Revenge of the Zombies is unusual in that it shows zombies with some degree of self-awareness as to their plight. Dr von Alderrman isn't so pleased at discovering his zombie wife maintains the ability to call out his nuttiness, and so commits to more experiments before he and his guest bid each other auf wiedersehen.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/JeangagnonOver lunch, von Alderrman discusses Lila’s legacy, causing Adams and Warrenton to drop their pretense about taking each other’s names, as that particular plot point was going nowhere fast, unlike Lila, who’s gone walkabout again. In the kitchen, the servants (i.e. the black characters) discuss security arrangements, while Beulah explains to Jeff the secret behind the zombies, the berries of the swamp lilies, also fatal in a large enough dose.
Rosella and Jeff take a walk by the swamp, top of the list of ‘things to do in a horror film no-one would do in real life.’ The walk turns into a run when a hand grabs Jeff’s leg from a bush, causing a case of the comic turns to the chauffeur. Dr Kearing also goes for a walk. A voice from the tomb lures Kearing inside, and the character disappears for the rest of the film until the ending, with no explanation.
Adams grills Rand as to Lila’s will; Dr von Alderrman had lied, with Lila signing over the estate to her husband and not to her brother after all. Why did von Alderrman lie? Is Rand covering for him, or just dumb? “You’re the detective,’ replies Miss Rand. “You find out!” Well, I’m guessing she’s not dumb, but I don’t know what Adams’ excuse is.
Jeff finds an arm in a bush, which is worth at least two in the hand, but when he and Warrenton return to look for the errant limb, they find the arm has legged it. With Dr Kearing and Lila missing and the telephone lines dead, Dr von Alderrman agrees to call in the Sheriff. Lazarus drives Jeff’s car off to fetch the Sheriff, even though the chauffeur points out “he’s in no condition to drive!”
The Sheriff (Bob Steele) arrives and it’s the Nazi (Bob Steele) from earlier on! Adams and friends of course don’t recognize him, and so assume the Sheriff is searching the house. “I must congratulate you on your excellent impersonation,” von Alderrman tells his colleague, perhaps assuming he’s a big fan of cowboy pictures, Bob Steele’s stock-in-trade during an acting career that stretched over 50 years.
I’ll say one thing for Detective Adams, and that’s he’s keen to sharpen his game. Deciding to shadow the sheriff to learn a few tips, Adams finds his way into the (unlocked!) ‘secret’ lab. Opening a cupboard, Adams sees a skeleton, mutters “meatless Tuesday,” and I guess you had to be in 1943 for that one. He also finds radio equipment, and learns from the incurious voice at the other end that an American agent is on von Alderrman’s trail. Appearing behind Adams, the mad doctor assures the detective that the agent is no more as zombies tie Adams up, sticking him in the cupboard with the skeleton who wants to know what that weird “meatless Tuesday” gag was about. Adams is soon rescued by Jeff, sent by Beulah to fetch some yummy swamp lily berry preserves, the recipe for which you can find in the Infobarrel lifestyle section.
Warrenton joins Beulah in the kitchen; the housekeeper tells Warrenton she can help find his sister. In the cemetery, Beulah performs the zombie call and Lila appears, advising Warrenton to guard her husband until midnight: “No one can help me as long as he lives.”
The remaining characters who aren’t zombies, missing or black gather for dinner. It’s an Credit: Wikimedia Commonsadmirable part of pre-war horror films that no matter how dire the situation, or how often the villain has attempted to kill the rest of the cast, differences are set aside, the women put on their best dresses, the gentlemen break out the cufflinks, and everyone gathers for cocktails in the dining room. The director spares us the strained conversations of a mad scientist taking dinner with his guests/captors/guinea-pigs, thanks to the power of the dissolve shot, that wibbly-wobbly effect donating the passage of time. After the first wibble, Rand leaves due to tiredness and the doctor boasts about his Spanish port. After the second wibble, von Alderrman begins telling an ominous story about a tramp he met in Vienna, when Adams and Warrenton slump over the table, not bored, but drugged. Zombies drag Warrenton to the lab, where the doctor intends to add him to their number.
Unbeknownst to the doctor the Sheriff is actually the US agent (Bob Steele) mentioned over the radio, and he urges Beulah to fix Adams with the cure to swamp lily poison: a strong cup of coffee.
Dr von Alderrman confronts Miss Rand in her room, informing the secretary of her role in the new world order as the wife of the greatest man in his country’s history. You have to admit, it’s a step up from being Mrs Detective Adams, although Miss Rand disagrees. The doctor tells Miss Rand she is “thinking the wrong thoughts,” something that’s crossed my mind when a girl knocks me back on an offer. Left alone as the doctor goes to pack his suitcase, Miss Rand alerts the others, who break into the lab. Of more concern to the doctor are Lila and her zombies, who appear from behind his annoyed house guests. “Do you dare to set your will against me?” cries the doctor to his wife, not understanding that killing her and turning her into a zombie wasn’t what she’d signed up for. That’s how so many marriages break down – lack of communication.
Fleeing into the swamp, the zombies trap von Alderrman in quicksand. Lila and von Alderrman die together, with Carradine taking a good mouthful of Monogram brand swamp water as they drown. The threat of a Nazi zombie army thwarted until the next time, various job and marriage arrangements are made and Dr Kearing turns up out of nowhere. ‘The End’ appears written on the tomb doors, in perhaps the oddest moment of an odd little film.
John Carradine puts in an understated performance as the Nazi scientist, allowing von Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainAlderrman the occasional moment of nobility, amidst the usual self-glorifying speeches. The following year, Carradine starred in three of Universal’s horror films, including his first appearance as Dracula in House of Frankenstein (1944), beginning a run of films which would see him become one of the legends of horror. Aside from Carradine, the film's scene-stealer is Mantan Moreland, a former vaudeville comic who specialized in jittery, fast-talking characters forever trying to flee whatever crazy trouble they found themselves in, a role he perfected as Birmingham Brown in fifteen Charlie Chan films between 1944 and 1949. Gail Storm turned to television in the 1950s, appearing as the title character in My Little Margie (1952-56) and her own show Oh Susanna! (1956-60). Robert Lowery went on to appear as Batman in the serial Batman & Robin in 1949.
Revenge of the Zombies is much of its time as to how it deals, or avoids, the wider issues it touches upon: the war, relations between men and women, and black people's roles in the movies. For the latter, the white characters condescend to Rosetta, Jeff and Beulah, but at least the three are on the side of good, contribute to the plot and survive their zombie encounter for a happy ending.
The script does give the feel of being written as the film went along, without the benefit of a much-needed extra draft. Years later, the esteemed British film critic Leslie Halliwell damned Revenge of the Zombies with the single word ‘unnecessary,’ but in horror, too much is never enough. The zombies, unlike the Nazis, would have their day, but what does it say about us now that a monster last popular during the Depression and the war is now top of the horror heap of 2015?