Friday, September 1, 1972: Revenge of the Zombies (1943)

Synopsis: Scott Warrington (Mauritz Hugo) arrives at the Louisiana mansion of his sister Lila and brother-in-law Dr. Max Von Altermann (John Carradine), a man whom Scott has never met.  Lila has recently died under suspicious circumstances, and Scott, thinking there may be trouble afoot, is traveling with Larry Adams (Robert Lowery), a private detective he’s hired. Wary of Dr. Van Alterman’s intentions, they decide to switch roles: Larry will pretend to be Scott and Scott will pretend to be Larry.

Dr. Altermann has secretly harnessed the power to bring the dead back to life as zombie slaves.  His own manservant Lazarus (James Baskett) and a number of the workers on the plantation are undead, though Scott and Larry as well as their comic-relief driver (Manton Morland) are unaware of it.


Soon Dr. Von Altermann meets with a mysterious representative of the Third Reich. Dr. Von Altermann gives a demonstration of zombie obedience to the visiting Nazi, explaining that an army of the undead could never be defeated, since they will continue to function no matter how much damage they sustain in battle. He reveals that he himself killed Lila to use her in his diabolical experiments; to him, Lila was unimportant compared to the Nazi zombie army he’s preparing.

But Dr. Altermann’s big dreams are threatened by some inconvenient happenings: Lila’s body keeps wandering around, and even Scott and Larry have seen it on the move. And the zombies are unexpectedly starting to disobey his orders….

Comments:Revenge of the Zombies is about as unimportant a studio picture as you’re ever going to find, but it has several unusual elements that set it apart from its contemporaries. First, it is a reworking (though evidently not a sequel) of Monogram’s successful King of the Zombies from two years earlier. Manton Moreland appears in both pictures, as does Madame Sul-Te-Wan as a cackling voodoo priestess. The two movies also bear similarities in terms of plot and setting, but there is no real connection between them.

Second — as Liz Kingsley has pointed out — this is the first film that explicitly shows its zombies to be the reanimated dead and not simply living people held in a permanent hypnotic trance.

Third, a number of stars from black cinema at the time appeared here, playing domestics (as the unwritten racial codes of the time demanded) but nonetheless having a few scenes on their own. Sybil Lewis was a well-known star in the world of black cinema.  She does well with the thinly-written part here, even though she is paired with Manton Moreland, whose grating “cowardly darkie” schtick is as tiresome here as it was in King of the Zombies — or, in fact, any other movie he was ever in (Moreland, I should add, does have his defenders, who point out that he was a gifted comedic actor who paid his dues on the vaudeville circuit and added real value with his comic relief roles). James Baskett was also a star of that genre, and appeared in Disney’s Song of the South (1947).

Black cinema of the era was a scrappy indie phenomenon and quite interesting, but the films weren’t comparable to Hollywood productions on any level. As you might expect the budgets were meager and the quality was below even that of the poverty-row studios.  Scripts were often mawkish and heavy-handed, and the technical production was surprisingly crude, even by the standards of low-budget cinema of the time; scenes tended to be static, with actors grouped in polite semi-circles as though performing in a proscenium. Lewis often played the young love interest in these films, and while she isn’t given much to do here she demonstrates an extremely strong screen presence. It’s a pity that she never got more of a chance to work in Hollywood, but if she been given the opportunity she would never have played more than cooks, maids or various other members of the servant class. And that would have been far worse.

Robert Lowery appeared in a number of low-budget westerns and thrillers, and while he didn’t work extensively in the horror genre he did team up again with John Carradine in The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and is probably best known today as the second actor to play Batman, in the 1949 Columbia serial Batman and Robin.

The name “John Carradine” is usually reason enough to avoid a movie, but the cheerfully hammy actor is actually well-suited to Revenge of the Zombies — I can’t think of anyone (well, besides Lugosi) who would be as much at home raising an army of Nazi zombie slaves in the bayou.  And Carradine brings a haughty air of authority and privilege to Von Altermann that Lugosi wouldn’t have managed. I hate to admit it, but Carradine was ideal for the role.

Ouch, it hurts to say that! But it’s true. It really is. Perfect.

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2 comments

  1. Rare words of praise for John Carradine! I recently covered THE FACE OF MARBLE and liked it more than REVENGE, though that scientist had an altruistic motive. Here, he's quite the genial host, yet even in death can't seem to control that nagging wife!

    Like

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