(4/10) A good black supporting cast led by comedian Mantan Moreland saves this 1943 film, directed by The Day of the Triffids director Steve Sekely. John Carradine sleepwalks through his second outing as a mad scientist, this time creating zombies out of his staff and even his own wife. The white heroes of the movie are really just killing time between Moreland’s comedy skits.
Revenge of the Zombies. 1943, USA. Directed by Steve Sekely. Written by Edmond Kelso, Van Norcross. Starring: Robert Lowery, Mauritz Hugo, John Carradine, Mantan Moreland, Veda Ann Borg, Gale Storm, Bob Steele, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, James Baskett, Sybil Lewis, Barry McCollum. Produced by Lindsley Parsons. IMDb: 4.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
As we get deeper into the forties, the Poverty Row mad scientist film keep multiplying. This time the villain is played by Bela Lugosi’s and Boris Karloff’s successor as something of mad scientist royalty (although the title was hotly contested for in 1943), John Carradine. This was his second outing as a mad scientist, the first being Captive Wild Woman (1943, review).
Revenge of the Zombies was a semi-sequel to the moderately successful Monogram horror comedy King of the Zombies (1941). Monogram brought back two of the starts of that film, black actors Mantan Moreland and Madame Sul-Te-Wan. Instead of having voodoo as the source of zombies, screenwriters Edmond Kelso (who penned the first film) and Van Norcross instead opt for a poisonous herb and some mad science.
The film has private eye Larry Adams (Robert Lowery) and Scott Warrenton (Mauritz Hugo) investigate the death of Warrenton’s sister Lila von Aldermann (Veda Ann Borg), wife of scientist Dr. Max Heinrich von Aldermann (Carradine), along with their jumpy, superstitious driver/valet Jeff (Moreland) at the doctor’s creepy mansion out somewhere in the southern swamplands. Turns out von Aldermann has been turning the staff of the mansion into zombies in an effort to create an army of undead creatures for the Nazis. As proof of his success he wants to present his own wife as the crowning achievement of the method.
Adams and Warrenton conspire to go into the Aldermann house on the pretence of helping out with the funeral, and for some reason have the two swap identities. Why this is done is beyond me, since it has absolutely no consequence for anything in the story, other than Warrenton spilling the beans halfway through and von Aldermann stating that he suspected it all along. Not much happens. The “dead” Mrs von Aldermann starts walking about and the bumbling investigators lose her, only to give her time to return to her casket when they try to confront the doctor with his walking dead wife. They call in the local sheriff (Bob Steele) who is actually a spy for the Nazis, but turns out is actually an FBI man hunting Nazis. Confused yet?
In the only real scene of anything actually going on, the zombified wife leads the not-so-controllable zombies in a zombie revolt against their master.
Between all this we also have some pure filler scenes with Adams and von Altermann’s unsuspicious secretary Jennifer (Gale Storm) and we follow Jeff nervously getting spooked by zombies, doing his usual schtick, and tries to romance the pretty maid Rosella (Sybil Lewis), all while staying at arms length away from the head zombie Lazarus (James Baskett) and getting his information about the goings-on at the house from the housekeeper and zombie-preparer, the old Beulah (Madame Sul-Te-Wan).
As far as the plot goes, this movie at just under 60 minutes is thin. There really isn’t much more than a setup and a showdown, and all in between is basically just killing time. The plot is built much like an old dark house story, but fails because first of all, no-one really dies in the film – the only actual deaths have taken place before the film begins, and we all know who is responsible, so there is no mystery. The movie occasionally manages to conjure up a slightly spooky atmosphere, but the point isn’t really to scare anyone, but rather to poke a bit of fun at horror films. The driving force behind the comedy is Mantan Moreland, by this time one of the better known comedians in the States, doing his rather one-dimensional and racially stereotyped skit.
Moreland was one of a handful of African-American actors taking their places in mainstream Hollywood, mainly in Poverty Row films and B-movies. Unfortunately they were mostly confined to doing comedy relief characters built upon the stereoptypical image of black people as superstitious simpletons. And like most other black actors, Moreland made his career out of playing the driver/valet of the hero. The same thing went for the respected actress Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Nellie Conley), who appeared in over 50 films in her career (probably many more, uncredited), and only at the very end of her career in the fifties was she able to break out from the ”Mammy” roles, if ”race films” aren’t counted. Sul-Te-Wan was one of the most notable black actresses in the early days of cinema, appearing in D.W. Griffith’s racist classic Birth of a Nation in 1915, and in 1953 a banquet was held in her honour in Hollywood on her 80th birthday, as she was then the oldest still working black actress in the business. The next year she received one of her most prestigious roles, in the Otto Preminger-directed and nearly entirely African-American cast musical drama Carmen Jones.
Anyway, Sul-Te-Wan and Moreland are what keep this film fun and enjoyable. Mantan Moreland is most widely known for playing the title character’s valet in a number of Charlie Chan films in the forties – he appeared in the only Charlie Chan sci-fi in The Jade Mask in 1945 (review). It was basically the same role as in this film.
