Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Unwind On Nazi Zombie Island! Take A Tour Of The Haunted Bayou!

The 1940s were host to a zombie boom not unlike the one in the states over the last six or so years. White Zombie didn't take hold quite as quickly as say 28 Days Later... or Dawn of the Dead did in the states and later internationally, but, the Stateside Zombie boom was undoubtedly the work of the Halperin Brothers film. Things wouldn't really pick up until their work was co-opted rather loutishly by Monogram pictures in the early 40s in a despised little movie called King of the Zombies. It wasn't the first post-Halperin zombie film, there was at least George Terwilliger's Ouanga in 1936 a film that has eluded me for a few years now, but King of the Zombies was probably the most significant, because it set the tone of most of the voodoo films that followed: xenophobic and painfully unfunny. There were a few exceptions, but until roughly 1966 (excluding Ed Cahn's Creature With The Atom Brain), zombies were black, wore rags, came from exotic islands, and battled protagonists who were hampered (often comically) by their big city behavior. For better or worse, King of the Zombies was the first film to do that.

King of the Zombies
by Jean Yarbrough

Before anyone gets any ideas, let me say that though this film was historically significant, that doesn't make it good or even easy to sit through. White Zombie had set the bar for zombie spookiness and when Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur proved that even in the new formula zombies could be eerie, films like King of the Zombies and its sequel seem pretty silly, even for a movie from the 40s. King and it’s sequel share the special distinction of featuring 40s racial performer Mantan Moreland. I don't understand his humour and find it derrogatory but African American film scholars have stated that he was actually progressive. I don't see it that way, so popular discourse and I are going to have to agree to disagree. It seems pretty dispicable to me and it most certainly isn't funny, so, there you go. Anyway, Moreland plays Jefferson Jackson (two stereotypical black surnames), the extraneous assistant of patriotic adventurer James McCarthy. Their plane make an emergency stop on a remote island and they discover that the island's only white occupant, a doctor called Sangre (blood) is making zombies to aid in the Nazi party's global domination. McCarthy, with occasional help from his bumbling sidekick, defeats the nazi and his zombies and he gets the girl, which they somehow found room for on Nazi Zombie island.

So while it’s easy to see why this was influential, it just isn't any fun, not even in the usual cheesy, old movie, kind of way. I think part of the problem stems from Monogram's billing this as a comedy, though perversely it's musical score was nominated for an Oscar that year. Even then they couldn't come up with zombie humour that I approve of. It’s just bad and because I don't 'get' Moreland's humour, it feels offensive. Even if he were white his jokes would still have the same effect as Owen Wilson's in Shanghai Knights or Phil Silvers in A Thousand And One Nights; he makes modern jokes while the rest of the cast tries to play an almost humourously diabolical plot straight and believe it or not no one wins! It's just a mess. The nazis and zombies were layered over top of the usual hero/villain plot that was common in Monogram pictures at the time; Monogram, I should add, was one of the more notorious factory filmmaking houses of its day, the American International Pictures or Troma Team of its day. Between 1932 and 1952, they put out just under 800 movies….noodle that for a minute. When you take into consideration the average budget of these films and that Bela Lugosi was in roughly 400 of them, things become clearer but only just. King of the Zombies is an extraordinarily underfunded and silly film and as is custom for Monogram films, tackles more than it can possibly pull off like outdoor sets for example. Though in its corner, this is the first movie where people shoot zombies with guns.

In fact, if you remove the historical significance of King of the Zombies, the film becomes simply a hard-to-swallow farce, the sort of thing that they seemed only to make in the 40s, when horror could and frequently did simply act as a springboard for popular comedians at the time. William Beaudine's The Living Ghost springs immediately to mind as one such film. The sort of film that Monogram did best (relative term) were evil-'genius'-in-a-house films because they had a house set or two and could populate it with scenery chewing bad guys and dull good guys, and when it came time to make a semi-sequel to King of the Zombies, that's exactly what they did.

Revenge of the Zombies
by Steve Sekely

James McCarthy has been replaced by not one but two dull white guys, one called Harvey Keating, the other called Larry Adams. They're after a displaced Nazi doctor, the preposterously named Max Heinrich von Altermann who’s played by John Carradine which makes this film marginally easier to watch than its predecessor. He's still a Nazi (with that ridiculous name, what else could he be?) and he's still making zombies (duh!) and Mantan Moreland is still here making jokes that make me terribly uneasy. It's all in a mansion on the bayou (soundstage) and its stagey and its really quite silly, but again, not silly in the right kind of old movie sort of way. Revenge of the Zombies came out the same year as I Walked With A Zombie, proof that this was a kneejerk film that Monogram knew they had the resources and the Carradine to make. There's no reason a film like this has to suck, but it does when you make it about receipts. Revenge repeats all the mistakes of the first film, but as there was no place to go but up, I did sort of like this film better cause I like John Carradine. There's still a love story, but its a bit more complicated and there are a few extra characters like the sheriff who's actually a nazi (with no accent) and bits like that made it slightly easier to swallow, but not much more.

In the end, sometimes its rubbish like Last House on the Left or King of the Zombies that sets precedents. It's a reasonably safe bet that there wouldn't have been an I Walked With A Zombie (and thus no Zombies on Broadway, Sugar Hill or Zombie) were it not for King of the Zombies and it's a less safe bet that there wouldn't have been The Unearthly were it not for Revenge of the Zombies. If I'd known just how risible these films were, I probably would have just reread Tell My Horse or revisited I Walked With A Zombie. Ah, who am I kidding, I’d have watched them if there were actual Nazis in the cast; if there are zombies in the offing I’ll watch quite literally anything.


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