January 26, 2012

Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

In 1932, American producers Victor and Edward Halperin released what is now considered as the very first feature length zombie film, the highly atmospheric "White Zombie". Directed by Victor Halperin and starring Bela Lugosi as a powerful necromancer, the film received mixed reviews upong release, but has earned cult status thanks to its eerie expressionist visual design and its ominous atmosphere. Anyways, while modest, the box office was quite big for an independent film and allowed the Halperin brothers a greater budget for their follow up, "Supernatural". Unfortunately, they couldn't repeat the success and the brothers returned to more modest productions. So, hoping to recover themselves, the brothers decided to go back to what had initially worked and make a sequel to "White Zombie". Unfortunately for them, the brothers got into a legal battle with the company that had helped them to finance "White Zombie", which prevented them to promote the sequel, titled "Revolt of the Zombies". Though given the resulting film, it would had been hard to promote it anyway.

Set during World War I, "Revolt of the Zombies" begins on the Franco-Austrian frontier, where Armand Louque has find a priest from Cambodia, Tsiang (William Crowell), claims to have the ability to turn men into zombies. The priest is murdered by General Mazovia (Roy D'Arcy), who wants to create an army of zombies to conquer the world, however, he only gets part of the secret. The death of Tsiang prompts the Allied powers to send an expedition to Cambodia to destroy the secret of the zombies, thinking it may have fallen in the wrong hands. So a group is sent to find the city of Angkor Wat, which suppousedly was built using zombies. Louque is in the expedition, as is his friend Clifford Grayson (Robert Noland), General Duval (George Cleveland) and his daughter Claire (Dorothy Stone). Armand falls in love with Claire, but she in turn prefers Clifford, which hurts Louque's feelings badly. The expedition fails after several accidents take place, but a melancholic Louque stumbles upon the secret. So instead of returnig home, he decides to find the secret and prove himself worthy of Claire's love.

Written by director Victor Halperin himself along writers Howard Higgin and Rollo Lloyd, "Revolt of the Zombies" starts off with a most exciting and intriguing premise: the creation of an army of zombies to fight the war. These zombies are of course, of the classic Voodoo type and not the shambling corpses of modern horror filmmaking. Another interesting element is the fact that Louque, whose arguably the protagonist of the story, is more of an anti-hero, being seduced by the power in his determination to prove his worth. While Clifford and Mazovia are the archetypal hero and villian type of the 30s, Armand Louque moves between sides as the story unfolds. It's an interesting character development that unfortunately never really succeeds as the screenplay is a quite big mess. As soon as the expedition begins, the story focuses entirely on the love triangle, and leaves behind any trace of the horror that was at its roots. Of course, there's the development of Louque as an antihero, but the execution trades horror for melodrama.

In "Revolt of the Zombies", director Victor Halperin's work seems so tacky that it seems difficult to believe that he's the same man that crafted "White Zombie". While "White Zombie" has atmosphere, depth and artistry, "Revenge of the Zombies" feels like a poor imitation of the typical adventure serials of the time. Certainly, the Halperin brothers were in need for a hit at the time of planning "Revolt of the Zombies", and this need of commercial success may explain the differences between the two films. Having started his career in the silent era, Halperin's "White Zombie" had more in common with the silent German horrors than with big studio talkies. On the contrary, "Revolt of the Zombies" has little silence and instead places more emphasis on big expository dialogs. Also, the dark atmosphere of dread is replaced by the lively jungle adventure, and the horror tone traded for that of a melodrama. Changes that perhaps sounded good to draw more audiences, but that Halperin was just unable to pull off.

The acting is another of the film's problems, though certainly not its greatest one. A young Dean Jagger (years before his Academy Award nomination) plays Armand Louque, probably the film's most interesting character, as he begins the film as a weak willed man often ignored by his superiors, and later becomes the master of the zombies of Angkor. While perhaps the only cast member truly commited to his role, Jagger still delivers an over the top performance as the tortured Louque, brooding as his beloved Claire leaves him for his best friend. Unfortunately, Jagger is not the worst in the cast but the best, as Dorothy Stone, who plays Claire delivers a terribly poor performance as the love interest. Equally weak is Robert Noland's turn as Clifford, who never really stands out and limits himself to just play the archetypal hero on his looks alone. Same can be said of Roy D'Arcy, who looks far from his best years in silent cinema and delivers a poor imitation of Lugosi's character from "White Zombie".

