Revolt of the Zombies directed by Victor Halperin
Released in July 1932, White Zombie, the original zombie picture, starred Bela Lugosi, one year after his Dracula success on screen, and was a moderate box office success. Hoping for another profitable and artistic coup, its filmmakers tried their hand at another zombie outing four years later, with infinitely fewer rewards, both artistically and financially. Revolt of the Zombies, released in June ’36, was created by many members of the team responsible for the previous film — including director Victor Halperin, his brother/producer Edward Halperin, and composer Hugo Riesenfeld — but sadly, lightning failed to strike twice, and the film, as it turns out, is hardly as memorable as the original picture, and is actually something of a labor to sit through.
As in White Zombie, the picture transpires in an exotic locale; Haiti for the former, Cambodia for the latter. In the waning days of WW1, the Allied forces near Phnom Penh have been confounded by the native automatons that have been facing them on the battlefield. (Indeed, in the film’s only scene that is even remotely chilling, we see a gaggle of these zombies advancing on the European trenches, seemingly oblivious to the bullets ripping into their abdomens…) When the Cambodian priest who is in control of these zombies is captured but later murdered by the European general Mazovia, who is desirous of the holy man’s secrets, an expeditionary force is sent to the ruins of Angkor Wat to endeavor to find some clues. French translator Armand Louque (Dean Jagger, probably younger here than you’ve ever seen him) is part of this team, and makes the mistake of falling in love with a general’s daughter, Claire Duval (Dorothy Stone, who at times bears a passing resemblance to Fay Wray). Claire ultimately dumps Armand in favor of handsome Englishman Clifford Grayson (Robert Noland), and so the dejected Armand, once he discovers the secret of zombification in the Angkor ruins, does what any lovesick wackadoodle might do: use his newfound powers to command an automaton army of local natives, break up the happy couple, and bend Claire to his demented will…
Unfortunately, what sounds pretty cool in synopsis turns out to be anything but as this film unreels, and its 65-minute running time may feel like the longest 65 minutes of your life. From the non sequitur circus music that plays over the film’s cheap-looking opening credits to its overly abrupt denouement, this is a decidedly inferior entertainment, beginning to end. Revolt of the Zombies gives us not a single character to identify with or even admire, and has been remarkably shoddily put together. I usually don’t even notice things like this, but this picture has been clumsily edited, with awkward scene transitions that would suggest an amateur effort if one didn’t know better. Offhand, I also cannot recall ever having seen such an unconvincing use of backdrops; just get a load of Dean pretending to trudge through that rear-projected swamp! Laffably bad! And speaking of laffable, the film offers up what has to be the lamest instance ever of a female native doing an exotic dance; an octogenarian at a Delray Beach nursing home might have done better!
Another aspect of film production that is usually not an issue with this viewer is the acting, but here, some of the thesping is, again, of the sort that will surely engender snickers. Dorothy Stone is especially bad, her style of overacting at once dated and unconvincing. To quote Glenn Kay on this film, from his terrific encyclopedia Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, “Nothing even remotely scary is going on here (apart from the bad acting).” But even worse than the lousy FX and lame emoting is the fact that the film’s story (cowritten by Victor Halperin) is confusing and features many plot threads that simply peter out. For example, we are initially shown that Louque must concoct a drug of sorts, heat it over a Bunsen burner, and waft the resultant fumes into a victim’s face to achieve zombification, but later on, he is somehow able to bend men to his will at a distance. (The close-up shots of Lugosi’s eyes from White Zombie are shown repeatedly here to imply this long-distance coercion!) And the subplot concerning General Mazovia is resolved in a brisk two-minute interlude! Worse yet, when that officer is strangled to death by one of Louque’s automatons, the film is too chickenhearted to even show us this bloodless murder on screen. And as for the titular “revolt” near the film’s end … well, let’s just say that George A. Romero has nothing to worry about, on this score!
ROTZ (a perfect acronym for a film that really rots!) can be found today on a DVD from the Roan Group, on the flip side of which resides another fairly lame zombie picture, King of the Zombies (1941). But King of the Zombies at least is an entertaining film, and often quite funny, thanks largely to the amusing one-liners of Mantan Moreland. Revolt of the Zombies is a completely humorless affair; a self-serious production that should have been infinitely better. “The Weirdest Love Story in 2,000 Years,” its one-sheet poster originally proclaimed. Unfortunately, the weirdest thing about Revolt of the Zombies is that it is a zombie film without a single scare. Talk about being dead on arrival!