Saturday, 5 April 2014

Revolt of the Zombies

Director: Victor Halperin
Writers: Victor Halperin, Rollo Lloyd, Howard Higgin
Producer: Edward Halperin
Cast: Dean Jagger, Dorothy Stone, Robert Noland
Country: USA
Year of release: 1936
Reviewed from: DVD (Classic Entertainment)

Everybody knows White Zombie. I mean, seriously, I can forgive you if you haven’t seen Bride of Frankenstein or Creature from the Black Lagoon or Dracula has Risen from the Grave but really, there’s no excuse for not having seen White Zombie. It’s a public domain film that has been released about five thousand times. Look, if you’ve never seen it, stop reading now, go off and get a copy, watch it, then come back.

Right, now have we all seen White Zombie?

This film has no narrative connection with the 1932 classic White Zombie. But it was made by the same people and released four years later, making it only the third ever zombie film (Michael Curtiz’s 1934 voodoo picture Ouanga popped up inbetween them). What makes Revolt of the Zombies particularly odd is that it is set not in Haiti, not even in the Southern USA - but in Cambodia.

Actually, a lengthy prologue is set in France during World War One, making this (I believe) the first war/horror crossover picture. There have been many, many war/horror films since - off the top of my head: The Keep, Deathwatch, The Bunker and on this site the likes of Hellraiser III, Night Wars and The Darkness Beyond - but this must surely be the first.

Twenty years before he worked for Hammer on X - The Unknown, Dean Jagger stars as Armand Louque, a translator in the French army, newly arrived at Cambrai (or somewhere on the western front, at any rate) with a Cambodian priest named Tsiang (according to the IMDB although it sounds like ‘Neo’ on the soundtrack). The Priest (William Crowell, who is about as Cambodian as I am) knows the secret of creating ‘zombies’ - not reanimated corpses but hypnotised men who will follow orders unquestioningly and who are impervious to pain. The French High Command wants none of this but Tsiang creates his zombie army anyway and there is a terrific sequence of unblinking soldiers advancing on a German trench, not even flinching as the terrified Bosch unload bullets into them. If the whole film stayed like this - or was even just about this - it would be a bona fide classic.

But a representative of ‘the Central European Powers’ appeals to the French High Command about this terrible weapon and the Frogs, assuring the Kraut that this attack was unauthorised, decide to lock up Tsiang where he can cause no more trouble. Two things strike me about this great prologue. The first is that the zombies, while they’re pretty much invincible, are only armed with regular guns so they don’t seem a particularly unfair weapon (compared with, say, mustard gas) and it’s difficult to believe that any army would agree to stop using an effective weapon because the enemy said it wasn’t fair. That’s not how war works, is it?

The other thing of note is that the slave-soldiers are referred to not only as ‘zombies’ but also as ‘robots’, a word which was coined only 16 years before this film and which had evidently still not settled down to meaning only a mechanical man but was capable of being applied to any non-human worker. Of course, a word coined in 1920 (in Karel Capek’s famous play RUR) is somewhat anachronistic when repeatedly used in scenes set during the 1914-1918 war.

So anyway, the priest is placed in solitary confinement where he is stabbed by an arm reaching out from behind a statue of Shiva (who’s going to notice one more arm?). This arm belongs to Colonel Mazovia (Roy D’Arcy, who for a cheap laugh I will point out was in both The Gay Deceiver and The Gay Buckaroo) who seems to be semi-oriental in terms of his goateed, quasi-demonic, sub-Fu Manchu appearance. Basically he looks very much like Bela Lugosi did as Murder Legendre in White Zombie.

Let’s just pause here to observe that Murder Legendre is absolutely the best character name in the history of cinema.

There’s no real explanation of who Colonel Mazovia is or why he is attached to the French army, but then there’s not much explanation of anything. For some reason it is decided among the various officers at this particular HQ that after the war they will all go on an expedition to Cambodia to discover the secret of zombification.

So we jump forward a few years to a back-projected photograph of a Cambodian temple. Louque is here along with another junior officer, his friend Clifford Grayson (Robert Noland - who seems to have done nothing else ever). There’s bluff General Duval (George Cleveland, who had a bit part in The Ape and played Gramps in the 1950s Lassie TV series), wiry Dr Trevissant (E Alyn ‘Fred’ Warren, who was in The Devil Doll the same year), Duval’s daughter Claire (Dorothy Stone) and the diabolical - but apparently completely unsuspicious - Colonel Mazovia. Plus a few other chaps. Louque, a shy, retiring chap, has the hots for Claire and they get engaged but she becomes enamoured of the more outgoing Grayson, which is ironic as he was the one who persuaded Louque that faint heart never won fair lady.

Somehow Louque discovers the secret of zombification. ‘Somehow’ in the sense that there is a carving that Mazovia has a drawing of (which he stole from the priest before he killed him) and Louque finds a photograph of this carving which leads him to a series of tunnels where he spots Mazovia up to no good and... it’s no use, this part of the plot is all over the shop. Anyway, the important thing is that Louque, consumed with jealousy, experiments with various substances until he creates the magic smoke that can turn men into zombies, which he tests by blowing it into the face of his servant Buna (Japanese actor Teru Shimada: The Snow Creature, You Only Live Twice).

