“According to their legends, Angkor was built by these robots; tireless, feeling-less human machines—”
“Yes, yes, I know – and you call them ‘zombies’.”
Director: Victor Halperin
Starring: Dean Jagger, Dorothy Stone, Robert Noland, George Cleveland, Roy D’Arcy, E. Alyn Warren, Carl Stockdale, Adolph Millard, Teru Shimada, William Crowell
Screenplay: Victor Halperin (uncredited), Howard Higgin (uncredited) and Rollo Lloyd (uncredited)
Synopsis: At an allied command post on the Franco-Austrian front during World War I, General Duval (George Cleveland) dismisses the tale told by army interpreter Armand Louque (Dean Jagger) of superhuman soldiers from Cambodia, “robots” controlled by a priest, Tsiang (William Cowell). Louque confesses his failure to his friend, Englishman Clifford Grayson (Robert Noland), who tells him bluntly that his own hangdog demeanour is the cause of it, and that he must learn to be more aggressive. Louque insists that the Cambodian temple city of Angkor was built by zombies, but Grayson jeers at this notion, and at Louque’s insistence that Tsiang is the last of the High Priests to hold the secret of the zombies. Translating Tsiang’s words, Louque says that a handful of such men would be capable of taking an enemy trench. With the situation on the battlefield growing desperate, Louque is given his chance to prove the priest right: a small group of Cambodian soldiers capture an enemy stronghold, paying no attention as they are shot at point blank range… At the command position, General von Schelling (Adolph Millard) protests the use of the zombie troops, arguing that such a power unleashed could ultimately spell disaster for the white race. Duval reassures him that Tsiang has already been placed under arrest. As the priest refuses to divulge the secret of the zombies, the senior officers agree to keep him in solitary confinement. In his cell, Tsiang unfolds a scarf covered with intricate diagrams and places it before a Buddha, to which he prays. But even as the priest bows, a dagger strikes him down. General Mazovia (Roy D’Arcy) pockets the scarf and slips away into the shadows… Considering the possibility that the secret of the zombies has fallen into dangerous hands, the officers agree that, once the war is over, they will mount a joint expedition to Angkor, in search of the secret, and that Colonel Trevissant (E. Alyn Warren), in civilian life an archaeologist, will lead it… When the time is ripe, the expedition goes ahead, with the men being joined in Angkor by Claire (Dorothy Stone), the daughter of General Duval. Before long, Louque is deeply smitten by Claire. However, as the two explore the ruins, Claire’s own attention caught by Clifford Grayson. Later on, Louque tries to discuss his feelings for Claire with his friend, but Grayson cuts the conversation short. Before long, Claire and Louque are celebrating their engagement; but as Louque stumbles through a speech, Claire’s eyes turn restlessly to Grayson… An accident at the dig sees Grayson instinctively pulling Claire to safety—and into his arms. Claire breaks her engagement, confessing to Louque that she used him to make Grayson jealous. Louque comments that between them, she and Grayson have given a lesson in ruthlessness. Later, trying to bury his sorrows in his work, Louque suddenly realises that a vital clue to the secret of the zombies was under his nose all along: a photograph of a carving at Angkor, depicting the same scenes as the scarf stolen from Tsiang…
Comments: In 1932, the brothers Victor and Edward Halperin gave the world an object lesson in how to make a low-budget horror movie. And then, in 1936, they gave the world an object lesson in how not to make a low-budget horror movie.
White Zombie is a landmark in the history of horror cinema, a unique melding of Germanic visuals and American sensibilities, and a wonderful example of the triumph of the artistic imagination over practical and financial limitations. Revolt Of The Zombies, on the other hand, is…a piece of crap. I don’t know how else to put it.
Watching these two films back-to-back is a staggering experience. Absolutely everything that was done right in the earlier film was done wrong in the later one. In place of the sparse but to-the-point use of dialogue that reflected the Halperins’ (then) dislike of talking pictures, we have a cast of characters who will not shut up. In place of Arthur Martinelli’s gliding, atmospheric photography intended to show off the film’s sets, we have Arthur Martinelli’s entirely static photography of people talking in front of out-of-focus backdrops. In place of an exquisite use of light and shadow and carefully executed glass matte effects, we have dead flat lighting and some of the worst back-projection you will ever see. In place of Bela Lugosi, we have – Dean Jagger!? And in place of quite a lot of zombies, we have practically no zombies at all.
It is almost inconceivable that the same people could have been responsible for both of these films. It’s as if the Halperins literally sold their souls to the devil for the chance to make White Zombie…and then, four years later, he came by to collect.
