Saturday, November 29, 2008

2 Monogram Zombie Films: “King of the Zombies” (1941, “Revenge of the Zombies” (1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One was a 1941 horror item from Monogram called King of the Zombies, with an underweight cast (Dick Purcell as the lead, Henry Victor from Freaks as the villain — in a part that cried out for Karloff, Lugosi or Price! — Joan Woodbury as the heroine, though in a much less stimulating showcase for her quirky but real acting ability than she had in PRC’s Paper Bullets, a.k.a. Gangs, Inc. — and Mantan Moreland as the real focus of the film) but good direction by (a boy named) Jean Yarbrough (he also did The Devil Bat with Lugosi at PRC that same year, but this was actually a much better movie; certainly Yarbrough was a far superior director to William Nigh, with a good sense of pace and suspense far above the plodding style with which Nigh seemed to sink many a promising script), surprisingly atmospheric photography (the visual richness and effect lighting of many scenes recalled Universal’s horror efforts and were certainly far above the Monogram norm) and a marvelous performance by Moreland.

Saddled with the dumb Black stereotype it seemed all African-American comedians (with the possible exception of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) were doomed to play in films at this time, Moreland actually wiggled around in it and made it his own, managing to make his comic stupidity seem actually amusing instead of merely insulting. The plot didn’t seem to make a lot of sense — when the “normal” leads were flying through the Caribbean in the middle of a night storm in the opening sequence, Charles asked, “Who are these people, where are they going and why should we care?” — but the script was at least well-constructed enough to provide some answers later on: they were American servicepeople trying to find the captured General Wainwright before the zombie master, who was also secretly working for Germany while posing as an anti-Nazi refugee, tortured him and forced him to reveal the defense secrets of the Panama Canal. (Yes, it’s one of those movies.)

Though one of the things that didn’t become clear was why the film should be called King of the Zombies — indeed, we weren’t quite sure whether there were any real zombies in it or just living people whom Victor had hypnotized into thinking they were zombies; at one point we were shown a book called Hypnotism by “Van Cleve,” and I asked Charles if that were a real author; he said he’d never heard of him but couldn’t say for certain that he wasn’t, either!) — this was actually quite a credible little film. — 11/4/98


I ran us another movie, a 1943 Monogram “B” called Revenge of the Zombies, a sequel to the surprisingly good 1941 King of the Zombies (even with the bland Henry Victor in a role originally intended for Bela Lugosi, and a pretty silly script) in which the zombie master is John Carradine and the director is Steve Sekely, who like such other “B” masters as Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Florey, was a European expat with a flair for “artistic” compositions and using them to enliven otherwise dull “B” scripts. Unfortunately, this dull “B” script resolutely resisted Sekely’s attempt to jazz it up with interesting camera angles, tracking shots and chiaroscuro lighting.

Carradine plays German scientist Max Heinrich von Altermann (the first time I heard his name on the soundtrack I thought it was “Ottomann” and that he would turn out to have invented the zombie-making couch), whose wife Lila (Veda Ann Borg) has just died of a mysterious heart attack at their home in the Louisiana swamp country. Her brother Scott Warrington (Mauritz Hugo) calls in a private detective, Larry Adams (future Batman Robert Lowery), and a medical consultant, Dr. Harvey Keating (Barry Macollum), to investigate Lila’s death — and it turns out that Max is hiding out in the jungles to perform experiments on behalf of the German government to create an invincible army of zombies (though, as Tom Weaver pointed out in his book Poverty Row Horrors!, the out-of-shape middle-aged men marching ever so slowly through the swamp country are hard to imagine as any kind of effective fighting force).

He’s working with a lovely assistant, Jennifer Rand (Gale Storm, who was quite charming in the vest-pocket musicals Monogram was making at the time but is utterly unbelievable as a scientist, drones out her lines in a first-day-of-acting-school monotone and, of course, doesn’t get the chance to sing), who needless to say is utterly ignorant of the real purposes of his experiments and is there only to provide a love interest for Larry — much the way Black maidservant Rosella (Sybil Lewis) is there to provide a love interest for Warrington’s driver, Jeff — played by Mantan Moreland, who gave King of the Zombies most of the entertainment value it had but this time around is utterly wasted, mainly because screenwriters Edmond Kelso and Van Norcross (why does one of them sound like an appliance manufacturer and the other like a pen maker?) don’t bother to give him any funny lines: they even trot out the old chestnut, “I forgot something at home.” “What was that?” “I forgot to stay home!” Kelso and Norcross inexplicably also write in a scene in which Warrington and Adams decide that when they visit von Altermann they’ll impersonate each other — for reasons which remain impenetrably obscure because the writers never bother to do anything with this double imposture and van Altermann and everybody else in the movie takes them as the people the script said they were originally.

Revenge of the Zombies starts nicely (the Web site claims it contains stock footage from the 1932 Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie, but I didn’t notice any) but gets duller and duller as it drones on to a predictable climax in which the zombies turn on van Altermann and drive him and his wife — revived to zombiefied life by his high-tech version of the zombie curse (with a whole bunch of instruments that would seem more at home in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab) — into the swamp , where they sink to their deaths, following which the rest of the principals (including “B”-Western star Bob Steele, playing a country sheriff who was really an FBI man in disguise) leave, the door to the crypt on the grounds of Carradine’s swamp-country manse closes and the words “The End” are written on it — and it’s a good indication of the poverty of invention of Revenge of the Zombies (the sort of movie in which I joked that the word “original” in the original-screenplay credit definitely deserved quotation marks around it!) that that’s one of the most visually inventive scenes in the film! — 11/29/08