Sunday, March 13, 2016

Monogram mania - Revenge of the Zombies

By Doug Gibson

Revenge of the Zombies, Monogram, 1943, B and W, 61 minutes, directed by Steve Sekely, starring John Carradine as Dr. Max Heinrich von Altermann, Gale Storm as Jennifer Rand, Robert Lowery as Larry Adams, Bob Steele as U.S. double agent, Mauritz Hugo as Scott Warrington, Mantan Moreland as Jeff, Veda Ann Botg as Lila von Altermann and Barry Macollum as Dr. Harvey Keating. Schlock-meter rating: 6 out of 10.

Let me just first say that Revenge of the Zombies is a wretched film. It's a malformed puppy, as my co-blogger Steve Stones might say. It has poor acting, particularly by star Carradine, who sleepwalks through his role as the heavy. Its zombies are tamer than the commom housefly and there is a lot of forced comic relief that isn't too funny.

But nevertheless, I respect and enjoy this film. It's another example of the bizarre, wild, other-worldly plots that C-movie helmsters such as Monogram would throw at small-town theaters and big city matinees. Imagine David Lynch with a $100,000 budget (far more than this film, I'm sure) and slightly drugged actors and you have the feel of "Revenge of the Zombies."

The plot takes us to the backwoods swamps of Louisiana, in the middle of World War II, where Lila von Altermann (Borg), wife of Dr. Max Heinrich von Altermann (Carradine), has mysteriously died. Skeptical of the details of her death, Lila's brother, Scott (Hugo,) a local doctor (Macollum), and detective Larry Adams (Lowery) decide to investigate the death. They visit Dr. von Altermann and encounter few people other than his very attractive secretary, Jennifer Rand, (Storm), some wisecracking black kitchen staff, other black servants who are obviously zombies -- they walk with their hands stretched forward like Frankenstein's monster -- and, in a casket, seemingly dead, is Lila von Altermann.

For reasons that are generally unclear to any viewer, the visiting trio try to have detective Adams and brother Warrington switch roles, but the ploy is easily detected by Carradine's Dr. von Altermann. I haven't mentioned the very talented black comedy star Mantan Moreland. As Jeff, Detective's Adams' driver, he gets to sling jokes 10 times a minute, appear scared three times a minute and flirt with a pretty kitchen maid (Sybil Lewis). The problem, of course, is that Mantan was being forced to portray the ubiquitous racist scenario of the scared, wisecracking, child-like negro that many films of that era reveled in. Ironically, though, Moreland and the other black actors were likely included so the film could get bookings in the hundreds of theaters that catered to blacks. As mentioned, Moreland was a very talented actor and comedian who often rose above the demeaning roles he was given. He's particularly good in a 1940 Monogram film, King of the Zombies.

OK, here's where the film really gets Monogram-style weird: The visiting trio see Lila, who is clearly a zombie, walking around the secluded von Altermann mansion. Then, in the film's most bizarre scene, Carradine consults with a supposed Nazi agent and admits that he intentionally turned his wife and others into zombies to prove to the Nazis that he could create an army of zombies, who need no feeding and cannot be killed. to defeat the allies (And all you cult film fans thought Black Dragons was a bizarre WW2-era chiller!!) To prove his point, he shoots his dead wife twice, who does not flinch from her stance. However, undead Lila proves to still have a mind of her own, even as a zombie, and that causes her widower doctor some problems.

I won't give away the rest of the plot, but it never deviates from the twisted mind(s) of the poorly paid young writers who toiled at Monogram 60-plus years ago. As mentioned, I'm torn on this film. I love these old cheapies, and I can watch Revenge of the Zombies 10 times. But it's not one of the better poverty row chillers. Carradine is just awful as the villain. He seems dazed throughout and acts as if he is a socialite at a Manhattan party instead of a mad scientist. Storm, Lowery and Macollum are mediocre talents, although Storm later gained fame in the TV show My Little Margie. Former cowboy star Steele has a small, confusing role as a double agent. Borg, as the undead Lila, is the only creepy character in the film. She's tough and could easily lick the other, passive zombies in a fight. Moreland can deliver comedy relief well but he's saddled with a poor script and uninterested co-stars.

The difference between the 1940s Monogram and PRC's low-budget films and Universal's B-monster films were the tightness and disciplines of the Universal scripts and action. Films such as the Mummy series and the House of Dracula or Frankenstein were efficiently acted, to the point, concise, well-directed, lean-mean hour-long or so films. Monogram or PRC could not afford that talent. It's probable most poverty row scripts were hastily written in one draft. Films such as Revenge of the Zombies and even Bowery at Midnight, a much better film, take sudden twists that the films' ultra-low budgets cannot deal with. Invariably, audiences get confused. These C-films relied on the charisma of the star (Bela Lugosi, J. Carrol Naish, George Zucco, Carradine) to maintain interest and suspense. However, one plus for these cheap films is that the sets were always pretty spooky and Revenge of the Zombies is no exception.

But I'm glad Monogram and others made their films in such haphazard ways. If they had been ordinary programmers instead of the mysterious, jaw-dropping mishmashes they became, we wouldn't still be talking about these poverty row wonders, and I probably wouldn't have written this review.

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