Still, if you happened to be in a generous mood, you might find Revolt Of The Zombies so determinedly anti-film as to be perversely entertaining. It is not every film, after all, that manages to go wrong literally from its opening seconds…but this one does. As the credits roll, they are accompanied not by anything remotely appropriate for what’s supposed to be a horror movie, but by jaunty, sub-calliope type music that would be more at home playing behind a bad romantic comedy. As an intimation of what is to follow, this music is an admirable choice. And as the credits continue to roll, we notice that none of this film’s three screenwriters was willing to put his name on it. That should tell you something…
Revolt Of The Zombies starts, not well, perhaps, but intriguingly enough. On the Franco-Austrian front of World War I (yes, yes, I know: just roll with it), things are not going well for the Allies, but French army interpreter Armand Louque thinks he may have a solution, courtesy of Cambodian High Priest Tsiang, who has accompanied him to Europe.
“Favorite Films”? That’s worse than “A Miracle Picture”!
(Cambodia was at that time under French occupation. Oh, sorry: I mean, was a French protectorate. Yes, that’s what I meant.)
We soon learn that Louque is not merely suggesting that his superiors exercise the colonisers’ privilege of sending in indigenous forces from the occupied territory to be slaughtered in place of their own people, but something more unusual. Tsiang, the last of a long line of High Priests, possesses the secret of creating—well, this film uses any number of interchangeable euphemisms: robots, automatons, supermen, men without souls…and then, thankfully, someone finally does say it: zombies. And for some unimaginable reason, Tsiang has offered to place a regiment of his zombies at the disposal of the forces that are occupying his native country. Good little Quisling!
(The official explanation is that Tsiang’s gods say that he must create zombie soldiers. Maybe, but somehow I doubt those gods intended them for this purpose.)
Louque relates his failure to convince General Duval of the reality of the zombie troops to supposed Englishman Clifford Grayson. I say “supposed” because Revolt Of The Zombies pretty much leaves us to figure out everyone’s nationality for ourselves. Other than one character with an outrrrageous accent, everyone speaks broad American—and considering Dean Jagger’s single attempt at saying “Mam’zelle”, we should probably be grateful for it. Robert Noland as Grayson is as broad as anyone else, but his reference to “the American phrase” implies that he isn’t meant to be.
Although this (supposed) Englishman is also Louque’s (supposed) friend, his response to Louque’s confession is to laugh at him and to tell him he’s a wuss. A hangdog Louque responds grumblingly, “I wish I had your assurance – your faculty of knowing your objective and driving straight at it.”
“Gee, Armand, these Cambodians sure are good at playing statues!”
If these words don’t send a shiver down your spine now my friends, trust me: by the end of the film, they will…
Louque and Grayson then have a hilariously garbled conversation about black magic and telepathy and zombies, which somehow ends with the Cambodian troops being sent into battle after all; and here we get the single effective scene in this whole film, as well as the only moment that truly qualifies as “horror”…at least by the standard definition. The Cambodian troops advance upon the enemy soldiers, who fire at them point blank – to no effect. (The close-up of the bullet wounds here is copied directly from White Zombie.) Silent and unblinking, the Cambodians continue to advance, bayonets at the ready…
As the Cambodians begin their advance, we first see Tsiang superimposed over them, and them another superimposition of a pair of eyes; a very familiar pair of eyes. They’re Lugosi’s eyes, of course, instantly recognisable and lifted straight from White Zombie – and they highlight yet another of this film’s blunders. White Zombie was, in truth, slightly confused about the actual process of creating zombies, but confused in a way that was finally rather eerie. There, zombie-ism seemed a mixture of the magical (the need for a personal effect, the carved effigy), the chemical (the drug) and the telepathic (mind control from a distance). Here, the “zombies” are effectively just a bunch of poor schmucks under hypnosis. There’s no sense of wonder or mystery about it; and the repeated use of the eye-effect in this film only emphasises the imaginative distance between the two productions. In fact, except for one brief scene later on, this wouldn’t be a zombie film at all.
And then I wouldn’t have had to review it.
“You see, Cliff, I think you have to be ruthless, you know? – recognise your objective, and drive straight at it, and—”
“I am never sharing a tent with you again, Armand.”
Anyway, the shock troops’ success finds favour with no-one, and one General von Schelling of “the Central European powers” visits the Allied HQ to protest their use—and voices that protest in terms that the Allies can’t help but appreciate. “It may mean,” he says, sounding rather Lugosi-esque himself, “the destruction of – the white race!”
