Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This Halloween, Go Abroad! Try Cambodia or Voodoo Island!

Ok, so pooch screwing occurred last Halloween when I decided (in my usual Hemingway-like stupor) to dedicate the month of October to Voodoo films. Well, I dropped the ball and cranked out only two reviews and they weren’t even of some of the notoriously bad films that pollute the waters of the zombie genre and especially the voodoo subgenre. This Halloween, however, shall be different. I promise shitty bug-eyed zombies aplenty complete with white playboys solving mysteries and more xenophobia than you can shake a stick at. This week prepare yourself for some of the very worst in voodoo zombies as I’ll be giving you at least one a day until Halloween. So, with that in mind, let’s head back to the very start of this ravenous love affair the world has with zombies with a sequel to the very first.

Revolt of the Zombies
by Victor Halperin

Well, if I screwed the proverbial pooch last October, at least I have no mistake as big as Revolt of the Zombies to own up to. You can tell right away what sort of colossal fuck up you’re about to watch when the lighthearted music starts. The credits play to music that should start a W.C. Fields short, not a follow-up to one of the greatest B-films of the decade. White Zombie would have launched anyone’s career in the 30s and only a special kind of reject could have trashed it with that sort of success under his belt. Victor Halperin and his producer brother Edgar were those special rejects. The time is World War I. The place is the British-Austrian Lines and the enemy is creeping up on…Armond Louque? Oh, it’s the FRANCO-Austrian lines, no one’s even remotely French and I got confused. Anyway, so things look bad until a Cambodian Priest shows up (…?) with a trump card he thinks the French could use. Power of prayer? Absolution? How about a pair of Cambodian zombie super soldiers? Didn’t see that one coming did you? Yeah, well, enjoy it, it’s the last pleasant surprise you’re ever gonna get! So, the Cambodians make mincemeat of the enemy and the French are so impressed and understandably petrified about the ramifications that they murder the super soldiers and Tsiang the priest. Is that enough to make the white folks sleep soundly at night? Not on your life so the commanding officers of both the Austrians and the French collaborate to go to Cambodia and see to it that no one darker than the underside of a bass should be turned into a super soldier ever again.

Then the action…stops. Goodbye zombie plot, here comes the romance! That’s right, Halperin now takes us to a subplot that fast becomes the plot concerning Louque’s misplaced affection for his commanding officer’s daughter Claire. Claire doesn’t actually love Louque; she loves someone else…GUH! WHO CARES?!?!?! Where did the zombies go? Oh there they are. Louque’s got a whole army of them! Oh wait, no, he’s freeing them…hmm…well, this riot should be good...no…no, that’s kind of lame too…wait, it’s over? Are you serious? Ok, let’s try and make sense of this. So, the secret to zombifying people is hidden someplace in the Khmer religion of Cambodia’s past, which isn’t even close to accurate. So Armand finds out about it just in time to get really angry at everyone and turn them all into zombies. Then, once at the height of his power, when he might finally do SOMETHING, he turns tail and gives them their free will back. Why? Because he’s still trying to get the girl and he thinks this will win her affections. Well the only thing it buys him is a freshly un-undead mob hungry for his blood.

This movie sucks. It’s stagey, it’s boring, everyone’s wooden; it’s basically the antithesis to White Zombie, which was moody, scary and subtle. Revolt is just cheap and disingenuous by comparison. That the Halperins, clearly capable filmmakers, would force this nonsense down moviegoer’s throats is appalling and confusing. Every new scene smells of cost-cutting and lazy writing. What really happened is that they remade White Zombie for a tenth of the budget and all of the elements out of whack. I thought at first that maybe this was just an excuse to take a vacation to 1930s Cambodia (don’t ask me whether people did this or not, I have no clue) but each and every scene that’s supposed to take place in Cambodia is so obviously filmed in front of a blanket coated in poorly developed photos depicting Cambodian locales (a trick so shameful that even the makers of Revenge of the Living Dead Girls would have rolled their eyes and said “Bullshit”) that not even an actor’s vacation could account for its wretchedness. I wonder if it was a shock when Ed and Vic Halperin woke up and found out their career was dead and not a fucking soul would have a thing to do with them ever again?

