“Even blown half to bits, undaunted by fire and gas, zombies would fight on so long as the brain cells that receive and execute commands still remained intact…”
Director: Steve Sekely
Starring: John Carradine, Veda Ann Borg, Robert Lowery, Mantan Moreland, Gale Storm, Mauritz Hugo, Barry Macollum, Bob Steele, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, James Baskett, Sybil Lewis, Robert Cherry
Screenplay: Edmund Kelso and Van Norcross
Synopsis: In the grounds of an isolated Louisiana mansion, the undead are summoned from their resting-place by an eerie cry. While most are sent to collect tools, one is ordered to keep watch upon the home of Dr Harvey Keating (Barry Macollum)… Scott Werrington (Mauritz Hugo) and Larry Adams (Robert Lowery) arrive at the home of Dr Keating, who summoned them due to his suspicions regarding the death of Scott’s sister. The cause of death, according to Lila’s husband and attending physician, Dr von Altermann (John Carradine), was heart failure, but her symptoms suggested otherwise to Dr Keating—possibly poison—and that there may be still worse to come… In addition to being Scott’s friend, Larry is a detective; he explains to Keating their plan to exchange identities. Outside, Scott’s chauffeur, Jeff (Mantan Moreland), discovers that he is being watched from the bushes. However, when he summons Scott and Larry, the mysterious watcher is gone… At the house of von Altermann, in his laboratory, the doctor prepares to perform an experiment upon his wife’s body… Keating, Scott and Larry are admitted to von Altermann’s house by his housekeeper, Mammy Beulah (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), who leads them to the doctor’s secretary, Jennifer Rand (Gale Storm). When Jennifer expresses her sympathy over Lila’s death, calling it a great shock, Mammy Beulah echoes her words sarcastically. An uncomfortable Jennifer sends the housekeeper to find Dr von Altermann. Mammy Beulah goes downstairs to the laboratory, where von Altermann orders her to see to Lila’s body… A subdued von Altermann greets his visitors and has rooms prepared for all of them, informing them that the funeral will be the following day. The false “Scott” asks to see Lila, and von Altermann leads his guests to the chapel, where the body of his wife lies in state… Learning that they will all be staying the night, Jeff moves the car to the garage. He is met by the maid, Rosella (Sybil Lewis), who has come to show him the way to the house. She tells him that she wants to get away, because she doesn’t like what has been going on there. When Jeff presses her to explain, she leads him to the cemetery, where several zombies are hard at work… When they are left alone, Keating insists to Scott and Larry that they must keep watch over Lila’s body, to protect her. At that moment, however, von Altermann is in the chapel, where he orders Lazarus (James Baskett), the leader of the zombies, to “call her”. Lazarus obediently gives an eerie cry…and Lila von Altermann’s eyes begin to open…
Comments: This pseudo-sequel to King Of The Zombies is a distinct improvement over its predecessor in several ways: (i) it’s shorter; (ii) it inflicts a lot less of Mantan Moreland’s shtick upon the viewer – I wish I could say “none”, but I suppose that was out of the question; (iii) zombieism is not a matter of hypnotism, but of SCIENCE!!; and (iv) whereas the earlier film reneged on its implicit promise of Bela Lugosi or Peter Lorre, Revenge Of The Zombies gifts us John Carradine, in only his second true genre film yet even at this early point in a lo-oo-ong career playing mad scientist as to the manner born.
In historical terms, we should also pause and note that Revenge Of The Zombies is the earliest zombie film in which the zombies are unambiguously the living dead. The Walking Dead, for one, got there first in terms of bringing the dead back to a form of life, but you would not call it a “zombie film”; while the earlier films that did call themselves that, White Zombie excepted, display an irritating skittishness about the creation of their zombies. Revenge Of The Zombies is the first to pull no punches in this regard—even if its zombies are the product of mad science rather than black magic. (And this film, consequently, science fiction, not horror.)
The other change for the better in Revenge Of The Zombies is that, by 1943, the American film industry had finally stopped worrying about wounded German sensibilities – yeah, you’d think – so that this film’s villain not only rejoices in the name of Dr Max Heinrich von Altermann, he is an overt Nazi agent creating zombies in the service of the Fatherland.