Yes, that’s right: along with its myriad other virtues, Revolt Of The Zombies is a Yellow Peril film. Despite the fact the Cambodians have presumably had this power in their keeping for untold centuries and haven’t done anything in that time about destroying “the white race” – whatever that is – the Allies immediately see the danger. Because, you know, it’s perfectly okay for white people to spend four years butchering one another, but the bare thought of Orientals killing anyone white— Quell horreur!
French General Duval then informs his supposed (there’s that word again!) enemy that he’s got nothing to worry about; that they’ve already got Tsiang – who he refers to as “a fanatical Oriental priest”; well, there’s gratitude for you – under arrest. And that settled, and with everyone reassured that no more nasty yellow people are going to interfere with their games, the nice white people go back to slaughtering one another with bombs, machine-guns and poisoned gas.
Von Shelling having departed, the Allies agree amongst themselves that if Tsiang won’t give up his secret to them, then he’ll be spending the rest of his life in solitary confinement. Well, there’s even more gratitude for you! Mind you, it serves Tsiang right.
Confined to his quarters before being transferred to prison, Tsiang unfurls a scarf covered with an intricate picture – which, frankly, looks rather more Indian than Cambodian – and an unexpected note of authenticity is added here by the presence of a multi-armed Buddha, to which Tsiang prays; there is such a one at Angkor Wat, I believe. (Except that, according to later dialogue, it’s not meant to be Buddha.) And as Tsiang prays, a hand holding a dagger emerges from behind the statue…
“Ah do not know zis – ‘Lugozi’ – of whom you zpeak!”
The perpetrator of this deed, who also pockets Tsiang’s scarf, is a certain General Mazovia, who I like to think of as a direct ancestor of Not The Least Bit Suspicious Hans. Tsiang’s murder raises the possibility amongst the Allied Command that the secret of the zombies may have fallen into the wrong hands—although of course, no suspicion that the black-clad, furry-hatted, moustachioed, chin-bearded, smirking, sideways-glancing, accented chap lurking on the perimeter could be responsible for it ever crosses anyone’s mind. It is then agreed that once this pesky World War is settled, a joint expedition will be sent into Cambodia to locate and destroy the secret of zombie-making.
So ends the comparatively interesting part of this film—all ten minutes of it. The next fifty-one are, without exaggeration, utter hell. Evidently the Halperins came away from White Zombie convinced that what their audience had found most interesting about that film was not, in fact, its zombies, but its central love triangle, because they inflict this plot device upon us once again in Revolt Of The Zombies; and, believe me, when I say “inflict”…
Post-war, then, we re-join our former soldiers as part of the “International Expedition For Archaeological Research In Angkor. And Not For Finding Out How To Make Zombies.”
It’s basically a case of hail, hail, the gang’s all here, except with one addition: General Duval has brought his daughter, Claire, with him.
And here our pain begins in earnest. To spare you as much as possible, I offer the following summary: Armand falls in love with Claire. She’s ego-stroked, but falls in love herself with Clifford Grayson. Grayson makes no move. Armand and Claire get engaged. An accident propels Claire into Grayson’s arms and reveals his feelings. Claire breaks her engagement.
Ladies and gentlemen, our femme fatale.
Sounds painless enough, doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s agonising. These people are every bit as boring as they are unlikeable and, believe me, they are very unlikeable; yet the script practically abandons its zombie plot to force us into their company. We’re given no reason at all to care about or be interested in any them; nor, for that matter, any reason why they should care about or be interested in each other.
We do understand why the introverted Louque would be so bowled over by what is, self-evidently, his first serious love-affair (and the fact that the object of his obsessive passion proves to be completely unworthy of it is pretty much par for the course), but not why the more experienced Grayson would be interested in the thoroughly unattractive Claire – I use the word “unattractive” in both its senses – nor indeed why she would fall so hard and fast for him.
The way it plays, we can only conclude that she’s dazzled by the sight of Grayson’s distinctly bony knees, which he displays in a series of outfits that grow increasingly distressing to the sensibilities of the modern viewer. I don’t know who it was that ever decided that the combination of long socks and long shorts was a good look, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s an idea that should have been slapped to death in its infancy.
But even Clifford Grayson and His Knobbly Knees Of Horror aren’t the worst of this situation. Our romantic [sic.] triangle comes accompanied by some of the most stilted dialogue that ever made you want to jam an ice-pick into your own ear. And it goes on and on and on. If White Zombie was the Halperins’ way of saying, “We don’t like talking pictures”, then Revolt Of The Zombies was their way of saying, “And this is why.”
