Sunday, August 30, 2009

Old Movie Review: Revenge of the Zombies

Zombies have been a scourge for untold eons, but as an untamed force—or a force only tamed in small quantities for the ends of the occasional witch doctor or mad scientists—they weren't a serious threat. Not until George Romero popularized zombie-ism-as-a-contagious-disease in Night of the Living Dead did they become a global threat, and even then it was a non-directed threat. Zombies on that scale "just happen".

After all, what possible force could be—what force would be—to try to harness the walking dead for their evil ends? Well, if you need to think about it, you might be on the wrong side. The answer, of course, is Nazis.

Nazis and zombies go together like peanut butter and sauerkraut. Maybe they're not a good idea, but once you mix them, you'll have the Devil's own time separating them again. (This year we have the Norwegian movie Død snø, for example.)

Recently I had an opportunity to view the earliest example I know of the Nazi/Zombie blend, the 1943 film Revenge of the Zombies. This genre—mad scientist raising the dead—was already getting stale in '43, being the subject of Abbot and Costello and ultimately Bowery Boys films. And this is not a noteworthy representative, generally speaking.

John Carradine plays the mad scientist in question. (He also has a role in the '70s Nazi/Zombie flick Shock Waves, surprisingly not as one of the zombies. And those are just the two N/Z John Carradine flicks I can think of off the top of my head.)

Gale Storm plays the secretary he's got his eyes on before his wife isn't even cold and walking above ground.

And that's about it for big names.

What sets this movie apart from others of the genre is that it takes place in the bayou. Back then, of course, zombies and voodoo were still married. (If not for the presence of the German voice over the wireless, the Nazis would hardly be players in this show. But they're needed for the extra menace factor.) But this movie is chock full of black people acting in ways black people aren't supposed to act.

Which is pretty much the highlight of the movie. The white people walk around all serious and stodgy, while the blacks get to be interesting, ominous—wacky, sure, but really the only part of the movie that grabs you. Mantan Moreland, probably best known as Birmingham Brown in the '40s Charlie Chan movies—also not a particularly PC series—is genuinely funny, no matter how minstrel-ly he may seem in modern times.

Anyway, this movie probably didn't get aired much in recent decades as a result. I'm not sure why it suddenly became okay, but I'm sure it didn't get play when I was a kid. (I would've seen it, guaranteed.) The director was a Hungarian who had made some good movies back home, but never quite got his mojo back in English, though he did ultimately direct the sci-fi icon Day of the Triffids.

This isn't a movie you really recommend. You know from this description whether or not you want to see it, I'm sure. Semi-comically, I pulled this off the MGM "high definition" channel. The HD channels are kind of a joke. They charge you "merely" $5 for them, and then they're full of non-HD programming, commercials (Universal HD, grumble) and the like. But MGMHD also has a lot of good movies, darnit. And interesting ones like this and It! The Terror From Beyond Space!

That movie, by the way, being the inspiration for Alien according to movie guru Ed Naha. I'll report back once I've seen it.

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