And speaking of careers on the skids, let’s talk Del Tenney for a minute. Del Tenney will go down in history as having been at the right place at the right time. A no-talent actor who decided his real calling lay behind the camera, Tenney worked his way up to assistant director for a no-budget studio producing no-budget pictures. He finally got his breakthrough when he was able to direct Horror of Party Beach, one of those rare schlock films that’s lost nothing of its capacity to entertain in exactly the opposite way its creator intended. Then came Curse of the Living Corpse, a go-nowhere pot boiler that sits somewhere between Dementia 13 and Bloody Pit of Horror but isn’t as good as either of those movies. It features a pre-stardom Roy Scheider, should that sort of thing interest you. Finally Tenney made the film that would seal him forever in horror movie lore, Zombies. Of course, you won’t know it by that title. That’s because when it was first made it sat on a shelf for seven years. It wasn’t until schlock producer Jerry Gross bought the distribution rights to David E. Durston’s film Phobia. Of course Zombies and Phobia didn’t exactly make for a catchy name for an evening at the drive-in so Gross ran it past Barney Cohen, one of his ad men, and history was made. The films went out in what has become one of the more infamous double bills in history: I Drink Your Blood, I Eat Your Skin, Two Great Blood Horrors To Rip Out Your Guts.

I Drink Your Blood
by Del Tenney

Writer Tom Harris is in a bit of hot water. He’s trying to cool off in Miami Beach but his agent wants another book out of him. He would ordinarily tell him to cool it but just as his agent tells him he’s got a story he wants the horny scribe to check out, the husband of the girl he’s been fondling shows up looking for blood. All of a sudden a plane to Voodoo Island sounds ok. Yes, Voodoo Island folks, my absolute favorite racist vacation destination in the annals of cinema! What’s so special about Voodoo Island? Well, first of all there’s a doctor there trying to cure cancer using snake venom (yeah, I know), second of all there’s supposedly an army of zombies in the heart of the island, raised by the native ‘voodooists’, and lastly, and this is the deal-maker for Harris, his agent promises him girls, Girls, GIRLS! Virgins aplenty and Harris need only take his pick. His agent brings his wife Coral (a ‘battleax’ if ever there was one) along because he’s spent his last dime chartering the plane for Voodoo Island (and he’s just suffered some massive gambling losses as well…he’s not very smart with money, this fellow).

Well, as often happens in these situations, their plane runs out of fuel and Harris has to land the plane on the beach in a clinch. Harris goes inland looking for help and instead finds first a girl bathing nude in a pond then a zombie with hungrier eyes than the writer also spying on the girl. When he swims out to help the girl he can find no evidence of either bather or zombie. Harris flags down a man in a boat, who tries to help him stop the mad zombie (who now has a machete) but the man gets his poor head cut off. Luckily help arrives in the form of Charles Bentley, the suave doctor who owns the house that Harris spied from the air. He takes Harris and everyone else in his party back up to his heavily-guarded plantation and for a minute all appears well, but I’ve seen too many of these films to fall for that bullshit. Harris tries to get information out of Juarita, Bentley’s housekeeper but as she’s evidently in the throes of a painkiller binge she isn’t much help. So Harris busies himself trying to get busy with the only single white woman he can find Jeanine Billinder, part-time nude swimmer and the daughter of that cancer researcher we’ve heard so much about. After shutting on her dad’s endeavors (fuck that guy and his fucking cure for cancer) he lays on the smarm…sorry, charm. He doesn’t get too far before dinner is served and I started to wonder just what in hell everyone does during their days here. They talk about smoking and safe cigarettes and stuff and they move into the parlour and…just what the Christ goes on here? Some voodoo drums start up and Bentley has to lie his way through an explanation of what the natives do on their part of the island. When Harris asks for a tour of Billinder’s laboratory, Bentley eyes bulge wider than the zombies so clearly these two are up to no good.

