Zombies! 4-Movie Roundup

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Zombies galore today! One recent plus three classic tales of the undead, wherein we learn of these creatures’ creation and uses. In keeping with my binge/themed viewing habits lately, after watching Brad Pitt battle a massive zombie horde, I went digging through my collection for some older zombie movies to feast on.

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World War Z (2013): Pitt plays former UN investigator called in to help find the source of a virus that’s turning the world’s population into chomping, convulsing monsters. The tsunami-like mob pouring down streets and over walls in their search for victims were impressive, but those big spectacles are too often repeated and the filming so shaky and busy that the action sometimes gets tough to follow. The breakthrough discovery, that some humans are immune, or better to say invisible, to the zombies, leads to a good and different kind of set piece where Pitt quietly sneaks into a death laboratory guarded by dormant undead, then tests his theory out on himself. This movie was fine for me, I like Pitt, I liked the globe-trotting survival story and the grandiose scenes, but would have liked it a lot more if the characters were better (even a little bit) developed and didn’t make so many inexplicable-to-dumb decisions. For instance, the young genius doctor accompanying Pitt to search for Patient Zero shoots himself before he even steps off the plane in South Korea, and that ends up a fruitless search anyway, just another set piece and a seed planted for the “immunity” revelation later. (Haven’t read the Max Brooks novel which told the story from multiple-POVs and is considered–big surprise–better than the movie.)

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Revolt of the Zombies (1936). By the brothers Halperin, director Victor and producer Edward (I’m a big fan of their Supernatural, though their White Zombie is best known). Dean Jagger is a languages expert deciphering inscriptions on relics in Cambodia. After losing the only woman he’ll ever love (Dorothy Stone) to his dashing colleague (Robert Noland), Jagger learns the ancient zombie-making recipe and works out his anger by creating a zombie army made up of locals, French military officials and eventually Noland.

I’d read that this was not up to the quality of those other Halperin movies I mentioned, and it is extremely slow in places, but I didn’t find it as bad as expected. There is a fantastically creepy scene near the beginning, in which a literal zombie army on the battlefield advances toward enemy troops and into their trenches despite getting riddled with bullets. The effects look primitive now, but make them seem frighteningly unstoppable and must have been quite shocking in 1936! Jagger wades through swamps and works out puzzles that open crypt doors or make magic zombie incense, and all such scenes are done with plenty of dark and spooky atmosphere. Jagger also does a convincing mental “snap,” a psychotic laugh/weep that’s both heartbreaking and disturbing coming from such a nice, timid guy. The superimposed footage of Bela Lugosi’s glowing eyes from White Zombie is used a lot, whenever Jagger commands his undead slaves. In the end he’s ready to relinquish control of his minions to win Stone’s love, but in so doing he lets loose an angry army who very swiftly get their revenge.

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King of the Zombies (1941): Jean Yarbrough directs this Monogram comedy horror that crosses The Most Dangerous Game with an Old Dark House full of zombies. Dick Purcell, John Archer and Mantan Moreland crash land their plane on an island where they find themselves the “guests” of creepy Austrian refugee Henry Victor. Victor’s wife wanders around in a trance and his niece (Joan Woodbury) seems sweet but acts strangely. Moreland gets the wide-eyed willies, and by hobnobbing with the servants he’s the first to learn the mansion’s secret: Victor is a Nazi holding a U.S. Admiral as prisoner and hoping to get top secret info via zombification, which he believes works better than torture.

Few to no scares here, but mostly light diverting adventure, as Purcell “dies” and becomes the sole white zombie, the cook is actually a voodoo priestess, and Archer finds secret passageways and tries to figure out if he can trust Woodbury. The best part of it all is Moreland, who gets a big role, probably the most screen time, and many funny exchanges with the wisecracking help who don’t bat an eye when the undead mob politely marches in and sits down for dinner. Zombie lore in this script says the creatures have no mirror reflections and turn to powder when they eat salt. Ends with a nice fiery pit handy for that inevitable zombie revolt.

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Plague of the Zombies (1966): Hammer’s great take on the undead has a medical professor (Andre Morell) summoned to help his former student and now village physician (Brook Williams) discover what’s caused a dozen untimely deaths. The superstitious locals forbid autopsies, so the doctors gather clues by other means, finding empty graves, hearing about sightings of dead relatives strolling at night, seeing all the victims have recent cuts or wounds in common. It all adds up to the dark doings of an aristocrat (John Carson, whose voice sounds just like James Mason’s) and his henchmen (including Alex Davion). using voodoo knowledge acquired in Haiti to enslave the lower-class.

It’s all a very thrilling mystery thanks to a fine cast, spooky atmosphere, smart, unpredictable plot and some unforgettable images. Morell is a blunt, surly and clever hero who doesn’t waste time doubting or scoffing when faced with a supernatural explanation (always a plus for me in these types of movies). Diane Clare, as Morell’s intelligent, gutsy daughter, and Jacqueline Pearce as Williams’ worried, soon to be undead wife, get substantial and interesting supporting roles. Clare follows Pearce into the moors one night, where she has a body thrown at her, then is abducted and abused by Carson’s gleefully sadistic fox-hunting crew. Pearce is excellent as she goes from a bundle of nerves to rising from her grave before she’s stopped by Morell and a shovel. During the conversion rituals, zombie-master Carson wears one of the genre’s best masks, kind of a melted Mummenschantz visage, and poor young doctor has a nightmare where all those bodies missing from the cemetery appear as blue-oxygen-starved corpses who surround and grab at him. Best movie of this bunch by far.

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8 thoughts on “Zombies! 4-Movie Roundup”

  1. Mantan Moreland is far and away the best thing about “King of the Zombies.” I particularly love it when his wisecracks get the better of the white folks.

  2. Havent seen the Pitt title but glad you found the Hammer title a solid scare. I think it would be far more popular had Lee and or Cushing been in the film. Morrell always makes for a nice Cushing substitute when needed.

    1. That’s a good comparison, Morell was nice and an “astringent.” 🙂 I like when the movie doesn’t waste to much time with doubting the supernatural or calling it ridiculous, that’s fine in comedy but it gets tiresome if it goes too long in these movies.

  3. On the 6th tablet of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, written in Akkadian cuneiform some 4,000 years ago, the Goddess Ishtar threatened to “raise the dead to devour the living”, and she stated that “the dead shall outnumber the living”.

    Zombies are as old as the written word! 🙂

    1. That’s interesting! I have a few more I pulled out to watch so there will be a zombie sequel. I love the really early ones.

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