A few words must be said about the director Steve Sekely. Born István Székely he was yet another Hungarian in Hollywood. A lauded director in his home country, Sekely made a splash with one of his first films, Hyppolit a lakáj (Hyppolit the Butler), a comedy about a snobby butler who turns the household of an unassuming nouveau-rich businessman upside down, in 1931. The film was voted as one of Hungary’s 12 best films ever in 2000, and was remade in 1999. When WWII reached Hungary in 1939, he fled to Hollywood, but unlike many of his Hungarian peers, he was never able to achieve a real breakthrough. When the situation in Europe cooled down he decided to return, luckily. In a pit stop in Great Britain he just so happened to make the film he is best known for today, the science fiction cult classic The Day of the Triffids (1963). It was his only sci-fi apart from Revenge of the Zombies.
In Sekely’s defence, one must point out that it is remarkable that he is able to conjure up such an enjoyable film out of the very flimsy raw material on hand. Despite the minute budget, the film doesn’t feel like a shoestring-budget film in the same way as the studio’s previous effort The Ape Man, owing a lot to Sekely’s stylish filming and his ability to dress up a cheap set to look more lavish than it is. It is worth noting that the crew is essentially the same as in The Ape Man (1943, review), but it feels like a step up from William Beaudine’s cheapo, and it probably had a slightly larger budget and longer shooting schedule. Production manager & assistant director Richard L’Estrange worked as production manager on the 1954 sci-fi TV series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.
Revenge of the Zombies has a somewhat mixed legacy among modern critics. AllMovie gives the film 2/5 stars, which is not great, by neither is it terrible. Critic Hal Erickson writes: “The second of Monogram’s “zombie” thrillers, Revenge of the Zombies is better than the first, if only because of its powerhouse cast”. Tom Weaver in his book Poverty Row Horrors, on the other hand, prefers the former movie, calling Revenge of the Zombies “awkwardly plotted and unexciting”. Critic Derek Winnert, on the third hand, calls the film “intriguing and entertaining”. Winnert writes that the film “is unfortunately rather limited by what appears to have been the tiniest of tiny budgets, though, even so, it is atmospheric in places, with some sequences, with the lab and the swamp graveyard sets effective”.
Disagreeing with most other critics, Winnert praises Carradine’s performance, writing that “horrible broad comedy from Mantan Moreland as Jeff damages it by being the wrong tone, plunging it into a zombie comedy”. I am not sure if Winnert has realised that the film is supposed to be a zombie comedy. The website Black Horror Movies writes: “Mantan is typical Mantan: helpless, ignorant, and blindly superstitious, yet still likable. As groan-worthy as his role seems by today’s standards, it’s evident that he’s the high point of both this movie and [King of the Zombies]. The other characters are so flat and dull, it’s hard to figure out who the zombies are, but when Mantan enters the scene, it’s amazing how the energy level picks up.” Jeff Kuykendall at Midnight Only agrees, writing that “our heroes […] are the blandest slices of white bread the screenwriters could serve up”. Lisa Marie Bowman at Through the Shattered Lens sums up the discussion on Moreland nicely: “It’s always difficult for contemporary audiences to deal with the racial attitudes displayed in the films and literature of the past. On the one hand, Jeff is written as a complete and total stereotype and, as you listen to his dialogue, you’re painfully aware of the fact that the goal was to get audiences to laugh at him as opposed to with him. On the other hand, Moreland is literally the only actor in the film who actually gives a good performance. Even when delivering the most cringe-worthy of dialogue, Moreland does so with a conviction and commitment that holds your interest. As you watch Revenge of the Zombies, you really don’t care what happens to most of the bland and interchangeable characters. But you really do want Jeff to survive.”
Revenge of the Zombies came out during the first wave of zombie movies, and some analysts have pointed out that it is the first film where the term ”zombie” doesn’t get an explanation – by this time the audience is expected to know what a zombie is. The movie moves along fairly well, without being terribly exciting. It isn’t very coherent, though, and even at the end of the film I’m not quite sure whose body it was that was shuffled around in the movie (REAL body, not a zombie). The humour, although not especially well written, is what sets this film apart from the worst bottom-feeders of the B-movie swamp, largely thanks to the wonderful black cast, whom the film really belongs to.
Big, black James Baskett has perhaps the best line in the whole movie, and he delivers it with such dead-pan seriousness that it had me howling with laughter. As Moreland is just starting to realise the situation he is in, he is about to drive the car into the garage, as Baskett the zombie comes up for a little chat.
– Beautiful car. I drove car like this for master.
– When I was alive.
Baskett wasn’t a very prolific movie actor, and only did seven films before this one, and two after. But he became an international star with his role in his very last movie, the semi-live action, semi-animated Disney film Song of the South (1946). Although it may be hard to imagine, this stiff zombie is the actor that played the kindly story-teller Uncle Remus who retells the stories of Brer Rabbit in the movie. Most importantly, he sang the classic Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, a massive hit when the film came out. The song was voted by AFI as the 47th most notable film songs in history. It has been covered dozens of time, by artists like Johnny Mercer, The Jackson Five and Louis Armstrong – and Miley Cyrus. On screen it has been sung by The Muppets, Kurt Russell, Chevy Chase and Tom Hanks.