Best of all though—well, these Monogram Pictures, in their cheapness and rapidity, made without stopping to think too much, often did sneak in unexpected themes and plot-points. Just the same, I can’t honestly say I was expecting Revenge Of the Zombies to turn feminist on me…!
(On the other hand, after King Of The Zombies we might be inclined to inquire whether Monogram considered a man experimenting on his wife the kind of things the Germans would do, or whether they intended some sort of commentary on the state of marriage in the early 1940s.)
With only 61 minutes at its disposal, Revenge Of The Zombies wastes no time in serving up its titular menace. On a dark and stormy night, Lazarus – von Altermann’s head zombie – emerges from the mansion-house and utters a strange cry: “Ahhhhhh-OOOOOH!!” This cry, we gather, serves to literally wake the dead: we watch as one particular individual climbs out of his above-ground coffin (Louisiana, remember?), strips away his shroud, and walks out of the mausoleum in obedience to Lazarus’s summons.
As he moves towards the house, he joined by several others. Interestingly, there are about equal numbers of black and white zombies. We note that several of them favour a stiff-legged gait that looks uncomfortably like a goose-step…and that others don’t: did those actors refuse to do it, I wonder?
Lazarus sends most of the zombies to get picks and shovels, ordering them to “get to work”; the one we watched rise from his coffin – a white zombie called Pete – is sent to spy on the house of a Dr Keating.
Lazarus is the only zombie (so far) with the power of speech, and his zombieism is signified chiefly via the loss of his ability to use pronouns.
Pete gets to Keating’s house just as some visitors arrive: Scott Werrington, Dr von Altermann’s brother-in-law; Scott’s friend, Larry Adams, a detective (although this is not made explicit until much later in the film); and Scott’s chauffeur, Jeff…
…though apparently not the same “Jeff” as in King Of The Zombies, since this one “knows there ain’t nothing like” zombies, at least until taught otherwise. Mantan Moreland is fourth billed in this film, which is about right (though Gale Storm’s billing above him and Veda Ann Borg is outrageous!). His role is smaller, but perhaps better: this Jeff, at least after an early accusation of drunkenness, gets much less disrespect and disregard from the good guys, and forms part of the posse that turns upon von Altermann towards the end. The shtick still makes itself felt at times, but those looking for a “Mantan Moreland film” should stay with King Of The Zombies.
Scott and Larry are greeted by Dr Keating, who sent to Scott the sad news of his sister’s sudden death. But as it turns out, Keating has other things on his mind. He does not believe von Altermann’s diagnosis of his wife’s cause of death, and in fact suspects that Lila may have been murdered. Larry in turn reveals to Keating his plan to switch identities with Scott, so that (although this is not made explicit either) he may investigate the circumstances of Lila’s death while exploiting the privileges of their supposed close relationship.
Back at the mansion-house, in the laboratory – you knew there’d be a laboratory, right? – two zombies are fashioning a coffin under Lazarus’s supervision. At this point, we are introduced to Dr von Altermann, who from our very first glimpse of him, wild-eyed behind surgical gear, is obviously a complete raving nutter.
Okay, that’s not a surprise. What is, is how very young John Carradine looks when he strips off his surgical mask. Carradine’s amazing professional fecundity towards the back-end of his career serves, I suppose, to imprint “elderly Carradine” as our mental image of him.
Von Altermann approves the coffin, then turns to a covered figure on a surgical table nearby. He lifts back the sheet, and gazes down thoughtfully at his late wife…whose eyes are open, though apparently unseeing. Von Altermann proceeds to do a little SCIENCE!!—delicious shorthand visual gobbledygook involving electrical coils, wrist and ankle electrodes, syringes, and conical flasks (containing, yes, Mysterious Coloured Fluids); which together somehow induce zombieism…
Outside Dr Keating’s house, Jeff is doing a song-and-dance routine for no particular reason, when he sees someone staring at him from the nearby bushes. Though in this world Jeff has no suspicion yet of zombies, even this is enough to panic him, and he rushes up to Scott and Larry as they emerge from Keating’s house, pouring out them a ridiculously exaggerated description of the silent watcher…who of course vanishes before the others can look…and who even more “of course” reappears as soon as they look away again.
