have some words!
Revenge of the Zombies starts off somewhat intriguing, but devolves once it turns out the villain's mysterious motivation is a much simpler 'workin' for the stinkin' nazzies variety'. Thankfully the concept of a mad nazi scientist making an army of zombies to conquer the world is still an awesome one, if a little too high-concept than the low budget (or indeed the writer's imagination) can show.
The plot itself is actually good, but it's the script that lets it down. This is a film that could really do with a remake. Problems aside though, the climax is great! Horror perfection. The ending is also pretty funny, with a sweet denouement for Jeff and Rosella the maid.
Unlike the 'prequel', this isn't a comedy at all. It's straight horror with no laughs outside of the occasional amusing line from Moreland. There is one scene with a hilariously unsubtle disguise an enemy agent uses to masquerade as an American sheriff, complete with a cowboy hat and ridiculously huge cigar! Trouble is, I don't think it was meant to be funny!
The acting here is all ok. Robert Lowery and Mauritz Hugo are pretty milquetoast. Mantan Moreland is good as usual but not particularly prominent. Now, believe it or not, John Carradine was actually young at one point, and this fact has indeed been caught on film multiple times. He has fun playing the typical mad scientist. Gale Storm is ok as the secretary and sorta-not-really love interest, but nothing special. Veda Ann Borg is decent but her delivery is a tad monotone. I'm not sure if that was unintentional, or if she was deliberately talking like that given her zombie status. It's likely to be the latter, so I'll give her a pass. Playing the head servant/head zombie Lazarus is James Baskett, who I quickly noticed has a very distinctive voice, thinking 'This guy sounds like a regular Geoffrey Holder', so I decided to look him up, and as it turns out, he's Uncle Remus from Song of the South!
African American actress Sybil Lewis is in much the same role Marguerite Whitten had in King of the Zombies, but sadly she's not used nearly as much as Whitten was there. Madame Sul-Te-Wan (the only other returning cast member next to Mantan Moreland) was likewise underused at first, but gets a really good scene near the end.
Revenge of the Zombies is certainly watchable. Not great, not as good as King, and perhaps even guiltier of wasting a good premise than said predecessor, but in any case it's not awful. Really its biggest sin besides the wasted potential is the criminal underuse of Mantan Moreland!...
Those who prefer modern day zombies of the flesh eating variety may be disappointed by the stark difference and relative bloodlessness of these old Voodoo ones, but then again, the opposite might be true. Any zombie fan who's gotten a bit tired of the modern stuff might relish something as far out different in the genre as these flicks. For those people I definitely recommend White Zombie and King of the Zombies, but Revolt and Revenge are both skippable.
Speaking of my selection, funnily enough two of them are technically sequels, but barely, only holding on by the tiniest of threads. So really I've been looking at four random zombie movies of the period, which is good, as that allows for looking at a wider variety of films from the era rather than if they were all part of the same series. All in all, this is an interesting sub-genre for sure, but not one used to its full potential in these particular films, some less so than others...