Revenge of the Zombies/The Corpse Vanished (1943) *½
I really need to be more careful. I picked up Revenge of the Zombies/The Corpse Vanished under the impression that it was the Halperin brothers’ mostly forgotten semi-sequel to their earlier White Zombie. No such luck— that movie was called Revolt of the Zombies. Revenge of the Zombies, rather, is Monogram’s semi-sequel to their earlier King of the Zombies, to which I am far less favorable disposed than I am toward the Halperin film. In keeping with the pattern for semi-sequels which would come to form over the next several decades, Revenge of the Zombies is just about exactly the same movie as its predecessor, though it does tone down some of the previous film’s more obnoxious aspects a bit.
In an overgrown cemetery somewhere in the Louisiana bayou, a curiously stiff black man with huge, white, pencil-eraser-like hair (Comes Midnight’s James Basket) uses an odd, hooting call to summon a pack of corpses from their graves. To most of the zombies, the man distributes picks and shovels before sending them away, but one he instructs that its master wants it to watch the home of Dr. Harvey Keating. While the zombie assumes its station in the bushes surrounding the house, Dr. Keating (Barry Macollum) shows a pair of visitors inside. One of these men is Keating’s old friend, Scott Warrington (Mauritz Hugo, from Marooned and The Vampire); the other is a detective Warrington has hired, by the name of Larry Adams (Robert Lowery, of The Mummy’s Ghost and The Undertaker and His Pals). Apparently, Warrington’s sister, Lila von Alterman, has died, and Keating suspects that she was poisoned by her surgeon husband. The three men are preparing to pay a visit to Dr. von Alterman (John Carradine, from Captive Wild Woman and Return of the Ape Man) with the aim of sniffing out evidence to confirm or refute Keating’s suspicions. (For some reason, the plan involves Adams and Warrington exchanging identities— don’t ask me.) Meanwhile, out in front of the house, Adams’s driver, Jeff (Mantan Moreland, who is probably reprising his King of the Zombies role— but considering that he basically played the same damn character in every movie he made from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, and that that character was named “Jeff” in about one out of every three, it’s difficult to be completely sure), is waiting for his boss in the car. Jeff happens to see the zombie spying on the house from the bushes, leading to the usual Mantan Moreland freak-out. There is, of course, no zombie to be seen when Adams, Keating, and Warrington go to investigate Jeff’s story.
So, do you suppose this Dr. von Alterman is the “master” of whom the black man in the cemetery spoke? Hey, he’s played by John Carradine— what do you think? In fact, when we first lay eyes on von Alterman (just a little while before our heroes do), he and a wizened old woman named Mammy Beulah (Black Moon’s Madame Sul-Te-Wan, who was also in King of the Zombies) are busy reanimating Lila (Blonde Savage’s Veda Ann Borg). Adams, Keating, Warrington, and Jeff arrive before they can finish the job, though, so the doctor is forced to leave matters in Beulah’s hands while he attends to his unexpected visitors. Von Alterman’s attempts to charm his guests do nothing to allay their fears that he is to blame for Lila’s death, and though the sight that confronts them when Adams, Keating, and Warrington all stick their heads into the makeshift chapel in von Alterman’s mansion where the dead woman’s body has been laid out doesn’t precisely square with this theory, it doesn’t exactly make the would-be crime-solvers trust their host any more, either. I mean, what would you think under the circumstances, seeing a white-clad woman who looks strikingly like Lila vanish through the doorway on the other side of the room, in which Lila’s coffin now stands empty? Then again, the body is back in its proper place a few moments later, leaving our heroes with no real idea what to believe anymore.
Of course, Jeff has already stumbled upon the key to the mystery, but none of the white folks will believe him. Just like last time, he’s been getting chummy with his host’s sexy black cook (called Rosella in this installment, and played by Sybil Lewis, of Midnight Menace), who has been showing him around the mansion grounds and introducing him to the neighborhood zombies. In fact, Jeff gets to watch as eraser-head Lazarus (actually a zombie himself, in case you hadn’t already guessed that from his name) raises another work-crew from their graves, though he naturally chickens out before witnessing most of the show.
Meanwhile, we’re beginning to get some idea of why Dr. von Alterman is going to the bother of making zombies in the first place. Like Dr. Sangre in King of the Zombies, von Alterman is secretly working for the Axis. (What?! You mean a guy with a German last name in a cheap-ass wartime second feature is a closet Nazi?! That never happens!) But whereas Sangre’s dabblings into voodoo were intended to yield him a foolproof interrogation technique, von Alterman’s work has a rather more direct application to Hitler’s war effort; his zombies are to be used as unstoppable shock troops. And also unlike Sangre, von Alterman is in direct communication with an agent from the Fatherland (Bob Steele, who for once in his career isn’t playing a guy named Bob in some shitty cowboy movie) who has recently arrived in town to check up on his operation.
The beginning of the end for von Alterman comes when Lila’s body vanishes again. This time, the disappearance is just as big a mystery to von Alterman as it is to his guests, and the doctor finds it a most worrisome development. As well he should. It turns out that Lila has gone missing because von Alterman and Mammy Beulah did their work too well when raising her from the dead; not only did they resurrect her body, they resurrected her will as well. This is a problem for von Alterman because Lila is just as sure that her husband poisoned her as Dr. Keating is, and she’s got a couple ideas about how to use her newly acquired undead invulnerability to facilitate her revenge. And in case that weren’t enough, it turns out that von Alterman’s associate from back home is really a US intelligence agent who has been sent to figure out just what the Nazi doctor is up to. But even so, if I were von Alterman, I’d mainly be worried about Lila and all those other zombies I’d spent the preceding months making.
There are two main reasons why Revenge of the Zombies is at least a slight improvement over King of the Zombies. The first of these is John Carradine. I’ve become quite a fan of Carradine’s over the past couple of years (a John Carradine fan— who ever heard of such a thing?), and I’m especially fond of his portrayals of mad scientists. As such, his presence here is enough to inject some minimal amount of entertainment value into the film for my purposes. But the lion’s share of the improvement stems not from what has been added, but rather from what has been taken away. Despite his low billing and the conspicuous absence of his face from the movie posters, Mantan Moreland was the real star of King of the Zombies, but his role here is far smaller, giving him less opportunity to induce spasms of cringing in an audience that does not subscribe to the credo, “heh-heh... minorities are funny.” Don’t misunderstand me— there’s still a tremendous amount of racist humor in Revenge of the Zombies, but it isn’t the central concern of the film the way it was with this movie’s predecessor, and it somehow doesn’t seem quite as offensive as it did the last time around. It may be that it’s the reactions of the white characters to Jeff’s behavior that make the difference here. Adams, Warrington, and Keating seem to take Jeff a trifle more seriously than their counterparts in King of the Zombies, especially once they see Lila walking around. Because this crucial event happens very early in the movie, Moreland’s character ends up facing a little less contempt and dismissal, both in front of and behind the camera. Or so it seems to me anyway. It could just as easily be that 40’s-style Hollywood racism works on me like a virus, the first exposure conferring thereafter some measure of immunity to its effects.