At von Altermann’s, Jeff is dismayed at being left outside again (uh, you’re a chauffeur, Jeff, not a valet). The others ignore his woes and follow Mammy Beulah into the presence of Jennifer Rand, von Altermann’s self-admitted incompetent secretary: an even more perfunctory “heroine” than her predecessor in King Of The Zombies.
Jennifer expresses her sympathy to “Scott” for his loss, which Mammy Beulah echoes in a distinctly sarcastic manner – “Oh, a great shock!” – and goes off, cackling to herself, to find von Altermann. He responds to her summons, ordering her to, “See to the body of your mistress.” Mammy Beulah promises that she will—“Like I always take care of ’em.”
Upstairs, “Scott” is trying to pump Jennifer for information, but he gets nothing helpful out of her. Indeed, she has just declared that von Altermann “worshipped” Lila when the doctor himself appears, subdued but welcoming, regretful that he and his brother-in-law had not met before, under happier circumstances. At “Scott”’s request, von Altermann takes the three visitors through to the chapel, where now Lila lies in state in an elaborate coffin, surrounded by candles and flowers—and with her eyes closed.
Meanwhile, Jeff is meeting Lazurus, who for a zombie retains a surprising degree of life memory. He even stops to admire Scott’s car, observing that he used to drive a car like that, “For the master”—when he was alive…
Jeff freaks out at this, but gets over his fright – at least temporarily – when he meets the Sassy Maid de jour, Rosella, who almost immediately starts telling him about the strange things going on at the mansion—including, “Things walkin’ that ain’t got no business walkin’.”
Jeff is then shown the cemetery, where the zombies seem to be busy digging someone up—while a strange voice cries out from the ground to know where he is…? Lazarus’s explanation that, “It’s just a zombie” consoles Jeff not one bit, and he heads for the house at a rate of knots. Inside, Dr Keating is trying to convince Scott and Larry that they have to guard Lila’s body until her funeral, to ensure that no “unholy rites” are performed.
In the chapel, von Altermann orders Lazarus to “call her”, which he does using the same cry we heard earlier: “Ahhhhhh-OOOOOH!!” Von Altermann then utters his wife’s name in an urgent voice: in response, she opens her eyes, sits up, and climbs out of her coffin (with the camera cutting away at the critical moment, as usual).
Lazarus’s call proves to be audible to the others – what the hell, von Altermann? – and it interrupts Jeff’s flurried description of his experiences. The men rush downstairs to the chapel. Von Altermann hears them coming, orders Lila to the laboratory, and dashes into hiding himself. The men arrive just in time to see Lila gliding through the far door—although somehow, even though she is moving infinitely slower than they, by the time they burst through the door themselves and into anonymous passageway beyond, she is nowhere to be found…
The men confer, with both Scott and Larry believing that Lila is not dead, but drugged, and rejecting Dr Keating’s theory that Lila has been raised from the dead as impossible and ridiculous.
We find von Altermann dictating to Jennifer. At his request she reads back to him the following:
“It is my hypothesis that metabolism, although vital to pre-natal and adolescent development, is not essential in later life. Changes in cells, once matured, can be sustained by a process of inter-refrigeration—”
Alas, at this point our alleged heroes come barging in, and spoil our fun.
Von Altermann remains unmoved in the face of the claim that Lila is up and around – in fact, he uses pretty much the same words to Scott and Larry as they used to Dr Keating a couple of minutes ago – and leads them to the chapel…where of course they find Lila lying peacefully in her coffin.
Dr Keating touches her and reports her to be icy cold, then does a quick – very quick – breath-test with a mirror. Scott, refusing to give up hope, insists that Lila is smiling now, but wasn’t earlier. This is too much for Jennifer, who scolds the men for their cruelty (presumably to von Altermann) before storming out. Von Altermann himself is more forgiving, speaking of “long trips” and “nerves”.
Later that night, Lazarus leads a secret visitor down to the laboratory, from whence issue cries in what King Of The Zombies liked to call “unidentifiable blather”, but which is now simply German. Von Altermann and his guest click their heels and bow to one another. Von Altermann announces that his work has been successful, and he is now ready to go home—along with all his apparatus, and one experimental subject. He then sends Lazarus to the chapel to summon Lila. In the meantime, he explains to his visitor exactly what he has been doing—“I already tried to explain it, but they wouldn’t believe me!” he grumbles.