Poor Dean Jagger gets the worst of it (he’s made to talk rather like Kim Darby in True Grit, as well as to start sounding English in moments of crisis), but the others suffer almost as much—and consequently, so do we. No-one merely speaks here: they declaim.
“My God! His knees, they’re…they’re dazzling!”
Oh! – and you remember that line about, “Knowing your objective and driving straight at it”? It gets supplemented later on, with Grayson encouraging Louque to, “Be ruthless!” We always make fun of The Giant Claw for being so enamoured of the expression, “A bird as big as a battleship!”, but that’s nothing compared to the love affair between Revolt Of The Zombies and “To be ruthless! To know your objective and drive straight at it!” No, I mean it. Have a guess how many times a variation of one or other of those phrases is uttered over the following fifty minutes? I guarantee two things: (i) your guess will be wrong; and (ii) it will be an underestimate.
Anyway, while all this is going on, the archaeological expedition – remember them? – is getting nowhere fast in its search for the secret of zombie-making, and makes no progress at all until after Louque has been dumped and tries to ease his pain by burying himself in his work. Louque has a Lightbulb Moment© – “Under our very noses!” – examines a photograph of a carving that depicts the same scene as Tsiang’s scarf, and hot-foots it back to Angkor Wat. As it turns out, our old friend Mazovia is also there, lurking in the shadows, although these days he’s swapped his furry hat for a pith helmet—because he’s an archaeologist, dammit!
Louque wanders around the ruins, avoids getting knifed by a local, gets spied on by Mazovia and, while being startled by a bat, literally falls through a hole in the floor and into the secret he was seeking. A robed figure – carrying yet another version of that damn picture, just to make absolutely certain that we get it – leaves the temple and enters the river, walking in the water, and Louque secretly follows him.
There is a tendency amongst reviewers to bag out Revolt Of The Zombies for depicting Angkor Wat via back-projection photographs of the temple city; and while I agree that this effect is horribly executed, at least here Angkor is Angkor: there’s an early serial – King Of The Kongo, I think – where photos of Angkor are supposed to represent a lost city in the middle of Africa! Personally, I’m more inclined to point and laugh at the shocking effects work that is supposed to convey Louque and his quarry walking up-river, both actors indicating “walking” by shifting from foot to foot in front of some dismal back projection!
“It’s just a jump to the left / And then a step to the ri-ii-ii-ii-ight…!”
This special effects extravaganza climaxes at a small temple deep in the jungle, where the priest leaves the carving. Louque sneaks inside and finds that the carving has been placed in front of a Buddha, just as Tsiang placed his scarf. “Just like the picture!” says Louque of the carving, for the benefit of those of us who are a bit slow on the uptake—or perhaps fell asleep. He then accidentally taps a small gong, and its note is echoed somewhere within the temple. He hits the gong again, and somehow this causes a concealed panel in the wall to swing around. It is covered with writing…
Louque’s return to headquarters is hardly the triumph you might anticipate, however. Before he can reveal that he has found what they all came to Cambodia looking for, his boss, the former General Trevissant, chews him out for going AWOL and gives him the boot. Only Mazovia – and I cannot even begin to describe the outfit he’s wearing in this scene; it begins with a puffy shirt, and just gets better from there – realises that Louque’s stumbling efforts to justify himself mean that he has the secret of the zombies in his possession.
And then, believe it or not, we get an actual zombie-related scene! Enjoy it, folks: this is about all there is. Louque grinds up something using a mortar and pestle, and then calls his native servant, Buna, into the room, telling him to, “Sit down! Sit!” (Good Buna! Good boy!) Incredibly, Buna – who you’d think would know enough of the local customs to do nothing of the damn kind – does as he’s told, and continues to sit there not merely as Louque heats the powder, but as Louque tells him exactly what he’s doing!! Boy, they don’t make servants like that any more, do they?
(Of course, Louque prefaces all this by explaining, for perhaps the 763rd time in the film, that he has learned, “To be ruthless! To decide upon an objective and drive straight at it!” – so perhaps Buna figured that anything was better than having to listen to that drivel again.)
“A few more moments, and the power to turn men into zombies will be mine! I’ll just take a deep breath to steady my nerves…”
The powder begins to give off fumes that – get this! – Louque sends away from himself and towards Buna via the simply genius method of waving a hand fan! The ever-obliging Buna breathes in when he shouldn’t, and hey presto! – instant zombie!