Buna is now completely under the control of Louque who he is so delighted with this that he not only creates an army of native zombies, he also somehow enslaves General Duval and his associates. Quite how he does either of these things, given that the process seems to involve blowing magic smoke into someone’s face, is not explained. He also enslaves Grayson but he can’t bring himself to enslave Claire, the woman he loves.

Nevertheless, we see thousands - well, hundreds - well, scores of natives, marching in silent obedience to Louque’s will. We can tell when someone is under Louque’s power (the word ‘zombie’ has long since disappeared from the script by this point) because a pair of hypnotic eyes are superimposed on screen. Back in 1936, I imagine audiences accepted these as Louque’s eyes but watching this on DVD decades later with a background knowledge of classic horror, we can instantly spot that this is exactly the same shot of Lugosi’s eyes which was used when Murder Legendre imposed his will on his enslaved servants in White Zombie.

See, that’s why you had to watch that film first.

And isn’t Murder Legendre a great name? I wish I was called Murder Legendre.

Eventually Claire agrees to marry the now clearly bonkers Louque instead of Grayson if he will release all his zombie slaves. But when he does this, Buna immediately sets about leading the ex-zombie army to find and destroy the man who enslaved them. What is completely brilliant about this is that the shots of the ex-zombies advancing on Louque’s home are exactly the same shots that were used when these extras were zombies, just with ‘rabble noises’ dubbed over the top.

Buna and his friends break into the place and kill Louque and everyone else lives happily ever after. Or something.

I quiet enjoyed Revolt of the Zombies, which has ‘guilty pleasure’ written all the way through it like a stick of rock. The acting’s no great shakes but for the era it’s okay. Production design isn’t up to much but how many of this film’s intended audience would have any idea what Cambodia looked like. The climactic action sequence is pretty good as Buna and his comrades smash their way into the building and, as mentioned, the scenes of zombified troops advancing across No Man’s Land are actually very effective indeed.

But to be honest the only reason this film is remembered at all is because it has the word ‘zombies’ in the title in an age when zombie films were almost unknown and long, long before George Romero invented the cinematic zombie as we know it today. Revolt of the Zombies is no worse than many other independent horror films from the 1930s but it has the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you view it) to be made by the Halperin bothers - director Victor and producer Edward - who had a few years earlier struck gold with White Zombie, possibly the finest independent horror film of the decade and still regarded as a classic today. Revolt simply pales by comparison.

Also in the cast are Carl Stockdale (The Vampire Bat, Intolerance), Adolph Millard (the 1929 version of Bulldog Drummond), Selmer Jackson (The Atomic Submarine, The Ape, Mighty Joe Young) and Sana Rayya (who was in the 1936 Flash Gordon serial) as a dancer. The uncredited script is generally accepted as having been a three-way collaboration between Victor Halperin, Howard Higgin (The Invisible Ray) and actor Rollo Loyd who allegedly had a hand in the screenplay for Bride of Frankenstein!

Director of photography Arthur Martinelli (White Zombie, The Devil Bat and a 1921 sci-fi obscurity called A Message from Mars) was assisted by ‘operative cameraman’ J Arthur Feindel who later handled photography on Day the World Ended. Special effects (such as they are) were provided by Ray Mercer who worked for thirty years on pictures such as Blake of Scotland Yard, The New Adventures of Tarzan, Return of the Ape Man, Strange Holiday, White Pongo, The Feathered Serpent and Mesa of Lost Women).

Very little is known about the Halperin brothers, independent cinema of this era being less than assiduously chronicled in contemporary publications. Victor made at least two dozen pictures from the early 1920s to the early 1940s of which his brother Edward collaborated on about half, but it’s really only their four horror films for which they’re known - and truthfully that’s three because who has ever heard of 1939’s Torture Ship (in which Edward apparently had no hand)? White Zombie of course is famous as one of Lugosi’s finest movies from the early 1930s when he was a horror icon almost without peer (that’s ‘almost’, Karloff fans). In just four years or so after Dracula, Bela made Murders in the Rue Morgue, Island of Lost Souls, Chandu the Magician, The Black Cat - and White Zombie. In none of those other films did he have a character name as cool as Murder Legendre.

Supernatural, produced one year later, is less well-known but the presence of Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott assures it a place in Hollywood history, while the titular notoriety of Revolt of the Zombies is something I have already touched on. The most detailed biography of the Halperins is, I believe, included in Gary Don Rhodes’ book White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film (McFarland, 2001) but even that is apparently patchy. Yet, frustratingly, Victor Halperin died as recently as 1983.

Revolt of the Zombies is a mixed bag: mostly corny but with occasional bursts of brilliance. It is deservedly more obscure that its predecessor - and would undoubtedly have been vastly improved by the presence of Lugosi as more than a pair of stock footage eyes - but it’s still worth watching if you’ve never seen it. (The Classic Entertainment triple bill partners Revolt with Attack of the Giant Leeches and The Amazing Transparent Man.)

MJS rating: C

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