In fact, von Altermann is creating a new kind of army for his country – an army that doesn’t need to be fed, that is impervious to bullets; that is invincible:
German agent: “An army of robots, or – automatons?”
Von Altermann: “An army of the living dead!”
(Which, curiously enough, is what the characters were up to in the opening scenes of Revolt Of The Zombies, too. I guess the secret didn’t die with Dean Jagger after all.)
The two men are interrupted by the arrival of Lila, who the visitor greets as normal. Naturally enough, she does not respond—being dead, you understand, explains Von Altermann casually. He invites his visitor to see – and feel – for himself. Seeing that he is still not convinced, von Altermann then draws a gun and fires at Lila…
When he somewhat recovers himself, the German agent blurts out a tactless remark about von Altermann experimenting upon his own wife:
Von Altermann: “What greater destiny could my wife have achieved than to serve me? – and through me, our country?”
Lila, Von Altermann elaborates, will be the zombie he takes with him back to Germany, where he will use her to demonstrate that zombies must obey their masters.
Max Heinrich, my boy—you shouldn’t have said that…
Von Altermann proceeds to wax lyrical about the advantages of his zombie army—in the process giving us another zombie film first, an attempt to explain zombie function and physiology; one which, up to a point, is consistent with what we now regard as “canon”:
Von Altermann: “Even blown half to bits, undaunted by fire and gas, zombies would fight on so long as the brain cells that receive and execute commands still remained intact!”
At this point, the scientist is unexpectedly interrupted:
Von Altermann is more than a little taken aback to discover that Lila’s brain “works independently” of his own, and orders her back to the chapel. Lila obeys – but as she turns away from her husband, she gives him a sly half-smile that tells us absolutely everything we need to know about the von Altermann marriage—including why the good doctor decided to use his wife as an experimental subject. Not that it’s done him any good: Lila is a zombie now, and he still can’t win an argument with her.
In fact, from this point in Revenge Of The Zombies two fairly remarkable things happen. First, Veda Ann Borg goes astonishingly close to stealing this film from John Carradine; and second, the film itself becomes an amusing allegory of sorts about the relationship between the sexes—with a dismayed von Altermann hastily explaining away Lila’s autonomy by insisting that he simply succeeded “too well” with her, and that all he has to do to bring her into line is to, “Paralyse certain portions of the brain”, so that the resulting zombie can neither “question nor reason”, but simply “hear and obey”.
Yeah. Good luck with that.
Anyway, concludes von Altermann, one more experiment will be necessary, and the trip to Germany will have to be delayed.
The next morning over breakfast, von Altermann baits Scott into giving himself away by talking about Lila’s will; he reveals he knows who Larry is, too. (So what was the point of all that?) Suddenly, Jennifer bursts in to announce that Lila’s body is gone—which, we discover, is news to von Altermann, who accuses Keating of stealing her away.
Larry interrupts to say that he, Scott and Keating were together all night, so that Keating couldn’t have done it; and that if von Altermann really doesn’t know where Lila is, he should call the police…
Well, von Altermann declines that step – “publicity”, don’t you know – but takes the matter on himself, gathering his (living) servants and questioning them. Mammy Beulah, amused as always, tells von Altermann that the house was locked up on the inside, so an outsider couldn’t have taken Lila away; while Rosella adds wryly that someone inside must have opened the front door…
Von Altermann orders Lazarus to search the grounds, and Mammy Beulah to collect some swamp lilies, the latter to be brought to the laboratory. The latter job Mammy Beulah palms off on Rosella and Jeff, warning them to be careful, as the lilies are poisonous: when she describes the symptoms, Jeff recognises the circumstances of Lila’s death.
Despite his objections, Jeff and Rosella end up picking lilies as ordered, giving Rosella a chance to warn Jeff – and inform the audience – about the dangerous swamp all around, and about all the people that have been sucked down into it…
Keating takes the agitated Scott out for a walk, while Larry chooses to stay with Jennifer; Scott departs with a tart reminder that Larry is supposed to be working. In the grounds, Scott and Keating find the scarf that Lila was wearing caught on a bush. Keating tells Scott to take it to von Altermann, while he continues to search. Scott protests their splitting up – huzzah! – but Keating insists – d’oh! – adding that he will follow Scott shortly. Yeah, right.
