Tuesday, 2 August 2016
REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (1936)
“You have an authority about you…like a man who had suddenly found himself”
Four years after the Halperin brothers made White Zombie, they made what was conceived as a sequel but no equal in 1936’s Revolt of the Zombies, whose title promises all the action and ghoulish thrills that the resulting film in no way lives up to. Virtually free of any horror or interest and a contrived transplanting of voodoo from the Haitian setting of its forerunner, what’s left is a turgid vehicle of excruciating doomed romance, dull dialogue and laughably poor production values, filmed in less than a month.
Like its predecessor, Revolt was directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother Edward. They collaborated on the workmanlike script with Rollo Lloyd (unfinished when the shoot was supposed to begin that January), so at least the blame for the dreadfully clichéd romantic scenes is shared further. The opening is at least an appetising premise: an on-screen Foreword conveying that the story is inspired by the ‘scret archives of the fighting nations’ during World War One. - if the unfolding film feels like a rushed Republic serial of forced sensationalism, here is where it begins with an underscore to the text that sounds very reminiscent of Flash Gordon.
We are plunged straight into war-time intrigue on the Franco-Austrian border in which the French colonial forces have caught a priest from whom they harness the occult forces of zombification to create a ‘robot army’ of the Cambodian undead to fight on the trenches. They are shown withstanding bullet hits impassively and marching over their enemies to winning effect. Soon however, the army begins to fear that such weaponisation of colonised slave labour could be used to overthrow the superior white race. With the typical military mind-set of ‘If we’re afraid to kill with it, then we’ll just kill it’, they decide to mount an expedition to Cambodia’s Angkor to find and destroy the supernatural knowledge to stop anyone else from using it. Meanwhile, the priest is murdered by the suave goatee-bearded General Mazovia - musical theatre singer Roy D’Arcy - an expert on dead languages. His character may be a rare case of a resumé bullet dodged by Bela Lugosi perhaps, although unbeknownst to Lugosi he does appear in the film (his disembodied hypnotic eyes from White Zombie are double-exposed on-screen at key moments, possibly without permission).
From here, the wheels come right off the transport as the rest of the movie eschews supernatural combat or indeed a rollicking explorer yarn in favour of the drearily played love triangle between explorers Armand Louque (Dean Jagger, slumming it before his later Academy Award winner in 1949 for Twelve O’Clock High), Robert Noland’s Clifford Grayson and Claire Duval (Dorothy Stone). Duval is the flirtatious and dangerous nexus between the two men, using Armand to make Clifford jealous by accepting his proposal of marriage, which allows Stone to display a steely edge underneath her feminine wiles like that of Mae Busch. Clifford is a selfish go-getter whose ruthlessness makes Armand reflect on whether he could ever be so uncaring in pursuit of his aims…
Revolt barely even pretends to be the exotic locations it represents. The Halperins sent a camera crew to Angkor to film background shots; the copious use of it in back -projection is not only evident in the explorers’ expository tent scene with Angkor Wat temple in the background, but even more risibly in the sequence where Armand and a native wade through water to the temple. This is laughably ‘achieved’ by pointless close-ups of both actors statically loping side-to-side in front of a backdrop of receding jungle river footage (in long-shot they are at least credibly moving along the sound-stage’s water set).
The cast plods further through the interminable foliage of thwarted love tripe while we long for a somnambulistic shuffle or two if not a full-blown zombie attack – instead of George Romero we get E.M. Forster. Armand gives up Claire on realising she loved Clifford all along. This scene is directed using all the horrendous clichés of old acting – the sing-song declamations of love that border more on operetta than spoken dialogue, the turning away of one’s face from the other because…the emotions are…unbearable (and they are for this audience member as well)
“I wish you all the happiness you deserve” Armand mutters darkly as she goes, which to be fair at least stirs up a little affecting moment from Jagger where in private he laugh-cries at what he is losing in love, the combination of tears and self-realisation showing a glimmer of the quality he had as an actor. This then becomes the spur for Armand to develop that missing backbone and go rogue. He finds the secret rituals to gain power over humans, beginning with his man-servant. Unfortunately, his employers don’t take kindly to unauthorised missions and fire him. No matter, for now he’s morphing from self-assertion to self-realising God complex, well on the way to becoming exactly the type of megalomaniac people-puppeteer the expedition was designed to prevent. Armand is forced into an uneasy alliance with General Mazovia, though it’s unclear why as Armand’s arcane knowledge of voodoo surely trumps Mazovia threats of personal sabotage.
It isn’t until the very end of the film that we are finally rewarded with a brief moment of action, and before that we must endure soap-opera dreariness surrounding Clifford’s wedding to Claire. Armand heeds the advice of his friend Max Macdonald (Carl Stockdale) in how he should bear this, whose gravity always acts as his conscience. In real life, busy film actor Stockdale was involved in a matter where a crisis of conscience was more rewardingly placed. He testified in the famously scandalous murder case of film director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 that he was with Charlotte Shelby the night that she is widely believed to have killed Taylor. Stockdale was a close friend of her daughter Mary Miles Minter (Taylor’s lover) and this may have prompted him to present a perjurative alibi in her favour.
Back to the plot and the far less intriguing on-screen shenanigans are compounded by more artery-clogging sugary sentiment as Armand and the frankly fickle Claire twitter like budgerigars about how he can win her love after all by renouncing his new-found powers. Leaving aside the matter of whether it’s worth giving up world dominating super-abilities for a woman who changes her choice of partner like bed-linen, there is no time for anything except relinquishing his hold on all the players – cringingly conveyed by a montage of actors blinking in sudden wakefulness. The natives revolting is more palatable than the revolting melodrama, and as they rise against the white explorers’ research station in an all-too-brief siege of excitement, Armand sacrifices himself to their guns, thus proving that a good actor in a bad movie never goes unpunished.
It only remains for Stockdale to concuss the movie in attempting to raise the bar by misquoting Prometheus from Longfellow’s 1875 poem The Masque of Pandora: “Whom the Gods (would) destroy, they first make mad”.
A group who were made mad by Revolt of the Zombies (other than any ticket-buyers) was Amusement Securities Corporation, co-financier of the earlier White Zombie. Their amusement was unsecured by the mention of the word ‘zombie’ in the name, which their contract allegedly gave them sole rights to for film titles. Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead refers to a redistribution contract the company took out which meant that this unlawful awful offspring arguably represented unfair competition. They filed suit against the Halperins before its release and eventually won the case, being awarded $11,500 and the brothers’ enforced removal of pollutant claims that Revolt was a sequel to White Zombie.