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Classic Film Review: 'Revenge of the Zombies' (Part One)

By Edited May 29, 2016 1 0

Zombies have come a long way. Once the poor man’s monster, Hollywood can’t get enough of the undead, who can command top fees, their own trailers, riders for bowls of M&Ms with all the red ones taken out, and a percentage of the merchandising rights. Your modern zombie spends hours in the make-up chair, until its flesh is just the right shade of putrid, their eyes hanging out of their sockets just so, and if their arm falls off, then a personal assistant can pop it back in without being told to do so. All this is a million miles away from the downtrodden walking corpses of Revenge of the Zombies (1943), enslaved to the bidding of a mad Nazi scientist in the middle of a swamp, with no make-up and without even a fresh brain or two to snack upon. World War Z (2013) saw us fight the resurgent zombies; Revenge of the Zombies sees them as pawns of the Third Reich.

pensive zombie
Yes, we’re in the era when pretty much every genre film, no matter where or when the setting, became part of the war effort. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, uprooted from late Victorian England, fought the Nazi menace, and various cowboy heroes drew their six-shooters against Hitler from beyond the reconstruction era, so no surprise zombies did their bit as well. No expense is wasted on the zombies here; these are economy brand cadavers that might as well have ‘zombie’ and a bar code stamped across their bare chests. Shirtless, wide-eyed and plodding, anyone wishing to get their cadaverous kicks from this low-budget Monogram effort are in for a disappointment, which is not to say there isn’t fun had along the way.

We begin with a thunderstorm at night, obviously. A man carrying a lantern plods from a bayou mansion to a cemetery where he howls as if imitating a cat yet worried someone might overhear. This, we later learn, is the aptly named Lazarus, played by James Baskett three years before starring as Uncle Remus in Disney’s evergreen racial controversy Song of the South (1946). This sure isn’t ‘Zip-Ah-De-Do-Dah’ Lazarus is singing, as his song of the swamp has an eerie effect of the cemetery’s inhabitants. A tomb door opens, and in a nicely directed scene, tilted and cobwebbed, a tall and worryingly skinny man (no, not John Carradine, he turns up later), emerges from his coffin. Our re-animated friend walks lock-kneed in step with his fellows as if children playing at soldiers. The zombies march clumsily in line to some comedy music lifted from a Tom & Jerry cartoon; Lazarus tells them to set about their work, although one zombie called Pete gets the plum job of keeping an eye on Dr Kearing’s house, where the next scene takes place.

The aforementioned doctor and his visitors Warrenton (Mauritz Hugo) and Adams (Robert Lowery) are discussing Lila von Aldermann, who has died in circumstances “too suspicious to be ignored.” Warrenton, Lila’s brother, has hired Adams, a private detective, to help investigate the death. Lila’s husband is also a doctor, and Kearing believes the death certificate issued by Dr von Aldermann, showing the cause of death as a heart attack, is a fabrication. It can’t be easy having two doctors practicing in the same corner of swamp country, so I’m guessing Dr Kearing is upset that his rival got a death all to himself to deal with, even if it was his wife.

Back at the mansion, some zombies with expressions like those guys who ask for spare change in the park, are busy homemaking, i.e. they’re making a coffin and look jolly pleased with their labors. Dr Von Alderrman is more pleased with the dramatic close-up and swelling sinister music he receives for his first appearance, and doesn’t intend sharing it, so dismisses the zombies and sets to experimenting on his late wife, readying the usual array of scientific instruments no doctor has actually used since the days of the amateur physician.

Adams and Warrenton decide to swop identities for their visit to Dr von Alderrman, a move which serves little purpose other than to confuse know-it-all internet reviewers watching this film in the far-flung future who can’t tell Robert Lowery and Mauritz Hugo from his next-door neighbors (for those of you playing along at home, Warrenton has a mustache, and pretends he is Adams for a while).