In Keating’s defence, it appears he wanted to inspect the mausoleum without Scott around. As he approaches it, the door swings open – and Lila’s voice invites him in…
Meanwhile, Larry is finding out the true contents of Lila’s will from Jennifer (who gives him a flirtatious little smile while observing that she’s breaking confidence). Though von Altermann told them that Scott was to inherit Lila’s property, it now transpires that he is.
When Larry ponders out loud what von Altermann hoped to achieve by this, Jennifer – whose complete obliviousness to the drama unfolding around her evokes horrifying memories of Dr Foster in The Corpse Vanishes – continues to defend her employer:
Jennifer: “You know, you’re wrong about Dr von Altermann. You’ve misjudged him completely!”
Larry: “Are you being loyal, or dumb? Or are you just covering up for him?”
(And despite being given three options, no, you don’t get three guesses.)
Out in the jungle, Jeff discovers a partially buried body; but naturally by the time he brings Larry to the scene, it’s gone. Mammy Beulah, overhearing, argues reasonably enough that no-one would leave a murder victim just lying around, when there’s all that swamp so handy.
Though he took the recovery of Lila’s scarf casually enough in front of Scott, von Altermann is now in a real state. He sends Lazarus out with hounds to find her—but, as they say, that dog don’t hunt. When a zombie-cry echoes through the jungle, the already nervous hounds bolt.
Disaster on top of disaster: the phone is dead, and now Keating is missing. An angry Scott insists on the police being summoned, and much to everybody’s surprise, von Altermann immediately complies. Or at least, we’re surprised until we see that “the sheriff” is our old friend the German agent.
(We get a nice little B-movie in-joke here: the German agent is played by Bob Steele, for once escaping a near-life sentence in low-budget westerns. When he turns up as the sheriff, however, he’s wearing “western” gear, including a Stetson, and affecting a drawling accent to match.)
Meanwhile, Jeff finds the corpse again, this time in the boot of a car—and then he loses it again.
Scott is less than impressed by Larry’s detective work so far – and who can blame him? – so Larry sets out to prove him wrong. He gets off to a slightly embarrassing start by trying to unlock an already unlocked door, but things improve when he finds von Altermann’s obligatory hidden radio, and receives a broadcast intended for the scientist—which for some reason is in English. Larry pretends to be von Altermann, and learns that a US agent is in the area, investigating the good doctor’s doings; also, that a plane will be coming for him at midnight.
At this point Larry is caught by von Altermann and the sheriff – who he now discovers isn’t the sheriff – and who reveals he has already taken care of the US agent – “the vanishing corpse”. (Told you this film and that one were related!) Larry is then restrained, trussed up and gagged by a squad of zombies, and dumped in a closet. Larry manages to free himself from his bonds, and Jeff lets him out of the closet when he stumbles into the laboratory during a search for strawberry preserves (?), and after a bit of business with a skeleton.
We now make the somewhat surprising discovery that Mammy Beulah isn’t “in it” with von Altermann after all – she knows everything that’s going on, but is not herself responsible for any of it; though presumably for the sake of her own neck she “follows orders”. She is, furthermore, immensely amused by Lila’s disappearance, chiefly because of how much it has freaked out von Altermann:
Mammy Beulah: “ Always he tells ’em what to do – and they does it – but not Miss Lila!”
Mammy Beulah leads Larry out into the jungle, and gives her own version of the zombie-cry…before simply calling out, “Miss Lila, honey?” Sure enough, Lila responds. She tells Larry that no-one can help her, but that he must guard Scott – until midnight, when, “I will be ready…”
And Scott may need guarding. We’ve already seen von Altermann messing around in the kitchen – as he did on the night of Lila’s death – and now we find him serving cocktails to Scott and Miss Oblivion 1943…and to the sheriff, so Scott is probably safe for the moment. Von Altermann is understandably startled when Larry wanders in; the two men exchange barely veiled barbs.
(This scene reminds me that Carradine and Lowery met again the following year, in The Mummy’s Ghost.)
