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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945)

Having allowed producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur to craft an unexpectedly original horror tapestry with 1943’s I Walked with A Zombie, RKO promptly trampled upon it with the muddy paws of crude comedy. It must have been hugely dispiriting for these creative talents to see their studio disrespect the property (over which they had no control) by making a dumb unofficial sequel with no regard for quality or continuity. In fact the only shared elements connecting that film to Zombies on Broadway (1945) were the fictional location and two of its cast in similar roles, neither of which were handled as effectively as by Tourneur and Lewton. The addition of Bela Lugosi does no favours for him either.

Former Laurel and Hardy feature director Gordon Douglas, whom we last saw helming the weak Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944), was put in charge of this silly quickie. The script was adapted by Lawrence Kimble and Robert E. Kent from a short story by Robert Faber and Charles Newman - beggaring belief that a total of four men worked on this.

The excuse for voodoo ado here is the attempts by two knucklehead press agents to come up with a real life zombie to promote the opening of the Zombie Hut nightclub owned by New York ‘ex’-gangster Ace Miller. Jerry Miles and Mike Strager are played by Wally Brown and Allan Carney, a sub-Abbott and Costello pairing who certainly have energy to burn but also witless dialogue deserving of the same fate. The collection of grey-fedora’d Central Casting wise-guys leaning on them, led by Sheldon Leonard as Ace, leaves them in no doubt as to the cement overshoe fitting awaiting them if they fail.

A quick fact-finding mission to the museum hooks up these dumb-bells with balding curator Professor Hopkins (Ian Wolfe whom we recently saw in 1944’s Murder in the Blue Room). He recommends they travel to the Virgin Island of San Sebastien to meet with rumoured zombie experimentalist Professor Paul Renault though with a caveat about his sanity: “I don’t think he was crazy – not very crazy anyway”. Take a wild guess as to who this will be.

Once on the island Jerry and Mike are immediately greeted by the first inferior echo of I Walked with A Zombie with the melodious calypso voice of Sir Lancelot. His lyrics perform the same Cassandra warning as in the previous film - that if this dim-bulb duo are not careful: “The chance to leave may come too late / And blood on de ground will mark their fate”. Not the best tourist greeting to be sure and the only glimpse we have of this dignified gentleman.

As so often happens with Lugosi parts, we meet the Hungarian fallen star up to his neck in lab paraphernalia at his castle ranting about his stymied world domination: “How can the natives do vith their silly voodoo vot I cannot accomplish by scientific means?” he bleats. His victims inconveniently keep returning to post-zombification life and then a second death before he can get any megalomaniac missionary work done. Lugosi is once more confined in the movie to channelling his standard medical white-coated whack-job, albeit accessorising a western tie to resemble a clinical Colonel Sanders.

Renault’s need for secret recipe ingredients prompts the appearance of our other Lewton alumni Darby Jones whose presence was so indelible as the eerily impassive zombie Carre-Four striding through the cornfields. This time around, his entrance as Renault’s entranced slave Kalaga is calibrated for credibility subtraction by protruding from an unconvincing brick wall in a motor-assisted sliding coffin. As with all the zombified actors in Broadway, I would guess Jones’ glassy staring eyes were something like super-imposed half ping-pong ball prosthetics over his closed eyelids. However the effect is achieved it does give off a genuinely unsettling expression amongst the cast members who undergo transformation. What helps less is an odd stiffness to his physicality when walking in this film which looks artificial and unthreatening rather than disturbing.

RKO’s security in the field of musical comedy peeps out intermittently through the film. Not only do we get a couple of song and dance numbers shoehorned into the New York club scenes but there is an excuse for one to introduce the female lead, the personable Anne Jeffreys as Jean La Danse. Jeffreys was a skilled singer-dancer who never made it to A-features yet is known for playing love interest Tess Trueheart in the Dick Tracy films, one of which, Dick Tracy Vs Cueball, we will discuss here when we come to 1947. Jean is a lively and spunky heroine, not least due to her unerring accuracy with the knife-throwing built into her act. Her character offers to help the metropolitan goons find their man in return for safe passage off the island.

Amidst the falling masonry of bad lines there are some frankly bizarre comedy misfires such as in Jerry and Mike’s meeting with Renault. He is singularly unimpressed by their name-dropping of Professor Hopkins – “I hate him!” – and his dismissal of his man-servant Joseph’s cover story (Joseph Vitale) is a gag that goes off like a bad egg. Claiming his research is to cure coconut blight:

“He said it was a banana blight”.
“Oh Joseph is colour-blind”.

Mike narrowly manages to beat the audience into glassy-eyed stupefaction after he is kidnapped by Kalaga and rendered into zombiedom by Renault. His unblinking, frog-like stare genuinely does unnerve when combined with a fixed grin.

Lugosi must have felt a rictus grin of his own forming with what is expected of him in this farrago. At one low point he is forced to engage in a homicidal hide-and-seek with a dagger in and out of his cabinet drawers in pursuit of a cheeky macaque monkey. He does what he can to at least give value for money savouring the more ghoulish absurdities; his explanation of Mike’s suspended animation state is a big slice of ham with relish: “To put it more simply – he is a SAARMBIE!”

By the climax, Renault is clubbed to death by Kalaga, freeing our zeroes to make it back to New York and try to pass off Mike as the zombie publicity stunt on opening night. Inevitably he suffers the same reversion to normal as all the other victims, but Jean had the presence of mind to steal a syringe of Renault’s serum. They finish up solving the threat of Ace’s mob repercussions through the comeuppance of turning him into his own zombie act – and not before time. 

Needless to say, Zombies on Broadway is seriously bad ju-ju.

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