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Thursday, 20 April 2017

REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES (1943)

Despite Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur briefly elevating the Haitian witchcraft-inspired living dead in RKO’s hauntingly poetic I Walked with a Zombie, later that same year the promising shoots were tramped back into mud again by the only studio still making laughably ultra-cheap zombie movies. For sheer cost-effective hackery, it was left to Monogram to go do that voodoo that they did so badly.

Revenge of the Zombies (1943) was a dreary sequel to their 1941 shambolic shambler King of the Zombies (reviewed on 5/12/2016) bringing back Manton Moreland as scaredy-cat valet Jeff, as if he hadn’t enough punishment, and Madame Sul-Te-Wan, High Priestess Tahama in the previous film and now a variation of the same as housekeeper occultist Mammy Beulah. The title promises grisly vengeance thrills, but of course from Poverty Row we are prepared for disappointment on all levels. The plot is really a half-baked roadkill of horror movie and tepid Nazi skulduggery co-written by Van Norcross and Edmund Kelso, the latter of whom was the sole culprit behind King of the Zombies. The director was the trilingual Steve Sekely who directed films in his native Hungarian, English and German. Many years later he would redeem himself helming 1963’s cult hit Day of the Triffids.

Originally, Bela Lugosi was to have been the lead in Revenge. One of his perennial stage rehashes of Dracula enabled him to dodge this bullet, if not saving him from the other wretched Monogram films he would inhabit. In the meantime, the one plus point of this turgid Z-movie is the opportunity to see another early lead role for John Carradine in his first Monogram role, supplying cadaverous medical megalomania as Dr Von Altermann, a German scientist seeking to provide the Fatherland with a new master race of weaponised zombie soldiers. You should see the material he has to work with, both on the page and the slab. No wonder the Third Reich lost the war.  His henchman Lazarus is a pidgin-speaking zombie with upstanding Don King hair played by James Baskett - who thankfully rose from this graveyard to become the first black male actor to win an Academy Award for his Uncle Remus in Disney’s controversial Song of the South (1946). The ragbag nascent army Von Altermann has created thus far consist of three men: one tubby, one skeletal and a balding pensioner in a makeshift loin-cloth, all of whom goose-step rather than shuffle in undead servitude. Nitzschean supermen they are not.

Von Altermann’s zero-budget experimenting has not gone completely unnoticed. His most prized subject is his dead wife Lila (Veda Ann Borg) whose suspicious death by poisoning is being investigated by her brother Scott Warrington (Mauritz Hugo) and his friend, detective Larry Miller. Actor Robert Lowery would parlay such hero roles as Miller into his time as the second screen incarnation of the Dark Knight in Columbia’s 1949 Batman and Robin serial, under former Monogram producer Sam Katzman. The two pals team up with Dr Keating, a sometimes uncertain-looking Barry Macollum (who otherwise displayed more confidence in a Broadway career spanning 1915-1968).

Moreland meanwhile gets to interact for comic relief with Lazarus, who frightens him with a deadpan admiration of his boss’s vehicle: “I drove car like this for master…when I was alive”. Jeff also takes an immediate shine to Sybil Lewis’s sassy Rosella who warns him that there are “Things walkin’ that ain’t got no business walkin’”.

The crackpot main plot sees Scott and Larry initially try a pointless masquerade passing themselves off as each other during their sleuthing visit to Dr Von Altermann’s house. Whilst this serves no practical purpose, it does afford them an eyewitness view of Lila having been reactivated from her chapel of rest by Lazarus as a zombie. Carradine uses the soothing gravitas of a funeral director when claiming disbelief at this account. On the sly, he is negotiating with a Nazi agent (Bob Steele) to earn his ticket back home with his invincible army of half-naked extras. Steele then fakes being a police Sheriff to fool the heroes into thinking their man has now been apprehended. If you think he looks more like a cowboy in his wide-brimmed hat disguise, this is explained partly by the fact that Steele’s movie career was almost entirely made up of western roles for B-movies and then on TV. Moreover, unbeknownst to the mad doctor, his character is really a U.S. agent pretending to be a Nazi pretending to be a sheriff.

While we give up trying to find any credibility in this story, Von Altermann realises that he still has work to do in removing any reason and resistance in his subjects. Lila, for example, shows intermittent signs of objecting to his devilish orders, most notably by disappearing from the compound. Jeff finds a murdered body in the forest, which then appears in the trunk of a car and then is driven away just as his friends arrive to check it out.

Scott gets in on the subterfuge again when he uncovers the scientist’s radio set used for contacting the Third Reich and poses as the agent over the airwaves making contact with them. Unfortunately Von Altermann apprehends him and has his zombie slaves tie him up and chuck him into a closet. Outside, Mammy Beulah summons Lila to come to Larry (by an irritatingly lame ‘ah-ooo’ wolf cry used throughout the film). Entranced waters seemingly run deep as the semi-zombified lady has a secret plot hidden away in her somnambulist state to destroy Von Altermann. “Only his death can release the zombies”.

Lila asks Larry to protect Scott till her plan comes to fruition at midnight. He aims to do this through a full-dress dinner that the doctor has perplexingly invited them both to attend. Wasn’t the snooping Scott a bound hostage of his a few minutes ago? One has to admire his all-inclusive hospitality. Larry and Von Altermann exchange veiled barbs of loaded one-upmanship until Larry and Scott are both drugged by the dastardly doctor. Note the cliched, almost parodic later-that-evening segue during the meal: a musical harp cue is heard as the camera closes in then pulls out from the flowers on the table.

On the subject of verging on parody, spare a thought for Von Altermann’s blackmailed secretary Jennifer Rand, played by the unbelievably named Gale Storm. Better suited to a porn star or a spoof super-hero, it was RKO who lumbered Texan Josephine Cottle with this stage name while they had her under a brief contract. These were the same marketing geniuses who hampered Val Lewton with such albatross production titles as Cat People and The Leopard Man. She had the last laugh though, achieving the rare legacy of three Hollywood Walk of Fame stars for a career of radio, recording and TV work.


One final ruse is pulled whereby Larry is revealed to be awake, the Sheriff exposes his real identity and with the aid of Jeff’s impressive axe-work on the laboratory door, the heroes burst in on Von Altermann before he can operate on the slumbering Scott. This is where Lila finally actions the title’s vendetta by co-opting the growing platoon of zombies against Von Altermann that he was building for Hitler’s use - though it’s hard to see how the Fuhrer would have benefitted from a lacklustre conga line of refugees from a middle-aged toga party. The doctor backs out into the forest where Lila sacrifices herself to submerge them both in fatal swamp ooze. If only the Axis powers had been that ineffectual in reality…

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