Monday, October 18, 2010

Movie Monday - Revolt of the Zombies

Four years after "White Zombie," the Halperin brothers (producer Edward and director Victor) returned to the subject with "Revolt of the Zombies" in 1936. Unlike its creepier and better predecessor, "Revolt of the Zombies" is almost universally considered to be awful, and yet it is one of the most interesting bad films I've ever seen--a film that fails on almost every level, but shows the potential to have been not just good, but ahead of its time in a lot of ways.

It opens with a simple title card and inappropriately cheery music (the film is in the public domain, so if you're curious, you can jump to the Internet Archive here to watch the film, or at least the opening credits). Due to its low budget as an independent production, it does not appear to have had its own score, but used library music to its detriment. We then get a brief text description telling us that we are to learn one of the great untold stories of the Great War, and the strange and gruesome events that occurred after a group of French Cambodian soldiers joined the French lines on the Franco-Prussian border.

Immediately, we meet Armand Louque (Dean Jagger), a French soldier acting as interpreter for a Khmer priest named Thiang. The priest possesses the secret of zombies and is offering to use its power to help the French win the war. "Winning" being a foreign concept to the French army, General Duval refuses. He also claims that the entire idea is nonsense.

Armand then meets with an American friend, Cliff Grayson (Robert Noland, who has all the acting chops of a zombie himself), who encourages Armand to have the self-confidence to pursue what he wants and not let anything stand in his way. So Armand and Thiang (who tends to stare off into space as if he were a zombie himself) arrange for a demonstration.

Next thing you know, a group of zombie Cambodians attack the German lines, under the influence of... Hey!

Lugosi eyes! The same ones that appeared in "White Zombie..."

Yeah, that's right, this is sort of a sequel in spirit to "White Zombie," although the only on-screen nod to that fact is the use of Lugosi's eyes superimposed on top of all the zombie sequences. Anyway, the Allied generals are horrified at the fact that the zombies actually worked as advertised, ignoring the bullets riddling their bodies as they massacred the Huns. Only Louque and a certain Colonel Mazovia (who wears an odd black uniform and a sinister mustache, so you know he's evil, like a French Darth Vader) do not object to the use of the zombies.

One officer even goes on to state that if allowed to go unchecked, the zombies could spell the end of the white race. Priest Thiang is imprisoned, where he is promptly killed by Darth Frenchy for a scrap of tapestry revealing part of the zombie-making rite. Then the assembled officers--once again led by the allergic-to-winning French General Duval--resolve to travel to Cambodia to hunt down the ancient zombie secret so that they can destroy it.

Once in Angkor, along with a multinational archaeological expedition led by Duval, Louque is getting along well with Duval's daughter, the lovely Claire. He tells her the story of an ancient priest-king who gave up his power to prove his love to a woman. We can see that Louque is attracted to Claire. But as is immediately apparent, Claire only has eyes for Cliff Grayson. And so, we see that "Revolt of the Zombies" is not only related to "White Zombie" in terms of its title monster, but also thematically, in that it revolves around a love triangle, and the monsters are basically just tools of courting. This is odd, but also potentially powerful storytelling.

However, next thing we know, Claire is getting engaged to Louque. But at their engagement dinner (which features a really sloppy native dancer), Cliff appears to be none too happy about the situation, and Claire seems pleased at his discomfort. A while later, the rope holding a scaffold breaks and Claire dodges right into Cliff's arms, a fact which Cliff enjoys a little too much.

And just like that, Claire and Louque are no longer engaged. Turns out, Claire was just using Louque to make Cliff jealous, ruthlessly pursuing her objective to get what she wanted the way Cliff once advised Louque to do. Louque tries to play it off as if it doesn't matter. Cliff is his friend, and he still loves Claire and wants her to be happy. So he wishes her well. He is what the pick-up artist would call an AFC, your Average Fucking Chump, who lets a woman walk all over him in the pathetic hopes that she'll eventually come to realize just how much he cares (FYI: I've been trying that for over twenty years; it hasn't worked yet).

And this could be really powerful if we had a little bit more to go on, a few scenes to actually show the relationships building. As it is, watching this movie is like reading the outline of a novel--this happens, then that happens, then immediately this other thing happens. The emotions sort of make sense, but the pacing is too fast, the scenes barely sketched, the dialogue stiff and the acting inadequate.