The song earned an Oscar for best original song in a movie in 1948. This was also arguably the first instance when a black actor played the male lead in a blockbuster film. Baskett received an honorary Oscar for his role, being the first black male person to win an Oscar. The first black Oscar winner was Hattie McDaniel, for her role in Gone with the Wind nine years earlier.
Nonetheless, just like McDaniel and Moreland, Baskett was attacked by civil rights activists for taking on ”demeaning” roles. It is clear that there was a problem with black actors doing roles that reinforced the stereotypes of African-Americans as either simpleton servants or simpleton happy-go-lucky hobo types. But then on the other hand, what was a black actor going to do? As McDaniel put it: ”Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” Moreland was more or less driven out of films in the fifties when social attitudes towards the portrayal of black people started to change, and when he made something of a comeback in the seventies, he didn’t have long left to live. Baskett died, just 44 years old, just after receiving his Oscar.
John Carradine, the Shakespearean actor with the impressive voice and the long, thin face, was seldom bad in a movie. But in this one he seems to be cruising through it without much interest. Carradine had already been around the horror movie sets, playing small bit-parts in The Invisible Man (1933, review) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), but was mostly engaged in other types of movies in the thirties and early forties. One reason he started taking on the rather silly mad scientist roles in the forties was that he used his salary to keep his own Shakespearean company going – as Shakespeare was the love of his life, and he was known to walk the streets of Hollywood reciting sonnets and monologues to himself. Horror and sci-fi were genres that would follow him for the rest of his life, and unfortunately he is perhaps best remembered for playing Dracula in the abysmal House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (review). But he was also a well-known face in westerns, and is was inducted to the Western Hall of Fame.
Josephine Cottle won a radio contest put on by movie producer Jesse Lasky in 1939, and was subsequently given the slightly windy stage name of Gale Storm as she was introduced to Hollywood in the early forties, soon doing fairly well as leading lady of a number of B-films, mostly westerns. It was in the small screen, however, that she became a household name in the fifties, starring first in the summer-season replacement for I Love Lucy, called My Little Margie (1952-1955), and after that was cancelled, she received her own show: The Gale Storm Show, that continued all the way up to 1960. Storm was also a very popular singer and radio show star. She has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for Radio, Recording and TV. Revenge of the Zombies was her only sci-fi appearance.
The rest of the principal cast is OK, as studio contracted casts tended to be at the time. Handsome Robert Lowery would slum through a number of B movies as leading man, occasionally appearing in smaller roles in more prestigious movies. His first real claim to fame came relatively late for an actor of his model, as he became the second actor to don the cape and cowl of the dark knight in the 1949 serial Batman & Robin. In 1952 he had a guest appearance in an episode of the TV series The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. This was the first time a Batman and Superman actor had appeared together on film of TV. Although years earlier Reeves and Lowery had actually acted together in an instructional ”hygiene” film for the US army. His other famous role is as Big Tim Champion in the TV series Circus Boy (1956-57).
Mauritz Hugo was a staple bit-part player, and as so much of the B-studio contract cast of the time, he made most of his living by appearing in westerns. He does share a connection with his co-star Lowery, though, as he appeared in a small part in an episode of the 1943 Batman serial, six years before Lowery’s Batman outing. He also appeared in two episodes of the children’s TV show Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1955) and an episode of Science Fiction Theatre (1956). Sybil Lewis as Mantan Moreland’s love interest is not too bad, but as one of my favourite sites, blackhorrormovies.com points out, she ”speaks in awkward, unnatural Ebonics; sort of like when Halle Berry tries to act poor”’.
Veda Ann Borg (as Mrs. Altermann) was born of Swedish parents in Boston and was a model before being signed to Paramount in 1936. A terrible car accident meant she had to undergo complete facial reconstruction in 1939, but thankfully the plastic surgeon knew what he was doing, and apart from some facial stiffness, the surgery had no big impact on her career. A career that unfortunately never really took off, though. The beautiful blonde was recognized for some talent, as evident by her nearly 140 roles in films, serials or series, but apart from a few leading lady roles in B-movies at Poverty Row, she was mostly assigned to small supporting roles or bit-parts. This was her only sci-fi.
Bob Steele shines as the Nazi henchman/sheriff/FBI agent, basically playing three roles in one. Steele was already a western veteran, and must have found this movie to be a pleasant distraction – he even does a send-up of his typical Texan western roles. In fact out of his 239 IMDb-credited roles in film and TV, 230 are in westerns. He does appear, though, in the sci-fi The Atomic Submarine (1959).
Revenge of the Zombies. 1943, USA. Directed by Steve Sekely. Written by Edmond Kelso, Van Norcross. Starring: Robert Lowery, Mauritz Hugo, John Carradine, Mantan Moreland, Veda Ann Borg, Gale Storm, Bob Steele, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, James Baskett, Sybil Lewis, Barry McCollum. Cinematography: Mack Stengler. Editing: Richard C. Currier. Art direction: Dave Milton. Production manager & assistant director: Richard L’Estrange. Musical director: Edward J. Kay. Dialogue director: Jack Linder. Produced by Lindsley Parsons for Monogram.
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