Dinner gets off to a rocky start when the doctor asks Jennifer to sit at the head of the table, claiming that he finds Lila’s empty chair “distressing”:
Larry: “Yes, I can understand that.”
Scott: “It’s pretty soon to replace her, isn’t it?”
Von Altermann takes no notice – and neither does Jennifer, who seats herself as requested. We’re fortunately spared most of the following courses; the action resumes (so to speak) in the wake of Jennifer excusing herself, when Larry and Scott slump unconscious in their seats, apparently as a result of von Altermann’s “special port”. Lazarus carries Scott off to the laboratory, while von Altermann goes to make his preparations…
…and as soon as they are alone, Larry sits up, while the sheriff calls for Jeff and Rosella. Surprise! He is in fact the US agent we heard about, impersonating the German agent von Altermann was expecting, and who is now the disappearing-reappearing corpse, for whose movements our unexpected hero was responsible…as well as for his initial corpse-dom.
Another surprise is that he and Larry are not until this moment aware of each other: the sheriff is surprised when Larry turns out to be faking being drugged, and Larry in turn is surprised – and mightily relieved – by the other man’s revelations.
Aaaaaand then we get the single stupidest moment in this horror-comedy-feminist-wartime-allegory-science-fiction-film about producing zombie-soldiers for the Third Reich, when von Altermann propels himself into Jennifer’s room with an order for her to be ready to leave at midnight: they are going home, to his country!
Ah, well…I guess we already knew he wasn’t keeping her around for her brains.
Von Altermann goes into the traditional yadda-yadda about his glorious future amongst the most exalted, and how she will share it with him, and be the most envied woman in the New World, while Jennifer wrinkles her brow at him in a puzzled way. And while I guess we can appreciate why, after Lila, von Altermann might prefer a woman of somewhat less personality and will-power, we get the feeling here that he may have gone just a leetle too far in the opposite direction.
Eventually Jennifer gets around to refusing to go, which of course only prompts the revelation that she has no choice, and there’s no-one around to help her. It isn’t clear how much of all this she has absorbed – if any – and in any case it doesn’t matter, because almost as soon as von Altermann has left her, she runs into a posse consisting of Larry, “the sheriff”, Jeff, Rosella and Mammy Beulah.
Out in the garden, Lila is sending out a zombie-cry of her own, and very musical one it is, too. Perhaps a bit too close to the “Indian Love Call”, but never mind. The zombies naturally all respond, and soon Lila has herself a private army…
Meanwhile, the posse runs down to the laboratory. Von Altermann orders Lazarus to sound the call, just as Jeff breaks the door down with an axe and the posse pours in. Confronted by the two men he least expected, both holding guns on him, von Altermann backs away…and smiles as he hears the shuffle of zombie feet, coming, as he thinks, to his rescue. He starts barking out orders in German – but the zombies pay no attention whatsoever – not even when he tries yelling in English.
But the zombies obey when Lila tells them to stop. She glides forward, that smile on her lips again. “All the powers of light are ranged against you,” she tells von Altermann, who says incredulously, “You dare to set your will against mine!?”
Oh, Max, Max, Max…
“I do,” responds Lila coolly. “You can’t hurt me. You can’t destroy me. You can’t control me!”
You go, girl!
Lila then sics the zombies onto von Altermann, who turns and bolts. The sheriff raises his gun, but Larry, with a better grasp of the circumstances, stops him.
And there’s nowhere for von Altermann to go. Lila and her followers chase him into the swamp. As he begins to sink, Lila places her hands on his shoulders and presses him down…and then follows him…
But it is not upon this sad note that the film ends, but upon another, perfectly fitting, as Larry prepares to leave with Jennifer (he’s welcome to her!), and Jeff prepares to leave with Rosella:
Jeff: “When I gets you to Harlem, I’m gonna get you a good job, a swell one! You just save your money, and you’n’me can get married!”
Rosella: “If I gets a swell job, honey, I don’t need to get married.”
Lila would be proud…
Want a second opinion of Revenge Of the Zombies? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours And Counting.
This review is part of the B-Masters’ tribute to John Carradine.
Damn, this sounds worth checking out!
Well, it’s still a Monogram film; but the bits that work, really work! 🙂
I need to hunt down a better print…