Louque starts ordering Buna around (paying no attention to those residual fumes, which pretty much wander wherever they like), but his verbal commands fail. One more look at the photo of that damn carving, though, and somehow Louque realises that he must will his victims to act, not speak to them. We get another flash of Lugosi-Vision, and then Louque reaches the pinnacle to which all good mad scientists aspire, as Buna addresses him with the words, “Yes, master…”
And with this, we have done with any pretence that Revolt Of The Zombies’ zombie-ism is anything other than a form of hypnotism. Learning that Claire and Grayson are to be married in a fortnight, Louque simply puts the Lugosi-Whammy on Duval, who orders Grayson away on a mission that will take six weeks.
Feeling rather smug, Louque returns to his quarters to find Mazovia there, and the two begin what I’m sure was intended to be a deadly game of wits…except that neither player was qualified.
This is one of the worst passages of dialogue in this whole film, full of sentences that scorn any use of contractions, and the two men calling each other “My dear Louque” and “My dear Mazovia”. Anyway, Mazovia at length reveals that the various disasters that have stricken the expedition were all his doing. We’re grateful to him for this information, as almost nothing he describes here has actually been shown in this movie. He then demands the secret of the zombies, and Louque responds by using the Lugosi-Phone to call Buna into the room and having him strangle Mazovia. So much for that.
(So much, too, for the one entertaining thing about this film.)
The many moods of Mazovia.
And then Louque puts the Lugosi-Smackdown on an entire garrison of local troops. And on all the other members of the expedition. And on some stray locals. And pretty much anyone else who isn’t nailed down. “No doubt you would all tear me limb from limb if I ever relinquished this control,” Louque muses, which is not merely a piece of Subtle Foreshadowing, but a dead steal of one of Bela Lugosi’s lines from White Zombie. “But that will never be…”
Out in the middle of nowhere, Clifford Grayson wakes up convinced that something’s wrong with Claire. He jump-cuts back to Angkor where Claire explains the mass zombie-fication to him. “And we taught him to be ruthless!” reflects Grayson. He opines that Louque is doing all this to get Claire to himself – does the expression overkill mean anything to you, Armand? – and insists that the two of them have to get out of there post-haste. Claire agrees – yes, never mind your zombie-fied old man, hey, Claire? – but they are cut off by Louque and his troops.
Claire having been sent away, her two lovers then trade barbs—and if you guess something along the lines of “Know your objective and drive straight at it!” gets uttered here, well, you’re a genius, that’s all!
Later, Louque tells Claire that he will send Grayson away unharmed if she will stay and marry him – and in her effort to sound all tragic and heroic, she too starts talking like Kim Darby – and putting on a plummy English accent. (Just what you’d expect from a Brooklyn-born actress playing a Frenchwoman, right?) Anyway, she eventually agrees to the bargain, but no sooner have she and Grayson separated after saying their heart-rending farewells than Louque hits Grayson with the Lugosi-Slam.
Louque and Claire are married – who the hell performed the ceremony, I should like to know? – but as Claire nervously paces her room, Louque is visited by his old friend MacDonald, who is the only other person not zombied, and who of course has come to – sigh – make a speech, the gist of which is, Louque can’t make Claire love him. Well, duh, you’d think, but Louque reacts as if that detail had never occurred to him.
“I should have…been more…ruthless…!”
MacDonald departing, Louque – evidently a graduate of the Philip J. Fry School of Courtship – decides to try and win Claire’s heart with one great big extravagant gesture. So he Un-Lugosi-s everyone on the spot.
Inside the house, all the un-zombie-fied white people blink and look around in a puzzled sort of way, but generally take the whole zombie thing better than the Cambodians. A few of these, under Buna’s leadership (eh?), rush towards the house and start smashing things, particularly the contents of Louque’s laboratory. (Oh, sure! Blame the laboratory!) The rest begin filing towards the house in a more measured sort of way. In fact, mysteriously, they move exactly the way they did when they were zombies. The entire garrison then pours into the house, confronting Louque and emptying their guns into him.
(Dean Jagger’s death scene is, I may say, entirely on a par with the rest of his performance.)
And then, as Claire and Grayson embrace, and the other occupants of the house gather to stare in horror at Louque’s body, the soldiers—
—don’t do anything else, actually. And the film ends.
And yes, folks: that was the revolt of the title. Not much of a revolt, really. And the soldiers weren’t actually zombies any more. But apart from those details, it’s a perfectly accurate title.
At any rate, it beats Revolt Of The Ex-Zombies.
Or Ex-Zombies Get Mildly Ticked Off.
Or The Soldiers Formally Known As Zombies Go For A Nice Stroll On A Sunny Afternoon…
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