As written above, the difference between "Revolt of the Zombies" and the original "White Zombie" is so abysmal that it's hard to believe that it was made by the same team, and yet it was. Even cinematographer Arthur Martinelli worked on both films with remarkably different results. Certainly, big troubles must have taken place at the top levels of the film's production, as the big decrease of the film's quality was general. Perhaps the root of the problem is in the decision of leaving out the horror tone and atmosphere of the first film, and instead developing the story as a melodrama set in the jungle. In fact, the most celebrated elements of "White Zombie" are left out and traded for bigger versions of its weakest parts. Halperin, who must had been more comfortable in silent cinema, seems lost at directing a sound film, with the characters reciting their lines as if was a theatre. The overall style of the acting is too stagy, as if the film was merely a filmed play. And not even a good play to begin with.

Perhaps one of the most dissapointing sequels of horror cinema, "Revolt of the Zombies" has little of what made "White Zombie" great and a lot of what could be find in any typical adventure serial from the 1930s. Granted, by 1936 times had changed and the existence of the Hays code meant a stricter censorship. However, the problems of "Revolt of the Zombies" seem to be more related to the Halperins' inability to understand their audiences. An inability to see which elements of "White Zombie" worked and which didn't, and a huge neccessity to make a hit. In their desire of making "Revolt of the Zombies" appealing to a broader audience, the Halperins forgot what made "White Zombie" unique and made the sequel a quite generic film.



cinemarchaeologist said...

There was a common notion afoot in the early sound era that film was a singular medium that was steadily improving in the creation of a uniquely visual poetry until its progress was interrupted by the arrival of sound. I certainly find much merit in this. After the transition, Tod Browning, who had made some remarkable and exuberant silents, bolted his camera to the floor and seemed unable to remember how to make a movie anymore (I have him on my mind just now because I just looked at one of his really good silents). Both Chaplin and Ozu disliked sound, and resisted the transition, continuing to make silents into the sound era. Buster Keaton lost his independence and fell into the hands of people with no respect for his physical comedy; they just wanted to use the genre (and sound) to tell jokes. I haven't seen any of Halperin's silents, but you're definitely correct about WHITE ZOMBIE having much more of the silents in its DNA than did the unfortunate REVOLT.

That habit of approaching movies as if they were merely filmed plays was a consequence of the transition, and some elements of it stuck around in Hollywood right into the '40s.

BTW, I like the new look you've given this place. As infrequent as my blogging activity has become, calling it "new" may be a hazard! I hope--knowing that saying it will jinx it--my own return to blogging activity will be a permanent one.

J Luis Rivera said...

Indeed. That's basically what I like th emost about 30s filmmaking: the sense of exploration and experimentation (Not only in the U.S., but everywhere) that culminates in 1939, with the release of so many masterpieces that would define cinema.

It's always great to read you my friend.

Unknown said...

I did not know about the legal issue that was the cause for the sudden title change of the film. It did, in the end however, cause a bit of controversy as to the relation to the films predecessor. I think that, throughout the film, it tried to figure itself out; whether or not it was a sequel, spin off, or completely independent. In fact, if I remember correctly, the only scenes with Bela Lugosi was the stock footage of his eyes. It was a desperate attempt to fit the two films together, even though they have almost no correlation with each other at all.

But you can't leave this marketing ploy of the Halperin's unattended to. To be honest it was a good one even though it did not have the desired effect. Here it is; if you make a sequel to a very good film, all it has to do to get green lighted for it to be called a sequel is for the film to have at least 5% of a relationship between the two to tie together the plot, if any. And I'm sure that the film got some revenue before the viewers started to say, "Hey! This junk has nothing to do with the first film!" But in order to find out, they gotta pay their buck. And if the brother's knew one thing about a cheap sequel, it's that it's main purpose is to make that buck.

I always look forward to your horror reviews, and when I can also relate to them from my own experiences it's even better. Thank you for letting me learn from your insight.

J Luis Rivera said...

Hi Albert! Thanks for stopping by.

Watching the post-White Zombie films, I can only conclude that the Halperins got to a point when, as you say, just wanted to make a buck.

They just did it wrong.

Thanks again for commenting :)