Outside, Jeff the chauffeur (Manton Moreland, one of the best known black film actors of the

Manton Moreland
time) is practicing his soft shoe shuffle while Pete the Zombie looks on from the bushes in admiration. Jeff notices his audience and when Adams and Warrenton return, regales the two men with a story of a monster with “tails, fire and horns,” which is wishful thinking on all our parts. Jeff has experience of the living dead, as the only survivor from this film’s prequel, King of the Zombies (1941), although the two films have little otherwise in common.

Cars knew how to make an entrance back in Hollywood’s golden age, and the vehicle Jeff drives is a treat to behold as it enters stage right. Sadly, we follow Adams and Warrenton (or is it Warrenton and Adams?) into the von Alderrman residence, where they meet secretary Jennifer Rand (Gale Storm) and the formidably ethnic housekeeper Beulah (Madame Sul-te-Wan, the first black female actor to win a contract at a Hollywood studio). Despite the recent death, no-one appears especially upset at Lila’s passing, although Beulah does think to check whether Lila is still in her coffin the chapel of rest, just off the dining room.

Warrenton (actually Adams, I think) chats to Miss Rand and the happy ending pretty much writes itself from this moment on. Rand admits to incompetency at her job, but don’t worry your pretty head about it, you and Adams will marry ten minutes after the film ends, and you can give up your silly job and have kids just as Uncle Sam expects.     

Dr von Alderrman sweeps into the room on the crest of the score. “The storm must have made the room impassable,” he comments, despite their presence clearly proving otherwise and an earlier shot showing Jeff driving along a clear, well-maintained highway that did the New Deal proud. The doctor explains that Lila’s burial needs to take place tomorrow due to the climate and the nature of the soil, but Warrenton can take a good long last look at his sister in the chapel, if he wishes.

Outside, Lazarus is also admiring Jeff’s car. “I used to drive one like this for the master. When I was alive.” Jeff bolts, without asking how a zombie knows it is dead, or how to keep up self-consciousness when you no longer have a will or a self left to know. Jeff finds himself in more engaging company, when he bumps into Rosella (Sybil Lewis), Beulah’s niece and maid. Rosella hates life at the stinking, zombie-infested swamp, and wants away, but hasn’t the money. Jeff pretty much proposes on the spot and offers Rosetta a new life back in New York. As Dr von Alderrman said, it’s all to do with the climate.

In the chapel, von Alderrman has Lazarus sing his resuscitation chant for Lila. Adama, Warrenton and Dr Kearing tire of drawing-room chatter and go to the chapel: “it's imperative that we see no unholy rites are performed over Mrs. Aldermann,” explains Dr Kearing, although Barry McCollum’s performance is so stiff and lifeless, one suspects he passed over to the dark side quite some time ago. The three arrive in the chapel in time to see Lila take an unexpected stroll.

Rand takes dictation from Dr Alderrman, and she’s not at all incompetent, keeping a straight face while the doctor opines that the metabolism is unnecessary for senior citizens, when Adams and friends face him about his wandering wife. “My dear fellow, you’re talking absolute nonsense,” replies the doctor, straight from the urbane mad scientist’s phrase book. “My wife is

Herr Hitler
dead, I assure you. Approach her and satisfy yourself,” is from a phrase book I want absolutely nothing to do with. The three guests check over Lila, now back in her coffin. Rand brands them “unconscionable,” while von Aldermann gives them the old line about nerves playing tricks on people. Some trick!

Later, Dr von Alderrman receives a visitor (Bob Steele) in his laboratory – a visitor from his homeland. In the curiously coy way of genre films of this time (Mr Moto’s Last Warning [1939], for example), Germany isn’t named directly, but it’s pretty obvious who the doctor and his guest are talking about, especially when they start talking in German and discussing Nazi scientific policy. Dr von Alderrman is keen to return home and help build an invincible army of the undead to lead their country to victory; zombies come pretty cheap and don’t quibble about unwise advances along the Russian front. Lila pops in and our guest politely says hello. “My wife doesn’t return your greeting as she’s dead,” explains von Alderrman, and shoots Lila to prove the point. The doctor lists the advantages of a zombie army, but – “no” says Lila. “No.” What's going on?

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