An Old School Zombie Education!
By Kristin Battestella
Here’s a shocker, zombie films are nothing new! Here’s a bemusing set of early Hollywood undead to start your Z education off right.
King of the Zombies – Well, unlike the often ignorant portrayals of early film, Mantan Moreland (Charlie Chan in the Secret Service) is actually a show stealing funny man in this 1941 undead romp. His Jeff doesn’t speak in the stereotypical subservient tone; He’s not a servant there for one’s bemusement, but rather a working man who defuses the scares with humor. There is a difference indeed. In addition to interesting plane footage, with a creepy crash into a foreign country and shades of voodoo, more suspense and pleasing layers are added when no one believes Jeff’s supernatural encounters. Though the ‘lingo’ is very dated and the effects of the hour insignificant, great candles, shadows, solid Oscar nominated music, and a gothic Old World feeling add to the unusual mix of pseudo wartime spies, scares, and humor. This isn’t meant to be serious- Druids and veiled Nazis in with Voodoo? Espionage, suspicions, and speculation mixed with hypnosis on the eve of World War II? The picture needs a major restoration, and some of the sneaking around can be a little confusing- yet it’s all somehow credible and spooky. The neat, on the nose proto-war aspects and amusing scares make this one worth the study.
Revolt of the Zombies – So it is cheating a bit by calling this 1936 supposed sequel to White Zombie a Bela Lugosi film, as he technically does not star in this hour-long focus on French Zombies and World War I. Yes, you read all that right. Stock footage of Lugosi’s hypnotic eyes is used here as part of the undead brainwashing- or rather on the “robot soldiers” as they are called. The sound is poor, but any innate flaws can be forgiven thanks to this very unique interwar look and Cambodian setting. Who would have thought someone would make a movie about the fictitious horrors of one war whilst on the brink of the next? The black and white shots of Angkor are also glorious and worth the viewing alone for scholars. Granted the men are wooden, the women stereotypical, and there’s some kind of love triangle if you can tell which guy is which. Ironically, there aren’t even that many scares or zombies to speak of, either. Thankfully, this one has enough novelty going for it to earn an audience. Who knew?
White Zombie – Bela Lugosi (Dracula) is done up smashingly twisted as the witchdoctor causing undead trouble for Robert Frazer (The Three Musketeers) and Madge Bellamy (The Iron Horse) in this 70 minute 1932 treat. Though the costumes are thirties smashing, the sound and film is very poor- snap, crackle, pop and all that- making this tough to watch for some. Though it’s easy to think there’s something kinky afoot with some pre-code suggestions and innuendo and the music is quite good and suspenseful, the made on the cheap style is a bit too obvious. The acting is a little over the top, too, and the plot can be somewhat confusing if you don’t hear all the dialogue. The portrayal of Haiti and minorities is also a little stereotypical of the time as well. Nevertheless, this is a fun little piece showcasing the more traditional voodoo zombie angles of those buried alive and soullessly controlled rather than our brain eating slow pokes and humor. Actually, I’m surprised the remake for this hasn’t gotten off the ground yet or that the idea of using zombies as manual labor isn’t used that often- particularly since zombies are currently trumping the glitter vampire wave and post-apocalyptic notions are quite hot right now. It’s technically flawed, but zombie fans can learn a lot here.
Zombies of Mora Tau – Treasure, betrayal, diamonds, and zombies, oh my! This 1957 black and white hour plus is full of B players that put on just a bit too much amid plenty of horror clichés. A little old lady who knows the score, the screaming damsel dressed in white, erroneous “African voodoo mumbo jumbo.” There should be scaries and scandals ad nauseum with the whammy of possibilities, but no. I mean, a good candelabra- yes candelabra– or two could ward of the living dead, who knew? The zombies look exactly like everyone else- the audience can’t really get behind the heroes when one can’t tell them apart. And did I mention there’s hokey underwater action, too? Geesh, here’s proof that all old films are not classics.