It becomes only too clear that Billinder and Bentley are the ones making zombies when a crowd of the buggers tries to separate Harris and Jeanine on their walk after dinner. Yeah, I wouldn’t that creep touching my daughter either. Bentley tries to sell Harris a raft about the natives taking drugs and believing in a nonsensical religion and behaving like King Kong, but we know what’s up. We kow because what we see next (following an interlude with Harris and Jeanine, of course) is a voodoo ceremony. They dance and sing (a song clearly written by white men meant to sound like a black church hymn) and speak in Italian…? Yeah, I don’t quite get that either. Just who settled Voodoo Island? When Bentley discovers that what Harris is writing is precisely what he’s seen so far he gives him the passive aggressive bidding of adieu, right on schedule and declares his laboratory out of bounds to interlopers. And as if that weren’t enough Tom and Jeanine go on another plot-forwarding walk and find a closet full of zombies, a nervous native who tells Jeanine that she’s to be the next sacrifice and a basement that leads to the laboratory. They ought to send Harris and Jeanine after Jimmy Hoffa or for a stroll on the grassy knoll, who knows what they’d find.

I Eat Your Skin is fun in its transparency and its quite glaring shittiness but it’s twenty minutes too long to be the sort of thing I would watch for a laugh. Maybe with a little help from Mike and the Bots this could have earned the schlock classic status it was given when Gross attached it to the much better I Drink Your Blood. Actually it also shares with its half-sister film a gruesome decapitation that I wondered how they got away with in 1964 then I remembered that no one saw it until 1971. It is really quite bad and a few things stand out as particularly excruciating examples of what kind of filmmaker Del Tenney was. Take Coral for example, she is the annoying housewife of bad horror movies incarnate. Her voice alone would be worth killing her for and yet she’s one of the few people who survives. When she arrives at Bentley’s house and says “What a lovely house you have. It’s so TROPICAL!!!!” UGH! It’s like nails in my spine! And of course there's Tom Harris a character worthy of special commendation for lasciviousness. His first words in the movie are a pick-up line but not quite as stupendously awful as the one he says when he first lays on Jeanine. “What part of heaven did you fly down from?” I don’t really get this line…are there states in heaven or different rooms or something? What the shit does that fucking mean? I get it, angels and whatever, but that doesn’t make any sense.

The film’s biggest problem plotwise, is the zombies. I don’t mean the fact of zombies, though they are quite awful on their own, no I mean that Tenney has them roaming around the island cutting of heads but neglects to say why Bentley’s been making them in the first place. And it is transparently Bentley who is behind it all but Tenney spends so much time covering up his guilt with stories and racism that he forgets that he’s supposed to have a reason for making zombies. So when the plot has come undone and the final chase is on Dr. Billender has not one but two last-minute speeches to explain everything we just saw. His first is so breathless and perfunctory that I suspect that Tenney wrote it about eight seconds before he shot it. “What’s that?” asks Harris, to which the doctor pants “The end of voodoo island and Charles Bentley’s dream of conquering the earth with an indestructible army.” Ok? Had he mentioned an indestructible army before? Well, lets let the Doctor explain it as he dies “I started using natives as human guinea pigs…making the subject devoid of will…a human vegetable…Bentley became obsessed with the idea of creating an army of these unfortunate people.” Now that’s what I call screenwriting!

Following the shelving of Zombies and even its subsequent rebirth as I Eat Your Skin, Del Tenney spent most of his life in the unemployment line. He finally made another film in 2003 with Katherine Heigl, of all people, called Descendant which I hear is decent. Just goes to show you…mishandle zombies and you’re gonna get burned. I love zombie movies (fucking duh) but I know that they are a dangerous subject. Some people start with zombies and never get a second chance. Some people like The Halperins and Del Tenney get mired in zombies and never come back. The zombie movie is a cruel mistress, indeed.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

VaporFi is the best electronic cigarettes supplier on the market.