There is an interesting scene coming up, though. The expedition has had to return to Phnom Penh because their native laborers refused to work another day in Angkor (work-stoppage arranged by Darth Frenchy, who wants the zombie recipe for himself). Louque watches Cliff and Claire bill and coo on the dance floor, then sees them walk outside to neck in the moonlight. He then goes back to his lab, where in his anguish, he goes through this really creepy bit of laughing while he cries (or vice-versa).

And though Dean Jagger is pretty stiff as Louque for most of the movie, this bit of madness works pretty well. And perhaps it's because of this temporary madness, as in so many horror stories, that he finally makes his breakthrough. He grabs a bit of text brought back from Angkor that makes reference to a strange ritual, and then he remembers a photo of a stone tablet. He looks at the photo, and the bas-relief on the tablet matches the bit of tapestry that Darth Frenchy liberated from Preist Thiang. He realizes this is the key to the secret, so he returns alone to Angkor that night (secretly followed by Darth).

He falls through a hole in the floor of a temple into a corridor when some priests wander by, conveniently stopping where he can see them to pose with the very tablet he seeks.

He follows the one priest down a secluded stream to another small temple, where the stone tablet is placed before a statue of Shiva. And in that temple, Louque discovers a secret panel which contains instructions for making zombie incense.

When he returns from Angkor, his furious boss fires him before he can announce his discovery. So he makes the zombie incense in secret. He tests it out on his manservant first (while rather idiotically narrating to the man exactly what he's doing--note to real evil sorcerers: don't tell your assistant you're using him for zombie experiments until after they've succeeded--this public service announcement brought to you by Frazier's Brain with the help of Evil Masterminds Like You).

And then it's off to the races. He has his manservant kill Darth Frenchy, who tries to take the zombie secret from him. He then mind-controls General Duval to send Cliff away so he can't marry Claire. Then he controls almost everyone in and around the expedition's compound--Brits, Frenchmen, and Cambodian soldiers alike, except for his Scottish friend MacDonald and Claire. Cliff returns (having been summoned by Claire in a dream, the same way Madeleine summoned Neil in "White Zombie," only without the cool visual effect), but he also falls under Louque's power, because Louque has taken to heart Cliff's admonition that he must pursue what he wants ruthlessly until he gets it, no matter who is hurt.

But Louque refuses to dominate Claire in the same way, and in a final desperate act of Average-Fucking-Chumpdom, he decides to re-enact the legend he described to Claire when they were first getting acquainted. He renounces his power to prove himself worthy of her love (at this point, if you were watching it in a theater, you would hear three hundred simultaneous demonstrations of the answer to an ancient Zen koan--Q: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" A: facepalm). The zombies come to their senses, and the Cambodians immediately go on a rampage, led by his manservant. They break into the compound and murder Louque. Cliff and Claire end up in each other arms.

And this final bit of the story is as rushed and barely sketched-in as the earlier romantic part. I notice that the running time is only about an hour. I don't know if it was bad scripting, a lack of production funds, post-release editing, or maybe just bookers not allowing more than an hour for the B-picture, but an hour is just too short to do this story justice. With a few more scenes, some less cliched dialogue and slightly better acting, this could have been a classic, if not in the 30's then certainly later.

Because in a lot of ways, the plot feels really modern. The focus on the romantic relationship as the motivation for all the supernatural goings-on, the use of foreshadowing and the ways the themes are repeatedly pounded in dialogue, presented each time in a slightly different context--these feel more like Cronenberg's "The Fly" than James Whale's "Frankenstein," if you know what I mean.

My friend John Wooley once put out a comic book of Ed Wood's "Plan Nine From Outer Space," with the intention of showing how, stripped of the crappy production values, it was actually a pretty chilling story. Unfortunately, he used the same plot and dialogue as Wood, so the experiment ended up basically proving that Ed Wood was as bad a writer as he was a director.

But I think the idea would hold more true here. Rewritten slightly to give the story more room to breathe and update the dialogue (and maybe making the discovery of the secret a little less coincidental), this is a film that could be made today without the need for much in the way of replotting. Conceptually, I think the story would work as a modern film.

Which makes this one of the most fascinating failures I've ever watched. It's bad on almost every level: pacing, dialogue, music, acting. It doesn't even have the cool visual flourishes that "White Zombie" did. But it's a bad movie that has a good movie inside it, screaming to get out, which sets it apart from a lot of bad movies.

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